Enrique M. Melendez idolized his uncle, a neighborhood handyman, when he was growing up and attending public schools in some of New York City's toughest neighborhoods.
"He told me, 'You don't want to be like me, I didn't graduate from high school,' " recalled Melendez, now president of the Anne Arundel County school board, in a recent interview. "He said, 'Yeah, I'm a painter, a tow truck driver, a mechanic, and I'm a multitalented guy, but I hardly make any money.' He said, 'You can go to college, get a good career, sit in an office ... have a better life.'
"So he pushed me to study. He was like my mentor. I was like 9 or 10 years old. ... I continued to make education a priority."
Melendez, a member of the school board since 2005, was recently elected to serve on the board of directors of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, a nonprofit group that helps train local leaders and shapes statewide education policy.
Melendez, 50, of Annapolis, remains mindful of his past struggles and his emergence as a role model as he works on what he identified as some of the county school board's most pressing issues: revamping the middle school schedule, narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students, and raising the grade-point average of ninth-graders. And in his new role at MABE, he hopes to bring greater voice to issues in Anne Arundel.
"I am Hispanic," Melendez said. "But what's different for me, I've never let that stop me in my life. I'm going to be what I'm going to be. I believe in myself. ... It's that perspective that I bring to the board. It makes me unique on the board. I can sit very comfortably in an all-Hispanic meeting, an all-black meeting, an all-white meeting, and I'll deal with it. And I don't think you have a lot of people who can do that."
County Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said of Melendez: "I think it's really wonderful that our county leadership is bringing his voice to statewide issues. He's very insightful."
Melendez was born and raised in the Bronx, primarily by his mother. His father died from an ulcer when Melendez was a little more than a year old.
At 14, the family moved back to its native Puerto Rico, where Melendez attended a private high school on an academic and sports scholarship. He played football, baseball and basketball and earned good grades. Despite acceptances to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, Melendez chose to head to Boston, where he attended Northeastern University, which offers a co-op program, allowing students to mix study and work year-round.
He spent 12 years in Boston, earning a bachelor's degree and master's degrees in electrical engineering and engineering management. While in college, he helped tutor younger classmates, always mindful of extending a helping hand to minority students who may be struggling, he said.
In 1988, he and his wife, Alicia, moved to Anne Arundel County, where Melendez took a job with ARINC, a global engineering firm headquartered in Annapolis. He worked there for 17 years.
His three children, Ivana, Chanel and Christian, all attended county public schools.
Again, he helped students, doing tutoring at Annapolis High School.
"I saw at a young age kids dropping out where I grew up," Melendez said. "It was not necessarily the norm to graduate from high school. ...You don't think about going to college. So I was very fortunate. It gave me more motivation to come here and make a difference."
In 2004, when he heard of the board member position opening, he thought, "I always wanted to give back," he said.
Maria Casasco, the Hispanic and Latino liaison for the office of County Executive John R. Leopold, said over the years she's collaborated with Melendez on various issues, including truancy among Latino students. She said Melendez's Spanish-speaking skills are an asset, helping parents who might have issues they need to discuss with a principal or teacher but who are stifled by the language barrier.
"He's very committed to the community," Casasco said. "In the community, there is a real, real need of having a Latino role model. He was coming from a society that didn't have much to offer him. Look at him now. He's very successful, and he's giving back to the community. It's very beautiful."
Melendez, now vice president of information technology at Jacobs Engineering Group, says he offers a moderate voice on the school board and has cultivated good working relationships with Maxwell and Leopold.
"I appreciate his interest in constructive collaboration between the school board and the county government," Leopold said. "He has a background in engineering. Mr. Melendez shares my priority interest in enhancing those STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] disciplines in order to fill the jobs that are emerging as a result of the BRAC expansion and other job opportunities in the county."
Melendez supported Maxwell, who spearheaded major changes at Annapolis High School under intense criticism from the community. Critics were concerned that Maxwell's plan for the school - forcing the entire staff to reapply for their jobs - was too extreme.
"We all got crazy e-mails," Melendez said. "Parents, people that were comfortable with the status quo."
Recent news that the long-troubled high school met federal guidelines on standardized tests for the first time in six years, lent a sense of vindication to the situation.
Melendez, whose youngest daughter graduated from Broadneck High School this year, is noncommittal about the future. His five-year term on the county school board ends in 2010. Beyond that, he says, "My attitude long term is if the community wants to see me around, I'll consider it."
Enrique M. Melendez
* Born in Bronx, N.Y.
* Graduated from Northeastern University
* Appointed to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education in July 2005.
* Elected President of the Board in July 2008.
* Elected to the board of directors for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education 2008.