When Ed Cora took on the role of superintendent of the Guadalupe Union School District six years ago, the district was a lot like a house where the owners have lived a long time.
Those closest to it loved it and had learned to overlook what needed fixing.
“It takes a fresh pair of eyes to see what might need work,” said Cora of the district that serves about 1,300 children in K-5 schools and 800 more in grades 5-8 middle school.
Cora says he took the “coffee and cookies” approach to introduce improvements, not just to the district’s board of trustees, but to parents who he invited in on a quarterly basis. The small changes helped. “I’ve been telling them about the changes I want to make. They’ve seen me follow through with those promises.”
That approach paid off.
Last November the district approved two bond measures: A $5.8 million one to replace leaky roofs, upgrade electrical systems and construct a new gym; and a $5.65 million one to modernize classrooms, construct new classrooms and improve student access to computers and modern technology. More than 80 percent of the voters approved the first one and nearly that many (78.9 percent) approved the second one.
Those successes are among the reasons Cora earned Superintendent of the Year honors from the Santa Barbara Region of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA). Now in his second year as an Ed.D. student, turning the bond proposals into reality, particularly a training component for teachers, will be part of Cora’s Transformational Change Project.
Why a doctorate?
Barbara Bartels, Ed.D. and assistant vice chancellor for Community Relations for Brandman University, wasn’t the first person to suggest Cora get a doctorate. She may have been the most persistent. Bartels, who completed her own doctoral journey this year, is always on the lookout for school administrators who could benefit from the program’s emphasis on transformational and organizational leadership.
“He has huge opportunities for growth as a leader in education, including, I believe, becoming a county superintendent someday,” said Bartels, explaining why she was eager to see him pursue his doctorate. “He is a true leader with heart and compassion and is dedicated to his staff.”
Susan Salcedo the superintendent for the Santa Barbara Department of Education and a job recruiter offered similar advice, explaining how furthering his education could enhance his career. Cora said he hesitated, in part because of the cost of programs he researched and because he wondered if he could juggle the time commitment with the needs of his district.
“My wife has always said time will go by whether you’re in school or not,” said Cora, who decided that the flexibility of Brandman’s online/immersion-based program and the opportunity to work with administrators he already admired such as Pat White and Keith Larick, cemented the deal. The degree quest was also eased by a scholarship and by his school board agreeing to divert money earmarked for other benefits toward his education.
A team effort
He also attributes the ACSA award to the people he’s surrounded himself with in the Guadalupe district. “Any award I’ve won is because the people around me make me look better,” he said.
“Hire people smarter than you are, who work hard if not harder than you and who are positive and able to speak their minds. You have to have people who challenge you, tactfully, but still questioning ‘have you thought about that.’ I have that with my team.”
He also wants all his staff to remember who they serve. “I upset teachers sometimes (when they come to him with complaints) by asking how does this affect the students? They’ve figured me out now. It’s about the kids.”
More than anything, Cora values creative problem-solving among those he hires and among the faculty and fellow Ed.D. students he’s getting to know. “I have a totally new respect for those who have already completed the program. It’s been a challenge. The cool thing is, I’ve not once had someone say, ‘your doctoral work comes before your work work.’ They’ve been understanding, and I appreciate that.”
The immersions give him a chance to connect in person with those he mostly knows virtually. They also allow him to meet and talk with retired superintendents such as White and Larick. “It doesn’t mean you automatically do what they tell you, but you take it into consideration and it gives you something to think about.”
He’ll be putting that into action as he shapes the project he’ll present when the next June immersion rolls around and as he makes sure the taxpayers get their money’s worth from the bond vote. “I want to be able to say we’ve enhanced learning, that we’ll be able to say we did it the right way.”