In the Summer of 2020, with the world still reeling from COVID and widespread shutdowns, Lilian Villarreal welcomed her first child into the world. At the same time, she was beginning her first principalship at Augusto Guerra Elementary in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD (PSJA) in the Rio Grande Valley.
Becoming a first-time principal and mother at the same time would be scary under any circumstances. But that year? Who even knew what school would look like in the fall?
Lilian was starting to regret that she had also said yes to a third big commitment – The Holdsworth Center’s 2-year Campus Leadership Program, which she’d heard was as intense as the master’s degree she’d just earned from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“I was literally carrying a 7-day-old baby around during the first learning session on Zoom. New mom, new principal, new to Holdsworth – I was thinking, ‘Why did I do this?’”
Great leaders, great decisions
Today, Lilian couldn’t be more thankful for the timing. At Holdsworth, she received support through executive coaching and a group of peers from across Texas, the opportunity to focus on what her school needed and the tools to create positive change.
“It’s like the staff at Holdsworth get into your mind and know exactly what you need. They open your eyes to things you don’t see,” she said.
Within two years, Villarreal turned a campus that, in her words, “needed a lot of love,” into an A-rated school where students are thriving.
And Villarreal is not alone. Since beginning the 5-year Holdsworth Partnership in 2017, 75 district and school leaders in PSJA have completed the Center’s two-year programs to build stronger leaders. Those stronger leaders have made a huge impact on the district’s 30,000 students, the vast majority from low-income families.
In a historic showing this year, 17 of the district’s 42 schools earned an A rating under the state’s accountability system, and the district earned an A overall.
“It’s a tribute to a great team effort and to the work we did with Holdsworth,” said PSJA Superintendent Dr. Jorge Arredondo. “If we build great leaders, they will make great decisions for the organization.”
PSJA Board Member Jesse Zambrano agreed:
“Because of the investment Holdsworth has made in PSJA and the caliber of people at the organization, it helped our district deliver better results for students.”
The Spirit of PSJA
Like all districts in the Holdsworth Partnership, PSJA started the work of building a pipeline of stronger leaders in 2017 by defining the characteristics of great leadership.
The Spirit of PSJA, as it’s called, describes what it means to build relationships, communicate effectively and a host of other skills.
Because it was created using Holdsworth’s collaborative process – which includes voices from across the district – staff embraced it as authentically theirs, not a mandate from on high.
Spirit of PSJA became the foundation for staff awards, performance evaluations, coaching and hiring.
Then in 2019, longtime superintendent Danny King retired, and the board hired Dr. Jorge Arredondo as the new leader. In January 2020, Arredondo brought on Dr. Rudy Trevino to serve as chief academic officer.
Though Arredondo and Trevino knew little about the Holdsworth Partnership going in, what they saw impressed them.
“Coming from Houston ISD, one of the tasks was for me to learn what was working well. Holdsworth was something I saw as a gem,” Arredondo said.
Trevino agreed: “We walked into this amazing inner fabric of our district with everyone talking the same language of our leadership definition, the Spirit of PSJA. It was evident that it was deeply rooted.”
But the duo barely had time to get their feet wet before COVID hit.
The perfect message
Overwhelmed with managing the district’s pandemic response, Arredondo and Trevino asked Holdsworth for help with another important initiative – setting a new mission and vision for the district.
Holdsworth’s team of embedded consultants designed a process that included a wide range of voices from inside the district and among the community.
After many months of focus groups, meetings and wordsmithing, the final vision statement resonated in a community where many families are recent immigrants and still working hard to establish financial security: Every PSJA student is prepared to participate, compete and excel in a global society to foster multi-generational prosperity.
“It had to be the perfect words to send the perfect message,” said Dr. Nora Rivas-Garza, executive officer for secondary schools and an alum of the Holdsworth District Leadership Program.
The process gave Trevino and Arredondo a chance to see Holdsworth practices in action, from the way consultants ran meetings and facilitated conversations to the growth mindset and collaborative nature of leaders who had gone through Holdsworth programs.
Holdsworth consultant Dr. Pat Baccellieri played an instrumental role in helping guide leaders through a difficult time.
“He had this art to facilitating high-level discussions when we were still battling COVID and emotions were high. Having Pat lead was a great way for me to be an active learner, an equal with my colleagues instead of a boss,” Trevino said. “That still shapes the way we meet.”
As a result of her Holdsworth experience, Principal Lilian Villarreal wanted to spread the things she learned to those around her at PSJA.
One of those key concepts was that leadership isn’t just about achieving the goal, it’s about building capacity in others – building collaborative teams, building skill in individuals, empowering them to do their best work. If you’re locked only on goals and ignore the complex needs of the team, your efforts will fall flat, she said.
At Holdsworth, she felt staff truly cared about her and saw her first as a human being and not as her role. They allowed for moments of self-reflection and movement, which all humans need to focus on and process deep learning.
“My style of providing professional development has completely changed,” Villarreal said. “Before, I would have started with data on the first slide. Now I start with some movement, reflection and mindfulness. The success I’ve had is that our teachers love to come to work. And we see that in our student results.”
Because of leaders like Villarreal, Nora Rivas-Garza sees this shift toward more people-focused leadership happening across the district.
“The legacy of Holdsworth is going to continue because it’s been instilled in so many people. Culture is difficult to change, but once you change it, you can never go back. We have become a better, stronger, A-rated district and I honestly attribute that to our partnership with Holdsworth,” she said.
Superintendent Arredondo agrees. He sees a deeper and stronger bench of leaders at PSJA, and is ready to take it to the next level:
“We continue to look at ways to deepen our bench. We never see ourselves as having arrived. Being an A district is a big accomplishment, but that’s not what we started our journey to do. We want our students to be able to compete and excel in a global society. That is what we are chasing every day.”