A Winding Path to School Leadership
I am the product of an education family. My father was a professor at multiple Bay Area institutions. My mother was a reading specialist and teacher in Oakland Unified, where I have been a principal for six years. But my journey back home to Oakland to teach—and eventually to lead a school—was not a straight line.
In high school, my father, who was upset that I was cutting classes, took me out of Catholic school. He enrolled me in a public high school in Oakland. The difference between the two schools was stark. It was the first time I understood what “tracking” was, even if I didn’t know what it was called. Unlike my private school where everyone was expected to go to college, my public school placed some students in the college track with ample honors and Advanced Placement courses, while other students not deemed “college material” took regular courses. It was eye-opening, even if I didn’t yet know what I was seeing.
I was determined to go to college on an athletic scholarship, but a pulled hamstring knocked me off that path. Instead, I ended up at San Francisco State University, majoring in liberal studies. After graduation, I followed a girlfriend to Baltimore and decided to work as a substitute teacher until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. The country was in the middle of the Great Recession, and my father told me to find a career that was “recession-proof.” I picked education for many reasons, but I had no idea at the time how meaningful it would be to me to make a difference in students’ lives each day.
As I worked in Baltimore, I saw firsthand the inequities that have plagued urban districts for generations—ancient textbooks, crumbling facilities, and the lowest possible expectations for students. I got my master’s in education from Johns Hopkins University, and in 2011, returned home to Oakland to teach in the district where my mother had worked for decades and where I had gotten my high school diploma.
Five years into my career there, a mentor encouraged me to apply to New Leaders Emerging Leaders program. I was apprehensive to pursue a school leadership role because I was worried it would put too much distance between the students and me, but I knew how much impact high-quality principals and assistant principals have on student outcomes. I went into the program convinced I didn’t want to lead a school, but slowly realized that being a principal was precisely what I was called to do.
I became a teacher leader, then an assistant principal, and a few years later, I landed the principalship at Fruitvale Elementary, a diverse school with six percent proficiency in reading. Once again, I saw the terrible toll of low expectations. With a mountain to climb in front of us, my team and I set about to transform the school, one student at a time. We focused on growth mindset, changing the school culture to one of high expectations and positivity. We worked hard to create a reading culture on campus, where I read to classes frequently and rewarded students when I “caught” them reading in the halls or at lunch. All the while, I told our entire school community: “If you’re here to see kids thrive, you’re in the right place.”
The hard work paid off. In 2019, we grew 42 points in English language arts and 25 points in math on our state tests, the highest gains for Black students in Oakland and among the top gains for English learner students.
This year, with our students learning in person again after a year of virtual education, we are focused on keeping up the progress we saw pre-pandemic. At the same time, we know that our students and their families have been traumatized by the last 18 months and need extra love and care right now. As leaders and educators, we need to have high expectations for our students, while also helping them navigate the anxiety and pain of the pandemic.
Just like my own career in education, learning often isn’t a straight line. Our job is to help our students determine where they are right now so they know how to move forward.