With the average tenure for both principals and superintendents around three to four years, the challenges that come with top K-12 administrative positions are many. But success bears perhaps the greatest impact on the civic and economic success of local communities, states and the nation at large when students leave high school and enter college and careers.
From implementing models for continuous improvement to taking on the task of guiding a district out from nearly a quarter-century of state control, these five administrators run the gamut of challenges and successes experienced by K-12 leadership.
Francisco Escobedo, Chula Vista Elementary School District, California
Francisco Escobedo has served as superintendent of the 30,000-student Chula Vista Elementary School District since 2009 and continues to lead the state’s largest K-6 district as it receives recognition for positive academic outcomes despite challenges linked to students’ socioeconomic status. Black, white and Hispanic students perform better than predicted, according to research conducted by the Learning Policy Institute.
Under Escobedo’s leadership, the district was recognized by the California Department of Education as a 2018 exemplary district, in part because of its arts integration initiative. The California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which supports and advises districts as they work toward goals, has also identified the district as the state’s first Model of Continuous Improvement. Chula Vista's extensive dual language immersion program is also considered a model nationally as more states and districts support the growth of dual language instruction.
Also an adjunct professor in educational leadership at San Diego State University, Escobedo formerly worked for the American Institutes for Research, where he studied the effectiveness of the small high school model.
Partnership has also been a key aspect of his leadership approach. For more than six years, the district worked with others in the San Diego region to improve school climate for military-connected students and their families, who experience frequent transitions. The district has 11 schools where military-connected students make up more than 12% of the enrollment.
The district also has an extensive makerspace initiative in partnership with local libraries, the city of Chula Vista, Qualcomm and other partners. The latest addition to the program is Hydro Station, where students can learn about careers in the water industry.
Sharon Contreras, Guilford County Schools, North Carolina
Superintendent of the Guilford County Schools since 2016, Sharon Contreras is known for taking on leadership challenges. The first woman and first Latina to lead North Carolina’s third largest district, she’s also held district-level positions in the Rockford (Illinois), Clayton County (Georgia) and Providence (Rhode Island) school districts and served as superintendent of the Syracuse City School District in New York.
With the school board voting last year to extend her contract through 2022, Contreras now faces a further test of her leadership skills in proposing a $2 billion facilities plan that would include renovating, rebuilding, closing and consolidating some schools. Contreras has said none of the district’s schools would be “left untouched.”
Some local officials have raised questions about taking on debt and how the funds would be spent. And with any decisions related to facilities, there are likely to be equity concerns. The superintendent is expected to provide more details on the plan and gather public feedback in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Contreras is emphasizing positive achievement trends occurring under her leadership, including increases in state test scores in every subject at every grade level. “The improvement suggests that the strategic investments our Board of Education has made in curriculum development, instructional materials and supplies, and ongoing professional development for our educators are paying dividends in the classroom for all students,” she wrote in a recent commentary.
Miranda Freeman, Fulton County Schools, Georgia
State and district education officials are typically encouraged when they see even small improvements at struggling schools. So an Atlanta-area school’s one-year jump from an F to a B in Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index has certainly attracted attention. Under Principal Miranda Freeman’s leadership, Cliftondale Elementary in College Park posted the largest gain on the index in Fulton County Schools — up 23.3 points from 57.9 to 81.2 on the 100-point scale.
Freeman previously worked at the school and returned as principal in 2018 after a period in which the school lacked a permanent leader. She has focused on improving school climate, literacy instruction and communicating expectations to parents.
The improvement at Cliftondale also signals broader progress in South Fulton schools, where new Superintendent Mike Looney has taken an interest and student achievement has long trailed that of schools in more-affluent North Fulton. Woodland Middle School in East Point — also in South Fulton — posted the second-highest gain on the state’s index. Woodland is also one of seven schools recently removed from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement’s Turnaround Eligible list.
Roger León, Newark Public Schools, New Jersey
A lifelong resident of Newark, New Jersey, Roger León has served the city's public school system for 25 years. He is now in the midst of his second year as the district's superintendent following its exit from 23 years of state control. His first year was filled with countless meetings with school community stakeholders and a range of audits at all levels of the district.
While his plan to raise the district's reputation to among the best in the nation is still unfolding, a two-year contract extension approved in August has lengthened his expected tenure to 2023 at the same time a new contract was signed with the district's teacher union.
The path to his goals isn't easy, though: Just recently, he bristled charter school advocates with his request that the state close four charters, in addition to asking that Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet refrain from approving new charters or renewing existing ones if they don't make their case for serving specific educational needs.
Famously, some $60 million of a $100 million ed reform investment in the city from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010 went toward charter schools. That investment overall was later seen as a failure, with graduation, remediation and literacy rates showing little improvement. A new study released by the conservative, pro-charter Manhattan Institute, however, argues that the city's charter schools post higher test scores.
The battle could come to define León's tenure as superintendent among the bevy of other challenges he aims to address.
Pedro Martinez, San Antonio Independent School District, Texas
Born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, Pedro Martinez entered San Antonio ISD as superintendent in 2015. He had his work cut out for him: The district has approximately 49,000 students, roughly 70% at risk, and many of them hit hard by President Donald Trump's immigration policies.
Dealing with the resulting drop in student attendance, decrease in parental engagement, and an increase in overall trauma in the community is a "constant struggle" he told representatives in Congressional committee hearing late last year. But his community is also his drive to step up to the plate despite not having direct support from the state or federal government.
In 2016, Martinez unveiled his five-year turnaround plan that outlined 10 academic goals to reach by 2020. The blueprint also outlined his priority areas: academic excellence, talent management, culture shift, stakeholder engagement and fiscal management. As a part of those priorities, Martinez implemented a three-year professional development plan that included teacher and principal residency programs aimed to recruit and refine aspiring educators and leaders.
Thanks to the plan, the district says it has begun "to see a continued upward trajectory with strong gains in academic achievement."
The Texas Commissioner of Education stated that among the state’s largest school districts in 2019, SAISD gained the most in student achievement even though it ranked third-highest in poverty. And in 2019, for the second year, district gains exceeded state gains at almost all performance levels on the STAAR exams for grades 3-8 and on high school end-of-course exams.
In a December U.S. House education committee hearing, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) praised Martinez for his "laser-like focus" on improving academic achievement and highlighted that the district, which formerly would have received Fs in accountability (if the current standards had been in effect at that time), most recently earned a B under Martinez's leadership in 2019.
Graduation rates and college readiness in San Antonio also are on the rise. In fact, the district says it has more than doubled the percent of students scoring college-ready on the SAT and ACT, while increasing the percent tested from 68% in 2017 to 94% in 2019.
Part of these gains, Martinez said, were thanks to the trauma-informed training provided to teachers and counselors, "know-your-rights" trainings for staff and community outreach efforts.
Most recently, the superintendent was elected board chair for Chiefs for Change thanks to his successful turnaround efforts.