For four years, Sal Tinajero has been on the front lines in Santa Ana's schools. A middle-school teacher on a shoestring budget, he has tried to create programs that inspire, overcome the challenges of overcrowding and show kids that education will get them somewhere in life.
Next month the 29-year-old soldier of education will leap from the trenches into a general's role as an elected member of the Santa Ana Unified School District Board of Education.
"I'm hoping it will be a smooth transition and that the experience I have as a teacher will help guide me in the decisions I make," said the soft-spoken Tinajero, who grew up in Santa Ana.
His first order of business: expanding the district's college preparatory program. He'd like to have professors from Santa Ana College teaching college-level remedial courses in the district's high schools.
"That way, our students won't have to take those classes when they graduate, and they'll be prepared to take the college entrance exams," Tinajero said. "There are a lot of kids in our district who come from immigrant families, and going to college--for most of us--is like a dream. Graduating from college is like a fantasy."
Improving language skills, continuing to reduce class sizes, getting more technology into the classroom and increasing parental involvement are other issues on his priority list.
He also hopes to bring unity to the often divisive board and to offer an insider's perspective.
"People oftentimes don't understand the dynamics in a classroom and the challenges that teachers face," Tinajero said. "People never thought about the restroom situation with portable classrooms--kids not being able to go to a nearby restroom because they're in a portable. And people don't think about whether the janitors have the right equipment to do their job or even a place to store their equipment.
"And they don't stop to think about whether the facilities are designed to allow faculty to monitor students--whether the locker rooms are set up so that teachers can see what's going on in the entire room.
"Hopefully, I can help create an atmosphere [on the board] that will open these issues up for discussion. . . . I've always been respectful of people's views, and I'm always willing to listen, and I hope to persuade others to listen."
It's that fresh perspective that board President John Palacio is looking forward to. "We're pleased to see him elected," Palacio said. "He will bring the hands-on experience as an educator."
Tinajero was the top vote-getter Tuesday in the Santa Ana school board race, with 10,472 ballots cast for him. But three incumbents aren't far behind. Rosemarie Avila is a close second with 10,179. Audrey Yamagata-Noji and Nativo V. Lopez appear to be battling over the last open seat with just 131 votes separating them--Yamagata-Noji leading with 8,892, Lopez with 8,761.
The final outcome won't be determined until all absentee and provisional ballots are counted, which could take a few days or a few weeks, said officials for the registrar of voters.
Tinajero's showing came as something of a surprise. Many local political observers were expecting Lopez to take the lead in the polls. He had the largest campaign war chest and was backed by a number of Latino-rights and labor groups. Some believe Lopez could still snag a seat with the absentee and provisional votes.
Some say Tinajero's showing was the result of endorsements from both sides of the political fence. Even though the school board race is a nonpartisan one, both the Republicans and the Democrats weighed in with their picks, and Tinajero made both lists.
"I think the [endorsements] that really helped were the Orange County Democratic Foundation and the unions--their help and support was key," he said.
There was also the conservative Lincoln Club's endorsement. The Republican group sent out a mailer just days before the election backing Tinajero and two other candidates.
"This shouldn't be a partisan race, and in my case, it really wasn't," Tinajero said. "When I'm teaching, the parents of my students aren't asking me if I'm a Republican or a Democrat. They just want to know that I'm giving their children the best education I can give them."
But a seat on the board won't come without sacrifice. To avoid conflicts of interest, he will have to resign his position teaching seventh- and eighth-grade history courses at Lathrop Intermediate School.
He has already applied for teaching positions at the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified and Anaheim Union High School districts, and he plans to submit his resume to the Tustin, Garden Grove and Newport-Mesa unified school districts as well. As a husband and the father of a 2-year-old son, he has had to think about how he'll provide for his family.
"That is the biggest concern I have before taking office: finding a teaching position at another district," Tinajero said.
His boss doesn't think he'll have too much trouble. But Supt. Al Mijares said he hates losing Tinajero in the classroom.
"He is a great teacher, and teachers like him are prized," Mijares said. "You don't want them out of the reach of students. So for that reason, I'm a little saddened.
"However, I think his experience as a teacher . . . will help our district board make better decisions--decisions that are in the best interests of students."
As a teacher, Mijares said, Tinajero has won the respect of students and colleagues.
Last year, he was named Junior Achievement Teacher of the Year for allowing his kids to experience the election process firsthand, working in a local campaign office of their choice as part of a class project. He also founded the Readers Theater at Lathrop, a speech and debate program typically reserved for colleges and universities.
"He has an amazing ability to engage and inspire students," said Nadia Maria Davis, a fellow 20-something elected to the school board in 1998. "I think he's very real and down-to-earth, and his authority is created through nothing other than respect. . . . He sets an example that your destiny is what you make of it."
At 14, Tinajero's father died, and the youngster found himself the father figure for his younger brother and sister. Instead of taking to Santa Ana's streets while his mother was at work, he cared for his siblings. He attended Diamond Elementary School, Carr and McFadden intermediate schools and then Saddleback High School, where he played every sport possible.
Even then, Tinajero showed signs of leadership. During his sophomore year at Saddleback, he was named Most Inspirational Player on the baseball team. In football, he was named Headhunter of the Year twice and Best Defensive Player. He also received the Senior Award, which goes to a football player who has worked hard throughout high school and has shown an ability to lead.
After high school, he enrolled at Orange Coast College, where he discovered his academic prowess.
"One of my professors asked me to join the speech and debate team, and at first I didn't pay much attention," Tinajero recalled. "But he asked me again, and I ended up joining. That's when I really blossomed academically. I began believing that I could do anything I set my mind to."
He was awarded a speech and debate scholarship at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and became the first member of his family to graduate from college. He even delivered a speech at his graduation.
"It was a big honor for my family [that I was] chosen to give a commencement speech," Tinajero said. "It was really nice for my mom. She was a single mother, and I was the oldest child. It really meant a lot."
Now Tinajero is working toward a master's degree in education through National University and gearing up to assume his new role as a policymaker.
"I want to make sure everyone's voice is heard, and I want to make sure my voice and ideas are heard as well," he said. "I think it's a two-way street."