Preparing Leaders

USC Rossier’s EdD in Educational Leadership program is the training ground for today’s practitioners

By Kenneth Ross

Until relatively recently, educators aspiring to leadership positions and seeking out graduate schools were mostly limited to academic PhD programs. Doctoral programs geared to the real world of urban education were rare. That changed about a decade ago when the USC Rossier School of Education created its practitioner-driven Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership (EDL) program.

Sixty-two of its graduates are currently leading school districts across California and the nation. Another 162 alumni are retired or former superintendents. Together, the two groups form the Dean’s Superintendents Advisory Group (DSAG), which was founded in 1980 to provide guidance, recruit future students and award scholarships to aspiring educational leaders.

Students also benefit from a faculty that includes six former urban superintendents who, along with their professorial contributions, serve as sounding boards and mentors to program graduates. In the profiles below, three EDL graduates share how their experience at USC Rossier contributed to their professional success.


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David Cash EDL ’08: Addressing campus fragmentation

David Cash EdD ’08 became superintendent of the Santa Barbara Unified School District in 2011.

“At every step, my USC experience and my professors guide my work—how I look at problems in urban education, how I approach those problems, who needs to be in the room, who I need to listen to—it all comes from Rossier,” Says Cash, who retired in June 2016. When Cash first arrived in Santa Barbara, he found a school district that was anything but unified.

Cash assembled a wide spectrum of stakeholders and asked them to create a comprehensive strategic plan to meet the district’s challenges. The group met 29 times over a 14-month period. The leadership Cash brought to the process came directly from his USC Rossier training. “I learned from Rossier how to ensure that every voice is heard, that every perspective is respected and that the plan we come up with genuinely reflects the beliefs of everyone in the group,” Cash explains.


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Hasmik Danielian EDL ’09: Transforming an underperforming school into an academic powerhouse

When Hasmik Danielian EdD ’09 became superintendent of the Brawley High School District in Imperial County in 2011, Brawley was known for strong athletics but less so for its academic performance. By 2015, Brawley High School had achieved the highest graduation rate, and lowest dropout rate, in the Imperial Valley.

The school’s transformation into an academic powerhouse is a case study in leadership informed by resilient character, conceptual clarity and wise counsel. Danielian’s first goals focused on relationship building and—true to her dissertation on data-driven decision making—developing an objective assessment of her new team.

To help chart her course, Danielian relied on two key concepts from her USC Rossier training. The first was that achieving team alignment is a difficult task but moving forward without it is an impossible one. To bring cohesion to the group, Danielian tapped into the power of distributive leadership. Rather than asking her team to implement solutions handed down from above, she empowered them to work together to find common ground around three basic goals focused on student learning.

The second concept was indispensable as well: when making decisions about an entity as complex, multifaceted and dynamic as a public school system, accurate data is essential. Danielian delivered the message at every opportunity: reliable data is your friend.

Step by step, the Brawley team evolved into an empowered, data-driven team fueled by passion but guided by reason. “For three and a half years,” Danielian explains, “we moved forward systemically to create a culture of data use where focused conversations about student achievement became the norm rather than the exception.”

In July 2015, after four years as its superintendent, Hasmik Danielian left the energized and transformed Brawley High School District to become superintendent of the Norwalk-La Mirada USD.


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Ramiro Rubalcaba EDL ’15: Constructive engagement with students

In August of 2014, Rubalcaba became principal of Azusa High School. He completed his doctorate in spring 2015, thanks in part to a scholarship from DSAG.

During Rubalcaba’s first week in his new role, a 9th grader was caught trashing the boy’s locker room. It was the kind of destructive behavior that routinely triggers disciplinary action. In the year prior to Rubalcaba’s arrival there had been a hundred suspensions.

After the incident, however, events did not follow the usual course. His training at USC Rossier had stressed the importance of listening carefully to students and their parents. During his years at Garfield High, constructive engagement had reduced suspensions from 700 a year to just one.

Rubalcaba met with the boy and his distraught parents. “I told the student, ‘You’ve made a mistake. We are going to help you fix it.’”

That afternoon, at a routine faculty meeting, teachers registered their dismay: not suspending the student risked undermining the school’s authority—and theirs. Rubalcaba set out to win them over.

Persuasion is a skill with many facets, but Rubalcaba was keenly aware that it depends on something more basic than skill: integrity. Rubalcaba knows well a lesson from one of his USC Rossier mentors, Rudy Castruita: “Being a superintendent is about building relationships with people. You must communicate with many different communities—Latino, African-American, Anglo, Asian and others. But you cannot communicate until you build trust. You have to walk the walk.

“The faculty puts us through scenario after scenario,” Rubalcaba explains. “We gain a deep understanding of how you move people in the same direction.” Gradually, a growing number of student success stories, coupled with Rubalcaba’s commitment to distributive leadership, began to win teacher support. During Rubalcaba’s first year there were three suspensions. In his second year, one. As students gradually realized that their teachers believed in them, academic performance improved. Standardized test scores and other key indexes went up. Energized with what Rubalcaba calls “the power of love in education,” Azusa High began to attract attention in Sacramento and Washington.

Rubalcaba was recently named assistant superintendent of human resources for the Azusa Unified School District.


Adapted from an article that originally appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Futures in Urban Education magazine. To learn more about the USC Rossier Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, visit rossier.usc.edu/programs/doctoral/ed-leadership/.