More than 60 Neag School alums, students, faculty, and administrators, along with education professionals from across Connecticut, gathered last month for an evening of networking, followed by a panel discussion at the Darien Community Association in Darien, Conn. This year’s forum, held for the first time in Fairfield County, was hosted by Neag School Dean’s Board of Advocates members James Degnan ’87 (CLAS) and Elizabeth Degnan ’87 (CLAS).
The Educational Leadership Forum, created five years ago by Richard Gonzales, director of the Neag School’s educational leadership preparation programs, and Robert Villanova, program director for the Executive Leadership Program (ELP), highlighted the theme of recruiting and supporting the next generation of leaders in education this fall. “We created by Educational Leadership Forum to honor and celebrate the impact that our graduates have in the field as practitioners along the way,” said Gonzales during his remarks.
Dean Gladis Kersaint and alum Alan Addley ’08 ELP, ’14 Ed.D., superintendent of Darien Public Schools, also gave welcoming remarks, and University of Connecticut Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP) alumnus Jonathan Budd ’03 6th Year was recognized for his outstanding portfolio of work in educational leadership.
Budd shared his experiences from starting as a high school English teacher over 20 years ago to his current role as the assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction, and assessments for Trumbull (Conn.) Public Schools. “As educational leaders, we must pass along the torch to others and should do so with integrity and be mindful that the best days of education are before us, not behind us,” he said.
Paths to Leadership
Villanova, an ELP alumnus, moderated the evening’s panel discussion featuring Miguel Cardona ’01 MA, ’04 6th Year, ’11 Ed.D., ’12 ELP, Connecticut education commissioner; Tamu Lucero, superintendent, Stamford Public Schools; and Chip Dumais ’09 ELP, executive director, Cooperative Educational Services (CES).
“Leadership matters,” said Villanova during his opening remarks. “We want to talk tonight with an experienced panel of educators [about] how leaders can create conditions that attract the best and brightest people — and the most caring — to positions of leadership.”
Villanova then led the panel through a series of questions about their leadership paths and their recommendations for recruiting and retaining the next generation of talented leaders, especially from underrepresented groups.
Lucero, who has now been superintendent in Stamford since this past spring, started on her path to educational leadership swiftly. During her first year as a teacher in Columbus, Ohio, she missed learning so much that she decided to go back to school to earn a master’s degree and principal certification. After finishing three years later, her principal told her: “I know you just finished your degree, but I think you are ready to become a principal.”
At the age of 24, Lucero became an interim principal and was eventually appointed principal, a role in which she served for 15 years and, she says, “absolutely loved every minute of my time there.”
Dumais also shared his rise to leadership, which began with his first role in education as a science teacher.
“I had people who believed in me early and started my career with the best guidance and support that I could get,” said Dumais, who sought ways to participate in collaborative opportunities with other teachers across the state. “It was about building relationships and broadening perspectives. It was about increasing your understanding of your job beyond your job.”
“Having a perspective broader than my current job was the most hirable asset that I could have, and that allowed me to get into other positions. Once I became an assistant principal, I knew I wanted to be a principal, because you could see the impact one could have on a larger scale.”
— Chip Dumais ’09 ELP,
Executive Director, Cooperative Educational Services
Although he initially had no intention of being an administrator, the encouragement he received to broaden his perspective kept him going to school, eventually leading him to earn his certification in administration.
“Having a perspective broader than my current job was the most hirable asset that I could have, and that allowed me to get into other positions,” he said. “Once I became an assistant principal, I knew I wanted to be a principal, because you could see the impact one could have on a larger scale.”
He later applied to the ELP program not with plans of becoming a superintendent, but wanting to develop a perspective that was broader than the principalship so that he could be a better principal. That turned into the opportunity to become superintendent for Region 5, which led to his current position at the CES.
“I do believe one of the best things about being superintendent, is that often you have the opportunity to say ‘yes,’” he said.
Cardona opened with sharing how proud he is to be a Neag School alum. He told the audience he realized he wanted to be a leader when he was 10 years old and his sister told him he was “bossy.” The first in his family to go to college, Cardona pursued a career in elementary education.
“I was happy in the classroom, but then a superintendent approached me about going into the administration at the time when I was serving on a district-wide committee,” he said. After being asked several times if he had signed up for an administrator program, Cardona decided to pursue UCAPP — what he calls “one of the best decisions I ever made.”
By 28 years old, he was principal at Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., where he served for 10 years. “It was a wonderful experience, and I had no intention of leaving,” he said, “but was I called to join the central (district) office to help with performance and evaluations.”
To enhance his professional development, Cardona decided to continue his education through Neag School’s Ed.D. program and through ELP, in addition to teaching UCAPP courses.
“I was happy as the assistant superintendent,” he said. “Then I got a call from someone who was meeting with the governor who said, ‘I worked with you on different panels before and I appreciate the way you approach your work, and I wanted to know if I could put your name forward.’”
“I was humbled. … Things started to evolve quickly,” he said. “But my message here is my pathway. … Be passionate; it’s an extension of who you are. I’m the commissioner, but I’m still Miguel Cardona. I’m still that fourth-grade teacher who has passion for the kids. It’s just a different scope of influence now. My pathway is based on my values to be 100 percent in everything you do and keeping kids at the center.”
“We need to do a better job of making sure black and brown kids want to be in school and are graduating at high rates and thinking about themselves as potential teachers. If we don’t, then the conversation will be superficial.”
— Miguel Cardona ’01 MA, ’04 6th Year, ’11 Ed.D., ’12 ELP,
Connecticut Education Commissioner
Recruiting the Next Generation
Each panelist also weighed in on diversifying the administrator talent pool into the future.
“We need to do a better job of making sure black and brown kids want to be in school and are graduating at high rates and thinking about themselves as potential teachers. If we don’t, then the conversation will be superficial,” Cardona said. “We can’t disconnect the work we have to do to close the achievement gap in Connecticut with diversifying the workforce.”
“We need took at the students in the classroom as potential teachers. How are we doing that?” he asked. “We need to create programs that incentivize relationships with colleges. How do we encourage middle and high school students thinking of themselves to become teachers?”
He pointed out as an example Orlando Valentin ’15 (ED), ’16 MA, a Neag school alum, current UCAPP student, and teacher in Meriden, Conn., who was in attendance. “He has a passion for things,” Cardona said. “You need to give them the space for that and let them run with it. You have to see it, and let them lead.”
Lucero spoke about women in leadership. “Unfortunately, in teaching, it’s a field that’s largely women. It’s the flipside when you get into leadership, because men apply for jobs when they’re 60% feeling like they’re qualified for the job, and women wait until they are 100% qualified for the job when they apply.”
“When you select people to sit on panels, you are saying something when there is only one woman in the room,” she added. “We need to pay more attention to what we’re doing and be purposeful about it because it is important that our voices are heard.”
When Lucero is looking for good leaders, she says looks for all types and all backgrounds. “If women don’t see themselves as leaders, we need to tap them on their shoulders.” She also recommended “leading from the position you are in,” adding, “You don’t have to be in the role of the superintendent to do work that helps the superintendent. Those people rise to the top.”
From Dumais’ perspective, the most important part of the event occurred in the hour before the panel, when attendees had the opportunity to network. “For all the students who are here, expand your network,” he said. “Take advantage of all the people who are here to support your leadership development. That’s why they’re here.”
In closing remarks, Cardona shared his advice, too. “I’m here tonight because UConn has done so much for me. It’s a family,” he said. “One of the benefits of my education through UConn was that it was a cohort. That experience shaped who I am as a leader. Take advantage of that. You are part of the family now.”
Interested in taking your education career to the next level? Learn more about Neag School’s Executive Leadership Program (ELP), which holds its next information session on Dec. 10, and UConn Administrative Preparation Program (UCAPP).