Principled Leadership

by Evelyn Barge

On any given school day, students quickly spot Rosalinda Keeler ’03, M.A. ’05, along the walkways between buildings at Valleydale Elementary. They dash toward her to offer greetings and hugs, spouting details of classroom activities and home life.

A little more than two miles north, at Victor Hodge Elementary, a similar scene plays out as Victoria Velasquez ’89, M.A. ’09, strides across the breezeway with a classroom of kindergarteners in tow.

In August 2012, both women officially assumed principalships at their respective Azusa schools. Between the two, Keeler and Velasquez serve more than 1,000 kindergarten through fifth-grade students in the Azusa Unified School District (AUSD). While Keeler and Velasquez have risen through the ranks of leadership locally, their reach represents just a sliver of the influence Azusa Pacific’s School of Education graduates impart in their schools, districts, and educational settings across California and nationwide.

In the past two years alone, more than 200 school districts across Southern California have contracted to place APU teachers-in-training. “Accreditation and credentialing reports testify to the fact that our graduates love their jobs and perform well in them,” said Anita Fitzgerald Henck, Ph.D., dean of the School of Education. “What’s more, most of our students are the first in their family to earn a graduate degree. The transformative nature of an APU education spreads, first through graduates’ own families and neighborhoods, and then out into the schools and teaching communities where they are making a lasting impression on young scholars.”

An emerging demand for well-trained educators means that APU graduates face an even more fertile job market in the near future. While the education field—and public schools in particular —bowed under the weight of economic turmoil, change is on the horizon. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education released a report outlining the dire need for quality teacher education programs to recruit and equip the next generation of educators. In that report, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that 1.6 million teachers are expected to retire over the coming decade, posing the significant challenge of increasing the number of newcomers to the field while improving educational quality and preventing gaps in service to students across the nation.

Equal to the task, the School of Education emphasizes preparing educators—not just traditional classroom teachers—and its academic programs reflect the depth and breadth of the field itself. “Time and time again, superintendents and principals tell me that when they see the résumé of a graduate from APU’s School of Education, they know they will be meeting a highly prepared, caring professional that will be an asset to their school and district,” said Henck.

That reputation represents years of hard work and dedication for Keeler and Velasquez, now the highest administrators within each of their Azusa elementary schools. Both earned undergraduate degrees at APU before returning to earn master’s degrees and, for Velasquez, also teaching and administrative credentials. “The teaching community in Azusa is so dedicated, and there’s a real desire to give back,” said Velasquez, a 23-year AUSD veteran. “Many of the teachers on staff are themselves products of local Azusa schools and Azusa Pacific University.”

Attending a private Christian university once seemed an impossible feat for Keeler, the daughter of migrant farm workers who settled into a Santa Cruz home near the library to encourage their kids to learn and love reading. Velasquez also never imagined that anything but a state college would fall within her reach. The news of acceptance to Azusa Pacific and corresponding financial support proved a turning point for both future educators.

During her years as an APU student, Keeler became, if not always a familiar face, a very familiar voice around the APU campus as a switchboard operator. She recalled many late nights spent studying in her office, the only quiet place she could claim while simultaneously working toward a degree and raising a family.

For Velasquez, the early ministry opportunities she experienced as an undergraduate student through Mexico Outreach and the Peach Factory laid the foundation for her current role. “The best part is looking back and seeing that every step along the way—even those that seemed overwhelming or unrelated at the time—has prepared me to do my best in this position,” said Velasquez.

At the end of each day full of new challenges, Keeler and Velasquez agree that strong school leadership requires unwavering commitment to a singular goal: helping all students receive the best education possible. In other words, making sure students at every level can access the same opportunities they enjoyed.

“Every child deserves that,” said Keeler. “It’s about the kids, always, because we change our communities from the inside out.”

Originally published in the Spring '13 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.