Ortega. who's married with three daughters, all of whom attend OPS, has moved from classroom teacher and high school counselor to assistant principal at South High to principal of Buffett Middle School. Earlier this year, he was hired as a district executive director tasked with supporting and supervising principals of 16 schools.
The Southern California native traces his educational and professional achievement to his family's move to Nebraska. Negative experiences in Los Angles public schools in the 1980s-1990s – gang threats, no running water, rampant dropouts – fueled his desire to be a positive change agent in education. In Schuyler, where his immigrant parents worked the packing plants, he was introduced to new possibilities.
"I'm thankful my parents had the courage to move us out of a bad environment. Really, it wasn't until I got here I met some key people that really changed the trajectory of my life. I met the middle class family I never knew growing up. They really took me under their wing.
We had conversations at their dinner table about college-careers – all those conversations that happen in middle class homes that never happened in my home until I met that family.
"That was really transformational for me because it wasn't until then I realized my future could be different and I didn't have to work at a meatpacking plant and live in poverty. I really credit that with putting me on a different path."
He began his higher education pursuits at Central Community College (CCC) in Columbus.
"I went there because, honestly, it was my only option. I was not the smartest or sharpest kid coming out of high school. Just last year, I was given the outstanding alumnus award and was their commencement speaker. I was humbled. Public speaking is not something I really enjoy, but I did it because if I could influence somebody in that crowd to continue their education, it was worth it. And I owed it to the college. That was the beginning of my new life essentially."
He noted that, just as at his old school in Schuyler, CCC-Columbus is now a Hispanic-serving institution where before Latinos were a rarity. His message to students: education improves your social mobility.
"No one can take away your education regardless of who you are, where you go, what you do."
He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and went on to earn two master's and a doctorate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
"I'm really the first in my family to have more of an educational professional background," Ortega said, "I don't think my parents quite yet grasp what I do for a living or what all my education means, so there's some of that struggle where you're kind of living in two worlds."
He expects to keep advancing as an administrator.
"I have a lot of drive in me, I have a lot of desire to keep learning. I do know I want to keep impacting more and more kids and to have even a broader reach, and that is something that will drive my goals going forward.
"It's very gratifying to see your influence and the impact you make on other people. There's no better feeling than that."
He's still figuring out what it means to be an executive director over 16 principals and schools.
"For now, I'm focusing on building relationships with my principals, getting to know their schools, their challenges, observing what's happening. So right now I'm just doing a lot of leading through learning. It's quite the challenge with not only the schools being elementary, middle and high schools but being all over town. Every school has challenges and opportunities – they just look different. I'm trying to learn them.
"When I was a principal, I had teachers who needed me more than others. I'm learning the same thing is true with principals – some need you more because they're new to the position or perhaps are in schools that have a few more challenges."
Having done the job himself, he knows principals have a complex, often lonely responsibility. That's where he comes in as support-coach-guide.
"We're expecting principals to be instructional leaders but principals have a litany of other things to also do. Our theory of action is if we develop our principals' capacity, they will in turn develop teachers' capacity and then student outcomes will improve."
He knows the difference a helping hand can make.
"No matter where I've been, there's always been at least one person instrumental in influencing me. The research shows all it takes is one person to be in somebody's corner to help them, and there've been people who've seen value in me and really invested in me."
His educational career, he said, "is my way of giving back and paying it forward."
"It's so gratifying to wake up every day knowing you're doing it for those reasons. That's really powerful stuff."
He purposely left the burbs for more diverse OPS.
"I kept thinking I've got to meet my heart. I wanted to do more to impact kids probably more like me."
He's proud that a district serving a large immigrant and refugee population is seeing student achievement gains and graduation increases, with more grads continuing education beyond high school.
As he reminds students, if he could do it, they can, too.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.