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Professor, Activist and ‘Homegirl’

The most surprising finding by Dr. Frances Contreras in interviewing teachers, parents and students in eight school districts across Washington state is what little progress has been made in Hispanic educational attainment.

“I’ve witnessed the same story of previous generations in the current generation,” notes Contreras of her research on achievement gaps for a study commissioned by the state Legislature.

The problem: many minority students today are dissuaded from higher education, just as Contreras was advised by a guidance counselor not to attend a four-year university fresh out of high school.

The Southern California native says, although she took as many Advanced Placement classes as possible in high school, earned a grade point average over a 4.0 and was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles, a counselor suggested she begin her undergraduate studies at a community college. In being from a traditional Mexican American family and not having attended one of the better high schools in the state, the counselor said Contreras might have a hard time adapting to the culture and academic rigors of the state’s flagship institutions.

“And I said, ‘thanks for your advice, but I’m not taking it. Someday, I’m going to come back to you and let you know how I am doing, or you’re going to read about me,’” Contreras recalls.

Contreras developed a disposition to challenge authority early on, as her parents made political activism in the Southern California labor movement a family affair and frequently engaged in political discussions at the dinner table, she says. In fact, it was her passion for social justice that eventually drove her to an academic career.

After working at Latino Issues Forum while at UC Berkeley, she was inspired by activist and academic mentors, including John Gamboa, founder of Latino Issues Forum and the Greenlining Institute, and Dr. Patricia Gándara, co-director of The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA, who encouraged her to earn a Ph.D. and pursue a career in academia.

The campaign fatigue from working to stop Proposition 227 (a 1998 measure to end bilingual education in California) and Proposition 209 (a 1996 measure banning the use of affirmative action in university admissions and public contracts) prompted her to study the implications of these policies on underrepresented communities. However, when it came to joining the ranks of the professoriate, Contreras says the turning point for her was as a doctoral student seeing so few faculty of color at Stanford University.

Gándara then encouraged her to do a postdoctoral fellowship through the UC ACCORD (All Campus Consortium On Research for Diversity) program at the University of California, Davis. “It’s a good thing I had mentors because they let me know that it takes a few years to land a good academic job, to land somewhere you want to be. But it literally did take me about two years to find the right match, and that’s when I ended up at the University of Washington,” she notes.

After landing her dream job at what she describes as a supportive institution, Contreras says obtaining tenure is next on her to-do list. Though she is perfectly content with the recent release of The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies, which she co-authored with Gándara, and her research in equity and access, she hopes to get more involved with the Hispanic community and write more books.

Although she has garnered a host of prestigious accolades such as being chosen as a scholar in residence in Bellagio, Italy, for the Rockefeller Foundation, she also considers the recognition she has received by student and community organizations as highlights in her career. In addition to her scholarly duties, she holds a post in Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ Families & Education Levy Oversight Committee.

Says Gándara: “Frances Contreras is a unique combination of smart and skilled academic, poised and lovely spokesperson for the needs and aspirations of the Latino community, and homegirl who never forgets where she came from. She bridges academe and the world of everyday folks seamlessly.”

Title: Assistant Professor of Education Leadership and Policy Studies, University of Washington


Education: Ph.D., Administration and Policy Analysis, Stanford University; Ed.M., Administration, Planning and Social Policy, Harvard University; B.A., History and Mass Communication, University of California, Berkeley

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