Alicia Perez-Katz (MSEd ’06) is currently serving as a Principal Ambassador Fellow in Washington, DC. This unique fellowship brings local principals to our nation’s capital for one year, allowing them to work alongside the U.S. Secretary of Education and other top officials to contribute to the national dialogue on public education.
Perez-Katz chatted with BCAM about her time so far as a Fellow, how her time at Baruch prepared her for her career, and why education is such a vital field.
What made you want to apply to become a Principal Ambassador Fellow, and what was that process like?
I never imagined that one day I would be a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). When I look back to where I was a year ago, I was busy running my school—meeting with teachers, students, and parents. One day last year, when I rode the train to work, I read my principals’ weekly newsletter and that’s where I first saw the information to apply to become a Teaching or Principal Ambassador Fellow. I am always reading education articles and thinking about what new ideas will help my students improve. I was interested in opportunities to learn and grow.
So, I applied.
The application process was no joke. The written application required me to think strategically about who I am as an educator and what I have accomplished in my career. The phone interview that followed had me thinking on my feet, talking about what I believe matters in education and why being a fellow could make a bigger difference. The final round involved both an in-person, one-on-one interview and a fishbowl-style interview with other applicants. I had to exhibit all the skills needed to lead: communicate clearly, be a team player, and work in a fast-paced environment.
As a teacher, my first love was impacting my students in the classroom. Then, I found I could provide opportunities for all students’ learning by leading a school. Now, I am looking at what policies shape our educational landscape for the country. This is exciting work!
As a Principal Ambassador Fellow at ED, I get to share what has led me to be an educator for my entire career. It’s a unique opportunity, and well worth all the steps to get here.
How have you enjoyed the experience of being a Fellow so far?
I have been able to sit on committees, such as policy committee, where I am a voting member on policy decisions. To me, that is the most relevant, inspiring work. I work with the 12 other teacher and principal fellows to get their feedback to the policy at hand and share their and our collective thoughts in the committee. The idea is that practitioners who are seeing how policy plays out in education at the ground level can have a voice.
Why did you decide to study at Baruch for your graduate degree in education administration?
I am the principal at Baruch College Campus High School, so I was familiar with Baruch, as we were housed in Baruch itself at the time (in the Field Building at 17 Lexington Avenue and before that on 18th Street). Additionally, I was asked to apply for a selective program at the time called the ALPS program (Aspiring Leaders Program), which was a collaboration between Baruch College and District 2. All courses were co-taught by Baruch professors and District 2 principals, so that you had a real perspective of theory and practice. I truly felt that this program helped prepare me for the rigors of being a principal.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned at Baruch, whether through a class or another experience?
I will never forget the ‘Inbox Activity,’ which was in one of my classes led by Fay Pallen, who was running the ALPS program and had been a principal in District 2 for many years. We had a short amount of time and a large pile of to-dos (this was before the internet, mind you, so there were a lot of memos and phone messages). We had to prioritize what to attend to first and what could wait: Do you talk to the angry parent insisting on meeting with you? Do you call back the social worker about an open case at your school? Do you take time to review data and write up findings on the progress of your students? This was the most real exercise I ever encountered in school. Being a building principal means you are continually bombarded from every direction and must have vision, focus, and know what to address at the moment and what can wait.
What is your biggest piece of advice for aspiring teachers and principals?
A new report by the Wallace Foundation came out this fall, and through my work at the Department of Education, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a session on this report and meet with Dr. Paul Manna, the researcher. The report, titled Developing Excellent School Principals to Advance Teaching and Learning: Considerations for State Policy, focuses on how the principal is the key lever in school reform. In it, he writes, “Principals are powerful multipliers of effective teaching.” This is critical and so important! Teachers and principals need the space to be innovative and take risks to help improve outcomes for students.
Finally, what do you hope to do after your time as a Principal Ambassador Fellow?
I will return to my school next year to ensure that they are in good hands. This fellowship was an amazing opportunity to expand my perspective of education, and I am looking forward to bringing my new knowledge back to my school and community.