Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2018 •

Dr Nilka Aviles, Ed.D.Transforming schools requires looking at the context of the system and its policies. But how do we accelerate schools’ transformation?

IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework presents a model for assessing school conditions and outcomes, identifying leverage points informing action. The framework poses five key questions: (1) What do we need? (2) How do we make change happen? (3) Which fundamentals must be secured? (4) Where do we focus systems change? and (5) What outcomes will result? (Robledo Montecel, 2010).

Considering this theory of change, which is grounded in research and practice, the U.S. Department of Education funded IDRA’s School Turnaround and Reenergizing for Success (STAARS) Leaders project. Designed to enhance student academic success in the San Antonio Independent School District, the project is empowering school leaders to build a culture dedicated to equity and excellence for all students. The project activities incorporate three knowledge sets: (1) Neil Farber’s psychology of success principles, (2) social justice leadership qualities, and (3) equity-based principles of education.

This article highlights the culture of equity and success created by two school leaders. The stories show their patterns of thinking, feeling, acting and speaking that are causing success in their campuses (Chicago Low-Performing Turnaround Model, 2013).

Smith Elementary School principal, Ms. Vanessa Fox-Norton, focuses on maintaining a climate and culture of collaboration. She takes action when problems arise and creates an environment where stakeholders have a part in bringing about innovative solutions.

Ms. Fox-Norton builds capacity through a layered-approach to professional development that includes book studies, setting goals to specific data, and accountability for all grade levels beyond what is tested. In a style she calls, “circling the wagons,” she brings teachers together to understand processes and structures of classroom leadership. They use Tier I instruction, which is an evidence-based curriculum aligned with the standards, assessments, core instruction and support interventions.

To sustain quality teaching, Ms. Fox-Norton relies on formative and summative assessments. She values the support of Mr. Doug Littlefield from the district’s office of academics; Ms. Veronica Alaniz, her school implementation specialist; and the Office of School Improvement led by Mr. Mark Cantu. Ms. Fox-Norton takes advantage of support systems to ensure students and teachers are successful.

She acknowledges the importance of partnerships, specifically IDRA’s student-centered professional development. This support has concentrated on inferencing and reasoning, numeracy and writing, and coaching and mentoring services. The University of Virginia and the Education Service Center for Region 20 also provide training support.

At her school, the staff know the students by their names and values them and their parents. Ms. Fox-Norton added: “Start with the heart and build relationships with teachers, students and parents to have an impact in teaching and learning where everyone feels valued and works toward the achievement of our shared vision.”

Dr. Julio García, principal at Highlands High School, uses collaborative planning to ensure the school’s vision aligns with the campus goals. With an overall focus on Tier 1 instruction, staff outline problems of practice and identify steps for effective solutions. They ask: “What does it look like, and how do we know it is effective?” The campus instructional focus aligns content with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), language with the English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS) and the social emotional with the PBIS (Positive Behaviors, Interventions and Supports) Champs. These are the Texas standards for academic learning, English language acquisition and the social-emotional needs of students.

Dr. García organizes staff to anticipate challenges and to address problems on hand. “Are we aligned with the what and the how?” He enables a relentless focus on learning results. He is persistent in monitoring teaching and planning. Teachers take “learning walks” to observe their peers and provide feedback. He demonstrates to each team how professional learning communities impact productive outcomes in teaching and learning.

Dr. García is putting in place structures, systems and leaders that will be maintained even through the change of leadership. “We have formed a coalition by creating a snowball effect, where teachers are a part of the combined actions to increase rigor and relevance building their own capacity to achieve results.”

These school leaders share the following common themes in their work.

  • Demonstrate a high level of knowledge about issues and solutions regarding diverse learners.
  • Build a high level of trust and collaboration.
  • Use power to persuade and influence others to take informed actions.
  • Be a catalyst that transforms a vision to reality.
  • Be an advocate who is passionate in the pursuit of equity and excellence.
  • Be innovative and take a stand for a purpose.

They are inspiring others, building leadership, and holding stakeholders to high expectations for all students to accomplish their school vision and goals. They have found joy and passion in doing so and are committed to keeping students in school, succeeding academically.


De la Torre, M., Allensworth, E., Jagesic, S., Sebastian, J., Salmonowicz, M., Myers, C., & Geerdeman, R.D. (2013). Turning Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago (Chicago. Ill: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research).

Farber, N. (2013). “8 Key Principles to Succeed – Action Boarding Made Simple,” Psychology Today.

Robledo Montecel, M., & Goodman, C.L. (Eds). (2010). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and directs IDRA’s STAARS Leaders project and co-directs IDRA’s Re-Energize project. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at

[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]