She didn't master English until second grade, and she'll forever remember the teacher — Rose Prieto in Albuquerque, N.M., — who helped her do so.
"Mrs. Prieto really communicated with my parents so they'd understand the system," Hernandez recalled in a recent interview.
"I was the oldest child — six came later — so she helped steer our whole family in terms of academics. Sometimes teachers don't know how great an impact they have on families."
At Ravenswood, where nearly 70 percent of Hernandez's students are considered "English learners," the new superintendent arrives with her own experience in the landscape of assimilation.
The 4,100 children in the K-8 East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park district — 81 percent of whom are Hispanic — "have all the challenges you find up and down the Central Valley, Coachella Valley and San Bernardino area," Hernandez said.
"But this is right here in the heart of Silicon Valley."
After the Air Force moved her own family from Texas to New Mexico to California to Nevada to Mississippi, they landed back in California where Hernandez graduated from high school in south Los Angeles and earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate, from California State University at Sacramento, with a specialty in teaching English learners.
She taught in migrant camps and Catholic schools. Later, after earning a public-school teaching credential, she launched a program for English learners, working as a teacher, principal and assistant school superintendent in the Sacramento area.
Hernandez said she was attracted to East Palo Alto by the challenge of educating English learners in an urban community surrounded by affluence.
"That's what drew me — just being right here with Facebook and all the other IT companies that are so wildly successful and also being surrounded by very wealthy communities — Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto.
"The dichotomy is interesting for me," she said.
Barely a month into the job, Hernandez is meeting with teachers and community groups, as well as officials from charter schools and surrounding school districts to get the lay of the land.
She estimates her district loses 800 to 900 students whose parents have chosen alternatives to Ravenswood, including private schools, charter schools and the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, in which 500 cross the freeway to the Palo Alto Unified School District alone. (Other Tinsley children travel to public schools in Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Belmont, San Carlos and Woodside.)
Her main message to those parents: "I think we can provide a high-quality education right here in Ravenswood. We have people who are committed, and we have principals who are working very hard to provide that consistency and support for the teachers so they're doing the best job possible."
Though Ravenswood's Academic Performance Index has jumped nearly 100 points in the last five years, to 712, it still falls short of the statewide goal of 800. But Hernandez maintains that a focus on that single metric can be misleading.
"Parents want the best for their children so when they see a nicer facility and they see some of the things provided in our surrounding districts based in large part on the fact that the community is wealthier, they believe their child will receive a better education there," she said.
"However, we've had other superintendents and people who do the data in surrounding districts tell us that they have huge challenges in working with our students, a lot of it being around English learning and the fact that, when they're bused, they can't participate in after-school activities.
"So it doesn't necessarily guarantee them a better education — it just maybe seems better," she said.
One of Hernandez's short-term goals is to spruce up facilities on Ravenswood's eight campuses, including playgrounds. She'd also like people to know about the district's comprehensive preschool, the Child Development Center, serving kids ages 3 to 5.
She wants to expand small programs that have shown success on one campus, such as Readers and Writers Workshop at Costano, to other schools.
She also wants to do more with self-paced, computerized instruction. At the same time she insists: "No matter what program you have, you really have to have a quality teacher to guide students and lead them in their learning."
Though the details are still up for grabs in Sacramento, Hernandez anticipates Gov. Jerry Brown's newly enacted "local control funding formula" will add significantly to Ravenswood's coffers.
She hopes to — literally — start broadcasting the news to parents, in English and Spanish.
"We've been told which radio station most parents listen to, and we're looking for a time conducive to that," she said.
"We'd like half-hour radio spots each week where there will be information from the district on upcoming events and things like the A-G (college entrance) requirements, how to work with your child, how to support them even if you don't speak English, things to ask your teachers when you go to parent conferences so parents can come in and feel more secure," she said.
Her ideal program would include an "ask the teacher" segment to which parents could call in questions.
"We did this at my old district (Twin Rivers Unified School District near Sacramento)," she said, noting that federal funds targeted for English learners and parent involvement can be used to pay for it.
"It's a very effective way to use it, and it really works," she said.
Hernandez also plans to use the San Jose public relations firm Ford and Bonilla, hired by her predecessor Maria De La Vega, to get the word out about Ravenswood.
"My goal is to make sure we're utilizing all our strengths and providing a very consistent academic environment across the board and that we're able to guarantee all our children are getting a quality education. And I want parents to know that," she said.