Innovative Partnerships Help to Create Equal Opportunities

By Robert Low

Leading for Equity: Changing Lives and Realizing Dreams with No Exceptions edWebinar recording link

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Preparing all students for college and 21st century careers can no longer be the sole responsibility of K-12 educators. Increasingly, district administrators need to add another task to their already long checklists—forging partnerships with organizations that can supplement and enhance the education being provided by local schools.

Two superintendents from different parts of the country, Dr. Lupita Hightower of the Tolleson Elementary School District in Arizona, and Dr. Gladys Cruz of the Questar III Board of Cooperative Educational Services in New York, explained during a recent edWebinar hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, how partnerships with other organizations were helping students achieve their goals by enabling districts to provide more comprehensive solutions.

Interactive Community Support

For the Tolleson K-8 school district in the Phoenix area, community support is essential for funding needed programs and the district is committed to providing great services to its community. With Arizona providing one of the lowest levels of per-pupil allocations in the nation, having a local community that supports and approves school bonds has allowed the district to provide a high-quality curriculum for its students, about 80% of whom are identified as Latinx.

The level of community support is all the more remarkable because 85% of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, so there is a strong commitment to funding education despite the financial challenges community members face. The district provides a variety of services to families and other community members in return, making the participants partners in the education process.

Parents and other community members have access to a range of classes through the school district, including nutrition and English as a second language, which is one of the most popular. There is also an Academic Parent-Teacher Training program, in which teachers and caregivers review a student’s data together, and then the teacher provides training and guidance for family members to work with the student at home.

The Tolleson district’s focus on providing excellent customer service to its families is explicit and uses the acronym GREAT:

  • Greeting all students and family members
  • Respecting cultural and personal differences
  • Evaluating how students and families want to be served
  • Adjusting approaches to match needs
  • Thanking everyone sincerely

A survey at the end of each school year determines which district organizations have done a great job, and which ones need to improve in specific areas.

Prior to the current focus on the links between education and health care, Dr. Hightower was also able to develop a partnership with a local hospital chain to create a clinic that provides preventative services and referrals, whether or not the students have health insurance. In addition, partnerships with Arizona State University and other post-secondary institutions help students learn about colleges and prepare to succeed in them. Volunteer readers from the American Association of Retired People also work with students.

In regard to careers, the Tolleson school district teaches its students to “time travel” into the future in order to get them thinking, dreaming, and visualizing as early as possible. Students are prompted to consider possible careers, what type of home and family life they would like, what type of community they want to live in, and what type of community service they want to provide. Then, there are opportunities to interact with community members, as well as educators, who can help the students achieve the outcomes they want.

Cooperating on Careers and Leadership

As Superintendent of one of New York State’s Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Dr. Cruz and her Questar staff support 23 school districts and work directly or indirectly with over 30,000 students. Questar also has more than 400 business partners who work with the staff on “preparing students for what they want to do next.”

Questar’s Career and Technical Education program has more than 700 students in it and emphasizes hands-on work in fields ranging from automotive repair and aviation to scientific research and world health. The program has more than 200 partnerships that assist with the designing of curricula and equipment to meet industry standards, so students can develop up-to-date workforce skills and attain industry credentials.

More than 99% of the students also pass New York’s Regents Exams and graduate with a high school diploma, even though some 30-40% have Individualized Education Plans due to their special needs. More than half of the students go on to college.

Questar also has its own Tech Valley High School, which draws students from local districts on a non-selective lottery basis. In addition to college and career readiness, the school also focuses on providing an “inclusive and equitable environment through continuous improvement,” and treats and assesses collaboration, communication, and teamwork as essential skills.

More than 40 business partners help to design and support project-based learning at the school, which is located on a state university campus. The topics of recent projects have ranged from bioengineering to how geometry is used in architecture. Students can get an associate degree through partner colleges while still in high school.

Dr. Cruz noted these and other partnerships with businesses and post-secondary institutions create opportunities for students to interact with positive role models, increase their understanding of different types of organizations, and refine skills that will be needed for future success.

This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.

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About the Presenters

Over a 30 + year span, Dr. Gladys I. Cruz has established a distinguished career in education as a teacher and leader at the local, regional and state levels.
As District Superintendent for Questar III, Cruz is responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations of the Castleton-based BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services), reporting directly to the Board of Education. Along, with her leadership team, Cruz provides direction to 23 local school districts and oversees the delivery of more than 300 programs and services across New York State.
Since joining Questar III BOCES in 1998, Cruz has held a number of leadership positions including Chief Operating Officer/Deputy Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, Director of School Improvement and BETAC Specialist.
Cruz holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and a master’s degree in Curriculum Development and Instructional Technology from the State University of New York at Albany. In addition, she holds a master’s degree in Bilingual Education and a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and English from La Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Lupita Hightower is the Superintendent of Tolleson Elementary School District in Tolleson, Arizona. Lupita believes that together we make a difference and through expecting excellence and inspiring innovation, students will achieve greatness. Working with staff, parents and the greater community, Lupita leads through a focus on collaboration, adapting and implementing effective ideas, maintaining a flexible and innovative school environment, responding to the needs of each and every parent and student, and building strong relationships to support our families and community.

Dr. Hightower earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation from Arizona State University. In 2019, Lupita was the Arizona School Superintendent of the Year Award for mid-size school districts, the National Latinx Superintendent of the Year, and the Cox Communications Hispanic Heritage Awardee. Dr. Hightower shares, “I am blessed to work in the field of education! I want to make sure that our students receive the preparation and opportunities they deserve to make their dreams for the future possible!”

About the Host

Prior to joining Oak Park Elementary District 97 in Illinois, Dr. Carol Kelley spent three years as the superintendent of schools for the Branchburg Township School District in New Jersey. Before that, she served as the director for curriculum and instruction for Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey for three years. She was also a middle school teacher and principal in New Jersey for a number of years.

Dr. Kelley received her bachelor’s degree and doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She also holds an MBA from the University of Virginia.

Dr. Kelley is an exemplary superintendent who received her bachelor’s degree and doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She also holds an MBA from the University of Virginia. She has more than 25 years of progressive experience in K-12 educational settings with a background highlighted by professional training and achievement in the areas of education, product and service management. Mastery knowledge of evidence-based instructional practices with demonstrated ability for building collaborative relationships to support teachers and administration in raising student achievement are areas of focus. Dr. Kelley is deeply committed to playing a critical role in improving the academic and social success of ALL students.

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The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.


Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.