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The Network at Work

Nancy Gutierrez, Ed.L.D.’13, and Liliana Polo-McKenna, Ed.L.D.’14, leverage connections near and far to help school and district leaders succeed.

When they’re not working with schools and districts around the country, Nancy Gutierrez and Liliana Polo-McKenna sit next to each other in the offices of the NYC Leadership Academy. Both graduates of HGSE’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) now work at the nonprofit organization, which supports aspiring and standing school and district leaders through coaching, professional development, and leadership consulting.

As national leadership development strategist for NYCLA, Gutierrez works to build leadership capacity with current and aspiring principal supervisors in 12 states across the U.S. Also a national leadership development strategist, Polo-McKenna splits her time between coaching school leaders and leadership teams nationally and working on the federal i3 grant-funded Teaming Model project, which pairs aspiring principals and assistant principals and places them as teams in struggling New York schools. NYCLA, which estimates that its programs and services collectively affect the achievement of nearly 1.2 million students across the country each year, will also host resident Veronica Benavides, Ed.L.D.’16, this July.

Both women have found that the Ed.L.D. connection they share — with each other and with alumni across the country — offers distinct advantages. As colleagues in the same organization, they support each other in their personal development as education leaders. As part of a nationwide network of alumni, they enjoy unique opportunities to amplify their impact on the field.

A Meeting of the Minds

It’s not uncommon to lean on a co-worker for support — to work through a problem together, get a fresh perspective, or pick that person’s brain. It’s less likely, however, that that colleague has gone through the same transformative experience you have in a one-of-a-kind doctoral program designed for game-changing leaders.

“There’s a very seamless working relationship that’s about more than just the fact that we get along,” says Polo-McKenna. “I hadn’t anticipated what it would be like working with an Ed.L.D.-er, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Prior to joining Polo-McKenna at NYCLA, Gutierrez was working to build out an advanced leadership pipeline at the New York City Department of Education, work she began in her Ed.L.D. residency. NYCLA took note of the work she was doing and tapped her to develop and launch its nationwide training and support services for principal supervisors in 2014. The fact that Polo-McKenna, a resident with NYCLA, had stayed on at the nonprofit after completing the Ed.L.D. factored heavily into Gutierrez’s taking the job.

“Liliana had written her entire capstone on her work [at NYCLA], and I read it before I took the job to get a sense of what it would be like,” says Gutierrez. “That was a huge decision, and she was a huge part of it — someone you really respect endorses this organization.”

While they work on different projects at NYCLA, the alumnae are able to use each other as a resource. With their similar training, they can think strategically together and remind each other of lessons learned from faculty such as Richard Elmore, Robert Kegan, Monica Higgins, Deborah Jewell-Sherman, and Andres Alonso. Polo-McKenna says she thinks constantly of her adviser and Ed.L.D. Program Faculty Director Elizabeth City, who pushed her to think systemically, and both often utilize the “strategic triangle,” Mark Moore’s model for how organizations create public value.

Even more helpful, says Gutierrez, is what she calls “a constant mirror” — with Polo-McKenna, she can step back to reflect in key situations or simply get a reality check.

“We can utilize our executive coaching skills in these really critical moments when you’re making a big decision that’s going to impact a lot of kids,” says Gutierrez. “For someone to be able to pull that skill out of their pocket is critical. It can help define how we’re developing leaders and how we’re supporting them.”

“There’s great opportunity for very transparent feedback, and it’s more than just feedback from a colleague,” adds Polo-McKenna.  “It’s someone who understands what that feedback means in the bigger picture of where we are as leaders.”

A Nationwide Network

Alumni don’t necessarily have to work at the same organization to benefit from a shared Ed.L.D. experience. The program’s visibility and its community of students, alumni, supporters, and partners across the country afford tremendous opportunities.

“I think about the fact that someone opened the door into the largest district in this country,” says Gutierrez, who had been a principal in her native San Jose, California, before the coming to the program and completing her residency in New York City. “The [Ed.L.D.] network allowed me to have exposure and access and allowed others to see skills that I wouldn’t have utilized if I had stayed in my bubble back home.”

With likeminded peers working in the field across the U.S., Gutierrez also has access to different local perspectives on what it takes to create sustainable change. In her work designing leadership programs for principal supervisors, Gutierrez has conducted focus groups around the country to identify what it means to do this job well in different local contexts. In doing this, she has sought out fellow alumni — including Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed, Ed.L.D.’13, an assistant superintendent in Monterey, California; Michelle Shannon, Ed.L.D.’13, former director of administrator development and evaluation for the Los Angeles Unified School District; and Alison Huguley, Ed.L.D.’14, acting assistant superintendent in Pittsburgh — to gather insights into successful school leadership where they are.

“I know the San Jose, Boston, and New York contexts,” says Gutierrez. “All these Ed.L.D. [alumni] know contexts across this country, and I’ve been able to access that, which I think is extraordinary.”

Polo-McKenna, meanwhile, is the lead designer for a new leader support program with the Iowa State Department of Education, where Ryan Wise, Ed.L.D.’13, serves as deputy director. Identifying more opportunities like these to utilize the Ed.L.D. network was one of the goals of the first annual Ed.L.D. Network Convening, held May 15–16 on the HGSE campus. Polo-McKenna hopes these are just the first of many fruitful collaborations to come.

“To actually come together and work on a project from design through implementation would provide us with a great opportunity to learn what impact looks like across contexts, when someone’s in New York and someone else is in Tennessee,” says Polo-McKenna. “I’m hopeful that we will find opportunities to do that.”