DU Alumni

Education program helps principal become a ‘turnaround leader’

Doris Candelarie is principal of Alicia Sanchez Elementary in Lafayette, Colo. Photo courtesy of Cliff Grassmick/Daily Camera

Doris Candelarie is principal of Alicia Sanchez Elementary in Lafayette, Colo. Photo courtesy of Cliff Grassmick/Daily Camera

A longtime teacher and principal and central office administrator in Colorado’s Brighton school district, Doris Candelarie was looking for a way to make even more of an impact on education when she entered the PhD program in educational leadership at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education nine years ago.

“I really wanted to see what it took to actually turn around a school,” says Candelarie, who worked as executive director of school effectiveness for Brighton schools at the time. “I wanted to get back to the principalship and study it because I felt like what I was seeing in those schools at the time was that it was the principal’s leadership that really made a difference if a school was successful or not.

“I was really interested in proving that high-poverty schools, high-minority schools could perform at high levels,” she says. “I really wanted to prove that it could be done. I believed in my heart that it could be done. I had been studying the theories behind school reform at DU for quite a while, and I wanted to go to a school and live it and feel it and really know what the challenges were and what it took to turn it around.”

Read more about the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program at the Morgridge College of Education

Eight years ago, when she took a job as principal at Alicia Sanchez Elementary in Lafayette, Colo., Candelarie was able to hit the ground running. She transformed the struggling, low-income elementary school in the Boulder Valley School District into an International Baccalaureate school known as much for fostering a sense of community as for academics. She found nearly $2 million in grants to fund programs; she created a community learning and family resource center that provides additional hours of learning for students and their families; and she turned over 50 percent of her teaching staff and replaced them with instructors ready to roll up their sleeves.

“We’re in our fourth year with that staff, and when people interview me, I say, ‘Come to my building — you can feel it,’” she says. “You can feel the energy in the school. It’s palpable. We’re making a difference. We’re changing the life outcomes for these children.”

For her efforts at Sanchez, Candelarie was named the 2014 Colorado National Distinguished Principal of the Year by the Colorado Association of Elementary School Principals. She went to Washington in October to accept the award, which she says is a testament not only to the hard work she and her staff have done in the school and surrounding community, but to the quality of the education she received at the University of Denver.

“When I was getting my PhD from DU, I decided to study the attributes of turnaround leaders, and I created my own theory of the attributes of turnaround leaders in my study,” she says. “I actually took that theory and applied it to this school and have been really striving to lead in that way and to utilize those attributes — and if I didn’t have them, to develop them in myself. I feel like that has been a big influence on the change that we’ve seen.”

Candelarie had also completed the coursework for her principal’s license through the DU program in 2001, but at that time principal preparation was very different from what it is currently. Today, the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program (ELPS) has transformed leadership preparation into real-world leadership work. Candelarie now serves as an adjunct professor for a cohort in the award-winning ELPS principal preparation program. She uses her research and experiences to help students apply learning regarding transformative leadership with such projects as the organizational diagnosis — a project in which students examine the different facets that influence a school, including culture, demographics, achievement data, parent engagement and community engagement.





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