In the first 10 minutes of his interview, Benjamin Soria sheepishly confesses he didn't fill out his application for the American Association of School Administrators' Superintendent of the Year award. It's not his nature to chase accolades, though it's pretty obvious he'd chase down anything in the way of his district's success. However, his school board president was retiring after 12 years on the committee and three years of failing to convince a humble, deserving Soria to apply. He had one last hope of his superintendent agreeing to a team-effort approach for casting his nomination.
So Soria (pronounced "SOR-ee-ah") edited an application that his senior staff and board created. "What was amazing was how well they captured what I stood for," he says, "what I believe in and what we have accomplished."
Soria may not have taken home the top prize, but his actions and drive have made him a winner in Yakima. At 65, even his speech transmits his intensity for the city and for turning it from a failing district to one that, for the first time, has seven out of 10 fourth graders passing the reading WASL.
Systemic change: Bent on not effecting change one school at a time, Soria's vision has been toward systemic change; how could he choose to improve one school over another? From involving parents to training staff, by 2008 Yakima will reach a multitude of academic goals outlined in its roadmap to success. "I don't know if we truly believed it could be accomplished. But with these results, we're proving indeed that all kids can learn."
How it happened: "When I arrived in Yakima ... not much [data] was available for knowing how well we were doing, or weren't," says Soria. Worse, the staff and community were in denial of how bad things really were. In 2001, Soria and the district developed a roadmap for student improvement. The milestones include all third graders reading at level by 2007, and all students proficient in the WASL by 2008.
Change, from the bottom up: It was hard for staff and community to admit the district needed an overhaul. With a demographic that in 15 years changed from largely white to 60 percent minority-but with a curriculum that stayed the same-Yakima was in a pretty big hole.
Change, from the inside out: "How do you begin to discuss with staff the need to look at [their] curricula?" asks Soria. "You cannot dictate improvement." So Yakima hired Focus on Results to provide leadership training to staff at every school and to turn the system from a school-centered decision-making structure to having an instructional-leadership team working with each principal.
What was in the application: "Tenacious" is how his colleagues described him, and Soria doesn't deny it. "If I set out to do something, unless there's some catastrophic act of God preventing me, I'm going to stay with it."
Of his fellow runners-up: "I was very impressed; they were all quality people. I was very humbled to be with them."
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.