Veteran teacher Leslie Mason knows her way around a classroom.
But the Tucson Unified School District educator, who has taught for 12 years, is now looking to move into a leadership position. It’s a jump she intends to pursue this spring after participating in the district’s new initiative to develop its own administrators.
Mason is one of 29 educators in the first cohort of TUSD’s Leadership Prep Academy, designed to identify superstar teachers, instructional coaches and assistant principals and help them grow individually and professionally while building their leadership roles.
“If we’re going to move forward as a district, we need to make sure we have strong leaders on every campus,” said Adrian Vega, TUSD’s deputy superintendent of teaching and learning.
The academy focuses on six standards that make a good principal: culture, creating a shared vision, management, collaboration, professionalism and advocacy.
While the program is required as part of the district’s efforts to increase diversity of staff — 38 percent of the academy participants are Hispanic and 10 percent are African-American — it is an initiative that the district fully embraces, Vega said.
“This just says we’re serious about growing our people,” he said.
The prospective new leaders meet biweekly, attending training sessions where they go over assigned readings and rub elbows with the district’s leaders with whom they have dinner — as prepared by TUSD culinary arts students.
There is a little bit of small talk with colleagues before delving into discussions about the importance of self-analysis, not being resistant to change, and how to collaborate not only with staff members and colleagues but also with parents and community members for success.
“You’re here for a specific reason — you obviously all have the talent,” Jim Fish, executive director of equity and intervention, told the group of educators at a recent meeting. “When you’re looking at becoming the instructional leader of your building, collaboration is huge. This is not about how intelligent you are, not about the degrees you bring with you, but it’s your ability to connect, to understand, to appreciate and to value not only your students and your parents but your community as well.”
While Fish and other top district leaders have shared their experiences — both good and bad — with the participants, the mission of the academy is not to create a set of clones of the existing administration, Vega said.
“We’re not here to groom or develop a leader who represents the status quo,” Vega said. “We want people who are innovative, creative, forward thinking, and will focus on student achievement. And if these individuals get the opportunity to have their own school, they will do amazing, incredible things on behalf of kids.”
Added TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez: “To lead a school in the era of high-stakes testing and hypervisibility, we are looking for the best who want to step up and become better through working hard, continuously learning and doing such with an unyielding optimism.”
For Mason, a teacher at Wright Elementary School, having this connection to district leaders has been invaluable. She already has begun using much of what she has learned in her classroom, and plans to apply for a principal position immediately.
“Anytime you can have interaction with leadership, you’re going to grow from it, especially if you open yourself up to it,” Mason said. “They’ve taken the idea of a leadership academy to a whole new level — not only teaching us what administrators do, but how the district is moving and what they’re looking for.”
David Davies, an assistant principal at Gridley Middle School for 17 years, has also gained insight not only to the inner workings of the district, but into his own abilities as well.
Davies, who acknowledges he went into the program without any plans to advance to the next level, has already submitted an application to lead a TUSD elementary school.
“We get comfortable with where we are, and we are fearful of moving forward,” Davies said. “But we launched into an immediate learning cadre that made me begin to think I could gain the skill set necessary to do more than what I do, so my mind-set really began to change.
“I’ve got this burn that says, there is where I’m going now — status quo has been, and now I’m ready to move on.”