The ELDA Principle

hand drawn doodle illustration of a student enjoying learning


Fabiola Bagula noticed a boy was showing up to school clad in too-small, pink flip-flops. So she went to Wal-Mart and bought him a pair of shoes. How’s that for getting out of the principal’s office?

“Because I work in such a high-poverty school, I think it’s my duty to also know if there’s anything else they need help with,” Bagula says. “I make it a point of taking care of them as much as I can.”

So she brings in the local food bank to help make sure the students are nourished well enough at home to come to school healthier and ready to learn.

For Bagula, it all contributes to job one: seeing that the students at Balboa Elementary School get the best instruction possible. She honed her philosophy of instructional leadership in the well-regarded Educational Leadership Development Academy (ELDA), a collaboration between USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) and the San Diego Unified School District.

ELDA takes small groups of top teachers — 14 in the cohort that began in Fall 2010 — and puts them through a rigorous, two-year program that combines both the theory and the practice of leading a school. They attend classes with lessons that dovetail with issues they see during an apprenticeship with a principal. While grant funding enabled early participants to take a yearlong apprenticeship, current students fit all their learning in while teaching full time, spending school vacation days with the experienced principal.

In June, ELDA marked its 10th anniversary with a birthday party befitting a program that’s garnered top marks since its inception.

doodle illustration of collaborators in the learning process

The 10-year mark also provided a perfect time to shift gears and focus more on the changing blueprint of 21st century leadership. Everyone knows that the schoolchildren of today and tomorrow will be different than those who came before them. They learn differently, they’ve got instant access to practically unlimited information, and they often have a great deal of computer experience by preschool. But what does that mean for education?

That’s where ELDA’s two new directors come in. Rose Linda Martinez and Rich Thome will be taking ELDA into the future by giving participants a certain sure-footedness in this changing world. That means focusing on technology. That means giving them the capacity to deal with change. And that means making sure future school leaders can navigate — and help their charges navigate — the global waters that come with the seemingly small world that technology creates.

“I believe that both Rose and Rich are the perfect team to help us further globalize ELDA,” says SOLES Dean Paula Cordeiro. Indeed, Martinez plans to tap into her role as a “crossover” person who has been a principal to diverse populations and has worked as a leadership consultant to multinational corporations.

“Our role in educating our future citizens is becoming more and more complex,” Martinez says, citing diversity and technology.

Thome agrees. He says that ELDA graduates will need to understand the “ubiquitous technology and global competition” that will be the reality for future generations. Further, he believes that educators must make the paradigm shift to learner-centered education as students routinely have vast information at their fingertips and need more of a facilitator. A collaborative mindset is key.

“The goal of ELDA is to continue to be a national leader in school leadership education and to make sure that the students that come to ELDA have not only the skill set to lead those institutions, but also the communications set to understand that people from this century are going to be interacting with people from all over the globe,” says Thome, a former school superintendent who served two San Diego County districts.

Cordeiro says the addition of an international mentor will add a rich new layer to the experience — think Skyping about universal issues — in addition to trailing a local mentor principal on campus.

Cordeiro celebrated ELDA’s past, present and future at the 10th anniversary celebration, styled as a birthday party in the Bishop Buddy Sala of Mother Rosalie Hill Hall. There was a big cake, and tables were decorated with bright balloons, wrapped birthday presents and noisemakers. But the event felt most like a reunion, with warm smiles all around as former students reconnected.

In San Diego, Alan Bersin is an often-controversial figure. But it’s safe to say that at ELDA, he’s not only respected, but beloved. In fact, there would be no ELDA without him, and perhaps without the serendipitous occasion of July 1, 1998. On that day two institutions found themselves with new leaders at the helm: Alan Bersin at San Diego Unified and Paula Cordeiro at what was then known as USD’s School of Education.

They had lunch on that day and formed an immediate bond, one that led, a few years later, to ELDA. At the anniversary event, Cordeiro presented a plaque with Bersin’s picture designating him ELDA’s founder.

For his part, Bersin, now commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told the anniversary celebrants that it’s no accident that Cordeiro, with her background in principal preparation and her persistence, energy and insight “is the one who made it happen.”

“When you hand your school over to the next leader, it’s got to be in considerably better shape than you received it from your predecessor,” Bersin says. “That’s your obligation as a person who embodies the spirit and the meaning of ELDA.”

Bagula takes that charge to heart. She went the principal route because she felt successful as a teacher, then as a coach of teachers. She wanted to help even more students and decided administration was the route. That is ELDA’s model.

Bagula espouses three of the tenets of ELDA culture:

Social justice: She’s trying to bring her students up to the level of kids who don’t have poverty to hang them up. “We have to close the achievement gap, and the way we do it is by our everyday, minute-to-minute instruction in the classroom.”

Instructional leadership: She reads to kids and she has them read her their writing. “I really try to be part of what they’re doing in the classroom and to ask questions.”

Building a culture of learners and trust: Since her tenure in administration came after the campus was restructured because it was failing, Bagula aimed to let teachers know she’s there to help, not judge. It probably didn’t hurt that she secured a makeover by the National Education Association that not only improved the library, but also transformed the teacher’s lounge into something worthy of a design show. Since she took over as principal in late 2007, she’s managed to stem the teacher attrition rate, quite an accomplishment for a school with Balboa’s profile.

“She has turned that school around,” says Melinda Martin, ELDA’s most recent executive director.

And Bagula’s not done yet. For her, 800 on the school’s Academic Performance Index for state testing is the magic number for her kids. Why 800? “That was the score that most of the La Jolla schools had in the beginning,” she says. While those schools have also improved, 800 API holds a kind of magical fascination.

And with steady rises — the school’s gone from 644 when she started as a vice principal in 2004 to 738 in 2009, the latter score a jump of 40 points in a year — Bagula is confident they’ll make it.

“(The principal’s job) is almost all-encompassing. I say that with a smile.” And she does. Her connection with the students and affection for them is clear on the playground and off. When she checks up on lunch, one student after another says, “Miss Fabi!” to get her attention. A little girl offers her a raffle ticket. A boy tells her about a YouTube video of the summer 2009 makeover by the NEA. She commits to a ticket. She says she’ll check out that video. Sometimes she plays ball with them.

Bagula calls herself an on-demand problem-solver who must make continual mental shifts as she goes from talking with a parent to a school janitor to a child. When she attends Rotary or other after-hours functions, she’s always thinking about what she can bring back to her school. For instance, when Rotary offered dictionaries, she also secured a set of thesauruses.

With more than 200 alumni — many heading straight to the principal’s office after completing the program — there’s a feeling that ELDA has been a little gem churning out quality candidates for principal in San Diego Unified and elsewhere in California. But were others noticing?

As it turns out, they were. Just about everyone connected with ELDA mentions a little shout-out by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this past February, when he mentioned ELDA as a “top-notch” program for preparing principals. That was big.

doodle illustration of idea sharing

“I almost fell off my chair,” says Cordeiro, who was in the Atlanta audience that day at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Conference.

ELDA has garnered other recognition as well, receiving glowing reviews in a 2007 report by Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Educational Leaders Institute, “Preparing Leaders for a Changing World.” One telling detail from the report: “And, whereas 43 percent of principals nationally have been school athletic coaches, 55 percent of ELDA principals have been literacy coaches.”

Araceli Jimenez, a resource teacher at Knox Elementary who recently completed the program, talked with many longtime administrators when considering her training.

“I said, ‘Tell me about programs that have made a difference and produced quality administrators.’ All of them recommended ELDA,” she recalls. “I think ELDA really helped me be able to think about my vision and what my belief system is and create a culture where people work collaboratively.”

She also values the idea that a principal can admit to not having all the answers, but is committed to doing what it takes with the rest of the staff to learn together and continue to develop professionally.

“ELDA taught me to be brave,” says Sarah Sullivan, principal at Pershing Middle School. “I know that if I work hard, the teachers will work hard. I know that my mood is contagious.”

Sullivan went through ELDA’s Tier 2 program for those who are already administrators and sees her role as more of a “grandmother” to whom the students look up.

She appreciates ELDA’s messages that helped hone her own philosophies. “ELDA’s not static,” Sullivan says. “ELDA is about always thinking and learning and applying the learning, continually reinventing and reorganizing yourself.”

The program itself has grown and changed in its 10 years.

Today, ELDA includes the original program, now known as the Aspiring Leaders Program (or Tier I), the New Leaders Program (or Tier II) for administrators in their first or second year, as well as Leaders Exploring Administrative Possibilities, meant to allow teachers to dip their toe into administration to see if it’s for them.

In addition, there are other programs to support administrators and keep their thinking fresh:

The Spotlight Speaker Series features experts speaking on topics of need to local school districts. The four-day Summer Institute brings in teams from school districts, so far mostly in California, to delve deeply into a topic important to them. Then there’s the Forum, a closed-door session that lets the principal crowd discuss the thorny issues they encounter. Modeled after a group for CEOs, four of these ELDA Forum groups are in place, with plans for more.

Bagula finds the Forum experience invaluable.

“It’s been really helpful in problem-solving, especially sticky situations. I love that it’s so confidential, and I can sit there and say, ‘Listen, I don’t know what to do and here’s the truth of it all,'” Bagula says.

She likens it to a group of nine friends coming together. Importantly, in this group, which runs the gamut in experience, “We don’t have to be the one that people come to for the answers or that has to keep the good cheer of the culture. We can say, ‘Listen, I’m struggling with this.'”

For Richard Lawrence, principal of Alternative Schools for the Temecula Valley Unified School District, ELDA helped set a certain standard.

“ELDA impressed upon me the critical urgency for a leader to focus on the needs of students first and do whatever it takes to make the achievement of students a priority,” he says. “I measure my actions against this understanding and strive daily to find ways to best meet the needs of students within my school setting.”

He knows his students may have been stigmatized by their experiences and, indeed, by the very fact that they attend an alternative school.

“Knowing this, it is my job to inspire success in my students and change the perceptions of the greater community (and) engage them in celebrating the success of these students.”

Christine Harris, who’s in the middle of the two-year program, teaches second grade at Burbank Elementary School in San Diego’s Chicano Park area. She wants to make a difference in the achievement gap and appreciates ELDA’s influence on San Diego Unified.

doodle illustration of the reflections of students

“It feels like a family. It’s a big district, but it’s a small world. You do bump into a lot of people that share the philosophy. I think ELDA provides a way to nurture that belief system. I call myself a ‘Bersin baby’ because that’s when I came into San Diego Unified. He really did have what was best for the children in mind. A lot of the people that went through this program have that commitment.”

What does it take to make a great principal? That’s the question ELDA’s leaders have spent 10 years drilling down to answer. They start with great teachers.

“It’s the hardest job in the world, but it’s also the most rewarding,” says Martin, a former principal and now former ELDA director. “We need to make connections with the kids, not just with the teachers or with their parents. You need to be a real person for the students.”

Good principals, she says, know the kids’ names, meet the buses in the morning before school. Indeed, one of the things she misses most is walking onto the playground and getting hugs from all the kids. “When I think back, those were wonderful days.”

Assuredly, there are still plenty of those wonderful days, but Cordeiro also talks about preparing leaders for the problems principals have to deal with nowadays.

“The problems that we are dealing with — some people call them swampy problems, some people call them ill-defined problems, there’s a design theorist who calls them ‘wicked problems,'” she says, lowering her voice to a menacing whisper for the description. “It’s shifting sands. It’s swampy. How do you lead an organization when the environment — 24/7 parents are able to e-mail you — is constantly changing? Well, you have to be able to adapt to change.”

And this shifting world is a focus for ELDA’s new leaders. It’s not just about keeping up with ever-changing technology, but also about being able to adapt, and Martinez talks with verve about the need to help future school leaders do just that. — Kelly Knufken