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People Education leaders in Nevada learn to think like CEOs

Antonio Rael was already a very good high school principal when he entered the Executive Leadership Academy in 2012. He was a better one when he came out.

“I think this program will be a game changer,” says Rael, who is the principal of Mojave High School in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Executive Leadership Academy is a 15-month program that brings together leading educators from across Nevada. Its primary goal is to expose these individuals to entrepreneurial thinking, strategies and tactics and create a statewide network of leaders dedicated to championing school improvement in Nevada. The program is run by the Leadership Institute of Nevada, which was founded in 2011 by The Public Education Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving public education in Nevada.

“The Leadership Institute exposes state leaders in education to some of the nation’s top practitioners, scholars and thought leaders,” says Judi Steele, President and CEO of The Public Education Foundation. “New ideas, problem-solving strategies and innovative thinking expand our capacity to address the challenges we face in Nevada in better, smarter ways.”

Barrick is a founding sponsor of the Institute, contributing $50,000 in 2011, a sum that was matched by the Nevada state government. The company has since made a second $50,000 contribution and will contribute another $50,000 this year.

“The Leadership Institute is facilitating fresh approaches that will help transform and improve the delivery of education across Nevada,” says Michael Brown, Executive Director and Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Barrick North America, and a long-time member of The Public Education Foundation’s Board. “This initiative has the full support of Governor Sandoval, and I am convinced it will pay off for decades to come.”

Times still tough in Nevada

Nevada has one of the highest drop-out rates in the United States. Only 63 percent of high school students in the state’s public school system graduated last year, according to a report by research firm Editorial Projects in Education. That compares to 75 percent nationwide and ranks 48th out of 50 U.S. states. This in part reflects the fact that Nevada was among the hardest-hit states during the recession, ranking first in the country in home foreclosures, unemployment and bankruptcies from 2009 to 2012.

Times are still tough in the Silver State. As of February 2014, Nevada’s unemployment rate stood at 8.5 percent, the second highest in the country, and youth unemployment (ages 16-24) was 17 percent. “Many families have limited capacity right now to help their children, and that demographic is much larger than most people realize,” Steele says.

Antonio Rael understands this all too well. At the end of the 2012 school year, 50 percent of Mojave High School’s 2,200 students were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch, meaning their families lived below the poverty line. A year later that figure surged to 75 percent, as the community continued to struggle with the fallout from the U.S. housing crisis. Still, despite this harsh economic backdrop, Mojave’s academic performance has improved dramatically since Rael became principal in 2011. The school’s graduation rate has climbed from 40 percent when he joined to the mid-50-percent range at the end of the 2013 school year.

This stellar track record prompted a senior Clark County School District official to recommend Rael for the Executive Leadership Academy. Rael demurred initially, having participated in a similar program years earlier. But the senior official, as Rael puts it, “wanted” him to attend, and Rael is glad he did. “It was an invaluable experience,” he says. “Not valuable, invaluable.”

Learning to think differently

The 24 participants in the inaugural class met in Las Vegas one weekend per month for the first 10 months of the program. Each session covered a different topic, such as attracting, retaining and evaluating teachers more effectively or thinking about time, tools and talent in better ways. The Academy’s nine-member faculty consists of top thinkers, practitioners and scholars, such as Frederick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools network.

While each session challenged his assumptions, Rael says Feinberg and Hess resonated most strongly. What stayed with him, he says of Feinberg’s session, wasn’t just how Feinberg talked about investing in students, but what he said about leadership. “He was talking about the approach KIPP takes and he said something I will never forget,” Rael says. “He said he asks teachers and staff all the time: ‘How does it feel to be led by me?’”

Rael says he now poses this question regularly to his staff. “I get emails where people go, ‘I know you ask this question. I just want you to know that when you did this, this is the way that made me feel,’ ” Rael says. “And that is so powerful. I don’t always realize the impact of the things that I say or do, but I need to know so that I can learn to lead in a way that holds people to a high standard of accountability, but that also makes them feel empowered and valued.”

Rael says Frederick Hess urged the group to question how things are done at their schools, just as businesses regularly evaluate the costs and efficiencies of their operations. “His whole mentality is centered around challenging the status quo and asking why,” Rael says. “Why do you operate the way you do? Is it really the best way or is it because it’s always been done that way?”

At Mojave, Rael and his staff now evaluate how each dollar is spent and whether the school is getting a sufficient return on its investments. Everything is questioned, including things as basic as how paper and printers are allocated. Turns out they could be allocated more efficiently. “We pulled printers out of classrooms and networked printers, and now we no longer have to replace so many and we use a lot less paper,” Rael says. “It sounds like a small thing, but it’s absolutely outside of the norm of how things are done in the district.”

Addressing statewide challenges

As the program progressed, participants leveraged their new skills by taking on projects assigned by senior state leaders in education. These “capstone projects” addressed broader educational challenges in Nevada. The class split into groups and spent the final months of the program completing their respective projects, which brought fresh perspectives to long-standing challenges across the state.

One project, for instance, considered whether the academic calendar of the Clark County School District could be changed to better meet the needs of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The project recommended a four-day school week that extends the school year, which would help mitigate the large slide in academic achievement that students living in poverty often experience after the long summer break. Brian Myli, Director of the Leadership Institute, says the group that completed this project did detailed research, factoring in current district budgets and considering the impact on parents, teachers and other community stakeholders. “We believe the project could gain traction and become a pilot in Clark County that ultimately changes the traditional nine-month calendar at some schools,” he says.

In addition to the Executive Leadership Academy, the Leadership Institute holds two Education Leadership Summits each year, one in northern Nevada and one in southern Nevada. The summits bring together educators, business leaders, elected officials and other stakeholders from across the state. Each summit features some of the country’s top educational practitioners, business leaders and scholars speaking about important education-related themes, such as budgeting and leadership.

Last December, graduates of the inaugural Executive Leadership Academy class were feted at a ceremony in Las Vegas. “I loved the class and, honestly, I’d rank it above my administrative degree,” says Katie Decker, principal of Walter Bracken STEAM Academy. “It was a great opportunity to debate, to practice, to create scenarios and to really think creatively.”

Pat Skorkowsky, Superintendent of the Clark County School District, attended the graduation ceremony. “I would like to acknowledge The Public Education Foundation for its important work in creating and administering the Executive Leadership Academy,” he said at the event. “This program is unlike any other in the country and would not be possible without the generous support of Barrick Gold Corporation.”