It was an unusually chilly September morning at Maple Lawn Elementary School. School had been in session for several weeks and while the anticipation and jitters of the beginning of the school year had worn off, the passion and focus of one of Dallas ISD’s most talented principals was as intense as ever. BRES had the privilege of sitting down with Oscar Aponte, previously the Principal at Onesimo Hernandez Elementary responsible for leading 30+ point gains across contents, making him one of the most effective turnaround principals in one of the largest urban school districts in the country. At the dark 6:00 am hour, an hour high-performing school leaders like Oscar are well-accustomed to, we sat down across from Oscar in his new Maple Lawn Elementary home. We were thrilled to be in the learner’s seat in one of the most valuable classrooms at Maple Lawn, the Principal’s Office.
BRES: Oscar, can you tell us a little bit about who you are outside of your role as Principal?
OA: I really spend most of my time outside of work at home with my family. Our work is busy and so there are the normal chores that I don’t get to until the weekend – for example, our weekly cleaning routine. Of course, I enjoy quiet time with family and enjoy the opportunity to practice piano, and learn new pieces. It’s something I always come back to.
BRES: We noticed the piano in your office. Have you always been a musician?
OA: Yes, for a very long time. Originally, I was going to be a music professor, but ultimately decided to go into education. My parents were educators. My mother taught Special Education and my father was a college math professor. Even as a teenager, I was a teacher. I began giving private piano lessons at the age of 16. I was always teaching a range of ages. It really was a passion for me. I loved teaching – breaking things down for people, making them easy.
BRES: What was your path to educational leadership?
OA: As a classroom teacher, I had the opportunity to work at a low-performing school that ultimately became recognized. We had three different principals in three years. By the third principal, a turnaround principal was brought in. She let go of nearly the entire staff. Only 3 of us remained.
I had the opportunity to see the impact of good leadership – the impact it can make on the entire community. The success was just the most incredible feeling when we were able to turnaround the school. As a teacher, I craved excellence. By my second year teaching, I was leading students to 100% passing rates. I wanted them to believe they could do it.
I started looking to broaden my impact. What if I could impact 700 or 800 kids instead of 22? I decided to pursue my administration certification. Eventually, I worked under Jolee Healey and Dr. Jo Anne Hughes. Their leadership was incredible. I learned so much from them and started to gain more confidence as a school leader through their coaching.
[ A note from the editor here: Ms. Healey, the founding leader of the Dallas ISD ACE program and current Deputy Chief of School Leadership, has been a strong partner of BRES dating back to 2015 and her work in the district has been transformational. BRES also had the privilege of working closely with Dr. Hughes and her schools this past year . We’re excited to see the impact she will have in her new role in the district.]
BRES: When you reflect on your experience at Onesimo Hernandez, what do you attribute your success to?
OA: First, I was a constant learner. I was able to take advantage of the support from the Dallas ISD ACE program and BRES consulting services because I embraced coaching and support – that made all the difference. The level of support our team was able to provide and the systems and structures we set up all helped ensure we were successful.
Prior to my experience at Hernandez, I understood that student and campus culture were important but it was really through the coaching I received that I came to understand how to create strong cultures. I would see exemplars and say, “Oh, that’s what you mean by change your environment.”
Teachers thrived off of the structure, the consistency, the modeling. We inspected what we expected. We built consistency across our entire team. We practiced everything. Everything new we introduced we followed the same cycle: model, practice, model, practice. Just like when I was a teacher, I took great care in helping every one of my teachers be successful through practice.
It can’t be understated how important it was to build a leadership team that was positive and passionate and a team that was willing to give and receive feedback. I couldn’t lead the charge without my team being built around our core values and normed on our expectations.
BRES: It takes tremendous leadership to bring a team to this level of work. How would you describe your leadership style?
OA: For me, it’s about love and service. At the core of everything we do is serving others. Also, when people are afraid, when they say things like “that’s impossible, that’s too hard,” I have to ask them why they are fearful. I say embrace love instead of fear. Give, serve, and love. That’s what it’s about for me.
BRES: I see that in you. You always model everything you expect from your team. You are always excited to receive feedback and exhibit a growth mindset. What core beliefs, mindsets, and skills do you believe your team needs to have to be successful?
OA: We follow two sets of core values, our campus core values and our ACE core values. Our campus core values are:
- Caring – for each other, for the school, for academics
- Family and Team – we are a family and we are a team
- Passion & Purpose – everything needs to be done with passion and purpose
- Perseverance – we never give up even when things are challenging
- Principled – having integrity
- Open-minded – trying new things even in there are not comfortable
- Confidence – with humility
Our ACE core values are:
- High Expectations
- Growth Mindset
- Inspiring relationships
Our core values really drive our work. I believe if you have the heart and you’re smart, we can teach you how to teach. We need our staff to be flexible, to try new things, to be reflective. All of these things contribute to our success.
BRES: I just can’t help but note that I see you doing all of these things. It must be motivating for your team to see you lead by example. What have you been most challenged by?
OA: It will always be difficult to lead adults, particularly adults without a growth mindset. It can require difficult conversations to inspire and motivate teachers to perform . When I first became a principal, supporting teachers without classroom management skills was difficult. For many years, I didn’t know what to do. The coaching I received made a big difference. I was able to see the impact of my feedback for the first time.
BRES: What do you want your success to teach others?
OA: I was always the good student and when I became a teacher I wanted the kids to be the same. However, I had to realize that not all kids were students in the same way I was. Teaching was about how I set kids up to learn, not my beliefs about what type of students they should be. When I was teaching, it was all about practice, practice, practice. If a student didn’t learn, I didn’t do my job. We didn’t practice enough.
Through our success, we are showing kids that they can be successful. Whatever we are teaching, everyone can learn. Every kid deserves to have a good education and the adults are responsible for providing it.
BRES: You said it. What are you most proud of?
OA: The progress we are making in Dallas ISD through the ACE program. It’s great to work with the people that we do.
BRES: I have to agree. It’s inspiring every day. We always close out our interviews by asking what advice you want to pass on to the younger school leaders who aspire to be a leader like you. What advice would you give?
- Find a coach. Having a coach and embracing a growth mindset can make all the difference. You have to be willing to learn and try new things.
- Live by core values. You and your team need to believe collectively in values that bind you together.
- Love what you do. If you don’t love it, find something else. If you have the passion for the work and are struggling, find a coach that can help you improve. Every day has to be intentional.
BRES: Oscar, we couldn’t agree more. Every day, every action has to be intentional. The work needs to be as focused as brain surgery. Mastering the principalship takes time. You have to stay connected to your mission, maintain humility, and know that you don’t have to do it alone.
As we wrapped up our notes and packed our bags to leave, Oscar was already right to work preparing for his day. Like a brain surgeon, his face was focused and his actions so clearly honed and perfected over time. A walk out the front doors was met by Maple Lawn Elementary students joyfully entering their school, a school Oscar ensures is the school that they deserve every single day.