An Education Priority: More Women in Leadership Roles

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Mary Alice Heuschel, 2011 AASA National Superintendent of the Year finalist, speaking at the 2016 Women in School Leadership Forum.

Earlier this month, AASA, The School Superintendents Association, announced the finalists for the 2017 Women in School Leadership Awards. Co-sponsored by AASA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, these awards are designed to recognize leading female administrators who are making a positive difference for their respective communities as well as the students they serve.

This year, we added a new category—the School Based Award—an award that provides a pathway for AASA to support more women educators in developing leadership skills and advancing their careers.

On the heels of this announcement, AASA collaborated with the Association of California School Administrators for the sixth annual Women in School Leadership Forum. Approximately 250 women educators convened in Newport Beach, Calif., in late September to network, discuss leadership and examine ways to climb career ladders.

Speakers at the forum were women business leaders including Marita Zuraitis, the CEO of Horace Mann. She told her audience to “play to your strengths and be a problem solver. It’s up to you whether things are obstacles or roadblocks. Or, do you look at them as opportunities?”

Mary Alice Heuschel was a 2011 AASA National Superintendent of the Year finalist and is currently the deputy director for U.S. programs with the Gates Foundation. A speaker at the forum, she said, “Fail forward. Get up, dust yourself off and continue to move ahead. In failure, we discover how to improve. Every successful person has failed along the way.”

Fewer than 25 percent of America’s superintendents—the leaders of our nation’s public school districts—are women. It’s clear that a lot of work needs to be done to bring more women into leadership roles. Putting more females in leadership positions is essential if we’re going to raise the bar in our profession and send a signal to more female students who may wish to pursue education administration as a career.

I am pleased that AASA is doing its part to grow the careers of women educators. In addition to our School Leadership Awards and Forums, we recently selected 20 accomplished women leaders from school districts across the country to participate in the inaugural cohort of the AASA Aspiring Women Leaders Program. The initiative was launched to help mitigate the impact of social barriers women face in ascending to the top leadership positions within our school systems and to significantly increase the number of women seeking and becoming CEOs and superintendents of schools.

As a participant in this program, women will receive:

  • Mentoring and coaching from a member of the AASA National Women’s Leadership Consortium;
  • Opportunities to network and collaborate with other aspiring women leaders from across the country; and
  • Opportunities to gain national visibility through presentations at AASA meetings and in webinars.

All of these activities represent a longstanding tradition of AASA applauding outstanding female education practitioners. Through these programs and activities, we don’t expect it will be long before we see a decrease in the gender gap when it comes to education administration.

For information about our Women in School Leadership programs and initiatives, please contact MaryAnn P. Jobe, AASA director, education and leadership development, at mjobe@aasa.org.

Doing the Best with What You Have

(L-to-R) AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, Principal Louis Rojas and AASA President Alton Frailey.

(L-to-R) AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech, Principal Louis Rojas and AASA President Alton Frailey.

Costa Rica – Louis Rojas is the principal of the San Rafael School, a small facility serving 114 students. Louis reports directly to a district supervisor that is similar to the district superintendent in the U.S.

Similar to the other schools we have visited, San Rafael educates preschoolers ages 4-5, kindergarten for 6-year-olds and the primary education grades 1-6. From there, students will attend “college,” the equivalent of high school for our students.

Uniforms are required in all schools as to eliminate economic differences. Their “college” is a six-year program where the first three years focus on general education while the last three require students to focus on either academic or technical tracks. They will graduate with a “bachelor’s” degree that grants them access to the public and private universities in the country.

Similar to the U.S., poverty is also a major factor. Forty-two percent of preschool children live in homes where parents have less than six years of schooling and more than 60 percent live in poverty. All of the schools we visited were lacking the resources that the principals regarded as necessary to meet the needs of the students.

Nevertheless, there is an overwhelming commitment to educate all children supported by administrators and teachers who do the best they can with what they have.

Dan is blogging throughout the AASA International Seminar, which is taking place in Costa Rica.

A Visit to the Alegre School

AASA Executive Director, Dan Domenech, with Principal Gretta Mendez at the Cerro Alegre school.

AASA Executive Director, Dan Domenech, with Principal Gretta Mendez at the Cerro Alegre school.

La Fortuna, Costa Rica – Gretta Mendez was assigned to become the principal teacher of the one-room Alegre (Happy Hill) School three years ago. Unless you know where you are going, you would never find it. First of all, it’s not a school building. It’s a small Catholic Church in the mountains of Chachagua. The local priest allows Gretta to use the church as a school. There is an empty lot next to the church that the government purchased to build a school but that seems to be years away.

Most of the children who attend Cerro Alegre come from Nicaraguan families that are in Costa Rica illegally. There is an existing school that the children could attend but it’s so far from their homes that most of them would not go to school at all. While visiting Cerro Alegre the children regaled their AASA visitors with native dances and songs and then invited their guests to do the Hokey Pokey.

Typical of Costa Rican schools, the children are divided into morning and afternoon sessions each lasting about four hours. Gretta teaches both sessions.

The school is very much in need of resources and the AASA guests were eager to help out with donations and promises to send pencils, notebooks and furniture.

It’s a tough assignment and Gretta confesses that many a day she considers leaving Cerro Alegre to go teach in a conventional school, but then she looks at the faces of her children and she knows she will never abandon them. She knows that they would never travel the distance it would take to go to the school in town. She knows that many of the undocumented parents would not risk sending their kids to the regular school.

So Gretta stays and makes the most of it with the contributions she receives, the borrowed space from the local priest and the most beautiful smiles from the children she loves and teaches.

Dan is blogging throughout the AASA International Seminar, which is taking place in Costa Rica.

A Strong Educational Leader in Costa Rica

NSBA President-Elect Kevin Ciak with students at the Leon Cortes Castro School in Costa Rica.

NSBA President-Elect Kevin Ciak with students at the Leon Cortes Castro School in Costa Rica.

Alajuela, Costa Rica – Marisel Solera is the spunky principal of the Leon Cortes Castro School in this Costa Rican mountain town. Solera has been running the school for nine years, and she leaves no doubt that she is in charge and ready to get her students the best education that she can offer to them.

Almost half of her school budget goes toward feeding her kids. Every one of them gets a free lunch every day.

There is nothing modern about the facility but it is clean and well maintained. Solera is big on discipline and has little tolerance for misbehavior from her students or her staff.  But her commitment to her students and her school is firm. When teachers are absent, she is the sub. When everyone else is on vacation, she’s recruiting teachers to make sure she has her full complement of staff.

The school has an enthusiastic core of volunteers that greatly respect the principal and engage in fund raising to meet whatever needs are not met by government funding. Solera is not reluctant to take on the bureaucracy and admits to having been called on the carpet after objecting too strenuously to not receiving what her children need.

I suspected that among our group of visiting educators from the U.S., many were dreaming about having Solera heading up one of their elementary schools.

AASA Leadership Visits Costa Rica

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AASA President Alton Frailey with students in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

Alajuela, Costa Rica – In 1869, Costa Rica made education both free and mandatory for all its citizens. Lore has it that the country was experiencing economic hard times and could not afford to maintain both an army and a public education system. They chose education and today Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world without a standing army. They even boast of having more teachers than police officers.

We visited the Carrizal elementary school in the mountain town of Alajuela. The school of 600 accommodates pre-school through grade six as well as special education students who attend one of two five hour shifts, a morning and afternoon session. Teachers are only allowed to teach one shift.

Based on achievement, the school is level 4, with level 5 being the highest performing schools. The school year runs 200 days from mid-February to mid-December. Class size averages about 32 students per class.

Instruction is very traditional with students in desks facing the blackboard in the front of the room where the teacher delivers the lesson. Even so, Costa Rica boasts a 95 percent literacy rate among residents age 15 and older.

Alajuela is a coffee bean growing region surrounded by dense foliage and beautiful streams. It typifies the tranquility that Costa Rica is so famous for.

The children are happy to see us and look forward to practicing their mandatory English language skills with us. To a resounding cheer, I tell them that they are doing so well that I might take them all back to the U.S. with me.