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Best Laid Plans

Ed.L.D. Marshal J.J. Muñoz helps underperforming schools with improvement process
J.J. Munoz
Photo: Jill Anderson

J.J. Muñoz, Ed.L.D.’23, likes to have fun. Long before he obtained a master’s degree in school leadership at HGSE, Muñoz performed as different characters at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. He loved being one of the basketball players in High School Musical at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, he says, because the role combined two of his passions: basketball and dancing.

Muñoz’s playful disposition proved helpful when he returned to HGSE to join the Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) Program. Muñoz found out he was accepted while he was principal at Bates Elementary School in Salem, Massachusetts. It was the spring of 2020, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an anxious time for everyone. 

“I closed my school down on March 12 — the whole district closed and then I found that I got into the program. And so, I finished the year out, in that COVID year, and then started year one in the Ed.L.D. Program, all virtual,” he says.

Ahead of Commencement, Muñoz, who is originally from Phoenix, Arizona, reflected on his experiences during the program including his residency with Boston Public Schools. 

What was it like to start your doctoral degree virtually, in the middle of a pandemic?
I live locally but a lot of my colleagues lived across the U.S. You know, you don't get to have those hallway conversations, to check in with people and just grab a bite [to eat]. Trying to establish a community and build relationships with people that you're meeting for the first time, and yet you have every single class with them, it was interesting. I think that we benefited from it in some respect, but one of the things that I tried to do — I like to have fun — we would record birthday messages for folks, and they would all send me the birthday messages and I would make it a collaborative video, and I would send it to that person on their birthday. There are 24 in our cohort, and we did it for each and every person. During the holidays, everyone would sing a favorite song and I would send it out to the Ed.L.D. network. The cohort before us, that was showing us the ropes and kind of giving us the tricks of the trade, we made a music video for them. We tried to build community and, when we saw each other in year two, we weren't strangers anymore.”

What did you do during your third-year residency and Capstone project with the Boston Public Schools?
My strategic project was working with 28 underperforming or low-performing schools in our district — we call them “transformation schools.” There was an agreement between the city of Boston and Boston Public Schools, and the state of Massachusetts’ education system, where there would be a focus on low-performing schools and implementing their school improvement plans as a tool to actually move outcomes. So, there's a history in some areas of schooling in the U.S. where, and I'm guilty of this as a principal as well, we write our school improvement plan, we turn it in, and then we don't look at it until the end of the year. And this year we said my project, alongside with the school superintendents and other people in central office, is if the principal is going to write this, we should be supporting what they're asking for within their plan. And we need to keep on revisiting their plan to make sure they're doing what they said they were going to do and, if not, [ask] how can we support them doing that work? And so, we implemented an instructional rounds model where we were visiting schools — central office folks and the school leadership teams — and we would watch the classrooms, look at student tasks. And we were looking at how students were reading, writing, and having discourse around academic content, [including] culturally affirming and complex grade-level texts. We developed a tool to help monitor and record all the rounds we were doing. We visited over 1100 classrooms in the transformation schools and over 2000 classrooms in the whole district in just one year.

From what you saw during your residency, how has the pandemic affected Boston Public Schools and the students specifically?
One of the gaps that I really noticed is student attendance. You can look at the academic pieces, right and say, OK, where are the academic gaps because maybe there was learning loss, which has happened all over the United States, and when I walk in and see classes halfway filled and see a lot of students chronically absent in the district, it's because they haven't gotten back into the flow of — I should be in school, right? I think that the biggest impact is, even though you have a loss of learning for two years and you're trying to teach grade-level content and then still give remediation and intervention access for kids, if they're not in seats, it’s kind of hard to catch up. 

What does it mean for you to be selected by your peers to be a marshal?
My cohort — it’s full of extremely smart people, extremely bright people that have led some hard work and that have achieved some really, really great milestones throughout their careers and including their residency. And I always look up to them and I always marvel at the work that they've done and who they are as individual leaders. And for them to say, J.J., you should be our marshal because you really helped build community within our team is something that I just have this warm feeling of humble thanks. And any one of them could have been a marshal for various reasons. I'm forever grateful to them because I could talk about each one of them and how they would have been deserving of the same recognition.

What are your future plans?
I accepted an assistant superintendent of academics job, in Norwood Public Schools — I’m excited to start.


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