Brenda Russ cares deeply about empowering students by showing them what they can be. And that’s just what she’s doing, by becoming the first ever Latina Principal in Roanoke City public schools.

Russ is an alumna of Virginia Tech’s School of Education, and has been working in the field of education for 11 years. She’s held a variety of positions in education, including director of organizational diversity for RCPS, assistant principal, secondary english learner specialist, English as a second language (ESL) coordinator, ESL department chair, and ESL teacher.

Russ said  she chose to pursue working in educational administration for the same reason she started working in education -  to help as many students as possible.

“The reason I have pursued administration over the last five, six years is in an effort to have a greater impact,” Russ said, “Moving beyond the classroom and impacting my students, but then impacting an entire school, a school community, and serving at the district level.”

Russ is aware of the role she plays as the first Latina principal, and takes it seriously. "It's a great honor,” Russ said, “It's a shame that it's 2022 and I'm the first. I don't take that responsibility lightly.” 

Russ knows that she’s in the public eye more than most, and is glad she gets to be an example for the community.

“I get the honor to serve a community that can see what is possible for their children and the opportunity to build relationships, knock down language barriers and cultural divides,” Russ said.

Russ was born in Virginia, though she spent most of her childhood in Puerto Rico. She remembers feeling uncomfortable in high school because she felt isolated as a Latina. “I was in a mostly monolingual, white, affluent school. And it was just a few of us that were Hispanic, so we stood out,” Russ said.

This lack of representation is part of why she values her position so much.

children, mostly of color, participate in an elementary school classroom activity in the roanoke city public schools

“They [Latine students] get to see that someone who looks like them, sounds like them, who could relate to their families, to their traditions, to their customs, who could speak their language,  [can have this job,]” Russ said.

Nearly 30 percent  of students in U.S. schools are Latinx, while fewer than 10 percent of school principals and just over 10 percent of teachers identify as Latinx, said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the VT School of Education.

“Diversifying the field of education is vitally important,” Gehsmann said. “ When there’s greater diversity in representation, we’re a step closer to realizing the vision of education being the great equalizer.”

Russ also believes that her experience as a Hokie is part of what helped her get this far.

“The work of the School of Education has been phenomenal,” she said. “I've been given so many opportunities to assist professors with articles and presenting [at conferences]. Just getting my doctorate, being able to study about a field I am passionate about which includes English learners, immigrant students, and the impact of leadership using an equity and social justice lens.”

Carol Cash, Russ’s dissertation chair, had this to say. “Brenda Russ is an outstanding educator and a passionate advocate for English Learners (EL). She is the perfect leader for a school with a high EL population because she will ensure they are part of an inclusive environment.”

When asked what she had to say to Latine students currently studying education, Russ shared, “We need you. Your cultural lens, your linguistic abilities and that level of understanding is needed more than ever,“ Russ said.

Written by Alexandra Krens