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DCE Magazine

Empowering Students with Academic Optimism

Summer 2019

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.

Academic Optimism

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 practices.”

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 opportunity.”

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