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Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Ex-Navy Chief Gets Executive Education in Urban Schools Leadership

Retired Rear Adm. Jose Betancourt, former commander of Navy Region Southwest in San Diego, spent more than three decades in the military, and savored every minute of it. But he never forgot his other passion , educating children.

“My ambition as a young man was to be a teacher,” he said.

In fact, the Mexican-born Betancourt, who grew up in Brownsville, Texas, taught school for a year before enlisting in the Navy. Now he has come full circle, serving as chief administrative officer for the San Diego Unified School District, and as a new recruit to the prestigious Broad Superintendents Academy.

Now under way, the 10-month executive management program trains top executives from military, business, nonprofit, government and education backgrounds to lead urban public school districts.

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The only program in the country that recruits and trains leaders from industries other than education to become superintendents, the academy is operated by the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, funded by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.

For the first time in the program’s five-year history, half of the 14 members of the 2007 class are high-ranking senior military leaders, including two who currently are working as school district executives.

“I think that some people assume, ‘What does a military officer know about education?’ ” said Betancourt. “It takes similar skill sets to be able to manage a large district.”

In his assignment as commander of Navy Region Southwest, which provides base operating support and services for operating forces and shore activities, he was responsible for a budget of $1 billion and a staff of more than 6,000.

The recipient of several medals, including the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star, Betancourt also served as commander of Mine Warfare Command in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he was responsible for the command of 24 ships and two aircraft squadrons.

“We work with a large number of staff and multimillion-dollar budgets,” he said. “And, military officers bring dedication and discipline to keep people focused on a goal , in this case, to lower achievement gaps in our schools, and support the work our teachers are doing in the classroom.”

Best Practices

Participants at the academy keep their current jobs, and attend seven weekend training sessions, covering education, finance, management, operations and organizational systems , all of which are taught on the chief executive officer level.

The sessions are being held in Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, New Orleans and New York.

A graduate of Broad Academy’s Class of 2006 is Vincent Matthews, the Area 4 superintendent responsible for 27 schools in the San Diego Unified School District.

Matthews, who assumed his post nine months ago, heard about opportunities here after he listened to San Diego Unified Superintendent Carl A. Cohn speak at an academy session in Long Beach.

“He encouraged our class to apply, and I took him up on it,” said Matthews, who said that he uses the knowledge gained from the academy every day. “I am very high on the program.”

Matthews previously served as educator in residence with the NewSchools Venture Fund in San Francisco, a philanthropic organization supporting educational entrepreneurs that helps school districts raise student achievement.

“So often you see people going into a superintendent position, and they don’t have the skills,” he said. “They might be well-intentioned, but you tend to not succeed. Broad gives you the preparation for being successful.”

In agreement is a 2005 member of the Broad Academy, Angela Bass, executive director of the Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Education at the San Diego Unified School District.

In her job, Bass focuses on everything from improving management techniques and boosting community and business support, to raising employee morale and student achievement.

What she learned at the Broad Academy is helping her in that role, said Bass.

“It showed us how to have a business perspective and be more efficient, thinking out of the box,” she said. “We tend to think traditionally.”

A former teacher, principal and assistant superintendent, Bass aspires to be a superintendent one day, and said that Broad has given her the tools.

“It’s a tremendous program,” she said. “It is one of the best adult-learning experiences out there. It gave me a national perspective, learning about what is happening across the country in large urban districts. It also helps develop relationships with those who share a passion for improving public education.”

Equally enthused is Class of 2007’s Betancourt, 58, who said that he intends to explore the best practices in school districts throughout the country.

“I hope to make this my calling for the rest of my life,” he said. “I have a passion for what I do. With all the problems we have managing big districts, it always charges me up to visit schools and see teachers doing a wonderful job with young children.”

At the end of the program, the Broad Center will help place participants in urban school districts as superintendents and senior executives. Sixty percent of the graduates of the first five classes have been hired around the country as superintendents or school district executives, or have been promoted into those positions.

Academy Director Arlene Ackerman calls Betancourt “a wonderful man.”

“I admire him greatly,” she said. “We see him as one of our new stars.”

She had the opportunity to observe him, along with the other 350 applicants who were vying for the 14 slots, at a grueling 12-hour recruitment session , a sort of boot camp for future top educators.

Ackerman, herself, rose through the educational ranks in a more traditional fashion, she said. Also serving as the Christian A. Johnson professor of outstanding educational practice at Columbia University, she has worked in public education for more than three decades. Her leadership roles include stints as superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, and of the Washington, D.C., public school system.

“We have learned that it is possible for people to be successful in leading large complex school systems, even if they come from nontraditional fields,” said Ackerman. “If they have a proven track record, they can transfer those skills. Our main goal with the Broad Center is to raise student achievement. Strong public school systems make strong communities.”

Betancourt, who is 15 months into a three-year contract with San Diego City Schools, said that he is committed to San Diego for the time being. But, he added, “If there were a district in the future that would want the kind of leadership that I offer, I would jump at it.”

Sink Or Swim

Betancourt has been jumping into challenges his whole life , both metaphorically and literally. For instance, when he enlisted in the Navy, Betancourt didn’t know how to swim. He learned fast.

“They made you jump off of platforms , 17 feet high,” he recalled. “You jump in fully clothed, and the clothes weigh you down. But you learn how to use different parts of your apparel to float.”

As a youngster, Betancourt also found himself in sink-or-swim situations. At the age of 10, he immigrated with his parents to Texas, leaving the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, as a fourth-grader, but starting out at his new school as a first-grader.

“I didn’t speak a single word of English,” he recalled. “But I was a wizard in math, and I did very well. I attended a poor little school, but there was an insistence on learning reading and writing. In one year, I was able to be advanced with my contemporaries and learned English.”

His English-speaking cousins served as his tutors, drilling him every day on his ABCs.

“I would stand in front of the mirror reading aloud to myself, so that I would pronounce every word properly,” Betancourt recalled.

But he also credits the public school system, and his teachers, for his progress.

“Despite the fact that I was very poor, I had the opportunity to go to college, and didn’t let money hold me back,” he said. “My teachers saw the potential in me. Everything I have accomplished in my life, I owe to public school systems. My dad was a truck driver and laborer, and my mother was a housemaid. I wouldn’t have achieved what I have without the benefits of free public education.”

He holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and English from the University of Texas at Edinburgh; a master’s degree in international security affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts; and a master’s degree in industrial management from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C.

“I am just an average guy, but it goes to show, if I can succeed, anybody can succeed,” said Betancourt, who resides in Chula Vista.

Down To Business

Betancourt views his work in the district as similar to what executives face in the private sector. He manages a budget of $1.2 billion in a district that serves more than 134,000 students in more than 200 schools. He is responsible for the supervision and execution of business operations, facilities management, safety and security, and financial operations.

“We face many of the same challenges that businesses do,” he said. “There is never enough to go around, and it’s always a matter of prioritizing what is most important to school districts.”

But school districts can’t do the job alone, said Betancourt, who is calling on the business community to help carry the load.

“A business can contribute, offering either in-kind or financial support,” he said. “Every businessperson in San Diego should understand the importance of preparing young people to enter the marketplace. Our whole economy depends on it. I am a passionate believer that education should be everyone’s business , including businesspeople.”

In the meantime, Betancourt is happy to keep on keeping on. “Even on my worst day, dealing with the most pressing of issues, my biggest satisfaction is when I walk into a classroom, and I see children learning. This charges me up and keeps me going.”


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