School leadership certainly has its challenges at all levels, and one of the most challenging these days is curriculum and instruction leader.
California already has some of the highest standards in the nation. But in an era of high accountability, increased federal demands, drastically reduced budgets and continual “school reform,” staying on top of the changes in C&I is truly a big job.
Thus, Los Nietos School District is definitely fortunate to have the services of Assistant Superintendent Mary McNeil, ACSA’s 2012 Central Office Administrator of the Year.
McNeil logged 14 years as a principal before moving to the district office. It wasn’t an easy decision, since as a school site leader she felt constantly inspired to return to her school every year to maintain progress toward the goals she, staff and parents had set for themselves. It was a task she loved doing.
“I never felt that I was ‘finished’ being a principal,” McNeil said. “Eventually I worked on an extensive action plan under the direction of the superintendent and the board that impacted the entire district. This process involved teachers, staff and parents from throughout the district.”
At that point she realized she was ready to move to the central office, where she could have a large-scale impact on student achievement from a new perspective.
“My many years as a principal have provided me with a foundation to ensure that all I do is always focused on students and their needs and achievement,” McNeil said.
In a district with more than 50 percent English language learners, McNeil’s abilities as a bilingual educator have been invaluable. She has established good relationships with parents, community members and board members.
And while you can take the educator out of the school, you can’t necessarily take school out of the educator. McNeil insists on getting out into the schools to ensure she maintains connection with the reason the district office exists: to serve the school sites and their communities.
For example, she organizes and facilitates “learning walks,” in which all district administration, including principals, spend four hours focused on the needs of an individual school site. In these walks, the host principal has an opportunity to showcase the strengths and needs of the students, staff and community.
“Because my core focus is on student achievement, we spend the time on a learning walk visiting all classrooms to monitor the implementation of instructional strategies, student engagement, and the learning environment,” McNeil said.
Learning walks offer the team an opportunity to identify and brainstorm about facility and plant concerns, safety issues and the principal’s vision for the school site. The team debriefs afterward and provides the principal with next steps and positive feedback to share with his/her staff.
“The strength of learning walks is that all district administrators participate with a focus on ‘how can I help and support this school to improve student achievement,’” McNeil said.
One of the reasons for McNeil’s success is that throughout her career as an ins-tructional aide, teacher and administrator she has taken advantage of professional learning opportunities in order to keep growing as an educational leader.
“I have found that there is always something else I need to learn in order to understand the big picture of a school or a district,” she said. “As a central office administrator in a small school district, I find that my years of learning have helped me to wear many hats to perform across many different departments including curriculum and instruction, special education, pupil services and technology by tying these areas together with a focus on student achievement.
“I believe that varied professional development that includes book talks, collaboration meetings, individual coaching as well as workshops and presentations create well-rounded staff who can work collectively for the greater good of students.”
Much of McNeil’s professional development has come through her active participation in ACSA’s culture of support. She served a term as president of ACSA Region 15 – and still sits on the Region Board. She currently serves on both the state Legislative Policy Committee and the Women’s Leadership Network.
McNeil said she places a high value on being a longtime member of ACSA because it has provided her with the ongoing information on legislation and budget, networking opportunities and friends to support her as a successful administrator. In turn, ACSA has received the excellent value of an active, high-achieving member.
“My way of giving back to the organization and to perpetuate its success has been to serve on the Region 15 Board of Directors,” McNeil said. “As president, I was honored to represent ACSA members from the diverse areas of the region and to strategize on ways that our region could serve all members with high quality programs, scholarships and representation.
“My many years of participation and service to ACSA have now all come together in what I believe is the most important role in which I have had the opportunity to serve, the Women’s Leadership Network chair for Region 15. In this role, I have used my networking capabilities to provide the Region 15 WLN Annual Conference each March for women – and men – from throughout the region. Many of the workshop participants have told both the presenters and me that this event changed their lives. I have seen firsthand how an ACSA event can provide the background and tools for a member to be a better administrator. This is what ACSA means to me. This is why I am so honored to serve at the charter, region and state levels.”
And ACSA membership had an extra benefit for McNeil. She met her husband Jon through ACSA two years ago. In an interesting coincidence, Jon McNeil is also a former president of Region 15, and a state Administrator of the Year in Educational Options.
As McNeil said, “ACSA is a key part of our family.”
When McNeil learned from colleague Tracey Rivas she had received the 2012 ACSA award, she said she thought it was a call about the Women’s Leadership Network.
“It took me a few minutes to grasp what she was saying and to realize the impact of this honor,” McNeil said. “This award is not about anything that I have accomplished throughout my career. It is about all of the supportive mentors, coaches, friends and co-workers I have had the good fortune to know along the way.
“There isn’t a day that I don’t recognize that my success in meeting the achievement needs of my students is due to the others who are part of my professional and personal life. My strength comes from being able to be a small part of a very large team that has made my career choice as an educator so meaningful and fulfilling.”
McNeil will be honored during the 2012 Leadership Summit, Nov. 8-10 in San Diego. To register, visit www.acsa.org/leadershipsummit.Access photos of the award recipient at www.flickr.com/photos/acsaevents.