© 2023 Association of California School Administrators
Charter Oak Adult Education Principal Michelle Lee has worked with industry partners to create programs for adult learners to train for future careers.
Lee helps adult students achieve their dreams
September 18, 2023
ACSA Administrators of the Year graphic.
Name: Michelle Lee Award: Adult Education Administrator of the Year Title: Principal, Charter Oak Adult Education, Charter Oak USD ACSA highlights: Member since 2010; ACSA Region 15 Council participant for Adult Education, 2018 to present; COAST Charter President, 2016.
In 2018, Michelle Lee made the transition from elementary school principal to principal of the newly established Charter Oak Adult Education in Covina. Lee was instrumental in building Charter Oak USD’s Adult Education Program from the ground up, everything from founding a school site and hiring staff to developing curriculum and marketing strategies.
Under her leadership, Charter Oak Adult Education is one of the fastest-growing programs in the San Gabriel Valley, serving adult students seeking enrichment experiences as well as hands-on courses. Programs offered include certifications in fields such as cybersecurity, networking, computer repair and graphic design. The school also offers free programs to the community that include ESL, U.S. Citizenship Exam Preparation, Digital Literacy, Adult Basic Skills and GED and HiSET equivalency. COAE partnered with the Southwest Carpenter’s Union to create a pre-apprenticeship pathway for students interested in a career in construction. This partnership provides students the opportunity to transition to a paid position in the union’s apprenticeship program. Most recently, COAE has begun a Medical Assistant Clinical and Administrative program and an Electric Vehicle Technology Program. These programs and industry partnerships allow students to earn a higher wage while they continue to train for a future career.
Lee’s responsibilities include creation of articulation agreements with local higher educational institutions. Her marketing and recruitment initiatives have more than doubled enrollment numbers. This has led to expanded program offerings for academic, Career Technical Education and community education programs.
Lee has established student assessment policies to improve measurable student outcomes, resulting in additional state and federal grant funding. By formalizing Professional Learning Communities on campus, Lee creates a culture of collaboration and growth through an ongoing processes of data inquiry and active research to achieve better results for Charter Oak Adult Education students.
“Michelle Lee is an amazing educator and colleague,” wrote Debra Tarbox, director of Elementary Education at Charter Oak USD. “Everything that she does for her staff, students and colleagues is done with excellence and enthusiasm. She supports those above her, beside her and below her with equal quality and an attention to detail that is beyond compare.”
What’s your favorite book or quote on leadership? My favorite leadership quote is “Leadership is not about being in charge. It is about taking care of those in your charge.” This quote comes from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why.” The quote resonates with me and the daily charge of serving and supporting those I lead and helping others reach their full potential. Sinek not only writes about the human side of leadership, but also speaks to the fundamental aspects of leadership and inspiring others.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? The best advice I have been given is from my father, who is also an educator and coach. “Have an open mind and an open heart.” My dad has held this true with everyone he has ever met and every situation he has encountered. As a young girl, and to this day, past students and players knock on my parent’s door, seeking advice, comfort, a meal or just a needed chat. I guess the advice is not to only have an open mind and open heart, but also an open door.
What’s your best strategy for work-life balance? My best strategy for work-life balance is reflecting and adjusting. As I get older (and so does my body), reflecting and adjusting has become a helpful work-life balance strategy. I regularly assess how well my work-life balance is working. If I find that one area is becoming overwhelming, I adjust my priorities and strategies accordingly. Sometimes it is too easy to get wrapped up on a project or obsessed with a to-do list that never ends. I am a list maker, but I am working on adding activities to my list that bring peace and joy, like a quick meditation, a fun song or a call to my kids.
What are some life hacks that you would recommend for a new administrator? I would recommend that new administrators stay positive and resilient. As challenges arise, and they will more than you may like, maintain a positive attitude and focus on finding solutions. I work constantly to develop a mindset to overcome and grow through difficult experiences that will allow me to bounce back from setbacks and keep moving forward. One way I do this is celebrating achievements. I acknowledge and celebrate both small and significant achievements, for myself and my team. Positive reinforcement boosts morale and motivation and helps my staff and I stay resilient.
What would people be surprised to learn about you? People might be surprised to know I was a public relations major and spent a year in the field before going back to school to get my teaching credential and master’s degree in education. There are a lot of similarities between my career in education and public relations. They both focus on managing communication and building relationships between organizations, individuals and target audiences, including customers, investors and the community.
What made you want to become a school administrator? The ripple effect made me want to be a school administrator. Education creates opportunities that have a great impact on individuals, families, communities and the world at large. When one person receives an education, the positive outcomes extend beyond that individual, creating a chain reaction that leads to transformative changes. This is very prominent in adult education. Adult schools empower students by providing knowledge, skills and critical thinking abilities. These adult students are better equipped to make informed decisions, pursue opportunities, get better jobs, enter the workforce and advocate for their rights. Education is a powerful tool in breaking the cycle of poverty. Educated individuals are more likely to secure higher-paying jobs and contribute to the economy. All of these things have a ripple effect that improves living standards, models educational resilience and provides greater opportunities for the whole family.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve overcome to get where you are? One of my biggest challenges was becoming a single mom when my boys were 2 and 4 years old. It was a challenge raising them and working as a fulltime educator. I love every aspect of my job, but at times it was exhausting giving yourself to your students all day and then coming home to give the most important part of you to your own kids. I would sit in my car when I arrived home from a day of educating and serving students, staff and families and take a deep breath and repeat, “What is inside this house is the most important people in your life, go inside and love big.” I am happy to say they are wonderful boys pursuing their passions. One even went into the education field. What are you most proud of accomplishing? My greatest accomplishment is raising two amazing men. I could not be prouder of my two sons. I was able to have a job that modeled passion, enthusiasm, service, leadership and a strong sense of empathy, respect, and caring and understanding of individual circumstances. I was able to model how effective communication works and how building positive relationships provides a support system during challenging times and enduring friendships or partnerships that enrich our lives. The goal as a parent is to do a little better than past generations, and that definitely happened with my boys, and I am positive it will continue with their children.
How has ACSA supported you in your career/current position? ACSA has supported me throughout my administrative career with robust professional development opportunities through workshops and conferences. I have gained leadership skills, best practices, communication skills, and the ability to make strategic decisions by attending ACSA events and reading ACSA publications. Being a part of ACSA is like being in a sea of visionary thinkers. My ACSA colleagues inspire me by outlining a compelling and attainable future that is better for students. One of the best things ACSA has to offer is its networking opportunities that allow educational leaders to connect with colleagues, share ideas and collaborate on educational issues. ACSA also knows how to bring fun into every event. Whether it is a dance-off, karaoke or casino night, there is always room for camaraderie.
How are you prioritizing mental health for yourself, your staff and/or your students? Prioritizing mental health for myself, staff and/or students is crucial for creating a positive and productive environment. I encourage self-care practices. This may include engaging in regular exercise, mindfulness activities, hobbies and taking time off to recharge. I work to create a culture of open communication where individuals feel comfortable discussing their mental health challenges without fear of judgment. When a supportive and compassionate environment is fostered, individuals can seek help and support when needed. I work to encourage a sense of community and connectedness among staff and students, which promotes a supportive network. In addition, I ensure that staff and students have access to mental health resources, such as counseling services, support groups and helplines.
2023 Adult Education Administrator of the Year Michelle Lee