Exclusive: Interview with new principal Aaron Dominguez ’96

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On Friday, January 27th, Father Storey announced that Mr. Aaron Dominguez has been selected to serve as the next principal.

The announcement ended a nationwide search including dozens of exceptionally qualified candidates, and ceased weeks of speculation over which of the four final candidates would be chosen.

The choice also marks the first time in St. Thomas’ 117 year history that a layman has been principal.

Mr. Dominguez is an excellent choice. He brings years of experience and is a perfect fit in the St. Thomas culture. A member of the St. Thomas class of 1996, he knows what it is like to walk the halls of an Eagle.

“Mr. Dominguez brings a fresh perspective with a traditional St. Thomas background,” Interim Principal Kevin Storey, CSB told The Eagle.

I had the privilege of sitting down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Mr. Dominguez on Thursday evening.

What does being principal mean to you? What role do you hope to take on? 

It means an incredible amount, in the sense that it’s deep and true to my heart. This is a place that … I love, that is very dear to me. Obviously, I went to school here, but it’s more than that. It’s about the values St. Thomas represents – you know, our mission “Teach me goodness, teach me discipline, teach me knowledge” is something that is true to me as a person. It’s a place that feels like home … my role is to be both a spiritual and instructional leader here. Part of my title as Chief Academic Officer is to make sure that we have an exceptional academic program for our kids, that we’re preparing them to compete, to go to the best colleges in the country, and to … be men of faith … All of those objectives would fit under the leadership roles that I’d be taking on here at St. Thomas.

You obviously have a special connection to St. Thomas because you went here as a student. Do you think your time here will influence how you interact with the student body? 

I think so … in a positive way. Of the full day that I spent here at St. Thomas in the interview process, my favorite part was the two segments I had in the middle with the kids. I got into education because I love and believe in working with kids … Obviously, I have my St. Thomas experience to recall, to leverage as a place of ideas of what I think make St. Thomas an exceptional place. The exceptional experience I had here was in the exceptional relationships you build … with teachers, faculties, Basilians, and your buddies – those are still my best friends today. As a principal, I plan to create opportunities to listen to the students, to hear what they think is going really well so we can continue to do those things, and to hear what they feel they need support with to make sure that their experience here is an exceptional one.

Speaking of that kind of relationship that you talk about at St. Thomas – a lot of the people here have worked here for a long time, including some of your former teachers.

That is true, yes. (laughs). Mr. Cuneo, Doc Marintsch and Mr. O’Brien.

That’s certainly going to be interesting. How do you feel about now being their boss? 

I’m excited about it. I’ll remember all of those grades I got back then (laughs). In seriousness, all of those guys are great guys. They all had an impact on my life when I was here, they were all exceptional teachers. So I’m humbled and excited to come back and work with them in this capacity. I trust them as educators, and I believe that they trust me as the principal of the school.

You’re joining St. Thomas at an exciting time. We have a lot of changes going on, the biggest of which is our move to the Joplin campus. That is exciting, but it also brings with it new challenges. The biggest one, that Father Storey has focused on, is growing enrollment. What do you think is the most important factor in order to do that? 

There’s a couple things. First of all, we as an organization have to have absolute clarity about who we are and what it is that we do great. You know, our mission is “Teach me goodness, teach me discipline, teach me knowledge” – what does that look like and feel like at the granular level? All stakeholders – students, faculty, Basilians – we need to be really clear about that as we are out there messaging who we are as an organization.

Secondly, we have to aggressively recruit kids across the city. We need to showcase our students – guys like yourself, and other young men we have here who are doing exceptional things. We need to showcase the diversity we have here as a student body, but also the diversity we have here in terms of organizations and clubs. As an incoming freshman … you have to find something you anchor to. As we go out and recruit kids across the city, we have to make sure we’re showcasing the things we’re doing here so that kids can find that thing they really anchor to.

But the ace in the hole … in terms of recruitment, is the kids that are on campus now. Y’all are the best recruiters out there … y’all still have connections to the middle schools you went to. Some of y’all still have younger brothers [or] mothers and fathers that would be willing to help us coordinate events that would get us in front of those 7th and 8th graders.  Not only is bringing them here incredibly important, but us aggressively going out there and showcasing the great kids we have and what a joy it is to be a part of St. Thomas High School.

You mentioned everyone anchors to something in high school – what was that for you?

For me, it was football. I played linebacker. When I came here, I’ll be honest, it was challenging. I had two other guys that I had gone to middle school with (St. Francis de Salles), so I didn’t know a ton of guys. I met some guys in freshmen football. That first year you’re figuring out who you are and where you stand, so that was hard.

Key Club was another big one. I don’t think that exists anymore, but Mr. O’Brien was the facilitator … it was a volunteer organization, doing philanthropy work around the city.

My sophomore year, we had a really tiny group of kids that played football … so this group of guys became really close – we all had to play because there were so few of us (laughs). I learned a lot about myself as an athlete and grew into my own … and ended up making varsity the following year. Football was always that anchor for me. The coaches I had … were influential figures for me.

I’m assuming you’re still into football, and from a fellow Longhorn – what do you think about Tom Herman?

I’m excited about Herman. You know, since he’s been transitioning in, he’s been walking the facilities with the [Athletic Director] and the President, and saying that we’re behind. Our facilities need an update, we need more staff … I love it, he’s going at it the right way. He’s going to do great things … Maybe you can get there when we get a national championship (laughs).

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Let’s talk a bit about where you were before this. You’re currently the principal of Treasure Forest Elementary, and it’s a really interesting place. 97% of its students are Hispanic, 85% are English Language Learners, and 98% qualify for reduced/free lunch. St. Thomas is a little different… St. Thomas is very diverse – but we are not that. What has this environment taught you? Has it given you any lessons that you can apply to STH?

Absolutely. You learn a lot about leadership at an environment like Treasure Forest. The qualities of highly effective leadership tend to transcend organizations – whether it be a school, oil company or law firm. You learn a lot about yourself as a leader. I’ve definitely grown as a leader over this last year and a half, coming into that school and improving the instructional program during that time. What is alike between Treasure Forest and St. Thomas is that students come to you at all different levels … what makes teaching challenging is the variety of levels that we get. At Treasure Forest, we have a lot of kids that are low-performing, but we also have some high-performing kids. So we have to equip teachers with instructional strategies that are going to allow them to differentiate for a wide range of learners. And it’s not just instructional strategies, it’s also systems and structures. What are the systems and structures that we’re going to put in place to make sure every scholar we serve is prepared for college? Our mission at Treasure Forest is to prepare all K-5 scholars for college through demanding work, rigorous instruction and a culture of excellence. In the same way, we’re here to prepare these kids at STH for college. If we’re going to go out and recruit a very diverse population, that’s going to require that we have systems and structures in place that are going to ensure that not just our “Ryans” get to go to the University of Texas … but that all our kids have the opportunity to go to the college of your choice and be successful when they get there.

That was interesting what you said about how leadership transcends organizations. You have leadership experience primarily in public schools and elementary schools. Do you think that will translate to high school and private school, which bring many new challenges?

Absolutely – it’s a great question and one that other people have asked me. Through the course of my career I’ve been blessed to have opportunities to deal with different types of schools. My first school, where I was an assistant principal, was Hamilton Middle School in the heart of the heights. It has a student body of more than twice that we have here, about 1400 kids, and has a group of kids that come from the neighborhood and another group that we recruit from across the city to come to our Vanguard academic program. So I dealt with a lot of demanding parents, [they] asked a lot from me in that role and had a very high level of interest in the success of their students.

Furthermore, when I was in Houston ISD, one of the great things about working there is you have a tremendous amount of autonomy. You have a budget based on your enrollment, and then from that budget you have to basically build your school. You know, “we need a math specialist because our math scores are lacking … or we want to create a science lab … ” so you have the autonomy to structure your organization in a way that meets the needs of your kids. It’s the same thing here at St. Thomas – we have some structures and systems in place, and we want to make sure that they are functioning in the best way possible to serve the diverse population we have. That instruction may change year to year based on the kids we are getting, every kid may have different needs. Being a leader in public school has taught me that. Every child is different, every kid comes with a set of strengths… and a set of needs. Our charge as educators is to prepare them from where they are for the ultimate goal of college and a post-secondary career –  and the special thing about here at St. Thomas, is to be a young man of Catholic faith. That is an exciting part of this job – we get to mold young men to not only be college ready, but to be college ready as a strong, Christian man of faith.

That makes a lot of sense. On top of the transition from elementary school to high school, there are going to be a lot of new challenges in discipline. You used to be a dean of students, so you have some experience with this. What is your disciplinary philosophy going to be in high school? I am sure you do not have a lot of things like playing hooky, using drugs or “vaping” at an elementary school. How will you confront those new challenges?

My philosophy in almost anything is always going to be rooted in the mission of the organization. St. Thomas has a strong mission – it’s “Teach me goodness, teach me discipline, teach me knowledge.” It’s not “Have goodness, have discipline, have knowledge.” We are educators. Our responsibility is to teach, so we are not just going to demand that the students we have here are automatically going to have the virtues that we want. We have a responsibility as educators to instill those virtues and values in them … to teach them the behaviors that we want them to have to be able to compete for college seats, and to grow up to be young men of the Catholic faith. So, my philosophy is going to be one of teaching. It’s one of ensuring that we as educators are working as a team, are speaking the same message, and are holding the kids accountable at the same level. That doesn’t mean … we aren’t going to hold the kids accountable at a high level, because we are. High expectations are a part of any high-performing school … high expectations and consistency [will definitely be parts of it].

Also, making sure everybody on the team is consistent with the message and expectations, and is holding everybody accountable fairly. I know that fairness is huge to kids of all ages. It’s not fair if this group of kids, because of who they are or what they’re doing, gets to live and abide by a certain set of rules, and [other] kids do not. That happens in elementary, middle and high schools, and that’s the type of thing that can crack and divide a student body or an organization. Consistency is key.

Another conversation that we’ve been having with the administration this is year is about the work-life balance of the students and faculty, regarding what the faculty can expect from the students and what they students should give back. As Student Body President, I have sat down with Father Storey to talk about the homework load, and I wrote an article for The Eagle about it that brought Father Storey to bring the issue up to teachers and make some changes. What is your attitude towards balancing schoolwork, extracurriculars, and family?

The first thing is you have to have a line of communication – that’s great that you go to school in a place where you have a voice. That’s incredibly important, so we definitely want to continue to hear from both our faculty and student body.

The second thing is that we are preparing young men to go to the finest learning institutions in the country. You know, University of Texas, I would argue, is the best university in the country (laughs). When you get there, it’s going to be incredibly demanding, incredibly rigorous. It’s going to expect and demand a lot from you for you to go there and be successful, so we have a responsibility to prepare you for that. Part of that is pushing the boundary of that workload – not overwhelming you, but preparing you for the type of workload you’re going to face there – without any of the structures and systems that you have in place here, such as parents, a counselor, or Father Storey or myself or your teachers on your case … There has to be a balance.

It can be too much, and I have worked with teachers that have poured on too heavy, but by the same token, it does have to be rigorous and demanding. And rigorous and demanding does not just mean “more.” Rigorous and demanding means that we are pushing the limits of our instructional program so that we are truly preparing our scholars for what they are going to face when they reach the university level.

Also, it’s important that we as a faculty are consistent. It’s not cool if you have Doc Marintsch and he’s giving you five minutes of homework a night, but Mr. Cuneo is giving you five hours. There’s gotta be some consistency within the departments in terms of what we believe is fair and rigorous, and what we believe is preparing our kids for what we are promising – a quality college education.

Did you feel like your transition from STH to UT was difficult? Did STH prepare you academically?

Absolutely. It was difficult, because you are away from home and you’re going to have lots of temptations … you can choose to sit in your dorm room, play video games and eat wings all day, or you can choose to go to class like you’re supposed to. So you have tough decisions you have to make everyday as you are growing into your adulthood.

[My wife] went to Texas too. She went to Austin High School in Fort Bend, and was a straight-A student – top of her class. I went to St. Thomas and I did well, but to be honest I was an average student here. One thing that St. Thomas prepared me for was in the area of writing. I went to Texas and was fully prepared to write quality papers in my college-level classes and be successful right off the bat. There were even a couple times that I used work that I did here at St. Thomas and was able to reshape it for college (laughs). My wife says that part of her college career was a disaster. When she got there, she was so overwhelmed by the writing because she was not prepared.

When I went here the English department was demanding, I thought at the time, “Man, this is asking a lot for me.” But it was probably the thing I was most thankful for when I got to Texas.

That’s good to here. Let’s talk outside of school. What do you do for fun?

First of all, I have a great family. I’ve been very close to my family throughout my whole life. I’m married to Lorin, we’ve been married seven years and have two boys – Ben and Sam. I love to cook, so Saturdays I like to do “one-pot cooking,” some gumbo, some jambalaya … I’m Mexican-American so we do some nice Mexican dishes as well.

I’m also an avid duck hunter. Some of my buddies from St. Thomas … have property, so I grew up hunting with them and I still hunt with them to this day. I love to fish, [but] don’t fish as much as I used to with the kids. I also used to do quite a bit of dog-training for retrieving … I will always have a world-class retriever. Those are my big hobbies – family, cooking, hunting, fishing.

What kind of music do you like?

I’d probably adhere to the jam-band kind of music – Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic are probably some of my top bands. Also, the Beatles. Who doesn’t love the Beatles? Those are some of my go-to’s.

One last question to know if we can continue – who are you rooting for in the Super Bowl?

You know … I’m not going to say the Patriots, because they are everything that is evil with the world (laughs) … You know when you kind of settle into a game that you don’t have a vested interest in, like when it’s not the Longhorns or Texans? I have a feeling it’s probably gonna be Atlanta.

Glad we agree. That’s all I got. Thanks a lot.

Absolutely man, it was a pleasure.

Mr. Dominguez begins work at St. Thomas on June 1st.

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Ryan is the Student Body President of St. Thomas High School. Outside of Student Council, he is a state-champion speaker on the Speech and Debate team, an anchor for the Eagle Broadcast Network, and a well-below-average basketball player.

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