Las Vegas, New Mexico – The New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education tapped Highlands University alumna Barbara Perea Casey for the Matías L. Chacón award for her contribution to advancing bilingual education at the state level.
Perea Casey’s career as a bilingual educator, superintendent, and state legislator spans 40 years. She was also a longtime adjunct professor in the Highlands School of Education before retiring. She is a Highlands Foundation Board member.
The Matías L. Chacón award is named in honor of the late New Mexico state senator who introduced the Multicultural Education Act in 1973.
“Dr. Perea Casey is a true leader and has a servant’s heart,” said David Briseño, NMABE executive director. “Over the years she’s had a longstanding commitment and passion for bilingual education as an educator and superintendent.
“As a longtime state legislator, Barbara was successful in improving education as a whole in New Mexico and pushed for equitable funding for bilingual education,” Briseño said.
Perea Casey earned her M.A. in Spanish literature from Highlands with honors and a B.A. in Spanish cum laude, minoring in French and German. She went on to complete her Ph.D. in educational leadership and organizational learning from the University of New Mexico.
“All the experiences I had growing up in a bilingual home were beautiful because they included both languages, whether it was music, culture or religion,” Casey said. “I decided to study Spanish at Highlands because it’s who I am, and I wanted to enrich my knowledge, like having the ability to read the Spanish playwright Cervantes – a contemporary of Shakespeare. I also wanted to preserve my family’s heritage.”
Perea Casey taught high school students bilingual education, Spanish, French, English and other subjects for 22 years in the Roswell Independent School District. She often tutored Spanish-speaking students in the evenings at her kitchen table and developed an AP Spanish program at Goddard High School.
“I believe in bilingual education and it is the underlying current of my life,” Perea Casey said. “As a teacher I saw how non-English speakers struggled and were treated differently. It made me very sad that they probably wouldn’t be as successful in life as they could be because they didn’t have the language skills they needed. I wanted to change that.”
While in Roswell, Perea Casey was elected as a representative for New Mexico House District 58 in 1983 and served for 12 years. She took leadership roles in championing successful legislation for bilingual education funding and in positions such as chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
Perea Casey’s impact on bilingual education extends beyond New Mexico. For instance, in 1993 she participated in the International Round Table on Education Policy at Oxford University, England and co-authored the Oxford Press book, The Faces of Education: A World View.
She started her career as a superintendent in Hondo, New Mexico in 1996 before moving home in 2001 to lead West Las Vegas School District first as associate superintendent and then as superintendent. From 2004-2008 she was associate superintendent for Las Vegas City Schools.
“Being a superintendent gave me the freedom to do what I thought was best for the students. It was very rewarding,” Perea Casey said.
Highlands School of Education Dean Belinda Laumbach has known Perea Casey since they were undergraduates at Highlands studying Spanish, French and German.
“Barbara has immersed herself in the work of preserving Spanish language and culture in New Mexico and has made a remarkable contribution in both,” Laumbach said. “Her broad background and extensive experience meant she could teach just about any course in the School of Education and she was an exceptional adjunct professor.”
Perea Casey said her parents didn’t make it past the 8th grade, but always stressed the importance of education. Before her father died when she was 15, he instilled the belief that she would go to Highlands. In 1969 at the age of 16, Perea Casey graduated from West Las Vegas High School in the top five of her class and started chasing the Highlands dream.
After missing out on one scholarship, Perea Casey’s grandmother told her to dry her tears and go to Highlands in person. Being the first in her family to go to college, she wasn’t sure where to go.
Perea Casey went to the university president, Thomas Donnelly, and fanned out her report cards with straight A’s.
“I told him I won’t let you down. Please help me. And I left with an academic scholarship,” Perea Casey said.
Perea Casey is past president of the Highlands Alumni Association and has served on the Highlands Foundation Board since 2005.
“Being on the Foundation Board is important to me because it’s another way I can give back to the university I love that did so much for me. I like to stay in touch with students on scholarships to see how we can support them and help them succeed, ” Perea Casey said.