School & District Management Leader To Learn From

Tulsa District Leader Partners With Principals to Improve Instruction

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 24, 2016 7 min read
Julio César Contreras
Recognized for Leadership in Support for Principals
Support for Principals
Instructional Leadership Director
Success District:
Tulsa Public Schools, Okla.
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Growing up outside Chicago, Julio César Contreras, whose immigrant parents did not graduate from high school and whose father speaks little English to this day, once had a guidance counselor tell him not to go to college because of his grades. And he recalls childhood friends who ended up in jail after getting involved in gangs.

But Contreras, 39, who eventually earned his college diploma and is now a supervisor of middle and high school principals in the 40,000-student Tulsa, Okla., district, remembers that it was a few of his teachers who helped him appreciate his background as the child of Mexican immigrants, despite the challenges it presented him.

“They’re the people outside of my parents who identified for me that people and culture mean something,” says Contreras, who worked for 11 years in the Chicago district before coming to his current job in Tulsa in 2014. “I wanted to make sure that I never lost the value of my identity and my language and my culture.”

In Chicago, Contreras worked his way up from teaching at an elementary school to serving as an assistant principal, then principal, then to supervising principals at more than 30 schools in the city.

Both in Chicago and and now in Tulsa, he learned to reject the temptation to micromanage his principals, which inhibits their ability to learn and think critically about their work.

He has learned to listen for, and ask, what teachers and students are saying. And he has worked hard to involve students and their families in Tulsa, particularly Hispanics, who have traditionally felt disconnected from the broader school community.

Lessons From the Leader

  • Push for Solutions: Find the resources, provide research, and stretch your team’s understanding and practice. Be relentless in finding solutions and moving beyond “stuck” phases.
  • Everyone Has Gifts: Assume positive intent in those you lead and look for the things they are good or great at. Look also for the areas where people need to grow and work to support that growth to make them stronger leaders.
  • Teamwork Is Essential: This work is demanding, and no one has all the answers. When you work collaboratively, we often discover that the answers are within the group.

“One of the things I learned was that people want to get involved. People want to help,” Contreras says. “It’s a matter for us, as leaders of schools, of how we frame it and what we want to engage people in.”

Contreras and those who work with him say he places a high value on using various types of data, whether that means creating a personalized schedule for English-language learners instead of relying on a computer, or holding monthly “portfolio meetings” of principals that feature videos of teachers in the classroom and robust discussions of their practices.

But none of that means he glides through school hallways with his eyes glued to a spreadsheet.

“Any time he’s in the building and we’re walking around, he just jumps right in, talks with students, asks what they’re doing, and he becomes part of our building,” says Josh Regnier, the principal of East Central Junior High School, who reports to Contreras.

Strategies in Action

As a principal supervisor, Contreras is responsible for managing six school leaders.

Traditionally, that’s a central-office-based, middle-management administrator job that in many districts focuses on making sure that principals—and by extension the schools they lead—comply with rules and regulations.

But Contreras takes a very different approach to the role—one that the Tulsa district is pursuing with all its principal supervisors to better support its school-level leaders. (The Tulsa district’s work on refining the principal supervisors’ role is supported, in part, by the Wallace Foundation, which also supports the coverage of leadership, arts education, and extended- and expanded-learning time in Education Week.)

Julio César Contreras

Contreras is in his schools constantly, visiting three a day, each for about two hours. Before classroom visits, he reviews some fundamental data with each school’s principal, such as student attendance and literacy, and any previous strategies at that school he’s discussed with the principal.

Then he looks for those strategies in action, visiting two or three classrooms with the principal to observe teachers and students at work. Contreras and the principal discuss how to “coach that teacher up” and if the instructional strategies he or she is using are working.

Regnier says one key instructional shift this process has led to in many classrooms is a new focus on reading levels. The fine-grained information about reading levels that Contreras reviews with him beforehand, according to Regnier, helps teachers as well as students determine reasonable goals. Regnier says that breakdown before class makes it so that “I’m not just coming in with an agenda.”

Contreras, in turn, says a sharp focus on reading levels fits more broadly into a districtwide goal of improving literacy. And that approach of considering both classroom and district goals, he says, helps him evaluate principals.

Contreras also sets aside two distinct blocks of discussion time with the school leaders he supervises. One is “school time,” in which he wants to hear about what’s going on at the school involving teachers and students. The other is “leader time,” when principals are encouraged to tell him what supports they need from him or ask him about a particular line item in the budget.

In many cases, these segments of time help principals identify small but significant steps for improving instruction.

For example, Regnier says that for new teachers, he and Contreras often focus on classroom-management techniques. For more senior staff, it might be helping a teacher who is enthusiastic about group work but has yet to establish clear expectations or procedures for how that group should function.

“The purpose is to identify a bite-sized action step to help the teachers improve,” Regnier says.

Once a month, Contreras gathers the six principals he supervises at one of their schools to observe classrooms in small teams. Principals are encouraged to share their thoughts on those observations afterward.

And they receive reports from administrators about data on issues related to English-language learners, for example.

“We’ll use each other as a resource, and we’ll calibrate, talk through the process of how do you support this teacher? What would the feedback conference with that teacher look like?” says Regnier, whose school’s enrollment is 53 percent Hispanic and 25 percent English-language learners.

“Then we’ll practice and see what it would look like in real time.”

All those practices, Contreras says, ultimately allow principals “to leverage each other.”

“You can be part of a team, or you can just be going in and putting out fires,” he says.

Energy and Support

When Contreras discusses classroom work with his principals, “every conversation has some data wrapped up in it,” says Kim Dyce, the deputy superintendent of the Tulsa schools and Contreras’ direct supervisor.

For example, Contreras has worked with principals to identify students who are not on track to graduate, how many credits they lack, and how many credits they can realistically obtain each semester to get back on track.

“I appreciate his willingness to continually push the thinking in terms of what the issues may be,” Dyce says. “Julio will ask a million questions in order to make sure he’s clear about whatever the expectations are. Sometimes that is the running [joke]: ‘Here comes Julio with the next question.’ ”

You can be part of a team, or you can just be going in and putting out fires.

Contreras has also made improving conditions for English-learners a top priority, particularly as the district has seen a rise in students such as undocumented immigrant youths who have arrived in the United States with no parents or guardians, says Laura Grisso, who oversees programs for ELLs in Tulsa.

In that area, Contreras links school-level ELL data with statewide achievement data for those students, and then asks teachers about their aspirations for those students. The goal is to help teachers realize those goals.

“It’s made it really easy for him to share that with others. He’s very approachable, especially for teachers, which is not always the case when you’re working with district leaders if you’re a teacher,” Grisso says.

Contreras also represents the district on Tulsa’s Coalition of Hispanic Organizations. Through that organization and other work, he tries to build stronger connections between members of Tulsa’s growing Hispanic community and the schools.

Last September, for example, Contreras organized and met with residents at an education fair hosted by the coalition, in which the group provided information and resources about early-childhood education, as well as adult and continuing education.

He also works as a school liaison with the Hispanic community on such issues as immigration and relationships with the police department.

All that work, Contreras says, can lead to relatively simple steps that can strengthen the school community, such as getting more Hispanic parents comfortable enough to come to schools and talk with principals about their children’s education.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week

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