The answer is in the room.
Growing up in East San Jose, CA, it was rare to hear someone say those words in a classroom, parent gathering, or town meeting. Instead, consultants would cycle in and out of our “low-income,” “low-performing,” “dangerous” schools, with good intentions for improving them—without knowing much about the strengths that existed within us as a community. Outsiders hoped to make change to us, not with us. They didn’t see that the answers lay within the families, young people, and educators in the community—in the “room.”
I am proud today to become the next President & CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy, an organization that deeply believes in and has faithfully lived by that mantra. In each community we support – whether a predominately African American district in Cleveland or schools supporting primarily Native American students in Nevada – we always begin by asking local educators and communities, “What are your challenges and ideas? What are your values? What do the leaders within your context need to know and be able to do to improve learning for every single student?”
We take the time to deeply understand context.
We build authentic relationships with leaders charged with moving the work forward.
And we look for the answers in the room.
The leaders I have looked up to throughout my life, who have inspired me and others to be our better selves and do our best work, lived by this belief. My greatest teacher, my mother, would take me and my five siblings to pick up litter and scrub out graffiti in our neighborhood on Saturday mornings. It was never a question that we would be a part of creating solutions to the challenges that sat outside our front door.
When I was in 8th grade, almost every teacher requested that I not be in their class because they had heard I was a “troublemaker.” But Mr. Lovelace sought me out. He believed in me. He knew that the answers lay within me. Over that year he built me up, ignited within me the love for learning I always had but had never been encouraged to explore. He helped me find my voice, encouraging me to write my story for a state-level competition and to advocate against policies I believed were unfair to youth of color living with limited resources like myself – from school uniform policies to CA Proposition 187 which sought to restrict access for undocumented families to health care and public education.
After college, I returned to my home community to teach. On my first day, a teacher colleague expressed her surprise that I had come from the neighborhood, and curiosity at whether my classmates, friends, and family members had ended up teen mothers or in jail. Mr. Lovelace, on the other hand, sent me flowers with a note that read, simply, “Congratulations, Maestra.”
Wanting to be a part of finding the answers in the room, I followed Maria Vizcarra, the mother of one of my students, into a house meeting where parents across our community were rallying behind a new vision for our public schools. It was my honor to ultimately become the founding principal of the middle school they dreamed of in that room that evening. Indeed, the continued success of the three new small schools we launched in East San Jose was born from the fact that the answers came from within the community.
While at the Leadership Academy, we have put a stake in the ground around equity since our inception 15 years ago, part of our work moving forward must be to ensure that “equity” does not become an empty word, that it has depth and real meaning.
We know that this work cannot be done in isolation, so we are committed to developing and supporting educational leaders in ways that ensure that all students, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or culture, have access to the learning opportunities and resources they need to become leaders themselves–to find the answers within, to hold themselves accountable to the changes they wish to see.
I have seen firsthand how the impact of one person, like Mr. Lovelace or Maria Vizcarra, can become exponential through strong leadership. What an absolute privilege it is to support leaders across the country to solve persistent problems – by tapping into the answers that lie within the room.
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of the NYC Leadership Academy.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
President & CEO
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of The Leadership Academy. Nancy joined The Leadership Academy in 2014 and has served as National Leadership Designer and Facilitator, Vice President of District Leadership, and Chief Strategy Officer. She was named President & CEO in July 2018 and continues to serve as an executive leadership coach and facilitator for school systems across the country. She was a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and in February 2020 was named among the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York by City & State New York. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker for local and national education organizations and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership and equity for national publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, and Hechinger Report.
Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. Prior to her tenure with The Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification.
Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an instructor at NYU and frequently teaches at the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. Nancy is a member of the Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) Board of Directors and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team.