Ladislao “Lalo” Lopez was in class for only two months of his seventh-grade year. He attended eighth grade just three months. And ninth grade was only marginally better — he finished only one semester.

He would have loved to be in class, but he needed to make money toiling in the fruit fields near Santa Barbara. His parents, Mixtec immigrants from southern Mexico, considered education complete after the sixth grade. They needed him and his four siblings to work to help support the family.

Reflecting on his childhood, Lopez, now 39 years old, remembers that education wasn’t something he could take for granted. As a result, he valued it, pursuing education as a ticket to a better life.

“In the end, education is the one thing that makes a difference in a kid’s life. I see this in myself,” he said. “Education changed how my life was going to be.”

Lopez returns this week to middle school not as a student, but rather as a principal. A selection committee last week picked him over 30 candidates as the best suited to take the helm at Cunha Intermediate School. The school board for the Cabrillo Unified School District is expected to approve him for the position in the coming days.

School officials say Lopez’s background as a teacher, counselor and administrator makes him a top-notch choice for the job. He takes over following the departure of Principal Michael Andrews, who announced his retirement last month.

Upon graduating from Fresno State University, Lopez taught social studies for nine years in Watsonville. After that, he moved to Monterey County as a middle-school counselor, and later moved on to work as an assistant principal at Salinas High School. During his time there, the school boosted its test scores, particularly among students learning English as a second language.

A group of parents, teachers, staff and Cabrillo administrators chose six candidates to interview for the position. A review of employment history and other factors also played a part in the decision. The Cabrillo community was interested in a candidate who could maintain existing initiatives and connect well with students and parents, according to a school district release. Lopez speaks Spanish, English and his family’s native Mixtec dialect.

CUSD Superintendent Tony Roehrick said the wide range of experience made Lopez well-suited to head the Coastside’s middle school.

“We’re fortunate that he decided to apply here,” he said. “I think we plucked one of the future stars out of Salinas.”

Lopez explained he was interested to apply for the job after driving to Half Moon Bay and “falling in love” with the community. He thought he didn’t have a chance for the position because he assumed there was a field of competitors more qualified for the job.

“I feel ecstatic about this opportunity,” he said. “Half Moon Bay is a dream place — and I was thinking about my own kid and how they’ll grow up.”

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