NAESP’s First Latina President Changes Narrative for Her Students

Liza Caraballo-Suarez—an educator for 30-plus years in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood she grew up in—sets out to change the narrative for her students by raising awareness of inequities and challenging stereotypes and prejudices that contribute to inequality.

Liza Caraballo-Suarez, principal of the Magnet School of Architecture, Engineering, and Design – P.S. 120 in Brooklyn, New York, takes the helm as 2023-2024 NAESP president—the first Latina president in NAESP history. A product of the New York City public school system, Liza Caraballo-Suarez has served as an educator for more than 30 years in the same neighborhood she grew up in.

A Teacher’s Impact

Raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Caraballo-Suarez witnessed the gentrification of her neighborhood. Williamsburg became a much different place than she grew up in. The Williamsburg she knew was composed of public housing, empty lots, and graffiti-scarred tenements occupied by low-income Brown and Black families. Now those empty lots featured million-dollar homes.

“Growing up in Williamsburg with my six siblings and being raised by my Puerto Rican parents, who spoke only Spanish, was not easy,” said Caraballo-Suarez at the 2023 NAESP Pre-K-8 Principals Conference. “I struggled as a Latina girl going to school, trying to belong in a place where few people looked or spoke like me. I recalled being in the first grade and having my hair pulled and my pencils snatched by other students. Throughout the day, I counted the minutes until I could go home.”

Things changed in fourth grade when she met Ms. Billy. Ms. Billy was the first teacher who “saw Liza.”

“I remember the day as if it was yesterday when she asked me what I wanted to do in life,” said Caraballo-Suarez. “I told her that I wanted to help other children from other countries. She smiled and said, ‘I have the right project for you.’ She told me she wanted me to be the school leader for UNICEF. I would be responsible for collecting money and explaining the UNICEF vision and purpose to the other children. I said, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ but Ms. Billy encouraged me and told me she believed in me.”

Despite nerves, Caraballo-Suarez—with the support of Ms. Billy—went to classrooms weekly, and slowly but surely, found her voice.

“I felt immensely proud of myself, and when Ms. Billy told me how proud she was of me, it was then, for the first time, I felt valued in school,” said Caraballo-Suarez. “This was a life-changing experience, and that’s when I knew that I wanted to be like Ms. Billy, to help kids just like me.”

Paying It Forward

She earned a degree in Special Education to help her to understand her brother’s disabilities and help him to learn life skills that were important to live independently—support he hadn’t been getting during his time in school. She set out to change the narrative, not just for her brother and herself, but for all children who are not seen or heard.

“These experiences inspired me to be a transformational leader and advocate as I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students like me and wanted to ensure that they were in a school environment where they would be seen, learn, welcomed, respected, loved, and safe,” said Caraballo-Suarez. “I strongly believe that regardless of race, language, disability, or income, students must have equitable access to the resources they need, and this belief, along with my experiences, has guided all I do as an educator. It is my WHY.”

Caraballo-Suarez is determined to address inequities in our society and in schools. The first step, she says, is to raise awareness of the issue—to talk about inequality and its causes and effects. Next, it’s up to all of us to challenge stereotypes and prejudices that contribute to inequality.

“We also need to invest in education to make sure that all students have access to a quality education,” said Caraballo-Suarez. “This means providing more funding for schools, increasing teachers’ and principals’ salaries, and reducing class size. We also need to make sure that schools are welcoming and inclusive environments. This means creating policies and practices that address bullying and harassment and providing support for students from all backgrounds.

“I know you are asking yourself how I can do this,” she said. “I am only one principal. I cannot do this by myself. You’re right; you can’t. But you are not alone; you are part of the NAESP family.”

Caraballo-Suarez’s term as NAESP president begins Aug. 1, 2023. Follow her on Twitter at @CaraballoSuarz. Learn more about her and the rest of the NAESP Board of Directors.