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decorative image of a pull quote with person's photo and title besides it. Reading "Breaking inequitable cycles is what keeps me grounded. It's a key piece of my why."

Giving Scholars a Seat at the Table with Melissa Brookens

By Marilu Aguilar-Moreno
from Aspire’s Talent Team

This month’s spotlight is on one of the Associate Superintendents for the Central Valley Region, Melissa Brookens! After teaching for six years, Brookens completed her principal residency in 2015 and became a school leader at  Aspire APEX Academy for four years. During her tenure, Brookens led the expansion of service to accommodate TK students and their families and reinforced a positive school culture, which supported student and staff retention.

Motivated to serve at a broader scale, she stepped into the role of Regional Director of Principal Development, and recently, she joined the team of Central Valley Superintendents last year, where she supervises and coaches six school principals in instructional programming and leadership development in alignment with the Transformational Leadership Framework.

Kat Ellison, Associate Superintendent for the Central Valley reflects on her colleague’s leadership saying, “Melissa is an amazing leader. I’ve never met someone with such strong adaptive leadership. She knows when to listen, when to push, when to model, when to build, and when to guide. She cares deeply about our community and always puts students first. She exemplifies being a life-long learner, and I learn something new from her every day!”

Brookens was gracious enough to share what inspires her, what keeps her grounded in her work, as well as her leadership philosophy. Below is her story.

What inspired your career in education?
Throughout my childhood, I was determined to be a pediatrician and had set out to go to med school in college because I wanted to help children. However, working as a tutor and classroom aide in a preschool classroom shifted my focus. There was a different love and passion that emerged when I supported students with their homework, which brought me more joy than I realized. I remember clearly one day after doing a read-aloud for the preschool class that I needed to pursue a career in education. Seeing the spark in their eyes when they learned something new or grasped a challenging concept, fueled my passion for educating our youth.

Why did you choose to work at Aspire, and after ten years, what keeps you grounded in this work?
In a previous experience, I questioned whether I would stay in education. Many times, I felt alone in the work and saw that the advocacy for supporting all students was lacking. There were few holistic supports offered to address the underlying factors that influence student behavior.  With Aspire, I was drawn to its mission of College for Certain for all students and its collaborative model with like-minded people who are invested in changing the odds for students. 

Ten years later, I am still very passionate about creating equitable outcomes for our students and, in particular, interrupting the school to prison pipeline. Breaking inequitable cycles is what keeps me grounded in my work it’s a key piece of my why. Our Equity Commitments acknowledge that “this work is enormous and deeply emotional,” so I have also found it extremely vital to have conversations in affinity and across differences, while also keeping in mind the needs of our scholars. In these conversations and within the collective work, I find it critical to continue exploring how we create school environments and design a system where all students are able to achieve at high levels both socio-emotionally and academically, and thus realizing our equity commitments.

Why did you transition from a school principal to coaching principals and how do you approach that dynamic?
I went into my principal residency program with the intention of making an impact beyond the classroom and had a similar motivation when I was ready to shift from being a principal to a leadership coach for a region serving 16 schools. It was also important for me to recognize my identity as a multi-racial (Black/Mexican) woman, leader, and model of excellence for my students. I remember a Black parent once told me how proud they were to see me, a Black woman, as the principal of a school and how meaningful that was for them. That comment brought a new perspective to my role as a principal: it’s not just about me; it’s about giving students who look like me someone to look up to. 

When it comes to coaching principals, I lead with the core principle of always remembering what it was like to be a school leader. I applied the same practice when I was a principal myself; I never forgot what it was like to be a teacher. This helps me understand how decisions will impact scholars, school teammates, teachers, and school leaders, which is an important framework to uphold.

What set of values guide your leadership?
I value transparency, humility, honesty, authenticity, and a commitment to service. Often, I reflect on how I was of service within my role. Operating with that framework brings authenticity to my work and a human touch to everything I do. 

What are you most proud of as an educator and leader?
Seeing the impact of my work in the students I’ve taught and teammates I’ve worked with has been the most rewarding. I love hearing the ways in which they are now making an impact themselves.

What is a lesson you’ve learned or advice you’ve received in your professional career that you’d like to impart on aspiring leaders?
Stay humble, be open to learning about yourself and others through conversation, and be true to who you are. The latter is key to taking care of yourself. It took me a long time and unfortunate circumstances to learn the importance of prioritizing self-care. For anyone going into this work, it is essential to have a self-sustaining practice.

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