The development of future educational leaders for the Rio Grande Valley was the focus of the first Educational Leadership Summer Institute held May 25-26 for the initial cohort of 34 student scholars in Project Lead, an innovative program to certify new school administrators developed by a consortium of The University of Texas-Pan American and eight Valley public school districts.
Project Lead, financed over three years by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education's School Leadership Program, will provide fast-tracked, field-based instruction to increase the quantity and quality of credentialed principals, assistant principals and coordinators for school districts experiencing unprecedented growth in enrollment. The institute, featuring local, state and national speakers and discussion sessions, was designed by the UTPA Department of Educational Leadership in the College of Education to inform the first group of local educators in the program on current educational issues before embarking on the yearlong instructional program.
Project Lead scholars, chosen in a very competitive selection process by each district and UTPA, will participate in collaborative, field-based coursework conducted primarily on school district sites over a one-year period compared to the usual three-year period leading to master's program completion and principal's certification upon successfully passing a state exam. Project Lead intends to increase enrollment of principal candidates by 80 percent over the next three years (2006-2009) providing an additional 117 newly trained and credentialed leaders to the participating districts. School districts involved in the program include Donna, Edinburg, Edcouch-Elsa, Hidalgo, La Joya, La Villa, Roma and Weslaco.
Dr. José Llanes, UTPA educational leadership department chair and principal investigator for Project Lead, said the University worked with Valley districts to develop a program that would better prepare UTPA graduate students "to hit the ground running" as they enter into administrative positions in the schools. Project Lead, he said, will put 60 percent of the instruction within the actual school districts.
"The districts want to grow their own. They think knowing about the district, the community, the culture they want to maintain, even something as simple as who is in the central office and what their roles are, is important for them to be effective," he said.
Project Lead student scholars will progress through the entire curriculum in a year using a medical-school style rotation in addition to nighttime coursework, Llanes said, made possible by districts allowing 50 percent release time for those chosen to participate in the program. The scholars will receive a $1,200 incentive scholarship and have agreed, upon program completion, to apply for and accept, if offered, a position with their district for a period of three years. School mentors, such as a district business manager who will be responsible to deliver the field, experiential curriculum, as well as faculty mentors will also receive financial support.
"This program is the work of the faculty. They have put in countless hours to improve the quality of what we are doing," Llanes said. "We were one of 12 proposals in the United States (one of three in Texas) funded under the U.S. Department of Education's School Leadership program."
Angie Gonzalez, UTPA alumna and a GEAR UP facilitator at Solis Middle School in the Donna ISD, was chosen as one of that district's Project Lead Scholars. She said the program will provide her an opportunity to excel and further her education at a quicker pace.
"I am interested in administration and what it takes to run a school. This provides on-the-job training so we can see what life is really like during school time and what problems principals run into and the solutions on how to resolve different issues," she said.
The educational leadership institute conducted for the student scholars, their faculty mentors and participating district administrators featured local, state and national speakers and discussion sessions, focused on the issues of accountability, K-16 transitions, school choice and research-driven leadership. It was organized by the Department of Educational Leadership in the UTPA College of Education.
"We wanted our future principals to have the latest thinking on the four pillars of the No Child Left Behind federal education legislation," Llanes said. "This institute also creates a network for these leaders early on in a colloquial environment. This will validate and empower them."
Keynoting the conference was former UTPA professor Dr. Miguel A. Guajardo, now assistant professor of Education and Leadership at Texas State University and a cofounder and chairman of the board of directors of the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development in South Texas.
"I don't need an educational bureaucrat to teach my children, I need an educational hero who can think. The next generation of leadership I propose is not somebody that just understands the technical process of schools; they also need to understand the social, political and cultural dynamic of our communities," he said.
He encouraged the student scholars to be community builders and to be bold and have courage. Citing the recent success of the educational campaign by children in Edcouch-Elsa to pass a school bond issue, Guajardo (Miguel) said it was important that children need to know and understand how to think.
"Our children need to understand that they too can change the world around them. In a culture of measurement we are missing the spirit. We need to work on a culture of engagement. Our role is to be moved to imagine how the world can be and begin to push," he said.
UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas participated on one of the five panel discussions held throughout the two-day institute. Addressing the important role of the establishment of partnerships for educational improvement, she was joined on the panel by Beatriz Ceja, program coordinator of the School Leadership Program at the U.S. Department of Education, and Richard Rivera, Weslaco ISD superintendent and UTPA doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership. During the conference Rivera was awarded the prestigious University Council for Education Administration's Excellence in Educational Leadership award for his significant contribution to the improvement of school administrator preparation.
Cárdenas recalled some of the past efforts in her lifetime for educational reform and told Project Lead participants that they are the hope for the future.
"You are here because you are mission - not career - driven leaders. That is the fundamental difference and a fundamental requirement of anyone who would lead in our schools," she said, noting an urgent need for the kind of leadership necessary to deal with the still high numbers of children not getting an education. "You should also become learning driven. If you don't become a scholar in this process of becoming credentialed, you will fail our kids because all you will do is what is being done now. You have to see yourself as a transformer of current practice."
Educational partnerships, she said, are necessary but will not succeed without recognition by leaders of the importance of proper communication.
"Without communication you don't have trust and trust is the most important element in any relationship," Cárdenas said.
Project Lead scholars also heard from UTPA faculty and Valley school principals and other administrators as well as from nationally-known leaders in education including Dr. Linda M. McNeil, professor and co-director of the Center for Education, Rice University and the author of "Contradictions of Control: School Structure and School Knowledge," and "Contradictions of School Reform: The Educational Costs of Standardized Testing," which highlights the negative consequences of legislated standardized testing; and Dr. Monty Neill, director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (Fair Test) and a leading advocate for change in the assessment of students and in accountability and chair of The Forum on Educational Accountability.
Despite being in education for 31 years, Irene D. Valdez, currently a math strategist with the Edinburg CISD and one of five chosen in that district as a student scholar, said she had learned a lot from the institute presentations and was excited about Project Lead.
"This new project is phenomenal and amazing. They have so much to offer us. The support we are going to be getting is exciting. It is a new era, it's a new vision that we have. Just to know that there are people out there that are trying to help make an impact on the kids and on the districts - that's important," she said.
For more information on Project Lead and the institute, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or log on to http://leadership.panam.edu/.