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Newspaper Honors Urban School Leaders in Houston, Tulsa and Palm Beach

  • The lead nutritionist in the Houston Independent School District, the chief financial officer in Tulsa Public Schools and the head of human resources in Florida’s School District of Palm Beach County are among Education Week’s dozen winners of its 2020 “Leaders to Learn From” competition. 

    “These leading-edge district leaders seized on smart ideas, executed them skillfully, and are seeing promising results for students and schools,” the publication said in announcing the winners. 

    Betti Wiggins, nutrition services officer of the Houston school system, won kudos for leading the transition from two decades of vendor service to an in-house system to serve more than 200,000 students in nearly 300 schools. Betti Wiggins Graeme Sloan/Education Week

    Since her arrival in 2017, Wiggins has sought to serve students good food that is nutritious and locally sourced, with “food literacy” as a key goal, according to a district release. She led her department in feeding families in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, secured free meals for all students, added salad bars to most schools and is beginning to offer students free meals during winter and summer breaks.   

    In 2018, Time magazine named her one of the 50 “most influential people in health care.” She previously led food services in the Detroit public schools.  

    One of Wiggins’ “leader lessons” cited by Education Week is to go “beyond the plate” and find ways to use meal periods to support students’ social and academic development. 

    Tulsa CFO 

    The leader to learn from in the Tulsa Public Schools is Nolberto Delgadillo, the district’s chief financial officer. 

    He won the distinction for his willingness to open the books to the public, seeking input in community meetings and using social media to gather suggestions about how to cut more than $20 million from a $325 million budget.  

    “These are going to be contentious conversations,” Delgadillo said. “At the same time, it’s needed. How do we engage with the public, dismiss myths, and demystify school finance?” Nolberto Delgadillo Mike Simons/Education Week

    Delgadillo, a former health-care professional from Compton, Calif., who has been in Tulsa for two years, also won praise for improving the district’s relationship with Mexican immigrant and black communities.  

    One of the lessons he shared: Have perspective. “It’s so easy to get caught up in one’s own world and point of view, particularly if you are not in a classroom. So the more we authentically listen and humbly engage both adults and students, the more capable we’ll be to serve, coalesce, and as important, the better we’ll understand the why behind our beliefs,” he told Education Week

    Palm Beach Chief of Human Resources  

    In the School District of Palm Beach County, Gonzalo La Cava, chief of human resources, won praise for his efforts since his hiring in 2016 to boost staff diversity and attract nontraditional candidates to the teaching profession. Efforts include recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, with chambers of commerce and even overseas. He also has sought to expand affordable housing for teachers in the expensive Palm Beach housing market. 

    One lesson he shared: “If you are going into a large system, you’re going to have to disrupt things that have been going on for a long time.”  Gonzalo La Ava Josh Ritchie/Education Week

    In one initiative, district employees – called HR Partners – are trained in recruitment and retention strategies and how to support job candidates who may need alternative certification. In another, teachers in some schools receive a $5,000 annual stipend to aid teacher applicants through the hiring process and to mentor new hires through their first year. 

    The district has seen a 43 percent growth in three years in hiring black and Hispanic teachers. The district’s instructional staff is 64 percent white, 18 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic, less diverse than the student body, which is 27 percent black and 36 percent Hispanic.  

    La Cava told Education Week his role is clear: “What can I do better to make sure that those students who don’t have a voice have a great teacher, a great school, and a community that is a product of that school?”