District Academy Turns Out Future Principals

Times Staff Writer

Newly minted Assistant Principal Beatriz Sandoval has been on the job only since July 1, but she seems unfazed by the demands of helping to run a huge, crowded elementary school.

“It’s something new, but it’s not totally overwhelming,” Sandoval said one recent morning as she deftly juggled phone calls and meetings from her office at the 2,800-student Miles Avenue School in Huntington Park.

“I feel well prepared and very supported,” said Sandoval, who credits a new program of the Los Angeles Unified School District for smoothing her transition into the administrative ranks.


Sandoval is one of the first group of aspiring school administrators to complete LEAD (Leadership Excellence through Administrator Development), which the district launched in September to help address a shortage of qualified principals.

By the time she got her own desk in the assistant principals’ office, Sandoval had spent a semester at the side of an experienced principal, watching and learning as he defused a situation in which a parent believed her child had been treated badly by a teacher assistant, coached teachers on reading initiatives and dealt with unruly students on the playground.

Sandoval said she was at first a little surprised when the principal, instead of just imposing a plan, met with a group of teachers to brainstorm on playground discipline.

They came up with solutions, including a five-minute buffer between recess periods to reduce the number of children on the playground at one time. Some teachers also volunteered to organize games during recess.

“It took a little longer, but I could see that having teachers help solve the problem was much better than just having an administrator take it on,” Sandoval said.

Jean Brown, the district’s assistant superintendent for instructional support services, said those day-to-day experiences are invaluable for new campus administrators.

Brown said LEAD is the latest addition to the district’s 5-year-old Administrative Academy, originally formed to help school leaders already in increasingly complex and demanding jobs. LEAD aims to encourage teachers and others to become administrators.

Across the nation, education leaders have experimented with ways to help ease the load and head off the burnout that comes with 70-hour workweeks. The National Assn. of Secondary School Principals expects nearly half of the nation’s 35,000 middle and high school principals to retire in the next five years, adding to an already high turnover rate.

A few school districts, including Long Beach, assign two people to share the job of principal, and several organizations, such as the Assn. of California School Administrators, offer training to supplement the graduate-level courses required for credentials.

Marla Mondheim, director of the Administrative Academy, said it was started in 1999 by then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias and Eli Brent, then president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

“We started with entry-level administrators,” recalled Assistant Supt. Brown, who was the academy’s founding director. “And we immediately started hearing ‘I wish I had known’ from them. They were surprised by the level of skill and experience they were expected to have, so this became a solution to that problem.”

LEAD seemed to be a logical extension: a way to add to the numbers of new administrators.

“We wanted to identify potential strong leaders and prepare them,” Brown said, adding that applicants are chosen from among teachers, coordinators, counselors and others who demonstrate leadership potential.

Applicants who made it through the screening last fall attended weekly four-hour sessions for several months after their regular shifts ended. They then were trained in district initiatives, leadership skills, budgeting and problem-solving.

“It made for a really long day, and we didn’t get paid for it,” Sandoval said. “But it was worthwhile.”

The training, she said, helped her feel “a little bit ahead of the game now” in her early days as an assistant principal.

In January, the LEAD members began six-month paid internships in which they were assigned to work for some of the district’s most able principals.

At that point, the 21 people in the first LEAD group had to give up their old jobs, knowing they had to apply for assistant principal positions when their internships ended in June. They all are expected to be placed in permanent jobs soon.

Sandoval said she was thrilled to learn that her internship would be at Miles Avenue with Principal Gilbert Gutierrez. (He later hired her when one of the school’s three assistant principal slots opened up.)

“I felt pretty comfortable with my skills in school organization and budget,” Sandoval said.

She taught primary grades in the district for about 10 years before becoming the overseer of how federal anti-poverty funds are used at Heliotrope Elementary School in Maywood, part of the Los Angeles district.

“But I really needed to learn more about the instructional piece, how to support classroom teachers with that,” she said, “and Mr. Gutierrez is very strong in that.”

Gutierrez, who has 23 years’ experience as a principal, said LEAD provides an important opportunity for aspiring administrators to get hands-on experience.

“We can see how they get through these sticky little problems with parents and students,” Gutierrez said.

Now that her role as an administrator is official, Sandoval and other members of her LEAD group will continue to meet periodically for additional help, and several retired principals have signed on to mentor them.

Sandoval’s day begins at 7 a.m. at Miles Avenue, the largest elementary school in the district. Its pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade classes are divided into four tracks -- with two tracks attending simultaneously -- operating throughout the calendar year.

Her duties one morning included counseling some fourth-graders to be more considerate toward a physically handicapped classmate, planning for back-to-school night, meeting with parents of a child recommended for special education and attending a session with third-grade teachers on how to help students better understand what they read.

At noon she joined Judi Cole -- a member of the second LEAD group, whose members are now serving internships -- on lunch duty. The two women helped supervise the navy-and-white uniformed children.

Sandoval and Cole chatted with students while directing them, in carefully orchestrated stages, into the lunch line.

Was this what she had in mind when she signed on with LEAD?

“I actually like it,” Sandoval replied. “This is the time I can get to know the students.”