Lori Villanueva has been in education for 25 years, starting as a high school Biology, Music and AVID Teacher, and now serves as Superintendent in a rural district of 4500 in sunny central California. She keeps kids at the center of her decisions, and loves working with educators to provide kids what they need to grow and thrive.

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Show Highlights

  • The importance of getting early wins as a leader. Especially facing reopening.
  • How a Ruckus Maker builds an under radar network of resources for her school
  • Planting a tree can inspire the district to invest in the look and feel of a school 
  • A principal who finds solutions to “no” is a powerful resource for transformation. 
  • How one principal turned her school into a hub of essential services for the learning community. 
  • The questions Lori asks her principals to get what they need for students 
  • Lori provides effective teacher recruitment strategies for rural areas to get top tier teachers
  • Lori shares 2 reasons Organized Binders is an essential tool she has used in all her schools
Lori Villanueva: Do the Right thing for Kids

“I didn’t come into this profession to help the superintendent look good. I didn’t come into this profession for the glamour of the money. I came for kids. When I feel that kids need something and I feel that it’s the proper and right thing to do I will move forward taking action and I can sleep really well at night.”

Lori Villanueva

Full Transcript Available Here


What kind of school do you lead? What type of experience do you create for your students? What does a child begin to think about herself after attending your school? The environment is a powerful thing if your school is dirty, run down, and overall disaster a kid will internalize a negative view of herself and that of education.  Today’s guest Lori Villanueva, accepted a position at a school that was so run down that you didn’t even know it was a school when you drove past it.  All that changed under her leadership we’ll start with her story of beautifying the campus at the top of this episode.


Hey, it’s Daniel and welcome to the better leaders better schools podcast a show for Ruckus Makers those out-of-the-box leaders making change happen in education. And we’ll be right back after these messages from our sponsors.


The better leaders better schools podcast is brought to you by Organized Binder which increases student active engagement and participation and reduces classroom management issues. Learn more at organized binder.com. Today’s podcast is brought to you by Teach FX. It’s basically like a Fitbit for teachers helping them be mindful of teacher talk versus student talk get a special 20% discount for your school or District by visiting TeachFx.com./blbs 


In The Mastermind, we believe that questions are better than answers and that there’s power in connecting with other of the elite performers. Kevin, a principal in Tunisia had this to say about his Mastermind experience. I feel more connected to the everyday changes in education. In addition to being more informed, I feel empowered to bring new educational ideas and strategies to my team at my school.


We’d love to serve you in The Mastermind and we welcome your application to enroll today at better leaders better schools.com/Mastermind. Lori Villanueva has been in education for 25 years starting as a high school biology music and Avid teacher and now serves as superintendent in a rural District of 4500 in Sunny Central California.


She keeps kids at the center of her decisions and loves working with educators to provide kids what they need to grow and thrive. Welcome to the show Lori.



Thank you. Good morning Danny. How are you?



I am good. I’m so excited to have this conversation with you and shout out to Mitch who connected us and let’s just jump in. You know something that I remember from our first conversation is that you found yourself leading within what you call a “good Old boy “Network, right and your school had seen better days. It was run down.


But since you, Lori are a Ruckus maker you knew that you had to beautify that school and you succeeded. You succeeded in that project, but there were a lot of obstacles. Can you tell us that story?



Absolutely, so I had just been hired on to a high school up in the Bay Area and when I drove up to it, I had actually the first time I’ve driven past it because there was no signage and so I did a u-turn I drove up and the first thing I saw was this school looks like a prison it looks it’s gray. It’s got plexiglass windows that are scratched over and you can’t see through. It just looks like it’s had better days and nobody’s taking care of it for years.


The very first thing I thought when I drove up is I need to make this a place that kids and staff want to come too. And so that was my very very first work at that school was to get those plexiglass windows knocked out to get some paint on the front of the school to get a sign that you could actually see where the school was.


And from there. We did a lot of work because we didn’t have trees, even there was no shade for the students to sit. And so we worked on getting some trees donated because I ran into a lot of trouble with the district. The district did not want to invest any money in beautifying the school and even though other schools. I felt very nice and well kept. I kind of took this one personally to heart so I got a lot of trees donated and I know that the district wasn’t super happy that I was going to start planting trees so I was really kind of to use your term a Ruckus Maker and that I got them donated then I had a big plant a tree day and I invited the mayor and you know the local Senator like any big wig that I could come help plant a tree and made a really big deal out of it. So that was one of the first Ruckus Making steps I took at that school.



Yeah, what does it look like when you get trees donated? How did you approach people to participate?



That one was definitely reaching out and trying to have a network. I started asking around to just different groups in town. They’re just like well my friend has a nursery. I think I could get 25 trees from there and “you know, my friend works for Caltrans and sometimes they have extra trees.” So it was just a lot of networking and letting people know what I was trying to do, even though it was all kind of under the radar.


I couldn’t really put it in the paper that I was looking for trees and eventually they just started pouring in because I invited people. They helped us plant them and made a big deal to give people lots of credit for it. And before I left that school, we planted over a hundred and twenty-five trees and it got the students and the staff excited because then the ASB said well, we’ve got trees now. So how about we buy some picnic tables so we can sit under the trees and have lunch. It kind of started this little forward motion at the school that we should invest in how our school looks and feels because that’s the place we spend an awful lot of time with each other and the windows eventually got replaced but that took persistence in resilience.



For sure. How did you end up getting those replaced? 



That one took me a bit of knocking on doors. I discovered quickly that just putting in a work order in wasn’t going to work.  I went to the superintendent that had hired me and I said look, I need an early win.  I need the kids to see that. I’m going to make a difference at the school and quite literally if we can start seeing through the windows at the front of the school. It’s going to give me that win and the superintendent literally had to step in and tell the maintenance department to do it.


But of course that made the maintenance department super happy with me, but you know, I was really pleased that the superintendent did back me on that because it did make a world of difference.



Yeah, and that’s good because as people think about returning to school whether that’s face-to-face or digital, you know, looking for early wins is important and to have support, but the other the reason I’m asking you these questions to is just to inspire the Ruckus maker listening to never give up. You might hear no but there are many different ways to get to the solution.


So whether that’s just continuing to ask for support getting people to donate trees. There’s many different ways that you can solve challenges that you’re facing and you got a mural in the school as well. Was it always there? That was what some people thought. But how did you get that mural done?



That is a funny story. So we started planting trees. We got windows fixed, we started making sure the trash is picked up and everything else and looked around and I like these walls are dingy and now we need something to brighten them up. And so I said, it’s my mind that I needed a mural and I collected some donation money. Just kind of network in letting people know what I want to do.


And went to the district with the plan and said I want to put a mural up above the gym at the front of the school. So everybody can see it and they said absolutely not. We don’t do murals and I of course pointed out that some other schools had murals, but that’s neither here nor there according to them.


So I found this one lady that wanted to do the mural and she said if you’ll just pay for my paint. I will put it up so I was like, okay great. Here’s  a donation check and buy your paint and start putting it up. She came every day after school because she had a day job and little by little this mural started appearing on top of the gym and finished. I didn’t have a lot of fanfare, it’s kind of like our little inside secret at the school that it’s funny because you mentioned to someone it was always there. The superintendent, new different superintendent comes by one day and looks up and says, I don’t remember that mural and I’m like, “You don’t, it’s always been there” and he was like really I’m like, yeah, it’s been there a long time and he’s like, oh, okay. I guess I just never really looked around your school.


And then I was totally cool because  I snuck that mural up there but I felt it was really important to do that.  The kids and the staff need a place that’s beautiful and welcoming and and not ugly and dreary. So I felt it was so important to do that.



My own take on that I wrote a little bit in my book, the better leaders better schools roadmap , that you know schools should be a warm, welcoming and inspiring environment. We’re working with the world’s greatest resource, our children and we house them at times in these schools. Like you said, that is rundown and dingy and the absolute opposite of what an energetic and inspiring place would look like.  From one Ruckus Maker to another, thank you for leading in that way and taking some risks and making the school a better place. Another way you made change happen in this area was doing some interesting things for your ELL students and if you could talk about that and what you were most proud of I love to hear that story.



Absolutely. So when I was there for a little over a year we discovered that we were having a lot of students coming in who were undocumented miners.  If you’re not familiar with that term it has to do with kids that have come across the border without a parent and what happens is they go into these juvenile detention centers and then the detention centers work very hard to find any kind of relative that’s willing to take them and then they give them papers give them to the relative and then the relative supposed to bring them to school.


At first we were missing that they were unaccompanied minors because they did come with papers and we’re not worried if you’re a citizen or anything like that in schools, but they came with immunizations which is sometimes a hint that you know the kid has traveled or has copies of their birth certificate.


So we’ve kind of found out through our health center that we had on campus that we had this group of kids that were separated from their families and they were in these really difficult situations in a new placement. What made that harder is unaccompanied minors once they’re placed with the family have six months to be enrolled in school to be successful in school and the family that took them in house to show up in court with documents showing that they’re passing their classes and attending school regularly. A lot of families that were taking in the students had no idea how to access the legal system, what showing up to court meant, how to support a child who’s been either sent away from their family or wrested away from their family and put into this whole new situation. These families were not prepared for it.


 Working in cooperation with our Health Center on campus, I went to the district and I said, hey, I’ve got this group of kids. I have like between 40 and 60 and they need very specialized services because these kids are coming in traumatized. They’re coming in from literally sometimes war-torn towns where they’ve been living and they need special help. I just want to make you aware. Can I talk to the leadership team about it because they probably have some of these kids and their schools. The same superintendent that hadn’t realized there was a new painting up on our wall said no, no, let’s forget it. We have other things to do.


And so I kind of hit a brick wall everywhere. I was trying to let everybody know that we have this group of kids. That’s so in need and kept hitting brick walls.  I’m talking to the Health Center and they said well, we found a lawyer who’s willing to come in and give free legal services on Friday night, and we’re going to continue to do free health services, All these different pieces, but can we use your library to  have these meetings? I’m absolutely you can use my library.


So Friday night turned into going from about three o’clock after school all the way to sometimes 10 o’clock at night because we just had families lined up that needed the support and then as we started to hear the needs of the families it turns out they needed some social work. So then we found some social workers that were willing to come in after work. So my school became a hub For about four to five hours every Friday night of food bank service and Social Work service and legal services for these families and I think really became known in the community that our school was a safe place to come and get some help and we actually started having families that worked and accompanied but still wanted to help and it was kind of like a big secret in the community for a while until one day. Someone called the District and said, oh, how do I get those free legal services?


I got a visit from the superintendent and he was upset and he just said, you know, how come I wasn’t a part of making this thing happen and I was like, well I went to you.  He said well you should have told me and so I kind of took some heat for doing the right things for my kids and I stood up to it and I said I came to you and I tried and this isn’t costing us any money.


And it’s buying so much help and support for our families. It gave me a little bit of a rough time with my superintendent for a while.



Yeah,  I’m curious whether it’s this health clinic that then was helping out with the legal aspects. You know what I love with that or just two trees and murals the the windows you’re being a resource. You’re giving kids what they needed right? You were seeing them  and hearing them and not taking, No as an answer. and like you said you took a little heat from that but how are you able to navigate those challenging Waters or look at those situations and still end up doing the right thing knowing that it might cost you.


What do you think about that?



That’s a great question and I think about it all the time and I went into this profession to help kids. I didn’t come into this profession to help, the superintendent look good. I didn’t come into this profession for the glamour of the money. I came for kids. And so when I feel that kids need something and I feel that it’s the proper and right thing to do.


I will move forward with taking action and I can sleep really well at night knowing that maybe this person was upset  but that I did it but it was the right thing for kids and I’m a superintendent now, so I kind of adjusted how I look at that a little bit. To be more like when my principals are talking to me and they’re asking me for something. Am I hearing what they really need and I’m making sure that they don’t have to be a really big Ruckus Maker to get what they need.


Right? So I had these experiences where I took things head-on and it’s just kind of been a reminder to me now that when someone’s asking for help or something like we need to listen and we need to make sure that it’s serving kids.



I want to pull on that thread a little bit more but we’re going to pause here just for a moment and get a message from our sponsors and when we come back, I want to talk more about  that listening and principles because the principal listening can apply those techniques to their staff. So we’ll be right back better leaders better schools is proudly sponsored by organized binder a program which gives students daily exposure to goal setting reflective learning time and task management study strategies or relational skills and more organized binders color-coded system is implemented by the teacher with the students helping them create a predictable and dependable classroom routine learn more and improve your students executive functioning and non-cognitive skills at organized binder.com better leaders better schools is brought to you by teachers using teach FX to increase student engagement online and in the classroom during an ongoing pandemic. “Hi,we’re the third grade team from General Stanford Elementary and we’re here to tell you about our experience with Teach FX.  It has been a really eye-opening experience for us this year.



We know that students who are highly engaged in the classroom achieve a higher level of success. So we use teach FX to help us Monitor and collect data. Teach FX has really helped us reach our professional goals to pinpoint students that maybe aren’t used to talking as much as well as seeing our balance of wait time, group talk time, student talk time, and then teacher talk.


across the grade level and kind of discuss with each other about what’s working in your classroom versus what might be working in mine.  To learn more about using Teach FX to support your teachers with feedback during covid-19 visit teachFX.com /blbs, that’s teachFX.com/blbs.



All right, and we’re back with Lori Villanueva and we were talking about how roles have changed. She’s a superintendent and she wants to make sure that she’s listening to her principles and to hear truly what they need and  I think the Ruckus maker that’s listening is thinking about her staff, her teachers.


How are you present and how are you aware that you are hearing what they need because sometimes people don’t even ask for  what they need and you kind of have to uncover it.  I’m just curious what that looks like for you.



It starts with building the relationship with the principles so that they’re willing to talk with you and bounce ideas off of you because as a principal I did do things and figure I will not ask permission. I’ll say sorry later because again, I felt it was what kids needed and I didn’t want to deal with the rigmarole done at the district office.


So I’ve tried to with my principles build that relationship up and just say If you have an idea talk to me. Like 99% of the time I’m going to support it, but I want to be able to support those things and I think that was part of the message is that District where I  was really being a Ruckus Maker.


Nobody said to me we want to hear what you think about making your school better, Lori. We want to hear what steps can we take to make it easier for you to get kids engaged. And so I try to ask my principles those questions. I try to meet with them as a group so that we can share ideas with each other and sometimes we have big meetings like all of the cabinet?


So all the district people and all the principals, but sometimes I set myself aside just for the principles just to talk to them about what they need at their school and the principal meeting. It’s interesting it has a much different dynamic because we really are talking about what you need at your site. You’re talking directly to the big boss that can help you maybe overcome barriers that you’re having somewhere else and I’m lucky that I’m in a district where I can sit in a room with all my principals. I understand there’s bigger districts out there, but I think, just telling them that I’m open to hearing what it is they need because I want them to have it and I think that’s what sets the stage for those conversations that really need to be had because the principals are the ones that know what the kids need at a site.



There is one thing because the silence in your experience as a principle is deafening so putting that message out there is important but then that you follow up with actual actions. Where you might meet as a whole group or like you said one-on-one in just the gift of that time. I’m sure taking notes and then taking action on their requests.


Those are just major deposits into those relationships and trust building exercises. Every time you follow through so pretty cool. Your now in a rural area the district that you’re leading and I often have leaders write in  talking about the the challenges that rural districts face specifically.  I don’t always have guests that can speak to that. So I love to hear anything that you’re doing what you think is memorable in terms of recruiting and retaining talent within your district in a rural area.



Yeah, you know that is probably one of the biggest obstacles I hit when I got here because when I was working in the Monterey area and then up in the San Francisco Bay area, there’s a plethora of people that want to live in those areas. So it was really easy to attract teachers. We are very isolated out here. We might get people to put their applications in but then when it comes to the interview, we found that people looked up how to get there and kind of canceled the interview after they saw where we are.


So we’re trying to on the front end talk about in our recruitment where we are and the power that we can have in our kind of area. So straight out anytime we’re talking about people where you have worked in a rural area are interested in working in a rural area? And here’s what’s affordable about it. So we started talking about what’s great about being in a rural area.


First thing is that housing is Affordable. You can actually buy a house. You can’t buy a house in the Bay Area. So we tell people a little bit about housing. We tell people that really it’s only about a little over an hour drive if you want to get to the beach. You know kind of really selling the Rural Life to people and we also found that it’s harder to have new teachers fresh out of college come so we pay pretty well because we’re in a rural area and we know we have to attract people but we found that young teachers come here, but there’s no night life for them. There’s nowhere for them to find a wife or a husband, so we tend to lose our first-year teachers because it just doesn’t have the excitement that a big city might have so we’ve started to see that,  teachers that are married that can bring their families and you know people that do want to buy a house and we can sell the affordability but we’ve had to sell the community and the area as part of the Recruitment and never had to do that when I was working in different areas.



There’s a blog post that’s released tomorrow. By the time this podcast is live. It’ll be out to have better leaders better schools.com/attractinggreatteachers, but the idea and I’d like to share it with you, but also with the Ruckus maker listening .The Riff is on a checked and top talent and using a tool that I came across in a book called business model generation, but it’s called an empathy map.


So you identify who you are empathizing with and in this case. It’s a teacher that you’re trying to attract to your district just thinking about you know, what do they hear? What do they see? What do they say? What do they do? What are some of their challenges? What are some of the things that they see as successes? Four wins in their life.


And the point of that blog post is if you do the work of thinking about those people you’re trying to bring in your messaging can connect with what will resonate right in their hearts and in their minds and so like you said, I think the house part is great, right? If you want to have a family beautiful climate why they’re just out from the beach put that signal out. It is really important and could help you out quite a bit. So I just wanted to share that with you and then the listener could check it out again @betterleadersbetterschools.com/attractinggreatteachers.


Well, Lori, you’ve been working with organized binder for a while since 2008 if I wrote that down correctly, right and I’ve been really fortunate. Organized binders have been a sponsor of the show forever. And again Mitch’s the one who connected us. So thank you Mitch for that. But tell us  your experience. What’s it like to use organized binder, what’s been some of the benefits and values that you’ve seen.



So two pieces one organized binder for kids is absolutely 100% needed because I do believe one thing that we don’t teach in schools is good organization. And if we can teach that organization, then we can teach them everything else they need to know and I think it’s kind of like an expectation that right people think that kids come in. They already know how to be organized, right?


Or will I show him how to do this or I told him I want him to have a binder but the actual explicit instruction of how do you keep a binder and how to keep up on your assignments? You know, how do you become responsible for your work in the classroom is absolutely a plus and I’ve had it in every school that I’ve ever been a leader in so I take it with me as I go from place to place and I think it’s one of the most powerful interventions that you can give school-wide to every single child, but I also have Another way that I use it.


So I think people might not realize that there is a teacher component to this whole organized binder and there is you know, teachers are expected to keep their own binder and in keeping their binder, you know, don’t tell teachers this but it forces them to be organized. It forces them to be organized in the same way that we’re teaching kids to be organized and you know, I started having teachers Bring those binders with them to our evaluation meetings because there is a whole body of work contained within these binders. So every standard that they’ve covered every assignment that they’ve given every project that’s out there vocabulary like all the pieces of the binder organized binder lead to not only good learning but good teaching and I found some teachers changing their practice because they realize that there was this disparity between what they were saying, To the child and what the child was interpreting at the teacher wanted and the nice thing about organized binder is when the teachers work matches the students work all the expectations are the same people can move forward together and I think that I’m going to name my book one of these days the expectation Gap, right and there’s teachers have expectations that kids already have certain skills and kids come to school not having them and then they start out in a struggle because they’re they’re not meeting the teachers.


Vacations on day one. So what I love about organized binder is you explicitly know every single day I walk in I opened my binder. I do my opener I write this down and it builds a system not only for the kids but for the teacher and so having systems in the classroom, I mean, that’s what makes or breaks a new teacher is having systems organized by under can help train a teacher into being organized and working at their maximum with students.


So I love it for both angles.



That’s wonderful. Not of the box. It just works so you can find out more obviously at organized binder.com Lori if you had a school Marquee and it was able to display a message all around the world for just a day all School Marquis. What would that message be?



My message would be, we rise by lifting others. I think we have to be reminded about that. We’re not here to take other people down. We’re here to raise. Everybody to their fullest potential and everybody in the community needs to know that that’s what we’re doing at our school.



So if you are building a school from the ground up and you weren’t limited by any resources, your only limitation was your imagination. How would you build your dream school? And what would be your top three priorities?



Wow, I would build my dream school in kind of whatever it doesn’t matter what location it would be but my dream school would be a place that was very open and bright and appealing just from the outside like you would just drive by and be like, wow, I wonder what’s going on in there. So I’d wanted to be you know, a modern open design, but my my top three priorities, I would start with looking for teachers that want to be there looking for teachers that you know, maybe on a bigger basis that I can now and maybe having a very robust, you know, an application is not just an application.


It’s a video discussion or something saying this is why I want to be a teacher at your school where we have these great expectations for kids and not just because someone’s got a credential and it’s in the area thatyou have an opening for so one teacher quality. I want the best of the best and how do I get them there and with that if I have a recruitment bonus or if I can move people to the area I would want to be able to do that.


I think the curriculum is key. Kids don’t come to school just so they can learn to write mathematics or so. They can write essays. They come because they’ve they’re engaged in a topic with an adult that loves what they do and I want every single teacher in my school to be that kind of teacher and you know, sometimes you know, I would sit in an IEP for example, and I would be surprised because they would say well they only go to your class but they don’t go to all these other classes.


How come they don’t go to those other classes and you know in my mind I’m thinking yeah, why don’t you go? Ask the kid is like well because they’re boring right or their this or their mean or they don’t understand right? I need teachers that don’t make kids feel that way. So that’s that’s a key and I think opportunity.


I don’t think that education is just about sitting in the classroom anymore. You need to be able to get out and see what do you want to do when you get out of school. How are you going to change the world? What careers are you interested in? And I think that goes beyond a CTE class. It really becomes what are your hopes and dreams and how do we help you get there?


Because right now in education we give you the space education and we say, okay. This should give you a foundation for any direction that you want to go. But I think you know younger and younger these days kids have access to technology and they have these dreams about things going on in the world because they can see them in their hands, right? They can look at their phone and see all these different things. So how do we get kids out to internships? How do we get?


Kids into the community. How do we get them with mentors that can guide their careers and it seems like a lot of work, but if I had unlimited money and a beautiful facility and teachers that were dying to work in my school those kinds of things could be achieved and that’s where I really see education going in the future Lori.



Thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders’ better schools podcast of all the things we talked about today. What’s the one thing? Things you want a Ruckus Maker to remember.



I want the Ruckus Maker to remember that if you’re doing the right thing for kids any heat that you might experience any uncomfort anything like that will blow over because it’s the right thing for kids and I think that sometimes you have to just be strong and not be afraid to do what you think is right for kids because it comes down to why you went into education and it’s for them.


So if you find that thing that you feel like you need to work uphill. Then do it and do it without fear, you know and put a smile on your face and sleep. Well at night.



Thanks for listening to the better leaders and better schools podcast Ruckus maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter at alien earbud if the better leaders better schools podcast is helping you grow as a school leader then please help us. Serve more Ruckus Makers like you you can subscribe leave an artist rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at alien earbud and using the hashtag be lbs level up your leadership at better leaders better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.




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You can learn more and improve your student’s success at https://organizedbinder.com/



School leaders know that productive student talk drives student learning, but the average teacher talks 75% of class time! TeachFX is changing that with a “Fitbit for teachers” that automatically measures student engagement and gives teachers feedback about what they could do differently. 

Learn more about the TeachFX app and get a special 20% discount for your school or district by visiting teachfx.com/blbs.


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