Mirada Principal Nancy Branch

Mirada Principal Nancy Branch has overseen Kyrene School District’s leadership program since its inception in 2010.

For the last two consecutive years, all of Kyrene’s directors and principals have been promoted to their jobs from within district’s ranks.

That was no accident.

They are some of the fruits of the Kyrene Aspiring Leaders Academy, a decade-old professional development program led by Mirada Elementary Principal Nancy Branch.

The program is partly built around the same principles that are fundamental to the way Mirada is structured.

The Pre-K-5 Mirada is a  “Leader in Me School,”  one of scores of such schools around the country organized around the leadership strategies of Frank Covey, an American educator, author, businessman and speaker best known for his bestseller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

Just as the Chandler school has a statewide reputation for academic excellence – it routinely is in the top 5 percent for student proficiency in math and reading – Kyrene’s Leaders Academy has developed a reputation for producing principals and other administrators who excel in running schools that help students and staff be the best they can be.

Eleven of Kyrene’s 26 principals are graduates of the academy.

Branch waxes enthusiastically about the academy and Covey’s strategies.

“I’m just passionate about it and I love just watching them grow,” she said. “For me what’s been really exciting is watching people grow and move into these leadership positions and becoming my colleagues and just watching them do such a fabulous job and you know part of that was the result of KALA. 

“Part of it was obviously just who they are as leaders and their own personal knowledge,” she continued, “but I think … they would tell you that KALA definitely had an impact on who they are as a leader.”

Branch has been with Kyrene for 30 years and spent 11 as a teacher before moving into administrative jobs.

She is in her 11th year as Mirada’s principal, a job she took on after serving as principal of Kyrene del Milenio Elementary for seven years.

She said she has always felt passionate about leading and developing leaders among the ranks of educators, which is why she was invited to help form the Kyrene Aspiring Leaders Academy.

“They asked me if I would help them design the program and then coordinate the program,” Branch recalled. “Teaching and instructing and design have always been something that’s been very close to my heart and to be able to do it with adults sounded like a wonderful opportunity.”

Becoming a KALA student also is a rare opportunity, as roughly only 25 employees are selected through an application process.

“We wanted to keep the cohort groups small and intimate so that we could really focus on the high-quality staff members that we really felt would walk into positions in the future,” Branch explained.

Branch and her colleagues at the academy look for applicants “who have already proven that they are passionate about education. 

“They are passionate about learning more, about their own growth and development, so that they’re willing to take time after their day of teaching or after their day in whatever their position may be within the school district to add to their knowledge base,” she added.

Participants meet roughly 25 hours a semester for two years, discussing issues related to the challenges of leading an organization. Reading materials Branch has selected also become grist for those discussions. 

Participants also are led in discussions by other Kyrene leaders, minimizing to almost nothing the cost of professional development that in some organizations could easily run into thousands of dollars.

“We’ve had some amazing deep discussions where I have just gained knowledge from the participants’ own experiences and the stories they share as well,” Branch said.

The chance of professional development through a program like the academy also helps position Kyrene to be more competitive in recruiting younger teachers, who are attracted to the district’s commitment to provide new opportunities for advancement and growth within their profession, district officials say.

Moreover, the academy is not something we borrowed from another school but something that has grown organically in Kyrene,” Branch noted, adding that Kyrene has shared its program with other districts that have expressed an interest in starting their own.

Branch is preparing to recruit a new group of participants who will start their leadership training in March.

But she won’t be there to congratulate them when they finish.

She is planning to retire after the current school year and is handing the program’s reigns over to Dr. Sarah Collins, principal of Kyrene de las Manitas.

And the fact that her final months with the program are winding down in a time when the pandemic has rocked public education, she said, means that future classes will have a lot to learn from the experience.

“I really hope that what comes out of 2020 is the idea and recognition that education does need to change and so here at Mirada Leadership Academy, we have been on that journey,” Branch said. “I’m very proud of really embedding compassion and community within what we’re doing with our students – which then leads to a greater increase in student achievement and student engagement because it’s not just about content and that’s what I really hope people across the nation come to see.

“We need to take care of the well-being, the social and emotional needs of children to help prepare them for the real world…I really do believe – and we’ve seen it here – that we may have a greater engagement in the content-academic learning because children know that we care and children know that too. There’s more to life than just the content.”

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