After a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in her district, Lora de la Cruz EdD ’16, superintendent of the Lake Oswego School District near Portland, Oregon, was one of the first superintendents in the country to close her school buildings and shift to online learning. As such, the CU Denver alum and her team were front-runners in creating responses and messaging as the gravity of the pandemic was beginning to set in.
On Feb. 28, at 5:30 p.m., she received a phone call from public health authorities notifying her of the emergency. Her cabinet and board were updated immediately. She worked until midnight with her communications director to put out the first of many notifications to students and their families. They extended spring break and transitioned to full-time distance learning.
“We needed to learn how to connect with our students while educating remotely during really challenging circumstances,” said de la Cruz. The first individual who tested positive was hospitalized and on a respirator for three months. It was an extremely worrisome time.
De la Cruz is a leader who values human connection, service to others, integrity, and diversity. “Every human being has a need to feel that they are heard and valued and that they matter. So, I always begin from that place in any leadership position and any decision making,” she said.
Her path to becoming a superintendent started at an early age. De la Cruz’s mother was enrolled in teacher education classes during evenings and summers, and she brought her daughter along because childcare was not in her budget. Her mother, a Mexican immigrant who received her U.S. citizenship more than 40 years ago, was a single mom of five children after her husband died in the Vietnam War. “We watched her go after her greatest dream, which was to engage in higher education to become an educator. What it modeled for us is that education has the power to change your life. It changed our life trajectory,” said de la Cruz.
Determined to become an educator herself, de la Cruz’s career path took her from elementary teacher to assistant principal to principal to area superintendent, and finally to superintendent. “I never forget that experience of being in the classroom, as well as having the incredible responsibility of making decisions for thousands of people across the system,” she said.
She uses a distributed leadership model and takes intentional steps to build connection, trust, and opportunities for collaborative decision making, implementation, and action. “My board, students, parents, community members, and I are passionate about racial justice, climate justice, and educational equity. We have worked together to create an antiracism resolution, which I know many school districts have done. And while words matter, they don’t matter as much as actions. I’m proud that our resolution codifies actions that we are committing to as a district. We support changing the lens through which our district delivers educational programs that are more infused with very contemporary but long-lasting issues.”
Her experiences in the School of Education and Human Development’s Leadership for Educational Organizations (LEO) program continue to resonate, particularly noting LEO’s dynamic and diverse cohorts that remain in close contact after graduation, faculty who are cognizant about the needs of working adults and parents, opportunities to develop the fine art of giving professional presentations, and strong curriculum built around collaborating with school boards, policymakers, and lawyers.
Dr. Rodney Blunck, her doctoral faculty mentor, said that de la Cruz is “an outstanding member of the LEO Executive Leadership alumni. She exemplifies the professional and personal virtues of compassion, scholarship, dignity, and grace. Lora has and will continue to positively impact students, faculty, and communities for many years to come.”
“It’s critical for educators to not only enter the field but to keep pursuing our passions,” said de la Cruz. “Each of us has something unique and important that needs to be contributed to the field of education. Whether it’s a certification or a license or the next degree, go for it! We can never go wrong when we are pursuing the next level of educating ourselves. That contributes to building a stronger community.”