Superintendent Philip Alfano shares the benefits of his doctoral degree with his faculty, schools, community
Philip Alfano, Ed.D., had just moved from assistant superintendent to superintendent of Patterson Joint Unified School District when he enrolled in Brandman University’s Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership program.
“When I found out Brandman was offering a doctoral program, I jumped,” said Alfano. In negotiating his contract with the Patterson school board, he had asked for support for his education. “It wasn’t a tough sell. We all knew it would make me a better leader.”
How much better? Alfano credits the Brandman program with taking him from thinking of leadership as becoming a better manager to focusing on visionary ideas that put his Central California school district on the road to improvement and first-of-their-kind programs.
Alfano is passing along the benefits of his Ed.D. program by encouraging others on his administrative staff to further their careers with a Brandman education. Arturo Duran, a principal at Grayson Elementary School in Patterson, completed his M.A. in Education in 2017. Alma Romo, the principal of Patterson’s Walnut Grove K-8 School, is due to finish hers in August.
Romo began working on her master’s degree at another university 10 years ago but couldn’t find a way to juggle that, her job and a newborn so stopped after getting an administrative credential.
“Our superintendent has always shared his educational journey with his administrators – what he gained and learned and how it influenced him. After hearing Phil, I realized the time was right to finish my master’s,” said Romo.
Just as Alfano launched programs based on his Ed.D. coursework and dissertation, Romo sees the immediate benefit of her master’s program emphasizing educational administration.
Her current class on educational democracy inspired her to look more deeply at ways to address discipline problems. With a better understanding of how to use data the school collects and working from the Democratic Action Plan she was creating for her class, Romo and her team reworked their approach. That includes conflict resolution programs and a check-in, check-out program for students who seemed to be spending more time in the office than in the classroom.
“Every morning they check in with a staff member to make sure they’re starting off right. Every afternoon they check out with the same staff member and talk about what they can improve the next day,” she said. “They see there’s a caring staff member, and it makes a difference.”
“What I’m learning has helped me grow as an administrator and make a difference in our school,” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone back to school if it wasn’t for Phil.”
“I believe in what Brandman is doing,” said Alfano. “It’s the best program around for aspiring administrators. I think it helped me as a superintendent to see the bigger picture. The university uses the term transformational leadership, and I really see that.”
Turning ideas into action
Alfano started putting his doctoral degree program to use in school and community almost immediately. His cohort from Modesto won the Value This! Tournament in 2015. The tournament, held each year among new Ed.D. students, has students find innovative ways to use an ordinary object (wire coat hangers in 2014-15) to add value to their communities. Alfano’s team turned them into drying racks for lavender to benefit the Rising Sun School and Farm in his district.
That project continues through today. “You wouldn’t believe the transformation,” said Alfano. Lavender harvested and dried by the students, ages 18-22, all of them with disabilities, has been turned into candles, soap and potpourri to benefit the school. Those funds enabled the school to build lunch shelters and make other improvements.
Alfano’s next Ed.D. challenge was the Transformational Change Project that second-year students complete. They’re required to create a plan for an organization or community and then launch it.
Alfano’s project was to develop a new professional development structure and along with it career and education components. A direct outgrowth of that effort was United Patterson dedicated to “supporting an infrastructure that strives to continually improve the lives of community members by promoting higher education, economic diversification and growth through cooperative solutions.”
One goal, as detailed in a Modesto Bee video, was to get students to think about college plans from as early as kindergarten. One after another, students at various grade levels, announce what they hope to do after high school, mostly the college they hope to attend but also the Army.
“I have to get good grades for myself so I can go to college,” an eighth-grader says in one scene. Younger student chant the names of universities they hope to attend, and others study the math needed to understand student loans.
The initiative brought together 60 businesses, faith-based organizations, civic groups, city and county governments to back post-secondary education for all students. “This is huge,” said Alfano.
Working with business partners such as Amazon and CVS, the district created the first program in California for teaching logistics and supply chain at the secondary education level.
“Students run an operating distribution center. They learn to operate six or seven types of lift trucks. They learn about robotic systems – all the latest technology in that industry,” he said.
The program prepares students for work immediately after high school. At the same time, the companies are committed to providing them with tuition assistance if they work there for a year, enabling those students to continue their educations. “They’re chomping at the bit to get our students,” said Alfano.
Another program gives high school seniors access to a commercial truck driving program through the use of simulators. When students turn 18, they’re eligible to finish the training and earn a commercial license. It’s a benefit, said Alfano, even to students more likely to go on to a four-year college. They qualify for summer jobs as short-haul truckers and can earn enough to pay a semester’s worth of tuition.
“I don’t think I would have had the foresight to do that without the curriculum in the Ed.D. program. Certainly, the focus on what it means to be a visionary leader with aspirational goals, not just managerial goals, made a difference,” said Alfano.
Honing communication skills
Having goals is one thing. Getting others to share them is another. “Part of transformational leadership is the ability to see and tell your board, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to happen in one year or possibly even in the lifecycle of a five-year plan.’ You have to share that long-term vision and understand the need for course correction and ongoing monitoring. You have to make changes sometimes but don’t lose sight of that vision,” said Alfano.
That’s something he’s also hoping the students in his district learn. Rather than focusing on test scores, he wants the district to focus on graduation rates, on students developing plans for after they graduate and then monitoring their progress, even after they graduate.
Doing that takes more than a teacher or a school or even a district. It takes a community that wants its young people to succeed. For Alfano, some of that starts with shaping the school district so that every supervisor – from the cafeteria to himself – aligns their team goals and have the resources to meet them. It’s part of the Local Control Accountability Plan, but for Alfano, it’s more than a plan on a paper.
“Brandman helped me see how you can get everyone rowing in the same direction.”
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