Leadership and Policy in Schools, 10:428–443, 2011
Copyright ©Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1570-0763 print/1744-5043 online
Leadership Succession and Successful
Leadership: The Case of Laura Martinez
ENCARNACIÓN GARZA Jr., ELIZABETH MURAKAMI-RAMALHO,
and BETTY MERCHANT
University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas, USA
This case study follows the work of principal Laura Martinez as
moving from leading Stevens Elementary for 9 years, and now
opening a new P–8th grade academy in the same south Texas
urban, inner-city district. The purpose of this case study was to
observe successful leadership and the principal’s strategies both in
her previous and present school, and how she applied some of the
same practices in the new school to establish an exemplary campus.
The purpose of this case study was to observe successful leadership based
on a case study of one principal experiencing a transition to a new school.
The study documents the principal both in her previous and present schools,
and illustrates how she implemented some of the practices from her former
school in the new school to establish an exemplary campus. In deﬁning
successful leadership, Møller et al. (2007) remind us that:
What counts as successful leadership should not be separated from
deeper philosophical and political questions because education is essen-
tially a moral enterprise. Success always requires that we ask: Success in
or for what? Success for whom? Who beneﬁts? And ﬁnally, success under
what conditions? (p. 83)
Address correspondence to Encarnación Garza Jr., University of Texas at San Antonio,
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, 1 UTSA Circle, San Antonio, TX
78249, USA. E-mail: email@example.com
The Case of Laura Martinez 429
These important questions provided a useful framework for examining the
leadership of the principal featured in our case study.
This study was developed as part of a larger study within the International
Successful School Principalship Project (ISSPP) (Day, 2005; Leithwood, 2005;
Leithwood & Reihl, 2005). The ISSPP is an ongoing, multiple-perspective,
international research project investigating successful principals and their
schools since 2001. To date, more than 100 case studies have been devel-
oped in more than 14 countries, making this project the largest and most
enduring research network of scholars in school leadership. Initial studies
developed by the ISSPP researchers explored multiple perspectives of lead-
ership in primary and secondary schools in different countries, and focused
on the personal and professional competencies of successful school leaders
(Day, Harris, Hadﬁeld, Tolley, & Beresford, 2000), within diverse cultural,
social, and economic settings.
Over the span of six years, ﬁve core leadership practices consis-
tently emerged from the cases developed in eight countries (Australia,
New Zealand, United States of America, China, Denmark, Norway, Sweden,
United Kingdom). These practices were: (1) setting directions, building a
vision and maintaining high expectations; (2) developing people, obtain-
ing their trust and support, and expanding their capacity; (3) redesigning
the organization to distribute leadership in a safe and collaborative envi-
ronment; (4) managing instructional programs through productive forms
of faculty engagement and providing needed resources; and (5) coalition
building with internal and external stakeholders (Day & Leithwood, 2007).
Other studies derived from the ISSPP scholars observed the effects
of high-stakes testing on principals. Researchers in England (Day, 2007),
Canada (Belchetz & Leithwood, 2007), and Australia (Gurr & Drysdale, 2007;
Mulford, 2007) observed the pressures and tensions experienced by contem-
porary principals, as a consequence of high-stakes testing and accountability
expectations. The stress appeared to emanate primarily from political and
managerial demands associated with governmental educational reforms.
Additional case studies also identiﬁed leaders as “caught in the crossﬁre
between conﬂicting demands for accountability from different stakeholders”
(Day & Leithwood, 2007, p. 177). These studies include: Denmark (Moos,
Krejsler, Kofod, & Jensen, 2007), Sweden (Höög, Johansson, & Olofsson,
2009), and Norway (Møller et al., 2007).
With respect to high-stakes testing in the United States, Texas was one
of the ﬁrst states in the nation to implement a broad-based accountabil-
ity system that was closely linked to high-stakes assessment. Because of
the persistent differences in the performance of various groups of students
430 Encarnación Garza Jr. et al.
on these high-stakes exams, particularly Hispanics and Whites, successful
school leadership in Texas is often equated with eliminating the achieve-
ment gaps between these two groups of students (e.g., González, 2001).
Principals who have accomplished this hold high expectations for student
achievement, employ qualiﬁed and trained personnel, and maintain a pos-
itive organizational culture and focus on community building and staff
empowerment (Skrla, McKenzie, & Scheurich, 2007; Valverde & Scribner,
In selecting a principal for our case study, we focused on schools in
south Texas that had been recognized by the state for the academic success
of students from low-income families who were at risk of dropping out of
school. From a pool of ten such principals, we selected two who managed
to sustain a high level of student achievement in public schools that serve
low-income, predominantly Hispanic children between six and ten years of
age (Murakami, Garza, & Merchant, 2010). One of the two successful princi-
pals in our study retired in 2010, while the other was invited to open a new
school in the district at a time in which the district was experiencing consid-
erable economic and political turmoil. It is this principal who is featured in
our case study.
This study was developed using an exploratory case study design (Yin,
2008) and ethnographic approach to isolate the sociohistorical narrative of
the principal (Gee, 1999), reﬂecting our belief that “narratives cannot be
separated from the sociocultural and sociohistorical contexts from which
they emerged” (Johnson & Golombek, 2002, p. 5). In this case study, we
highlight the importance of analyzing sociocultural discourses and consider
the important contribution of a socially mediated view of one’s experience.
We report the data using a historical case study because this type of research
is useful when “how” or “why” questions are asked, so that it provides the
reader with a description of a contemporary phenomenon within a real-life
context. We use pseudonyms for the principal, district administrators, and
schools described in our case study.
We purposefully selected schools with a campus student composi-
tion of 75 percent or higher of economically disadvantaged students. The
Texas Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS) Report (Texas Education
Agency [TEA], 2010) helped us identify schools that demonstrated continu-
ous or incremental successful student performance on the Texas Assessment
of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) from 2003 to 2010. The TAKS is a Texas state
exam that evaluates students at different levels in primary and secondary
levels in reading, writing, English, language arts, mathematics, science, and
social studies, as demonstrated in Table 1.
The Case of Laura Martinez 431
TABLE 1 TAKS Tests by Grades and Subjects.
Grade Tests (offered in English and some in Spanish)
3 Math Reading
4 Math Reading Writing
5 Math Reading Science
6 Math Reading
7 Math Reading Writing
8 Math Reading Science Social Studies
9 Math Reading
10 Math English & Language Arts Science Social Studies
Exit Level Math English & Language Arts Science Social Studies
Source: Texas Education Agency (2009a).
TABLE 2 AEIS Accountability Standards.
Exemplary For every subject, at least 90% of the tested students pass the
Recognized For every subject, at least 75% of the tested students pass the
Academically Acceptable Reading/ELA—At least 70% of the tested students pass the
Writing—At least 70% of the tested students pass the test
Social Studies—At least 70% of the tested students pass the
Mathematics—At least 55% of the tested students pass the test
Science—At least 50% of the tested students pass the test
Source: Texas Education Agency (2009a).
In addition, the AEIS reports disaggregate the data showing the per-
formance of students according to ethnicity, economically disadvantaged
students (who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch), and at-risk students
(those presenting a risk of dropping out of school). Based on the testing
results, the AEIS report shows the performance of each school using the
accountability standards shown in Table 2.
By design, our intent was to study principals serving in a geographic
area with a high concentration of Hispanics. The research site for this study,
Mira Vista Independent School District (MVISD), is located in a city of
1.5 million inhabitants in south Texas. The local demographics for Hispanics
are signiﬁcantly more acute than the national statistics. Hispanics represent
about 60 percent of the city’s population. MVISD is an urban school dis-
trict with 110 schools and an enrollment of 55,086 (TEA, 2010). Hispanic
students comprise 90% of the district’s enrollment, of which 68% are classi-
ﬁed as at-risk, 93% are economically disadvantaged, and 16% receive special
education services (TEA, 2010).
The principal described in this case, Laura Martinez, was identiﬁed
within a pool of successful principals serving large Hispanic communities
432 Encarnación Garza Jr. et al.
in an inner-city public school district in south Texas. She had led her pre-
vious school, Stephens Elementary, to a rating of Academically Acceptable
or above according to the Texas’ AEIS. In addition, her teachers, the par-
ents of her students, and her professional peers at local, regional, and
national networks and professional associations, all recognized her as a
successful leader. In both Stephens Elementary and Mira Vista Elementary,
Laura Martinez served a large number of Hispanic students from low-income
families who were at risk of dropping out of school.
LAURA MARTINEZ: RESILIENCE IN OVERCOMING LOW
Laura Martinez is a product of the Mira Vista Independent School District
(MVISD), located in the middle of a large urban city in south Texas, the
district in which she has served as an educator all her professional life. She
was born deep in the inner city in a community commonly referred to as
the “Westside.” Ms. Martinez is an only child to parents who emigrated from
Mexico in the early 1950s. Upon their arrival from Mexico, her parents rented
a home and a few years later bought a home in the Stephens Elementary
They lived in the district all their lives and Ms. Martinez attended and
graduated from MVISD schools. Her parents were very involved with her
education during her elementary years; they encouraged her and supported
her the best way they knew. However, they could not protect her from
the low expectations imposed on students like Ms. Martinez in high school.
In high school, her counselor told her that she was not college material:
I don’t know that college was a priority in my life when I graduated
because I remember hearing over and over again that I just wasn’t college
going to go to college because I was told I was probably not going to
She was encouraged, like so many of her classmates, to consider secre-
tarial work, and she was enrolled in shorthand and typing classes. In spite of
the lack of guidance and support from school, Ms. Martinez went to junior
college after graduating from high school:
I went to college and found out that everything they told me was kind
of true. I had to take remedial courses and everybody I knew was in
the class taking remedial courses. And nobody really prepared us for
college. I don’t know if it was because we’re Hispanic . . . I don’t know
The Case of Laura Martinez 433
because I wasn’t a failing student, but still I did show up and I went.
Yeah I did go. I went to college for about a year only.
Ms. Martinez quit college and went to work for the MVISD as a librarian
aide at one of the inner-city middle schools. After about a year on the job,
she took pregnancy leave for what she thought would be a few months, but
she did not return to the district until 18 years later:
my husband I needed to go back and do what I’ve always wanted to be,
and that was a teacher. I wanted to go back to school and get my degree
Once Ms. Martinez decided she was going back to college, she was
totally committed to her studies. She enrolled in a private university and
earned her bachelor’s in less than three years. Without taking a break, she
enrolled in graduate school and earned a master’s degree, with a major in
curriculum and instruction. In addition, Ms. Martinez continued with her
studies and earned a second master’s degree in administration and bilingual
Ms. Martinez was determined to come back to start her teaching career
in the MVISD. Even though the private university she attended did not place
any of their student teachers in this district, she found a way to get them to
approve her student teacher placement in the MVISD.
I got my bachelor’s degree and I said. . . I want to work with the MVISD
district and they said no, the school we’re wanting you to go to is in the
Suburb School District...KnowingthatmyheartwasoverhereIwanted
to come back to MVISD, I drove myself up to an MVISD elementary. . .
spoke to the principal and I told him “I’m getting ready to do student
teaching and I’d really like to do it in your school”. . . He introduced me
to a teacher there and I started student teaching there.
ON A PATH TO A SUCCESSFUL PRINCIPALSHIP
Laura Martinez’s path to the principalship was not traditional. She took time
to raise her children as a stay-at-home mother and did not earn her bache-
lor’s degree until she was in her thirties. Ms. Martinez applied and was hired
as an elementary teacher at Stephens and served only three years before
she was encouraged to apply for an assistant principal position. She served
as an assistant principal for three years, and then her principal decided to
retire. She expressed interest in the position of principal, but her principal
434 Encarnación Garza Jr. et al.
told her she was not ready and would not recommend her. Instead, he was
going to support and recommend the curriculum instruction coordinator.
Despite her principal’s lack of support, Ms. Martinez submitted her
application anyway. While the decision was being considered, she was
reassigned to another campus to serve as assistant principal. She did not
have much hope that her application would be seriously considered, so
she accepted the challenge of her new assignment and decided that she
would make the best of this new opportunity. While attending a working
breakfast with her new principal at a local restaurant, she unexpectedly met
the superintendent. She knew who he was but had never met him person-
ally. Her principal introduced her to the superintendent, they shook hands,
exchanged a few words, and he left. A few minutes later, the cashier came
to their table asking for Ms. Martinez. “Not more than 15, 20 minutes later
the cashier comes to me, the girl at the register comes to the table and she
says are you Ms. Martinez? Yes, you have a phone call.” She had no idea
who it could possibly be because nobody knew she was at this restaurant.
To her surprise, it was superintendent asking her to come to his ofﬁce. Her
principal told her she was going to be a principal if the superintendent was
calling her personally. She was nervous; she did not know why he wanted
to meet with her:
Mr. Alvarez says, “You’re going to be principal,” and I said “Mr. Alvarez,
if you only knew the problems I was having with the other principal. . .
I don’t know, I don’t think so,” maybe there’s something else going on.
I was real nervous about the visit. Dr. Gonzalez opens the door and I
walk in to meet with him. . . he says “So you’re Laura Martinez?. . . You’ve
the teachers. They want you back as principal at Stephens. Do you want
to be principal at Stephens?” “Yes I do sir. Yes I do!”
The superintendent told her that he was going to recommend her at the
school board meeting that same evening and warned her not to tell anyone.
The school board accepted the superintendent’s recommendation and Laura
Martinez became principal at Stephens Elementary.
Ms. Martinez served as principal at Stephens Elementary for eight years.
Through her leadership, the school achieved exemplary ratings according to
the state accountability system. Stephens Elementary sits in an old, pleasant
neighborhood in the southeast side of the city and its mission reads: We,
the Stephens Community, envision the opportunity to provide students the
skills necessary to meet their educational needs for lifelong learning. The
promotion of community relationships were signiﬁcant in the displays at
Laura Martinez’s ofﬁce, where a poster announced the upcoming Dad and
Daughter Dance, for which godfathers, grandfathers, uncles, and dads sign
up to dance with students at the annual Fall Festival.
The Case of Laura Martinez 435
TABLE 3 Stephens Elementary State Accountability Ratings, and Academic Improvement
Accountability ratings School improvement indicators∗
2003–04 Academically Acceptable 2004 64%
2004–05 Academically Acceptable 2005 61%
2005–06 Academically Acceptable 2006 62%
2006–07 Recognized 2007 81%
2007–08 Recognized 2008 82%
2008–09 Exemplary 2009 81%
2009–10 Recognized 2010 80%
Campus Improv +24%
∗Based on Texas Education Agency (TEA; 2010).
During Ms. Martinez’s tenure at Stephens Elementary School, the student
population was classiﬁed as 95% Hispanic, 92% economically disadvantaged,
18% limited English proﬁciency, and 51% at risk, with a student mobility rate
of 16% (TEA, 2010). Table 3 provides the school’s accountability ratings and
school improvement indicators from 2004 to 2010.
The 35 staff members at Steele serve an average of 400 children from
pre-kindergarten through grade ﬁve. In addition to the regular curriculum,
the school offers before- and after-school extended day programs, gifted and
talented, and special-education programs. Colorful instructional posters and
creative student work decorate the sun-lit hallways. She was highly regarded,
respected, and trusted by teachers, students, parents, and community. After
a very successful tenure as principal at Stephens Elementary, Ms. Martinez
decided it was time for a new challenge and applied for the principal’s
position in a new school that was in its ﬁnal stages of construction.
PRINCIPALSHIP SUCCESSION: THE TRANSITION
TO A NEW SCHOOL
Transitions are not easy. Ms. Martinez had to say goodbye to the staff that
was “staying behind” while also preparing to assume her new position and
welcome a new staff into a brand new school. The ﬁrst challenge she faced
was the difﬁcult task of informing her staff that she was a ﬁnalist for the
principal’s position at the new campus about to be opened. She hadn’t yet
told them anything because she didn’t want to worry them needlessly if she
didn’t make it to this point in the selection process.
Then I had to tell my staff. . . I had to bring them together right before the
Christmas break. . . Right now it’ll even bring tears to my eyes. I said. . .
I’m one of the three ﬁnalists and I saw tears...Isaid,“Youknow,I
don’t know if it’s going to be me. I’m just wanting you to know that it
436 Encarnación Garza Jr. et al.
may happen and it’s not because I don’t care about all we’ve done here
or care of what you’ve done for our kids here but perhaps it’s written in
Ms. Martinez was one of 13 applicants and one of seven who were selected
for interviews. After the ﬁrst screening, she was selected as one of the three
ﬁnalists. This was when the possibility of change started to become a reality
for Ms. Martinez. “So at that point. . . it all of a sudden hit me, I may not
come back to Stephens.”
She was notiﬁed that she had been selected to be the ﬁrst principal
at Grande Academy in February 2008. The transition process was acceler-
ated; she was instructed to make arrangements to leave Stephens Elementary
immediately. The transition was not well planned; district administrators
wanted her to separate from Stephens as soon as possible but they pro-
vided little information about where she would go and what she would do
during this transition:
They call me and they said. . . “We want you out so let’s go right now,”
which was a total shock to me because I thought I was going to stay
the full year. Where was I going to go? So I left and I had no place to
go, so I swear to God I’m telling the truth, I walked over there, I had a
notebook in my hand. I walked into Anne’s [supervisor] ofﬁce. . . “I’m
here what am I supposed to do?” “Well I don’t have room for you here.
I don’t know where you’re going to go.” I had no place to go. No place
Ms. Martinez’ transition to her new position was not a good experience.
There was little or no support from the central ofﬁce; her supervisor did not
take the time or make any effort to welcome her or to ﬁnd a working space
for her. There was no plan for transition; Ms. Martinez had to ﬁgure it out on
her own. She had always been successful because of her proactive stance,
persistence, and resiliency. She realized that, ﬁrst, she needed a place to
work from as she planned and prepared for her new job. Without any help
from her supervisor, she went looking for ofﬁce space on her own:
So I go down there [downstairs]. Not a desk. There was a desk there and
it was broken, all lopsided, I went and stuck a phonebook under it and
kept it. I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t have a computer.
It was February and she had eight months to go before her new campus
would open its doors to its students. She spent most of her time overseeing
the ﬁnal stage of building construction, and she provided input regard-
ing classroom design and space, and classroom and ofﬁce furniture. She
The Case of Laura Martinez 437
reviewed attendance boundaries, stafﬁng needs, and worked on the budget
to make sure that all materials, supplies, and technology needs were secured.
OPENING GRANDE ACADEMY: BUILDING PURPOSE AND A
CULTURE OF RESILIENCE
Laura Martinez is now in her third year as principal at Grande Academy. It is
the only new campus built in MVISD since 1966. The campus sits close to
one of the 13 historical frontier missions build in 1718 by the Franciscans,
the Spanish colonizers, and Native Americans along the city’s river. As a
result, the students decorated the campus using the theme of its rich local
history. This campus is designated as an academy, meaning that it serves
grades PK–8, while other elementary schools in the district serve grades PK–
5. During the ﬁrst year of operation (2008–09), the school served only grades
PK–6. Grades 7 and 8 were phased in one year at a time. According to the
state Academic Excellence Indicator System (Texas Education Agency [TEA],
2009b, 2010), total enrollment the ﬁrst year (2008–09) was 425 in grades
PK–6. The total enrollment in the second year (2009–10) was 570, and in
this year (2010–11) is averaging 620.
The ﬁrst year, most of the students came from schools that were closed
due to low enrollment and many came because of redrawn attendance
boundaries. Although most students were excited about coming to a new
campus, many parents were not happy about their neighborhood schools
being closed. The school was no longer close to their homes and they did
not like it: “. . .The children that I inherited are so far from the school they
are really closer to their other campus, they live. . .like all the way down to
the next county, so there is no transportation.”
Ms. Martinez understood and worked with the parents to make them
feel welcome and invited. The children adapted quickly, but the adults,
including parents and especially the teachers, resisted the change. This has
been a constant challenge for Ms. Martinez. Initially, she thought, it was
going to be exciting to open a new school and select all the teachers and
staff. She was really hoping to bring teachers from her former school. She
quickly realized that before she could hire any new teachers, she would
ﬁrst be required to absorb all the surplus teachers from the six elementary
schools that were being shut down, as well as the other schools that lost
enrollment because of redrawn attendance boundaries. Principals who lost
teachers took advantage of this as an opportunity to “get rid” of their less-
effective teachers. Ms. Martinez had no choice but to accept all the teachers
reassigned to her campus.
I never had an opportunity to at least interview some of the teachers. The
principal [former] was having problems with the majority of the teachers
438 Encarnación Garza Jr. et al.
that were sent over. So they were like handpicked [by principals who
essentially told them] “If you’re causing me problems you’re going. . .”
In the ﬁrst year, all the teachers came from another campus; she did not hire
any teachers of her choice: “They didn’t allow me to bring anybody from
Stephens. They said it would be a conﬂict.”
Once again, Ms. Martinez did not feel supported by her supervisor dur-
ing the stafﬁng process. She expected her supervisor to help her get the
school off to a good start, but she got the sense that she did not want her
ported by my. . .the person that I’m supposed to rely on to say, you know
we want to make sure this is going to be a successful school.” Most teach-
ers were resistant, they did not want to be there, and they manifested their
. . . It truly was a battle every step of the way. Anything I wanted to
do just wasn’t right. It looked like everything that I was doing, that I
wanted to do just wasn’t good enough, that I was not going to replace
that principal they had.
Although she was frustrated and challenged by the attitudes of the teachers,
she knew that she needed to acknowledge their concerns and feelings. She
decided that in order to move ahead, she had to nurture her teachers and
gain their trust and support:
were comparing me [to their previous principal]. “That’s not the way we
did things” [they’d say]. . . When we met I said, “I want you all to submit
anything that you did at your other school that you feel we should do
here because I want to make this ours.”
Ms. Martinez created an environment of collaboration, but she was also clear
about her expectations:
I had to create an environment. I had to create a culture; I had to some-
how together come up with the rules, the expectations. I had to share
with them the things I’ve done at my school and I said I’m not willing nor
will I stop at any measures not to be exemplary. We will be exemplary.
Although they came from low-performing, from acceptable, recognized
campuses, none of them had ever experienced exemplary.
Three years later, Ms. Martinez is happy to report that Grande Academy
has earned an exemplary rating in both the years since it opened. This is
commendable, given all the challenges she has had to deal with and the
The Case of Laura Martinez 439
TABLE 4 Grande Academy State Accountability Ratings and
Academic Improvement Indicators
Accountability ratings School improvement indicators∗
2008–09 Exemplary 2009 79%
2009–10 Recognized 2010 76%
Campus Improv +32%
∗Based on Texas Education Agency (TEA; 2010).
lack of support from her supervisor. The most recent demographic data
for Grande Academy classiﬁes the student population as 87% Hispanic, 84%
economically disadvantaged, 4% limited English proﬁciency, and 45% at risk,
with a student mobility rate of 28% (TEA, 2010). Table 4 provides the school’s
accountability ratings and school improvement indicators for the two years
it has been open.
It is evident that Ms. Martinez’s leadership is a major reason for the
success of this campus. Her commitment to children is non-negotiable; she
demanded and earned the same commitment from her teachers, students,
and parents. Her loyalty to the district and passion to serve in this community
is evident: “I want to tell you in spite of everything. . .in spite of all the lack
of support that I’ve experienced, my heart is in this district. I love this district
with a passion.”
Ms. Martinez was born in this school district, this is where she went
to school, and this is where she will work until she decides to retire. She
expressed what she hoped she would be remembered for and the legacy
she hopes to establish:
Well, what I would truly like to leave is pride in the students. I want the
students to feel proud to say they were here at Grande. . .that they had
good experiences. I want them to be proud of where they are and who
Under Ms. Martinez’s leadership, her previous school, Stephens
Elementary, was an exemplary campus several years during her eight-year
tenure and she must be given credit for the sustained success the new prin-
cipal has achieved. It is commendable that Ms. Martinez has achieved the
same level of success at Grande Academy.
The case of Laura Martinez provides important insights into the qualities that
distinguish a leader whose success is not tied to a speciﬁc context, but is
reﬂected in both of the schools in which she has served as principal. In the
440 Encarnación Garza Jr. et al.
ﬁrst instance, the school was well established, with a long-serving principal
whose retirement created an opening for her. The second school, and the
one in which she still serves, is a new school, the ﬁrst in 45 years to be built
in the district.
At Stephens Elementary, she assumed the leadership of teachers with
whom she had worked for three years, whereas at Grande Academy, she
was forced to absorb faculty whose schools had been closed because of low
enrollment or redrawn attendance boundaries. Whereas she enjoyed a high
level of collegiality with the teachers at Stephens, she faced a largely hostile
group of teachers at Grande who were extremely upset at being involuntarily
assigned to her. Similarly, Ms. Martinez left an enthusiastic and supportive
group of parents at Stephens, only to encounter a group of parents who
were very unhappy about the school being located so far from their homes.
Interestingly, and perhaps signiﬁcantly, Ms. Martinez viewed the children at
both schools as happy, with most of those at Grande excited about going to
a new campus.
Although Ms. Martinez was discouraged from applying for the
principalship of Stephens Elementary by the retiring principal, she applied
anyway. While her eventual selection as principal of Stephens was a result
of the superintendent’s direct intervention in the process, his decision simply
acknowledged the good will that Ms. Martinez had already generated as a
teacher at the school. Whereas Ms. Martinez also initiated an application for
the principal’s position at Grande Academy, her selection was the outcome
of a more conventional interview process.
In trying to understand the factors that have contributed to Ms.
Martinez’s success as a principal, we are struck by the strong sense of per-
sonal efﬁcacy that Ms. Martinez displayed early on, when she enrolled in
junior college despite her high school counselor’s exhortation that she was
not “college material.” The fact that her parents were very supportive and
involved in her schooling undoubtedly strengthened Ms. Marinez’s resolve
to achieve higher educational goals than those suggested by her teachers or
counselors. Despite the fact that she left college after a year, she remained
committed to becoming a teacher, and after 18 years of marriage and sev-
eral children, she entered a four-year college in her late 30s, completed
her bachelor’s degree in less than three years, and, without a break in her
studies, went on to earn the ﬁrst of two master’s degrees. Not only was
she able to enjoy the unwavering support of her parents, she also had the
encouragement and support of her husband.
In considering the nature and extent of support she received from
her district, the direct intervention of the superintendent was certainly
instrumental in obtaining her ﬁrst principalship, but he played no obvi-
ous role in her being selected for the second principalship. There was,
however, one individual from the district’s central ofﬁce who played a
The Case of Laura Martinez 441
signiﬁcant, albeit highly negative, role in Ms. Martinez’s efforts to lead her
new school. The direct supervisor assigned to her was extremely unsup-
portive during her transition to Grande Academy, but Ms. Martinez never
informed the superintendent about her conﬂicts with this supervisor. Instead,
she waged a seemingly unending battle with her the ﬁrst year, in order
to obtain vital supplies and the additional teachers needed to respond
to the school’s growing student population. Ms. Martinez found ways to
secure the resources she needed, but the stress associated with the lack of
support from her supervisor exacted a signiﬁcant toll on her that was evi-
dent in her conversations with us. Fortunately, a different supervisor was
assigned to her this year, and the relationship between them is proceeding
With respect to the teachers who were involuntarily assigned to her,
rather than becoming confrontational with them, Ms. Martinez made a con-
scious effort to understand their concerns and actively sought ways of easing
their transition to the school. Asking the teachers to share the things that
worked well in their previous schools, for example, gave them an oppor-
tunity to integrate some of their favorite activities and procedures into their
new environment. This respectful and sensitive approach to her teachers
was critical to her ability to co-create an environment in which everyone felt
welcome and valued.
Ms. Martinez continues to be deeply involved in her community, and
knows the families of all of her students. She organizes social events at the
school that attract large, enthusiastic crowds of people, and she participates
in the activities that the community sponsors. She is well known by parents
and is immediately recognized as she moves about the community.
We undertook this case study for the purpose of achieving a better
understanding of the factors that have contributed to Ms. Martinez’s success
as a principal of two schools in very different circumstances. Although there
were signiﬁcant differences in how she described her initial experiences with
the parents and teachers in each of the schools, she described the children
in both schools as “excited” about being there. We believe that her uniform
perception of the children is strong evidence of her predisposition to view
all students in a respectful and positive manner. This belief in the students
permeates the culture of Ms. Martinez’s schools and signiﬁcantly shapes the
interactions of faculty, staff, and students within these schools.
In identifying other themes that emerged from our research, we believe
that Ms. Martinez’s success as a principal is rooted in a strong sense of self-
efﬁcacy that is nurtured by a supportive family, a passionate and unwavering
commitment to her students, and a strong belief in the importance of reach-
ing out to community members to enlist their assistance in promoting high
standards for their children. Less so, but still important, is the fact that Ms.
Martinez’s superintendent was attentive to the parents in her ﬁrst school,
442 Encarnación Garza Jr. et al.
responsive to their positive opinions of her, and willing to use his authority
to appoint her to her ﬁrst position as principal.
After reviewing the ﬁndings from this case study, we conclude that,
more than any single factor, it is the combination of the factors described
above that that has contributed to Ms. Martinez’s ability to effect consistently
high levels of student performance and to earn continued recognition from
the state for the academic achievement of the students in the schools she
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