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New Mexico educators gain business perspective as Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellows

A group of educators is seeing their profession through a different lens.


women teaching
Vangie Barela, principal at Jornada Elementary School, Las Cruces Public Schools, presents her group’s project on the Challenger Space Center. Barela was among the Woodrow Wilson Fellows in Education Leadership participating in New Mexico State University College of Business online Master's of Business Administration program. (Courtesy photo)

The Woodrow Wilson Fellows are developing new tools to improve their leadership skills through the New Mexico State University College of Business online Master’s of Business Administration program.

“When I began the program I had my educational tools that I would use all the time,” said Colette Martinez, instructional specialist with Southwest Region Education Cooperative. “Now I have another set of tools that are my business tools. I’ve learned that there are strengths in both sets of tools and how they can work together to really produce great results for students.”

The Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellows in Education Leadership was launched in 2015 in partnership with the New Mexico Public Education Department, NMSU and the University of New Mexico to develop a new model in education leader preparation, equipping graduates to lead schools across the state. There are only two states involved in the program, New Mexico and Indiana.

“The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation began the program because they think there are some leadership skills that are in an MBA program that can be useful to any organization, especially school leaders,” said Andrea Fletcher, assistant dean and director of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program.

The first cohort of nine students completed the two-and-a-half-year program this summer. An additional 40 education professionals are currently in the program.

“They gave us a different perspective, a different insight to being a leader and managing schools a little more effectively,” said Estrella Becerra, coordinator for Pre-K programs at Gadsden Independent School District.

“It’s not about fixing kids. It’s about fixing the structures in order to support our teachers and therefore our students,” said Lydia Polanco, principal of Mesilla Elementary School, Las Cruces Public Schools. “It’s allowed me to look at the systems within the school to see what’s working, to see what’s not working.”

The educators participated in the online MBA program alongside business professionals, which is unique to the other Woodrow Wilson Fellows programs.

“We actually felt both groups learned significantly from each other, and really helped to broaden their way of thinking,” Fletcher said.

The course work included negotiations, finance, litigation, data analysis, marketing, and other business related topics designed to provide the students with a solid background in business practices, and the problem-solving and people skills needed to be successful leaders.

Once a month the educators meet face-to-face with professors for sessions related specifically to education.

“Through this format, the Fellows are making connections from the course work to what it looks like as school or district leaders,” Fletcher said.

“Typically, you would see us utilizing finances more as a reaction, rather than being proactive,” said Vangie Barela, principal at Jornada Elementary School, LCPS. “Our courses have taught us how to strategically plan and align all of our finances to our goals and vision.”

She added that all school administrators should be expected to take the negotiation class, “because you’re negotiating constantly whether it be with the community, political members of education, as well as your parents and even your students. I’ve learned there isn’t always a winner or a loser.”

The program culminated with a capstone project that was a problem presented by school and district leaders.

“We saw them being very purposeful and thinking about using data, all sources of data to analyze the problem,” Fletcher said. “They were thinking very strategically about the change process and the implementation process.”

“The final project allowed us to apply our learning to an issue we work with every day,” said Wendi Miller-Tomlinson, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, LCPS. “I think our project is viable and attainable. We could actually implement a couple of the projects.”

One project was the creation of a dual-language medical pathway at one of the high schools.

“A Las Cruces high school had zero proficient with their English language learners,” Fletcher said. “They knew also that they were constrained by resources. They didn’t have enough teachers to really do a good job with the program. Our fellows went in and did a lot of research about what is working well across the country and they developed the concept of the dual-language medical pathway.”

Another project was a way to make LCPS’s Challenger Space Center able to serve the students and be financially sustainable.

“They created a plan that changed the center’s mission to not just be an educational experience for middle school students, but also to be a community resource,” Fletcher said. “The plan recommended moving the center to a 501(c)(3) organization with a community board of directors.”

“As principals, we really want our community to be developed more in the area of science education,” said Toni Hull, principal of Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy, LCPS. “We looked at the Challenger Center and said, ‘How can we really, truly, make it something that we can leverage in our community to help our kids, and also the adults and businesses in the community?’ We think our plan could do that.”