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Breakthrough Leadership Institute offers education leaders the opportunity to thoroughly examine K–12 school district issues and develop actionable next steps

Mike Romero EdD ’23 discussed takeaways from last year’s program.

By Ellen Evaristo Published on

Educators and school administrators are keenly aware that continuous professional development is essential for improving student learning outcomes. In the summer of 2023, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Chief of Transitional Programs Mike Romero EdD ’23 and six of his colleagues attended USC Rossier’s inaugural Breakthrough Leadership Institute along with other district peers to enhance their leadership skills and knowledge in order to better serve their students. The program is within the Office of Professional Learning.

A veteran education administrator, Romero oversees four divisions including the early education division, which works with thousands of LAUSD three- and four-year-old students. The LAUSD contingency—the “tiger team” as they call themselves—includes early education executive directors, principals and the administrator of instruction. “We felt that there was still some variability in the delivery of high quality instruction in some of our classrooms,” Romero said. During last summer’s Breakthrough Leadership Institute, the team asked themselves what is the problem that they are trying to solve, what are the different implementation strategies and what are the actionable steps? After four days of workshopping, the team not only developed a strategy for early education at LAUSD, they implemented it throughout the school year.

The plan emphasized the importance of teamwork and that specific actions had to occur organically. Romero and his colleagues recognized that some of the strategies were not novel, but progress monitoring was essential. Action items required “temperature checks'' to monitor whether the actions yielded results and were making a difference. “I think a key thing that came out of the institute was that we wanted to find out sooner rather than later on what's not working, and that it’s okay,” Romero said. Another strategy developed was ensuring that plans had “time-boundness,” where they established timeframes and deadlines for completing projects. “It is not waiting until the middle of school year or end of school year to do a temperature check, but think about six-week, eight-week, 10-week intervals,” he said. The team also implemented the PDSA cycle where they plan, study, act and do.

Last year’s presenters and case studies provided valuable takeaways for the LAUSD team. Interestingly, a case study from a non-education field particularly resonated with Romero. Shon Hiatt, associate professor with USC Marshall School of Business, presented on Southwest Airlines’ ability to continuously improve customer experiences and operational performance. Romero saw parallels in issues from Hiatt’s presentation and how the solutions could be applied in education—progress monitoring, laser-like focus, communication and transparency. In addition, Romero found that USC Rossier Dean Pedro Noguera’s opening remarks, as well as his input and participation during the team sessions, were extremely beneficial. The team also discussed what social justice means to them, ways to expand opportunities for their students and how to address inequities that exist in their schools and in the classroom.

Conversations and connections made during last year’s Breakthrough Leadership Institute continue today for Romero. Throughout the year, he collaborated with other districts and other LAUSD teams, who participated in the program. “I’ve talked quite a bit with other leaders about their plans and work,” he said. At a recent LAUSD senior leadership retreat, Romero and fellow program participant, Robert Whitman, educational transformation officer with LAUSD, both presented plans their separate teams developed last summer.

The Breakthrough Leadership Institute offered Romero the opportunity to collaborate with renowned education experts and researchers to thoroughly examine an issue experienced at their district and develop clear and actionable next steps. “The Institute helped us really go deep about the instructional core in this case for early ed, the interaction between the teacher and student, and the content that we have,” Romero said.

This summer brings big changes for Romero. He will retire from LAUSD after 36 years of service with the district. For educators still in the game, he encourages them to “take advantage of the Breakthrough Leadership Institute.” “It's not often you’re around some of the top education researchers and can think, in a systematic way, about how to improve something and then to have the days to do it,” he said.

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