Diana Gomez always felt a pull toward a teaching career.
Even as a child, her heart was happiest when she was supervising her sisters and cousins’ cursive writing and math lessons, recess sessions and lunch duty during games of “school.” She spent five years post-college exploring an accounting career, but the passion for her first love — education — remained.
Gomez returned to school to obtain her teaching credential, moved to Las Vegas because of vast job openings, and might have been content to teach first grade forever. But one fateful day, a mentor, whose “growing our own” mantra had encouraged Gomez to spend the last several years moving up the ranks, urged her to attend an informational meeting about UNLV’s Urban Leadership Development (ULD) program.
The four-semester master’s degree program is a partnership with the Clark County School District aimed at preparing a new crop of principals and top administrators to fill a leadership gap created by retirements and local population and school growth. Officials say CCSD will need 100 to 150 new principals a year.
“The need is nationwide to really train teachers as instructional leaders. That was the first thing that got me,” said Gomez, an Edwards Elementary Title I learning strategist who has her eyes set on nabbing an assistant principal position next year. “The next thing was that community members and even businesses that are employing CCSD students know this is a great need, and this program listens to them and gives them a voice. I was sold.”
Gomez is among 27 members of the inaugural ULD cohort who graduated May 14.
Started in January 2015, the graduate program's bread and butter is the real-world experiential learning element. Students are embedded in Las Vegas schools, where they work with mentor principals to research data/issues and available school resources specific to that particular urban environment — such as poor attendance, test scores or behavioral problems — then implement programs to spur improvements.
“Field experiences are core to our program — putting theory into practice,” said planning director Patti Chance. “It’s real work that benefits a site where the teacher is working.”
The program also works closely with Teach for America, which has six graduates among the first cohort, and is supported by Nevada Succeeds.
Circle of learning
The Urban Leadership Development program will broaden this fall under the College of Urban Affairs to include graduate education for community and business professionals in a variety of fields. Concurrently, the College of Education will continue the CCSD leadership-focused track under a new name, Educational Policy and Leadership, and expand it to 40 to 50 new students a year plus bring in nationally-recognized course instructors.
Officials say they believe the program is one of only two in Nevada specifically dedicated to the preparation of K-12 principals, and is the only one catering to Southern Nevada.
The emphasis on bringing in outside perspectives is among things that impacted ULD graduate Benjamin Feinstein most.
“We were introduced to so many resources that are there to support students — who, for example, might be hungry or homeless or have no insurance to get glasses or a toothache fixed — that when we become leaders we already have contacts in the community to call and we already know how to meet that need,” he said.
Feinstein is a Valley High School International Baccalaureate coordinator, whose field experience project focused on simple techniques for teachers to help English Language Learners succeed in mainstream classrooms. He has worked in administration at private and independent schools, and his graduation from ULD allows him to begin applying for CCSD assistant principalships over the summer.
Gomez’s capstone project targeted kindergarten English Language Learners at Edwards, which has an 88 percent Hispanic and 66 percent ELL population. She developed a program to prepare the 13 pupils for first grade beginner reading courses and get them on track to meet CCSD’s read-by-third-grade initiative through tailored lessons on letter names and sounds. Gomez said her goal of a 70 percent success rate was exceeded by 15 percent.
“If the ULD program taught me anything it’s that if I’m growing, my teachers are growing and that means students are learning,” Gomez said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by ULD graduate Dawn King, who helps educators develop teaching strategies as a special education instructional facilitator. Her project successfully decreased behavioral problems in one Monaco Middle School classroom by implementing the “genius hour strategy,” a popular tool at companies like Google that gives individuals free time several hours a week work on something they are passionate about. There was a roughly 50 percent decrease in off-task behavior by students allowed to work on research paper topics of their choosing, King said, but a side bonus was the significant confidence boost teachers noticed in students who were suddenly eager to give presentations to their classmates.
King is hoping her newly-minted degree helps earn her a dean position at a middle school, where she can expand her capstone project and refine the traditional disciplinary role of a dean to include a bigger focus on building relationships with students.
“The biggest asset of this program was the relationship between CCSD and UNLV, and the professional development,” King said. “We know specifically what’s expected of us when we go into these jobs. UNLV brought in key speakers, had seminars on the weekends. I feel so prepared to get started (in an administration job) because I don’t feel like I just learned what was in a textbook. I learned how it can be applied on the job. UNLV did that for me. And the partnership with CCSD is invaluable.”