About Leaders To Learn From
Leaders to Learn From is the only district recognition program run by a news organization.
The aim: To shine a spotlight on some of the nation’s often overlooked K-12 district leaders—highlighting their innovative strategies, profiling their track records of success, and sharing their insights and road maps with the field at large. In a sea of negativity, these leaders and their impact on students’ academic and social growth often go unnoticed.
Our annual profiles highlight all levels of district leadership: superintendents, food-service leaders, student services coordinators, budget officers, and transportation and facilities managers, among others.
Building inclusive environments
After the uncertainty of the pandemic years, our 2023 Leaders to Learn From have returned to the basics, recommitting themselves to ensuring that every child in their care feels like they belong and has the opportunity to thrive inside and outside of school.
Many have displayed incredible foresight, laying the foundations years ago to prepare their school systems for today’s challenges and for what may lie ahead.
In Boston public schools, Andria Amador, the senior director of behavioral health services, forged a groundbreaking partnership with the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Boston Children’s Hospital to create a steady pipeline of social workers, school psychologists, and other mental health staff. Her forward thinking positioned the district to be ready to respond to rising mental health challenges among youth in recent years.
In Phoenix Union High school district, Cyndi Tercero-Sandoval found a unique way to empower students: Give them the authority to decide how to spend a slice of their schools’ and the district’s budget. Students have invested the money in the learning environment, by approving new filtered-water stations, relaxation rooms, and a wider range of charging stations to power their cellphones and other electronic devices.
Chimere Stephens, the New York City district’s director of diversity and recruitment, led a team effort that has roughly doubled the percentage of teachers who are men of color in just seven years. Their talent pipeline stretches all the way to high schoolers, continues with college students, and includes on-ramps for those already working as paraprofessionals and in similar positions in the city’s schools.
In Mineral Wells, Texas, Natalie Griffin has helped her small district rethink its approach to educating English learners. Griffin, the executive director of special programs, has increased the number of bilingual educators despite recruitment challenges, and given English learners more time to learn content in their native languages. Now, English-learners’ reading performance matches that of their native English-speaking peers.
Tonya Clarke, the coordinator of K-12 mathematics in the Clayton County school district, in Jonesboro, Ga., has spent two and a half decades pushing her own students—and now her entire district—to use a real-world problem-solving approach to mastering mathematics. Clarke has developed a corps of math ambassadors at every school to help teachers in the historically underperforming district embrace a brand-new form of instruction in a critical subject.
What binds this year’s leaders together is their commitment to building inclusive learning environments—to create systems that leave no student behind.
We’re also taking a moment this year to remember Doug Vander Linden, the former director of educational technology in Burlington Unified School District 244, in Burlington, Kan., who passed away in 2022.
Vander Linden, a member of the 2021 class of Leaders To Learn From, was recognized for his leadership in technology and for his creativity in helping to build a fiber-optic cable network in this rural community about three decades ago.
The network links three school districts, six public libraries, six medical facilities, and all of the county government buildings.
Long before districts were forced to rely on the internet to keep schools going when the pandemic upended in-person teaching, students in Burlington were able to participate in interactive online lessons and virtually visit landmarks across the United States.
Even as he advanced technology in the district, Vander Linden remained the school system’s wrestling coach and saw an innate connection between the two.
“Wrestling is about hard work, perseverance, dedication,” he said. “It’s about goal setting. We let life pin us down and we feel sorry for ourselves, and that creates a pattern. Wrestling is the ultimate example of that in sports. … To be successful as an education administrator, as a wrestling coach, you have to come up with a shared vision.”
Our Leaders To Learn From honorees have gone on to receive other national accolades and have become sought after experts and speakers in their respective fields. They include 2021 honorees Quincy Natay and Valerie Bridges, who have been recognized as the Superintendents of the Year in Arizona and North Carolina, respectively; Mohammed Choudhury, a member of the 2018 Leaders To Learn From class, who is now the Maryland state superintendent of schools; and Tiffany Anderson, a member of the 2015 class, who is now the Topeka, Kan., superintendent and a leading speaker on educating students experiencing poverty.
Leaders To Learn From
- Read our new Q&A feature with the 2023 Leaders To Learn From honorees.
- Learn more about our outstanding leaders from 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.
- Read reflections from past Leaders To Learn From.
- Follow our occasional Q&A series with Leaders To Learn From alumni.
- Join our virtual events for engaging discussions with our leaders. Get inspiring ideas to solve pressing district challenges.
— The Editors, Alyson Klein & Denisa R. Superville