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Nevada's Entrepreneurial Spirit and the Formation of the Executive Leadership Academy

Judi Steele, President and CEO of The Public Education Foundation in Nevada will take over the guest blog this week. Before joining The Public Education Foundation, Judi was a fifth-grade teacher in New York, then served as director for special education programs and services and manager of the Office of Development and Education Improvement in Clark County.

As I discussed in my previous blog, an entrepreneurial mindset has fueled success in other sectors by fostering possible solutions to challenges, rewarding great ideas, and promoting iterative improvement in the innovation process. I have seen this in Nevada where testing and expanding ideas has become commonplace. For example, in engineering, we are proud to showcase the Hoover Dam and the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Bypass Bridge. In technology, Nevada is home to Switch, which has designed and built powerful data centers for worldwide telecommunications. In energy, Nevada is home to some of the world's largest solar fields and to Tesla's battery Gigafactory. In healthcare, Nevada is positioned to lead research on memory care among seniors. Certainly, hospitality and tourism are game-changers within our state. With more than 40 million visitors in Las Vegas annually, Nevada continues to reinvent the customer experience in hotels, nightlife, culinary arts, shopping, entertainment, and gaming.

In an age of rapidly accelerating change, this entrepreneurial spirit makes Nevada one of the most innovative places in the world and has the potential to inspire promising ideas for our public schools.

Twenty-seven years ago, I helped co-found and lead The Public Education Foundation, guided by this spirit of innovation and a willingness to take calculated risks in pursuit of bold new thinking and creative approaches to public education. The Foundation was charged to mobilize the community to change schools, catalyze new ideas, generate venture capital, and advocate for excellence in public education. This entrepreneurial spirit continues to guide the Foundation today, as showcased by a track record of establishing public-private partnerships to enhance the community's capacity to deliver results for students.

On this journey, I recognized that to effect real change in tradition-bound systems, we needed leaders with the capacity to move schools and systems in solution-driven directions. In 2000, I proposed a Center for Leadership and Public Policy in Nevada under the Foundation's umbrella. This Center would train education leaders to reinvent schools and develop and grow regional leadership networks to support promising practices. Unfortunately, the idea did not garner traction at the time. As a long-time educator, I learned that good ideas can take shape when the timing is right, so I waited.

In 2010, I was working with the Foundation's Executive Leadership Resident who was completing his doctorate in education leadership. We chatted about leadership curricula and how powerful it could be if business concepts like entrepreneurial and strategic thinking, human capital development, organizational change, and disruptive innovation, could be part of leadership development training for educators. The excitement we both brought to the conversation reignited the passion I had for a new kind of leadership training experience for school and system leaders.

At the time, the local university's leadership development program and Clark County School District's leadership department were being phased out due to budget constraints. It appeared that a perfect opportunity existed to create a new model of leadership training that would include business concepts and practices I had witnessed in the private sector. My colleague and I seized the opportunity to reinvent leadership development for educators in a time of rapid change for the local community.

To do so, we needed to determine what we wanted leaders to know and be able to do as a result of a new program. In partnership with the Clark County School District, we worked for nearly one year with Rick Hess, who later became our senior founding fellow. With Rick's expertise and guidance, we designed our place-based program to complement other national programs and work hand-in-hand with Nevada's school districts. We selected the most promising education leaders across the state, recruited nationally recognized faculty, and in December 2012, launched the Executive Leadership Academy. The Nevada Legislature, which also believed in a new kind of leadership program for the state, invested seed money to launch the Academy. Similarly, private-sector donors invested in the opportunity for the state's school and system leaders to reimagine problem-solving in public education.

The Academy is grounded in business concepts, problem-solving best practices, and statewide professional networks—the very principles I had imagined in the early 2000s. In this time of accelerated change, it is exciting to think about leadership in schools and systems across Nevada. More than 150 alumni from our Academy are solving problems in better, smarter ways for our students. Our alumni hail from metropolitan and rural school districts, traditional and charter schools, the governor's office, the private sector, and other nonprofits. Their entrepreneurial mindset and quest for disruptive innovation provide hopeful promise for the children in public schools across Nevada.

Judi Steele

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