From Immigrant Student to School Board, Barcenas Makes History

Carlos Barcenas is sworn into office by Asst. Superintendent Robin Dexter. Photo courtesy Grand Island Public Schools.

One of Nebraska's most diverse communities achieves a milestone, as an immigrant takes a seat on the Grand Island school board.

He has embraced Grand Island as home, as so many immigrants have.Carlos Barcenas arrived when he was 14, back in 1994. And like 20 percent of Grand Island kids, he didn't speak English.

He said,"From the time I arrived in Grand Island, I was in ESL, English as a second language classes with Grand Island Public Schools. I continue to learn the language and culture, it's been a journey."

Now, he's on the board of education for the very same school system that gave him a shot.

"I was part of it, I graduated from it," he said.

Minorities are the majority in Grand Island schools. Of 9,100 students, around 4,100 are Hispanic. Plus there are African American, Asian, and other ethnicities represented.

But until now, no minority has served on the school board.

Barcenas' friend Anita Lewandowski-Brown said, "Nobody else on the school board has that experience that 'hey, I am one of those people I know what they're going through.' I think that's incredible. He's going to be a great addition to the board."

This young family man is well connected, having previously served as executive director of the Multicultural Coalition. Lewandowski-Brown was on the board that hired him.

"I was immediately struck with his likability and cultural competence. But over the next two years working as board chair, I just grew to love him because he is so good at so many things."

He's the son of pastors and works as a health educator for Health and Human Services.

Barcenas said, "We have a fairly young community, diverse community, and the common denominator is Grand Island is home for us so how can we work together to make it better."

He fills the seat held by the late Todd Elsbernd, and admits he's nervous but excited about the opportunity.

He explained, "I was taught to serve by my dad and mom, that's a key to fulfillment and being part of a community, it's a privilege to give back in this capacity."

The community is changing and friends like Lewandowski-Brown say they couldn't think of anyone better to represent that.

She said, "He's just a good guy who wants to do good things in his community."

Barcenas said all the school board members bring unique assets, and his personal journey as an immigrant from Mexico who graduated from Grand Island Senior High gives him a vantage point no one else shares.

He said it's like fitting pieces into the puzzle on the school board.

"It's a matter of all coming in and doing our part," he said.

Just last year he told NTV that Grand Island would be well served to have minorities in leadership roles like this.He had thought of running for office someday, and someday arrived Thursday night when he was sworn in.