From Scottsdale to Harvard: Principal begins prestigious leadership program

Lance Huffman, recent Cocopah Middle School principal, and Coronado High School graduate was accepted to a Harvard doctoral program beginning this fall. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Being an educator has had a profound effect on longtime Scottsdale resident Lance Huffman.

Mr. Huffman contends the profound effect his career in education has had on him thus far has awakened a desire to be an agent of change for the better within the halls of Scottsdale Schools.

A graduate of Coronado High School, with 19-years teaching experience and four years serving as a principal — most recently at Cocopah Middle School — Mr. Huffman has been greatly impacted by the state of education in Arizona.

The thousands of students he has met throughout countless classes have inspired him to pursue becoming an educational change leader in the K-12 public education system.

His journey within the Scottsdale Unified School District and several years at Westview High School in the Tolleson Union High School District has led the longtime educator to Harvard University.

In August, Mr. Huffman will be one of 25 students beginning a three-year doctoral program on education leadership at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

“Honestly, I don’t think I found it because I was looking for a doctoral program,” Mr. Huffman said of the Ivy League opportunity. “I think I found this program because of what it focused on and what I was looking for at that time.”

20 years in education

Mr. Huffman grew up in south Scottsdale, and went on to receive his bachelor’s degree at the University of California before earning his master’s degree from the University of Phoenix.

He points to more than 20 years of working with disadvantaged students at Title I schools — schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families, which receive financial assistance.

“Twenty-one of my 23 years in education are in schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students, economically that is, so Title I schools,” he said during a June 27 interview. “These schools also happen to be racially diverse, and I grew to have a passion for trying to fulfill the process of public education that I think our country professes to support.”

Prior to Cocopah Middle School Mr. Huffman was a principal in the Madison Union School District, following many inspirational years at Westview High School.

“There was a core group of teachers who were supporting a much larger group of students — students who were focused on gender equality, some of us were sponsors of the Gay-Straight Alliance, there was a unity club focused on racial issues specifically,” Mr. Huffman said of his time in Tolleson.

“As teachers we were supporting those students in that activist work.”

Years later, Mr. Huffman is still inspired by these hundreds of students, many of whom he says have gone on to continue the same type of work as adults.

“The 13 years I spent at Westview High School was transformative for me because I saw the power of youth and the power of activism in pursuing issues like social justice in all areas.”

On the other side of town, Mr. Huffman says he also found inspiration and a supportive community at Cocopah Middle School. While it is a different experience at Cocopah, the teachers and community’s desire to succeed is impressive, he says.

“The teachers themselves care very deeply about their students. It’s been very inspirational to see the powerful work Cocopah teachers could do,” he explained of the north Scottsdale school.

Mr. Huffman says his time at Cocopah underscored the need for equity within the public education system, saying he wants great education to exist for all.

“Every child in this country should have access to a very high quality education, and from my experience that hasn’t always been the case,” he explained.

“I think schools that are in high poverty areas have disadvantages and in this age of accountability, they’re often labeled as failing schools or schools that are struggling when in fact, the people in the schools are working very hard — and so are the families.

“I thought, I need to find a way to bridge this gap that I am witnessing between urban diverse schools and the more privileged high income schools of the suburbs.”

Bridging the gap

Harvard University’s Education Leadership Doctorate Program whittled down applicants from around the country before interviewing a selected 48 in-person on campus.

A doctorate was a degree Mr. Huffman says he had considered in the past, but with a family, he felt most options were overwhelming.

“I couldn’t afford to quit working and get a doctorate, and most of the other options involved going to school in the evenings and working during the day. That just seemed overwhelming,” Mr. Huffman said.

“I was searching more for ways to advance myself and I happened to find the Harvard program.”

The fully-funded program particularly focuses on social justice in education, equity issues in education and equity around race and economic background, he says, noting those are areas he has a keen interest in.

“That it was a doctoral program was a bonus at that point,” he said.

The three-year program includes two years in-residence in Massachusetts, and a final year consisting of a residency anywhere in the country.

“There are a lot of avenues I could take after this program,” Mr. Huffman explained of what he sees in his future.

“The path that makes the most sense to me right now, is to take a leadership position in a school district. Personally, I feel very passionate about some of the problems we face in education here in Arizona — I think we have some serious challenges that we need to address.”

Next month, Mr. Huffman, his wife and two teenage sons will begin their life on the east coast.

“They’ve very excited, it’s kind of like we all got into Harvard,” he noted of his family. “It’s been a very exciting change for us and my family is very supportive of this move.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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