Empowering Students with Academic Optimism
Creating a culture of trust, respect and high standards
is key to elevating California schools.
As a dedicated school administrator and teacher,
Susan Belenardo has seen the difference that effective
educational leadership can make, spurring academic
excellence and growth even in high-poverty urban
schools. Equality of opportunity is possible across all socioeconomic
groups, she firmly believes. And she set about
to find the keys to success.
How do educators engage and inspire their students in the
most challenging environments? What are the key factors
in elevating low-performing schools that might have fewer
resources than others?
To Belenardo, former superintendent for La Habra School
District, it's all about a culture of trust, respect and high
standards that starts at the very top — a construct solidly
supported by a recent research project she's undertaken.
“An effective school leader builds a culture that positively
influences teachers, who in turn positively influence
students,” said Belenardo, instructor and advisor for DCE's
Administrative Services Credential programs. “A recurring
theme among all the research participants when
describing their school was a culture of innovation where
there is a reciprocal trust and great respect for each other.
“The principal is seen as a coach by all staff. And there is
comfort with mistakes that ultimately improve practice.”
Belenardo's project — How Urban California Educators
Engage Academic Optimism to Maximize Equity in Student
Learning within Low Socio-Economic Status Schools —
examined several elementary schools in California
classified as “high performing” yet “high poverty.”
The findings provided some clear insights and underlined
the importance of academic administration leadership in
developing a positive, optimistic culture of collaboration
and high academic expectations.
“Our research findings support the importance of the
school leader's role in developing the collective efficacy
of their staff, a factor that is at the top of the list of factors
that influence student achievement,” she said.
It's a research-based model that has a proven track record,
presenting a template for California educators that informs
Belenardo's Administrative Services Credential courses,
designed to train the next generation of academic leaders.
Academic achievement in any school environment starts
at the top — and that's a focus in both DCE programs.
Belenardo joined with four professors from educational
administration programs across California to learn more
about how certain high-poverty schools have elevated
academic excellence and student growth. Their research
was inspired by the principle of Academic Optimism, a
model put forth by the landmark work of Wayne K. Hoy,
a professor emeritus in educational administration.
Simply put, Academic Optimism embodies three
constructs: the academic emphasis of the school, the
collective efficacy of the faculty, and faculty trust in the
parents and the school. It evolved from research into
humanistic psychology, examining student experience
in terms of hope and fulfillment.
“With our research project, we sought to compare
Hoy's findings to that of 144 California TK-8 school leaders’
and teachers’ perceptions regarding the presence of
academic optimism at 10 low socioeconomic student
school sites,” Belenardo said. “It adds to the narrative and
provides concrete examples of successful leadership
The findings have strongly supported the implementation
of Academic Optimism principles in the training of
California's administrative leaders. It can elevate performance across the board, even in some of California's
most challenging and underserved urban environments.
“Our research findings are excellent examples of successful
practices that can assist in coaching our new administrators
to become reflective practitioners in addressing the
challenges of today's school administrator, all the while
mindful of the importance of equity and access for all
students,” Belenardo said.
Learning to lead
DCE's Preliminary Administrative Services Credential
program prepares participants who hold a life or clear
California teaching credential for a career in school
administration, and it's valid for five years. Once the
participant finds employment, state law mandates that
work begin on a Clear Administrative Services Credential.
Both can be completed through Division of Continuing
Education's two programs, offered jointly with the UCI
School of Education. In the end, students earn an actual
credential that is approved by the California Commission
on Teacher Credentialing.
“Our courses are both hybrid and online, taught by
practitioners with current experience in educational
administration,” Belenardo said. “Our Clear program is a
two-year, completely online program. This makes it unique
and more flexible for our candidates. I am not aware of
any other Administrative Services Credential programs
offered through university extension. And by offering our
courses through DCE, our students are able to enroll in
our programs each quarter.”
Reflecting the findings of Belenardo's research team, the
programs’ instructors emphasize the importance of developing
environments built on top-down support and high
expectations for achievement among all student groups.
“Our research supports our programs’ focus on developing
equity-driven, person-centered leaders,” she said. “We will
continue to provide rigorous instructional programs that
encourage self-reflection and continual personal growth.”
It's an embodiment of Belenardo's personal philosophy,
developed over a career as administrator, educator and
leader in California's widely diverse school system, serving
both low- and high-socioeconomic schools and always
as an advocate for equity of opportunity.
As an administrator in a challenging high-poverty middle
school, for example, she was successful in developing a
culture of high expectations that resulted in academic
growth for all students.
“California is unique in the diversity of our student
populations and challenges,” Belenardo said. “We need
to prepare leaders with the knowledge and skills to deal
with the realities that are present in our schools today.
My personal belief has always been that every child
must have the opportunity to achieve and that it is our
responsibility as teachers and leaders to provide this
Learn more at ce.uci.edu/educ