Phelps chosen to receive 2021 Exemplary Woman Award
July 26, 2021
Recognizing the plight of families, especially working moms, during the pandemic, Poway Unified School District Superintendent Marian Kim Phelps was a fierce proponent of opening schools safely.
As a result of her leadership, Poway was among the first and the largest districts to reopen to students in February.
Phelps’ leadership during the unprecedented challenges school leaders faced in the last year was one of the determining factors in her selection as ACSA’s 2021 Exemplary Woman in Education.
Nearly 70 outstanding female educators from throughout the state were nominated by their peers for this annual award. Phelps will be recognized in November at ACSA’s Leadership Summit in San Francisco, and again at the Women’s Leadership Forum in Spring 2022.
Phelps, who holds a doctorate in education from San Diego State, has served as the Superintendent of the Poway Unified School District since 2017. She has worked tirelessly to enact positive changes in the district, including advancing educational technology and innovation, expanding foreign language and career pathways, and implementing inclusive practices and racial equity.
“Through it all, Dr. Kim Phelps has shown grace and determination in the face of adversity and overwhelming challenges,” said Jennifer Burks, associate superintendent of Technology and Innovation at PUSD. “She has been transparent and upfront with all stakeholders, even when the news she shared was not positive. She has been undeterred by the criticism and controversy surrounding public education during this pandemic, always keeping her eyes and heart focused on what is best for students.”
The first woman and first person of color to hold the superintendents’ title in her district, Phelps’ passion and commitment to students has inspired the next generation of female leaders.
“As a young black girl who was educated in the competitive Poway Unified environment, watching Dr. Kim Phelps prioritize mental health, combat racism, and encourage females to bloom into leaders was uplifting,” said former student board member Mariana Akins. “The progress Poway Unified School District has made during her tenure as superintendent exemplifies her ability to lead and her ability to inspire others to fulfill their potential.”
Why did you choose to become a school administrator? My lifelong dream has always been to be two things: one, a mom, and two, a teacher.
My mom was a teacher in South Korea, and I was that kid who after school, begged my mom to take me to the teacher supply store to buy workbooks and stickers to hold neighborhood school, with my friends and siblings as my students. Also, having being subjected to bullying as a child and not having the greatest experience in K-12 education, this was further motivation and incentive for me to ensure my students’ experiences in school was much more positive by creating an environment where they could feel safe and thrive.
I never had aspirations to be a school administrator, but I had a mentor who saw qualities in me that she said would make an excellent administrator. Additionally, she told me that becoming a school administrator was an opportunity to impact even more children, beyond just my classroom. That challenge was extremely exciting to me. I wanted to leverage my ability to bring out the best in kids, by holding high expectations, thinking outside of the box, encouraging innovation, helping my staff and students develop a love of research and inquiry, and making learning fun and engaging.
How have mentors helped you grow as a leader? How have you grown by being a mentor to others? I feel that through every experience and role, you can learn something from those who have preceded you, whether good or bad. Great leaders are not perfect; rather, what I’ve realized is that great leaders know their weaknesses and strengths and surround themselves with team members who make them better. I try to look at every interaction that I’ve had as a potential learning experience and something I can grow from. I take the time to observe, listen and learn from them.
I mentor others with the same perspective. Because of the vast amount of experiences that I’ve had in multiple positions and districts, I am able to understand what their issues, challenges and problems are, and how to take them from where they are and where they need to go next by building on their strengths.
One of my favorite mentoring opportunities is with my Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, a group of high school students that I meet with monthly to engage in leadership training and productive dialogue in order to continually improve the student experience at our schools. As the first female and person of color in the superintendent’s position for this district, I know that I am creating additional opportunities. I was pleasantly surprised when one of our female students told me that I had inspired her to pursue a career as a district superintendent. She explained that until she met me, she didn’t know that it was possible for a minority female to hold such a high leadership position.
Do you think the general public’s awareness and value of school administrators has changed because of the pandemic? I think the pandemic truly revealed the difficult realities of being a school administrator and built up appreciation, empathy and understanding for what school administrators go through on a daily basis. Prior to the pandemic, the general public had no idea how complex our jobs are, and how many balls we have to juggle just to make sure our schools are running smoothly and serving students. The pandemic really brought that to the forefront because every change in public health guidelines had to be implemented locally and communicated publicly and openly; it was a heavy lift for us all.
It’s really unfortunate to see the unprecedented number of retirements and resignations of superintendents right now. During the pandemic, being a superintendent of a K-12 public school district was one of the toughest and most exhausting jobs out there. It was all-consuming and the constant criticism and pressure was hard to bear for even the toughest leaders. I would ask the public to remember that school administrators are human and trying to do their best — always working on behalf of children, while trying to manage families and lives of their own. You can disagree, but there’s no need for the personal attacks and undermining. I am so grateful that our team was able to avoid the discord and broken relationships that some school boards and superintendents faced during this challenging time, allowing us to focus on accomplishing the district’s goals and mission, and keeping students’ best interests at the forefront.
In addition to being a superintendent, you are a wife and a mother. How has this informed your leadership, especially in the last 16 months? I have always had empathy for women in leadership and working moms, but the pandemic exacerbated the struggles of working moms. As I reflected on my personal experience, as well as the experience of other working mothers during this pandemic, I wanted to acknowledge that this recognition and title does not come without sacrifice. Often, my husband, my daughter, my friends, my family and all of my personal and familial responsibilities became secondary to my professional duties and obligations.
Earlier in the pandemic, some people questioned why I pushed so hard to reopen our campuses. Obviously we know that students in school is what’s best for the social, emotional and academic welfare of our children. Additionally, schools are essential to the very fabric and success of our community and families. Schools provide a safe and equitable environment for our students. Without school campuses open, parents and guardians are struggling to fill the gaps in learning and childcare, while trying to maintain their jobs and support their families (and doing neither particularly well). Knowing this kept me motivated to keep working nonstop to get students back in the classroom as fully and as safely as soon as possible.
What is your proudest accomplishment in these unprecedented times? What I am most proud of is that in spite of the pandemic, we had such a strong team, to be able to move our district forward in many key areas. We didn’t let the challenges of reopening during a pandemic paralyze us. Instead of “no it can’t be done,” our staff adopted a “how can we make it happen?” approach. In addition to figuring out virtual learning and in-person learning, we rolled up our sleeves and tackled issues that were extremely important to our community. For us to be able to still thrive and achieve in so many different areas is what makes me so proud to be the superintendent of the Poway Unified School District.
Marian Kim Phelps.
2021-22 Exemplary Woman in Education Marian Kim Phelps.
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