By IMELDA GARCÍA
“Our focus is to empower girls and teach them about their unlimited potential,” she said.
Thanks to that mission, Bernardino was recognized this month with one of three Principal of the Year awards within the Dallas ISD.
“Winning this award is a humbling experience that strengthens my commitment to educate children,” she said.
Bernardino, 40, is known in the teaching community as a woman who inspires her students to reach for excellence.
“She’s passionate and very driven, a trailblazer in education. She’s always seeking ways to improve our students, particularly the girls,” said Michelle Broughton, head of the Office of Innovation and Transformation at DISD.
“She’s awesome. She does amazing work. She’s always a role model for other principals [because] she has a beautiful vision for the girls at her school,” said Tomeka Middleton-Williams, principal of the Eduardo Mata Montessori School, also in Old East Dallas.
Unlike in past years, the 2019 Principal of the Year award was voted on by all the district principals. “It’s motivating having other principals appreciating the work that we do at Solar Prep,” Bernardino said.
Bernardino, the third of five children, was born in Santo Domingo, a town in northern Guanajuato, Mexico. Her grandfather still has a herd of goats and farms the land.
Neither of her parents studied beyond second grade. Her mother was the oldest of 13 children and, in keeping with the tradition of some families in Mexico, she was obliged to help raise her siblings — even after she got married.
Bernardino’s father was a migrant worker who came to Dallas for seasonal work. “My mom didn’t want that future for her children, so she demanded of my father that, if he wanted to keep coming to work in the U.S., he had to bring us with him,” she said.
She was 1 when she arrived in East Dallas, which had a large Latino population and was considered an economically disadvantaged area. But she enjoyed school.
“I didn’t know I was poor until I enrolled in high school. I had the opportunity to attend Hockaday School [a private, girls school in North Dallas], and that’s when I realized that there was another world out there.”
Barely a teen but aware of the socioeconomic differences among the students, she resolved to erase those social gaps by giving opportunities to all regardless of family income or race.
The experience of attending a school where the daughters of some of Dallas’ most prominent families —including the twins Jenna and Barbara Bush, daughters of former president George W. Bush — got their education was transformative. She understood that education is society’s most effective social equalizer.
By the time she was 30, she had two master’s degrees — from Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M University-Commerce — and in 2018 she received her doctorate from SMU with a focus on preschool-to-high school education.
The lessons she learned from having studied at a girls-only school inspired the banner mission at Solar Prep: There are no limits to what each student can achieve.
“There’s a lot of negative messages and cultural messages thrown about our students. Our responsibility is teaching those girls that they have options,” she said.
School from scratch
Solar Prep School for Girls opened in August 2016. It was the creation of Bernardino and her assistant principal, Jennifer Turner, who died last year.
“In 2014, DISD made a call for principals to design their dream school. We decided to present our project and we won. Two years later we opened the school,” she said.
Solar Prep focuses on educating girls about science, technology, engineering, arts and math in a socially and emotionally supportive environment.
Solar Prep was recognized this year for improvements in reading and math, and it is among the schools with the highest comparative academic growth and closing of inequality gaps, as measured by DISD.
Before becoming principal of Solar Prep, Bernardino led John Quincy Adams Elementary in Pleasant Grove, in some of the city’s poorest zip codes. In her four years as the head of that school, she boosted student performance in STAAR exam, according to Texas Education Agency data. In math, for instance, the school got a 66% passing rate in 2012; by 2016, it was at 75%. In writing, it went from 71% to 79%.
Bernardino focused on providing quality education in the classroom and getting parents involved.
Broughton, the district’s innovation director, said one of Bernardino’s smart moves was to encourage parents to be part of an immersive full-time education experience.
“She always worked with the community, not only with her students, but with their parents, pushing always to get them involved in their children’s education.”
Three years after it was founded, Solar Prep offers preschool through fifth grade. The plan is to continue adding a grade each year until completing eight levels.
The school follows a model where half its student population comes from well-to-do families and the other half from families with limited means.
“That exposes the girls to the real world. We have parents who pull their daughters from private schools because they don’t want them to believe that’s how the world looks. And we have girls who come from far away neighborhoods, who spend up to an hour on the bus,” she said.
Bernardino wants to make sure her students learn that through education, they can achieve anything. She considers that her students will become scientists, engineers, teachers, astronauts and artists. But, most importantly, she said, the girls will see their dreams come true.
“They will grow knowing they can become what they want to become. So, when somebody comes and tells them they can’t achieve something, these girls, full of confidence, will say: ‘That’s not true. I can do it.’”