Sunset High School begins this academic year with a new principal, Claudia Vega. Vega is an alumna of Sunset; she came up through Oak Cliff schools, attending Leila P. Cowart Elementary School and L.V. Stockard Middle School, graduating from Sunset in 1997. She also began her teaching career at Sunset, serving as the journalism, newspaper and yearbook instructor for several years. Vega has taught at Adamson High School and Rusk Middle School in the Dallas Independent School District as well as an elementary school in Carrolton/Farmers Branch. She’s returning to Sunset after a stint as principal of Mata Elementary School in East Dallas, where she established DISD’s first school of choice, a Montessori. Both of her parents served as DISD teachers, and her dad once taught at Sunset as well. She has two graduate degrees and is the author of two children’s books, “Do You Know the Cucuy?” and “It’s Bedtime, Cucuy,” from The University of Houston’s Arte Publico.
What was it like to be a student at Sunset when you were here?
I have very fond memories. My dad was adamant that I get involved in different activities, so he took me to meet the journalism teacher my freshman year. I was newspaper editor, on the yearbook staff, and it really was a wonderful learning experience for me. I was also involved in Bisonettes [drill team] and student council.
So you got your start in journalism?
Yes, at the time the City of Dallas had an internship program for college-bound seniors. I did an internship at WFAA, and it was a wonderful opportunity because I got to work with some of the best journalists in this market.
John McCaa, Gloria Campos, Brett Shipp … I was Brett Shipp’s intern, which is funny because he was always going after DISD. I did a lot of open records requests for him; I remember that very well. It opened a lot of doors for me. I studied journalism at the University of North Texas, and I continued to work as a production assistant at WFAA while I was an undergraduate student at UNT.
Then what happened?
My parents were both teachers, and growing up, I swore I would never be a teacher. I was working at Channel 8 after college, and my former principal at Sunset was Oscar Rodriguez. He was an area superintendent, and he said, “Claudia, it’s time for you to come back to the community.” So [at age 21] I came to Sunset to be the journalism teacher. It gave me an opportunity to do journalism and some teaching.
That was a fun experience. I was able to teach alongside some of the teachers who had taught me, and I had a lot of great mentors here.
Why did you leave eventually?
I left the district to work for the City of Dallas in the cultural affairs department of the city manager’s office when they were opening the Latino Cultural Center. That was fun, and it was another opportunity to meet new people and learn different skill sets. But then those strings were tugging on the heart to get back to the community.
One of your graduate degrees is in elementary education. Why did you switch to that focus?
I taught sophomores who didn’t know the difference between a noun and a verb. I was seeing gaps. So I thought, let me have an opportunity to try teaching at a lower grade level. I was able to really get an understanding of how important the early years are.
What are your goals for Sunset?
We want to enhance college and career readiness. We currently have endorsements in arts and humanities, business and industry, multidisciplinary studies, public services and STEM. The pathways we offer include dual language, finance, criminal justice and biomedical. Our goal is to continue to build upon our AP offerings and increase dual-credit opportunities. The collegiate academies that are coming in throughout the district allow students to graduate with an associate degree before they’ve even finished high school in some cases, and it’s free to them. Sunset hopes to be part of the second collegiate academy cohort, so this year we’ll be making sure we have everything we need to meet that long-term goal.
How do you do that?
We’re working closely with students to ensure they are ready and able to take college level coursework. We are also working with our teachers to help them in becoming credentialed with the community college so that our students can access college-level coursework on campus.
We’re looking for partnerships in the neighborhood. We want to build some public awareness of what Sunset offers and what our students are capable of. Who are our kids, and how are they leading in the community? We have wonderful students who are doing great things; we just need to get that story out there. We’ve got to toot our own horn a little, and we’ve got to become better at doing that.
How can we attract more middle-class families to choose Sunset?
It’s really dependent on the neighborhoods and what they’re looking for. [Families are] looking for alternative options. What’s imperative, and what our duty is as educators and public servants, is to engage in a dialogue with the community. What are they looking for, and what do they want? As the instructional leaders and principals, we can align that with what the district has to offer.
There are some Mata parents who think you should be DISD superintendent. Would you ever consider that?
I’ll say this: I plan on being here. I want to work with this group of students. One of the best things is when you get to see a class go from their freshman year to their senior year, and I think the kids deserve that.
When we announced on our website that a Sunset alumna would be principal, the response from our readers was incredible.
I don’t know if people realize just how common that is for Oak Cliff schools. The principal of Greiner attended that school, the Stockard principal … all over DISD, you will find administrators and teachers who are products of DISD, and I think that says a lot about what the district is providing. It speaks volumes about what DISD is about.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.