Part 1: Principal In Focus: Valencia Koker and Her AUSL Journey

A Relentless Pursuit of Excellence for All Students

This school year, the AUSL School Network welcomed back Principal Valencia Koker.

Principal Koker, a former AUSL school leader at McNair School of Excellence, was initially tapped to lead within the AUSL network in the SY2014-15 (AUSL has transformed 25 CPS schools which were formerly the lowest performing in Chicago, if not the state).  Below, learn about Principal Koker’s journey – from resident principal to AUSL principal to charter school executive director and back to AUSL.

From Resident Principal to AUSL Principal

I just had not seen anything like the experience that I experienced with AUSL.

– Principal Valencia Koker

In preparation for the transformation of McNair School of Excellence in 2014, AUSL leadership, through their strong partnership with New Leaders, selected Principal Koker because she exhibited the raw talent, energy, and focus to be the visionary leader the students in the Austin community needed.

At the same time, Principal Koker, who was just about to complete her New Leaders principal residency, found in AUSL an organization whose work spoke to her very core – the reason she pursues the important work of educating students in underserved communities.

It stood out to me – that sense of urgency and that relentlessness around providing students with the exposure, the experience, and the high quality education that they deserve…in schools with students that look like me…that focuses more on what students can do versus what they can’t.

– Principal Koker

As Koker worked in advance of the school year to lay the foundation to open what was formerly one of the city’s lowest performing schools as a transformed AUSL Network school, she found invaluable support from the AUSL school management team and her Director of School Leadership, an experienced AUSL principal herself.

You have all of the tools in your toolkit to lead this charge.  AUSL believes in you and we’re going to give you support – now it’s just on you to believe in yourself.  That belief…is going to [help you] transform your team.

– Director of School Leadership, Dr. Keisha Campbell at AUSL (to Valenica Koker in 2014)

Learn more about Directors of School Leadership and other AUSL school leader development supports here!

McNair School of Excellence

Today, 4 years later, McNair School of Excellence is a Level 1+ school (the highest rating given by the district through its School Quality Rating Policy) and still retains the leaders that Koker selected today (her then Assistant Principal is now the Principal and her then Case Manager is now the Assistant Principal).

A New Opportunity and The Journey Home

After 4 years of leading the transformation, Koker decided to go home to Wisconsin to begin her own family. During that time, she led a charter school as the Executive Director. But she felt that the work didn’t live up to the level of urgency and high expectations for all students that AUSL had ingrained in her as a dynamic school leader.  Principal Koker recognized the significant gap between the adults’ stated belief that all students can learn and their actions actually supporting that belief. She knew students would continue to fall behind in their learning as long as this gap existed – and there was little appetite or energy to close it.

A teacher can have a ‘bad’ year of teaching and get better next year. If students have a bad year, and we can’t make the next year better, we continue to exacerbate the opportunity gap for them.”] Given this environment, she decided to come back to Chicago and home to AUSL.

Principal Valencia Koker

The Opportunity Today and Vision for Tomorrow

Re-engaging with AUSL, Koker faces a new opportunity to hone her school leadership skills in an environment that aligns to her sense urgency and expectations by taking on leading Dewey School of Excellence.  Dewey, similar to McNair, is a successfully transformed school in Englewood on the southside of Chicago whose principal, CJ Rodgers, moved on to another opportunity within AUSL (to support schools and districts across the country through our Advisory Services work).  Today, Koker knows that she is coming onboard following a dynamic leader and leadership team – and recognizes it is one of her biggest personal challenges.

Dewey School of Excellence

The reason it’s challenging for me is that it’s the biggest challenge for my team [here at Dewey]…and in many ways they’re still processing and navigating this change.

Principal Valencia Koker

To help her team get to know her – and help her learn more about them – over the summer and at the beginning of the school year, she met one-on-one with every teacher on staff, and continued to follow-up with new teachers into the year.  Additionally, she, her AP, and a head teacher, have divided up teachers across school to ensure they get time each week to check in on any classroom or instructional challenges. To honor their previous experiences and the work of the previous school leader, though, she is sure to always reinforce that Dewey’s past and rise to a Level 1+ school is an “untouchable era” – and that she is not stepping into CJ’s shoes – but rather commits to consistently and authentically show up as herself for each of them, creating the basis for a new and productive relationship.  


Valencia brings an unbelievable instructional skillset to the team at Dewey.  Her leadership style is different than CJ’s and can not be compared, but she is the right person to continue the great success at Dewey SOE.

– Dr. Angel Turner, Director of School Leadership at AUSL

Additionally, she recognizes the privilege she has to take this school to the next level. She relies heavily on her DSL and her principal peers to support her on this journey – and is also participating in an AUSL personalized learning track for principals focused on building highly effective teams to help her reshape her lens on teaming, and build off the expertise and experience of her peers in the AUSL school network.

It’s a wonderful opportunity as a leader. It shifts [my] lens…Dewey is the place I need to take my leadership to the next level.

– Principal Valencia Koker

Learn more about and hear the impact of principal personalized learning here!

As she continues to settle as the new leader of Dewey, with a semester under her belt, she is striving to develop what the hallmarks of her own era will be, but she knows two for certain:

  1. Ensuring she takes Dewey – the space, its students, its families – to an even better place than where it/they were when she arrived. What that looks like is still a work in progress that she will continue to define and refine alongside her Director of School Leadership and with the support of her AUSL principal peers.
  2. Ensuring that even more students have an abundance of high-quality opportunities at their fingertips as they leave Dewey and go to high school.

Nothing would warm my heart more than seeing a larger percentage [of students] in 8th grade…[having] an abundance of opportunities…[that] in some way we’ve magnified access that didn’t previously exist. That’s the game-changing element of education – laying that strong foundation.

– Principal Valencia Koker

As I think about the evolution of Dewey, I think it needs to continue the very intentional push around student achievement. Valencia is really analyzing the instructional capacity of teachers and she is pushing them to analyze data more, own what the data is saying and she is ensuring that they shift their mindset away from just focusing on growth, but to also look at attainment and how that is impacting the achievement of students. With the support of her peers and the AUSL network, I can’t wait to see Valencia’s impact.

– Dr. Angel Turner, Director of School Leadership at AUSL

Stay tuned to our AUSL Innovates blog to hear more about Principal Koker’s first year back with AUSL!