By the time Nate Carman moved to the Rio Grande Valley in September 2017, the San Benito Consolidated Independent School District had seen a revolving door of superintendents, with four resigning over a three-year span.

Carman was hired to bring stability to the troubled district, former San Benito Trustee Michael Vargas recalled. Trustees didn’t just want someone who wouldn’t be out the door in a few months — they wanted someone with a plan to fix the district’s finances and academics.

“The district had been in a financial ruin. Academics were dismal,” Vargas said. “You could name one thing wrong with a school district and that was San Benito CISD.”

San Benito, which at the time had just under 10,500 students, found a stable hand in Carman, a small town superintendent who had overseen about 1,250 students in East-Central Texas.

The Socorro Independent School District Board of Trustees has made a similar bet, tapping Carman to bring continuity to a district that has enjoyed student growth and strong academic performance over the past decade under a single superintendent, José Espinoza, who resigned last May.

Carman, 53, joined Socorro ISD on March 15, the day after signing a three-year contract with a base annual salary of $335,000.

He has no connection to El Paso County, having spent most of his career as a campus administrator in North and East Texas districts. Socorro ISD, with approximately 47,000 students, will be the largest district he’s worked at during his almost 30-year career by far.

In a late February interview days after being named the lone Socorro superintendent finalist, Carman described himself as someone who seeks out a challenge.

“The size of the district and the chance to work with more students was very attractive to me,” Carman said of his 2017 decision to move from his first superintendency in Teague ISD to San Benito. “And honestly, I enjoy taking on challenges and trying to make situations better.”

Nate Carman greets an attendee at the reception honoring his hire as the next Socorro ISD superintendent on March 14. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Vargas said the San Benito school board was drawn to Carman because he was “a very numbers-driven guy.” Carman’s undergraduate degree is in mathematics and he got his start as a high school math teacher in Farmington, New Mexico.

Beyond his strong understanding of numbers, Carman’s coolheadedness, calming presence, loyalty and resistance to political pressures helped him find success in San Benito, Vargas said.

Orlando López, a current San Benito trustee who was also part of Carman’s hiring, described him as adaptable, approachable and engaged in all aspects of running the district.

In two years, the district went from a C grade to a B in the state’s annual academic accountability ratings, which are largely based on student performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests. Carman attributed the 11-point rating jump to better aligning curriculum to the tested standards, shifting the focus to hands-on activities and small group work, and increased professional development opportunities for teachers.

Teachers and employees saw annual pay raises under Carman’s leadership, after not receiving a substantial pay bump for several years.

“Personally, as a teacher, that speaks volumes,” said Paul Hernandez, vice president of the San Benito chapter of the Texas State Teachers Association. The union was also able to negotiate two additional days of paid leave, all of which helped retain teachers who could have easily left for neighboring districts, he said.

A year into his tenure, Carman oversaw the passage of a $40 million bond to fund the construction of a performing arts center, aquatics center and indoor multipurpose athletics facility — amenities he and trustees saw as an effort to attract families to the district. That bond amount pales in comparison to the $448.5 million bond Socorro voters last passed in 2017.

Outwardly, Carman appears unfazed by the task of running a larger school district, one with 49 schools instead of 20. He believes his skillset will transfer, saying it will be a matter of scaling up practices and initiatives that worked well at his previous districts.

He mentioned replicating the academy model he brought to San Benito, in which he created three elementary school academies focused on fine arts, environmental science and science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM).

“If we bring in schools of choice, things that engage students with something they enjoy … each year I believe we retain more students who can be successful and each year perform at a higher level as they move through our school system,” Carman said.

Superintendent Nate Carman speaks to those in attendance at the March 14 board meeting where he signed his contract with Socorro ISD. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Socorro ISD Board of Trustees President David Morales expressed confidence that Carman will be able to produce results, particularly when it comes to student performance on the STAAR exams.

“Personally, I was looking at high performance. I wanted our district to score well on the state assessment,” Morales said. “We’ve had a lot of success and now I believe that this gentleman here can take us to the next level.”

In 2019, the last year districts received state grades before the pandemic interrupted annual standardized testing, Socorro ISD was just one of two El Paso County districts to receive an A. That performance took a hit when students sat for the exam last spring after months of remote instruction. Whereas the percentage of Socorro students “approaching” grade level was above the state average prior to the pandemic, Socorro now scored below the state average, Carman said.

“Socorro has a rich tradition of having successful graduates, successful students, and I want to improve anything to get Socorro right back up there, at or above the pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

When Vargas brought Carman to San Benito five years ago, the former trustee hoped the superintendent would end his career there. Vargas lamented the school board politics brought on by a new majority, leading Carman to look elsewhere.

Carman, however, said board dynamics weren’t the “primary reason” he sought out the Socorro post.

“I plan to work at least five years and I’m hopeful to finish my career in Socorro ISD,” he said. “To me Socorro ISD is that type of district — it has that reputation of being such an innovative, high performing school district — that I could not think of a better place to work my final years.”

Cover photo: Superintendent Nate Carman addresses the media after signing his contract with Socorro ISD on March 14. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.