Wahluke Superintendent Chávez’s roots in the heart of Mexico

Aaron Chávez

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Chávez came to Wahluke with a goal of creating a bond between the district and the community. Makeover Mattawa is one of the projects to come out that. Here, teachers, principals and students paint a mural at a downtown business.

MATTAWA — If you’d like a boost in finding out who you are, in terms of ancestors, you might want to chat with Wahluke School Superintendent Aaron Chávez about it. He’s been doing a search, including the use of Ancestry.com.

“I did the DNA and the whole nine yards,” Chavez said during a recent interview. “They have a map that shows you where all of your ancestry came from.”

Gazing upon Chávez and ignoring his last name, you probably wouldn’t guess he is of Mexican ancestry. He looks like a northern European, which is also part of his ancestry.

Chavez has always known he is at least part Hispanic. One of his cherished possessions, which he keeps in his office, is a portrait of his great grandparents Louis Esparza Chávez and Ruby Strope Chávez.

Louis grew up in Aguas Calientes, state of Aguas Calientes, in central México. Chávez believes Louis came to the U.S. in the early 1900s, landing in Kennewick. There he married Ruby Strope, of German descent. Louis is said to have told stories of fighting with Pancho Villa.

Chavez’s great grandparents were an odd couple of sorts. Louis was about five feet tall. Ruby was 5-11.

Louis Chávez built a home for Ruby and him in Kennewick. It is still in the family.

“My grandpa had fighting roosters there,” Chávez said.

Aaron Chavez is buying the home from his parents, Dan and Elaine Chávez, who live there now. And he may live there in his later years.

If you ever go looking for Chávez, don’t look for a suit. Most of the time he’s in blue jeans and a blazer.

“I’m a blue collar guy trying to get a job done,” he said. “I’m no better than anyone else. Just call me Aaron.”

And don’t expect to find Chávez in a fancy office. His looks like and is equipped like, well, not an office.

“I don’t need it,” he said. “I want to be out in the classrooms seeing what the teachers and the kids are doing.”

Chávez has “always been proud” of his background, but he’s only now really learning Spanish. By the time he came along, the family was speaking less Spanish and more English. He never really learned Spanish as a school kid. Only a few uncles and cousins still spoke it.

Dan Chávez was in construction and moved his family here and there as he found work. Aaron changed schools several times.

“I was always the new kid,” he said.

Chávez graduated from Newport High School in 1989 with plans to go into education. He attended Spokane Falls Community College for two years, then attended Eastern Washington University three years to complete a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences.

Chávez ended up back in the Tri-Cities with his first employment, teaching social sciences at River View High School and River View Junior High.

It wasn’t long before Chávez decided to go into school administration. His father always told him and his brother he had raised them to be leaders.

“He has told me many times he’s proud I became a superintendent; my brother is a construction superintendent,” Chávez said.

Chávez obtained his principal’s credentials from Heritage University and his superintendent’s credentials through Washington State University. His lone principalship was at Almira/Coulee-Hartline. He was there three years, becoming the ACH superintendent during that time.

Chávez moved on to the superintendency at Brewster. If he didn’t sense the importance of speaking Spanish before, he learned it there.

The school district sent him to an immersion school in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. It was eight hours of Spanish per day for a week, and the teacher was old-school strict. Chávez learned some.

“I always try to be at the top of my class, but I was at the bottom of my class for this,” he said.

After that experience, Chávez decided to keep on learning his ancestral language. He counts on Wahluke students to help him.

“I can converse some,” he said.

If school kids start a conversation with Chávez in Spanish, he will respond in Spanish, even if it’s a struggle. And he’ll ask questions of students to learn new words and expand his vocabulary.

At the same time Chávez continues to learn Spanish from his students, he’s proud of his teachers and the academy system the district has for English-learning youngsters. There is one at every school, and students who need intensive work to improve their English spend part of their time there.

Another source of pride is the grants the district won from the Apple Company to turn Wahluke into an all-technology school system. Thanks to the grants, every student K-12 has an iPad to work with, and they will from now on.

Chávez knows how fortunate Wahluke was to receive those grants. With an enrollment that is almost all from Mexican or Hispanic farm working families, only a few of his students would have ever bought an iPad.

Chávez credits his administrative and technology team with making this all-tech district come about, but he was in the middle of it. He still remembers a call he got from an Apple executive.

“They asked me if I thought we could pull it off,” Chávez. “They were looking for districts where there would be a reasonable chance for success. They didn’t want this to fail.”

Chávez, of course, said yes. And after the applications came through, Apple was convinced Wahluke would be a good choice.

Chávez is a tech savvy superintendent. When he arrived here in 2010, he encouraged his principals to start using social media to build communication with the patrons.

The principals use Twitter, and the district opened a Facebook account on which the district’s parents depend. It now has more than 2,200 followers. The district also live-streams all varsity sports competitions.

“When Apple saw what we were already doing, they decided we could do it,” Chávez said.

After the applications and phone calls, it was a matter of waiting to see if a grant would be made. Apple was going to award grants to 114 schools across the country.

Administrators were hopeful of getting a grant for just one school. When Apple announced that Wahluke had three of the 114 grants, everyone was stunned.

“I was shocked and overjoyed,” Chávez said.

The school board then decided it didn’t want to have two systems of education in the district. It came up with the funding to bring full technology to the schools that didn’t receive grants.

Back when Chávez asked his principals to start using social media, he had a vision of an all-technology district. Thanks to Apple that vision has been fulfilled.

Chávez is in the first year of his third contract with the WSD. He has no plans of going anywhere, and he’ll be here as long as the parents and school board want him.

If he stays long enough, he might just become fluent in the language of his great grandfather, thanks to the students for whom he is responsible.

Always looking for a way to motivate administrators, Superintendent Aaron Chávez challenged them to come up with passion statements.


Some of the moments Aaron Chávez spends with his grandmother Leona Dickinson include his guitar. She loves to hear Amazing Grace.


Aaron Chávez joins, from left, Manny Hidalgo, Nate Buck and Ezequiel Barajas in the wood shop to make a sign for Makeover Mattawa.

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