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Natalie Lopez with family in Arlington

Mom Next Door Natalie Lopez Talks COVID’s Impact on Education

how she’s keeping her kids busy while looking out for thousands of students

Natalie Lopez has a passion for statistics and student success. And she’s one of the coolest chicks you’ll ever meet.

The school administrator loves classic rock and running. She’s a perennial Cowboys season-ticket holder and lets her boys get mohawks in the summer. And she doesn’t hide that raising three young sons can get a little crazy. “When schools closed in the spring, I was working from home and doing kindergarten lessons with my oldest, while also taking care of the two younger kids,” she says. “Trust me, there were days when I was thinking, I don’t know what I’m doing!

Take it from us: Whatever Lopez is doing, she’s clearly doing something right.

Did you always know you’d work in education? When I started undergrad, I was in business school; I was going to be an accountant. And then I changed my mind. I actually got my degree in history. I had a really influential history teacher, and she kind of made me think, Am I going to be happy being an accountant for the rest of my life, or am I just doing that because I think I’m supposed to?—because one of my relatives was an accountant. I decided I wanted to be in the classroom. Most secondary-level history jobs go to coaches, and since I had enough math courses, I went ahead and took the math certification test. So I ended up getting a job teaching high school math. And I loved it!

How long did you stay in the classroom before transitioning to administration? For 11 years—one year in Oak Cliff and then 10 years in Hurst-Euless-Bedford. My husband Matt and I were renting a house across from Trinity High School at the time, and a job opened up there. It was great. I was very sad to leave. Packing up my classroom was harder than packing up the first house we owned!

Why did you go into administration? I got my master’s in educational administration and quickly learned I didn’t want to be a campus administrator. I didn’t want to just deal with textbooks and disciplinary issues. At the same time, I wanted to know about the system I was in and get as much knowledge as I could. After I graduated, UTA sent me an email saying they were starting a new cohort in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies doctoral program.

I applied, and I was actually in the hospital giving birth to Austin, and the advisor was emailing me saying he needed this or that to finish my application. I started the program when Austin was 5 months old. I finished when our second son, Dylan, was 5 months old.

That’s a lot to manage! Yes, and I was teaching full time, too. I said to myself, I have to get this done quickly. Because I didn’t want the kids to be like, “Oh man, my mom’s doing her homework. She doesn’t have time for me.” Of course, I think it’s good for kids to see their parents continually learning and pursuing education. But I didn’t want it to take away from their time.

So I took a full load each semester. I would get out of teaching school at 4pm, drive over to the UTA campus, pump in my car. Then go to class, get back in the car, pump again driving home. I was just trying to make the best use of time. It took a village—Matt and our parents, especially—but I got my Ph.D. done in three years.

Tell us about your current role with Arlington ISD. We look at student data and use it to shape efforts and initiatives that will help students succeed. You start out thinking there’s this whole meritocracy: If a student just works hard, then he or she will be successful. And that’s not the case. There are barriers and microaggressions that make it difficult for some people. And if you don’t have someone in your family who went to college, then you don’t have this pathway you’re directed toward. And so all those things impact a lot of people’s educational choices and outcomes.

My eyes were opened to that when I got my Ph.D. And I thought, I’m a good teacher, I have a good rapport with my students, but I can’t stop there. I feel like I’m making a difference in a different way now.

How do you think COVID-19 will impact students beyond virtual learning? There’s always a “summer burn,” where kids don’t get any instruction for a couple of months. And they may not have any expectations at home that they’re doing anything educational. They may forget how to read to some degree, or they’re not practicing multiplication.

That’s why teachers spend six weeks catching them back up at the beginning of the year. And of course different families had different standards for what they did in terms of education in the spring. So we are very concerned, thinking, What is the impact on these kids of the last 10 weeks of school being done at home?

And now school districts aren’t even necessarily starting in August. They’re going to do more virtual. And I’m very worried that the education gaps that were already there are going to widen. For students who have a parent who can stay home and teach them, it’s not as big of a deal. But what about kids whose parents are essential workers? In Arlington ISD, 75% of our students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. A lot of those kids have parents who are working two jobs. My parents worked two jobs when I was growing up. They wouldn’t have been able to help me and my siblings.

So there are those kids who don’t have somebody there to keep them on track and help them get a better understanding. Not all parents who are at home are good at teaching, but they can at least help their child try and figure it out. But if there’s nobody there, or if it’s a grandparent—you know, my mom doesn’t know how to use any of this technology. She wouldn’t be able to help my kids. There are a lot of factors that will have an impact.

How did your family make homeschooling work in the spring? It was pretty stressful. I was working from home, but after the first few weeks, Matt was going back to the office. So it was up to me to manage Austin’s homeschooling. I didn’t want to baby him, and I didn’t want to do it for him. I thought, Even if this is really crappy, it needs to be Austin’s really crappy work. It wasn’t just about turning Austin’s assignments in for the sake of turning them in. I was like, I don’t want Austin to fall behind. I have to do a good job on this homeschooling thing for Austin.

It was just constant juggling. Because I’d get Austin started on something, and then I would try to distract Dylan with an activity for him. And I was still pumping for Connor, so I’d have to stop every three hours and do that for 30 minutes. Connor is a really good napper, so the baby was actually my least high-maintenance child during the pandemic! But we got through spring by the skin of our teeth.

There were days Matt would get home and I would just hand him Connor and be like, “I’m going to go for a run.”

What does running do for you? It’s very freeing. I may still think about things that are stressful, but I recognize that I can’t do anything about them at that time. I ran through all my pregnancies. Of course, in the last trimester, I couldn’t, because I’d be like, I think I’m peeing right now.

I used to be an endurance runner. I did the marathon at White Rock Lake before kids. I was training for another marathon when I hurt my hip. Now I run 5 or 6 miles at a time and mix it up with other workouts to give my body a break.

What’s something else you enjoy? I love concerts. I’ve seen Paul McCartney three times. I saw Robert Plant. I like classic rock; Matt and I both do, so that’s kind of nice. I do have some guilty pleasures though. I’ve seen Lady Gaga in concert and Britney Spears. I give Matt a pass on those!


Fast Facts 

Age 38
Hails from Dallas and Grapevine
Lives in Colleyville
Career Arlington ISD’s director of research and analysis
Alma maters University of Texas at Austin for undergraduate (“That’s why my first child is named Austin”); University of Texas at Arlington for master’s and Ph.D. studies
Significant other Husband Matt, recruiting manager at Daybreak Solar
Children Austin, 6, Dylan, 3 ½, and Connor, 12 months

Photo courtesy of Nick Prendergast.