Mia Williams had been a teacher at various schools in the Seattle School District for seven years when she entered the Danforth Educational Leadership Program in 2000. After graduating from the program including earning a master's degree, she worked as an assistant principal in the district at Salmon Bay and Denny International before securing her self-described dream job as principal of Aki Kurose Middle School in 2008.
Under Williamsí leadership, Aki Kurose has been recognized for fostering student growth and achievement and closing opportunity gaps. She has received several awards, including being named the 2016 Washington State Middle Level Principal of the Year by the Association of Washington School Principals. In this interview, Williams talks about how the core values of the Danforth program helped shape her as an administrator and still guide her day-to-day work.
Why did you choose Danforth, as opposed to other principal preparation programs?
The selection process was rigorous, and I think that's different from most programs. I actually applied to the cohort the year before mine and was not admitted. It was kind of a challenge – I wanted to get in, so I just had to buckle down and refocus. And it was a great teachable moment for my students too, to know that this was something that I was going to continue to go after.
I was told that you could get your credentials to be a principal from anywhere. [But] I really wanted to be a part of this program. I loved the cohort model and I really, really loved the solid core values mission of equity and excellence for all kids.
Can you explain how Danforth's emphasis on core values drew you to the program?
I think for school systems to be successful all stakeholders need to be grounded in common core values. And my core values are aligned with those of the Danforth program. I think equity and excellence is a big part of the social justice focus of Danforth, and just being student centered, being in a collaborative, data-driven process and having the different modules that help lead there.
You mentioned the cohort model that Danforth uses. Can you explain what that brings to the experience?
There are relationships that are built [through] the work that you do together. Your learning is always more enriched when you're working in a group. And you know that everybody who's a part of Danforth has already bought into the core values and has the same message. People came to the program from all over, but we were all there for the same reason – and I think that that was powerful.
Do those relationships with your cohort and other Danforth alumni persist after you graduate?
Yes, they do. You know you can reach out to each other all the time. It's just great because there's already that open door and you have a resource to call, or even for future jobs or other things like that.
One member of my cohort is at Harvard University now, so when I got to go to Harvard with four colleagues from Seattle last June, I was able to pick her brain about best practices in education. She's doing some wonderful work at a higher level so I wanted to touch base with her, and it's really enriched what I'm doing. There are people [from Danforth] all over, even in other states and countries. So I always have somebody to reach out to to stay on top of things.
How is Danforth's integrated internship structure helpful?
That's another thing that really drew me to the program. In a lot of other programs, you do the coursework first and then you do your internship. I really liked that [in Danforth] you were doing the coursework and having class modules right in the midst of doing the [internship] work, so you can actually bring the real-time experience together and get coached through. We can cover problems of practice and the critical frames of our cohort model, and we can draw on each other's first strengths. I really think that's powerful.
Danforth is an intense, one-year program. How were you able to balance all your various responsibilities during that year?
The cohort model works well because you have your study groups together, so you can have help with the academic side of it – you really have your cohort to lean on. And the teachers and instructors were so open; I feel like it was a deeper relationship. They know you so well, you could call them and say, "Hey, this is what's going on," and they work with you. I think it was intense for those 16 months, with [getting] my masters and all of that, but it was well worth it. And it makes it seem more real, because in this leadership role you have to figure out how to balance.
What was the best thing about Danforth for you?
I think it's the whole premise of core values. Danforth makes you dig deep within yourself, to really hone in on doing the thoughtful things that are going to push you as a leader. There's just some basic core values that you're so grounded in as a leader. So whenever I'm faced with a decision I ask, "How does this impact children?" As a leader, it's helped me in my work every day.