A Passion for Progress: Jose Luis De Leon, Executive Director, IDEA Jacksonville

In every successful person’s life, there is an educator who inevitably helped shape their trajectory. For IDEA Quest College Preparatory principal and incoming Executive Director of the new IDEA Jacksonville region Jose Luis De Leon, it was his history teacher at Edcouch-Elsa ISD, a small school district in deep South Texas.

As one of four siblings in a migrant family, Jose De Leon worked with his teachers to make up for lost instructional time and maintain a high academic standing, and his history teacher worked to ensure his students knew about educational opportunities beyond the Rio Grande Valley.

“When I was a junior in high school, my history teacher planned to take the top 10 students from my class over the summer to visit universities on the east coast,” says De Leon. “We fundraised throughout the entire year and asked for donations, and the following summer, I got to visit Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).”

Away from home for the first time, De Leon knew that to thrive in a new environment, he would have to build his own comfort zone.

“Everything was different. The culture, the weather, and simply not knowing anyone,” he says. “I think one of the biggest challenges in going away on my own was figuring out how to form a network of support.”

De Leon graduated valedictorian from his high school and chose to attend MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he began as a chemical engineering major. However, during his second year of college, De Leon realized his interest in chemistry had waned.

“I just didn’t feel like it was something I could be passionate about, so I decided to try MIT’s Sloan School of Management and changed my major to finance, which was a better fit,” says De Leon.

After beginning a career in banking, Jose De Leon found himself back in the Rio Grande Valley, spending much of his time pushing paperwork.

“I would tutor a lot of my friends and enjoyed it, and when I was a senior at MIT, I took education courses at Wellesley College and did student teaching at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school,” says De Leon. “I enjoyed it and thought it would be something I’d do eventually. But I thought of my history teacher who took me on my first field lesson out to the East Coast. He’s the one that instilled my passion for serving others and advocating for students.”

He shared his desire to teach with his wife and family, and they encouraged him to follow his true path. De Leon started teaching math at Weslaco East High School in 2000. During this time, De Leon re-connected with his love of teaching and served as an athletics coach. In his fourth year of teaching, De Leon began his master’s degree in education at The University of Texas Pan-American (UTPA).

De Leon initially heard of IDEA Public Schools after taking some masters courses with Tom Torkelson and JoAnn Gama at UTPA. However, he began to take more notice when he saw students from his traditional school district making the leap to IDEA.

As De Leon learned more about its values and vision for education, he began to consider joining IDEA’s mission of college for all.

“My own vision was to challenge students to learn more and get them into an AP or dual enrollment program,” he says. “At IDEA, everyone took AP courses, and everything they did was to help make students college-ready. I began to think that IDEA was the opportunity I’d been looking for.”

De Leon became principal of IDEA Quest College Preparatory in Edinburg in 2010 and has since made the campus one of IDEA’s top-performing schools.

“I’ve been at IDEA Quest since 2010, and I’ve hired all but four staff members, and I’m proud that 100% of staff returned to us this school year. We have been College Preparatory of the Year four times and campus of the year three times. Our students have had the highest ACT averages in the district for the past six years, and it’s a real testament to the hard work and dedication of our students and staff.”

After a decade as principal at IDEA Quest under his belt, De Leon received a fortuitous email.

“JoAnn Gama reached out asking anyone interested in applying to be Executive Director for IDEA’s launch in Jacksonville, Florida, to send in a letter of intent,” says De Leon. “I had been considering new leadership opportunities at IDEA and asked my wife and kids how they would feel about a potential move to Florida.”

With his family’s blessing, De Leon submitted the letter and was ultimately selected to head IDEA Jacksonville.

“When the offer came, I felt it was a great opportunity to grow as a leader and keep on learning. This would give me the chance to coach and manage staff and have a greater impact on administrators, teachers, students, and the community at large.”

Though De Leon won’t move to Jacksonville until 2021, he will complete his final year as principal at IDEA Quest College Preparatory this May and spend much of next year traveling to Jacksonville to prepare for IDEA’s launch.

“I believe IDEA is a good fit for Jacksonville,” he says. “There are families there who need and deserve options for a great, college-bound education, and I am excited to immerse myself in the community and get to know families.”

As he prepares for his next chapter, De Leon says that his success stems from doing work he is passionate about that will have a lasting impact on others.

“I am competitive, and it makes me want to succeed, but more than that, there’s the desire to make a positive impact on everyone around me,” he says. “I want every Jacksonville classroom in every school to offer an exceptional educational experience and for each student to have access to opportunities they never imagined.”

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