Posted on December 2, 2021 by Christopher Reichert


The Urban School Leaders Collaborative (USLC), a nationally recognized educational leadership program centered in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies (ELPS), has received a grant through its partnership with San Antonio Independent School District for $1.9 million over the next five years. The grant is part of the Wallace Foundation’s Equity-Centered Pipeline Initiative, which has committed $102 million to programs in eight high-need school districts to produce school leaders committed to advancing equity in their districts. In San Antonio, this partnership includes SAISD, the USLC, and UT Austin.

Founded in 2003, the Urban School Leaders Collaborative is designed to provide emerging leaders in SAISD with a master’s degree and principal certification, while focusing on social justice advocacy. While ELPS has many leadership preparatory programs, USLC co-coordinator, Associate Professor Juan Manuel Niño says those programs focus on doctoral students and are more academically oriented.

“We’re more intentional,” Niño said. “We want to see the change manifest not at the university level, but at the schools where our children learn and live and work… for us to be very intentional in how we build social justice leaders is by practicing it ourselves as facilitators. As professors, how do we mentor? Not by theory, but by actually putting it into practice.”

Since 2003 the USLC has graduated nine cohorts and has gained national acclaim, earning the University Council for Educational Administration’s Exemplary Educational Leadership Preparation Award making it, notes USLC founder and co-coordinator professor Encarnacion Garza, the only program in the state of Texas to do so. The USLC also partners with smaller districts in southern Bexar County and is currently training its third cohort there. This portion of the USLC is endowed, with donors helping support students.

According to Garza, the central premise of the USLC is mentoring and support.

“On paper we’re their advisors, but we’re more than advisors. We are friends, we are mentors, we get really close with our students. That’s the main strength of the program,” he said.

This is combined with an atmosphere of acceptance; Garza is proud to say every student who has applied to the USLC has been admitted. And while some may disapprove of such methods, he reports the program has a nearly 100% graduation rate.

“Even that is different in this program,” he said. “We don’t use traditional admission criteria because that would exclude the students that are not represented in these kinds of programs. So, even that is part of our social justice work: to help students find their space, space that belongs to them but sometimes they don’t have access to it.”

But while mentoring and strong relationships are a hallmark of the USLC methodology, it would be a mistake to ignore the scholarly rigors of the program. Publishing and presenting original research are required of every cohort.

“Those are opportunities that unfortunately not many students going through a master’s degree have,” Niño said. “To go to a national academic conference and present with top scholars in their field, and to critique their work and take in their perspective: that’s very unique to our experience and that’s one of the biggest opportunities for our students to receive with the USLC.”

From this relational and academic base, the Wallace Grant has the USLC poised to expand its research and its programming.

“We’ve started a program that is now at the doctoral level as well, but for practitioners, not for academics,” Garza said. “So what this does is take us to another level in terms of a pathway for our masters’ students to be on the radar for the district as they look at promoting people into positions of leadership.”

This is something the USLC has already excelled at. Garza reports that 70% of their 200-plus graduates are already within leadership positions. Now, he sees them being able to take this further.

“It only enhances and supports our vision because it’s going to benefit students a lot more than just a master’s program,” he said.

And while this pathway benefits students, the PhD program also allows the USLC to expand its reach, and thus its influence.

“We’re trying to change the DNA of the leadership within the district,” Niño explained, “and we can’t do it with the aspiring and wait five years for them to get the principalship, we must be doing it simultaneously: we’re going to train and better prepare the pre-service, the aspiring, and also the current, in-service principals.”

But the purpose of the USLC goes beyond the degrees awarded or the academic opportunities offered.

“Doing this kind of work, it’s not a credentialing program,” Niño maintains, “it’s a life changing experience that we want our students to really experience authentically and to be transformative.”

This personal transformation, Garza and Niño say, is revealed in these educators’ actions and in their classrooms, which then leads to a transformation in the community which is, after all, their ultimate goal.

“The work we do is truly part of who we are,” Garza said. “We try to model everything we want our students to manifest in their practice. We just try to be the best we can, in terms of not only engaging students in learning about social justice, but doing it as well. It’s part of who we are, this is very special work that means a lot to us both.” 

Recruitment for the next cohort will begin in the spring of 2022, with classes beginning the following spring. USLC students are typically nominated by district principals and former program graduates, but those interested in applying may contact Garza or Niño for more information. For more information on the Wallace Foundation grant, visit


- Christopher Reichert

— Christopher Reichert