Before becoming an assistant to the superintendent in the Long Beach Unified School District in California, Robert Tagorda was a businessman. He enjoyed his work as a consultant, and the hefty salary that came with it, but Tagorda felt restless and unfulfilled in a world focused exclusively on profit. After receiving a graduate degree from Harvard University, Tagorda settled on a second career in urban education administration, a field he felt could benefit from the sharp, innovative business skills he had developed in the private sector.
"As I prepared to graduate from Harvard, I asked myself, 'What are the biggest issues of the day?' and I came up with two—national security, because of 9-11, and education," Tagorda says. "I looked at job opportunities in both fields and realized my heart was in serving the most disadvantaged youth in this country. I wanted to join the ranks of educators carrying out that noble mission."
Although he had experience volunteering and interning on the fringes of education, Tagorda, 32, lacked the graduate degree that would qualify him to fulfill his new career aspirations. Instead of spending more time and money on an additional degree, Tagorda applied and gained acceptance to the Broad Residency in Urban Education, a highly selective, two-year leadership development program that allows business executive to take alternate routes toward new careers in urban education administration.
Since it began in 2002, the little-known Broad Residency has placed more than 130 participants in 32 of the nation's largest urban school districts. There, they have led efforts to overhaul budgeting processes, revamp human resources departments, and make the purchase of textbooks and supplies more efficient. Interest in the program is starting to skyrocket, perhaps because of President Barack Obama's advocacy of public service and school reform. The number of applicants to this year's class of residents more than doubled compared with last year, jumping from about 1,300 to 2,700, the organization announced this week. Since the program has 30 to 40 slots to fill, it is more selective than some of the top business schools where a majority of the applicants received their MBAs.
Lynn Liao, managing director of the Broad Residency, says the program grew naturally from the mission of its parent organization, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which enlists leaders from all sectors to help close the achievement gap between the performance of white students and disadvantaged minority students. Before billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad started investing his money in urban education reform, he looked at the types of reform efforts that were underway. Although many programs worked to improve teacher quality by encouraging the nation's best and brightest to switch careers and enter the classroom, there were no programs targeted specifically at improving a school district's central office, a place where antiquated decision-making and inefficiencies can become commonplace.
When the program sought placements for its first class of residents seven years ago, some districts were skeptical about how much the residents had to offer, Liao says. The Broad Foundation pays half of each resident's salary, but districts are expected to pay the other half. After demurring, Long Beach Unified eventually changed its mind and hired Tagorda in 2006.
Long Beach Unified Superintendent Chris Steinhauser says he could not be more pleased with his decision and wishes he had taken the plunge earlier. "I feel very proud to have worked with Robert and our other Broad residents. I think I actually get more out of our partnership than they get," says Steinhauser. "It gives me great hope that there is such passion out there among young people who want to support public education, and I'm amazed at how brilliant they all are."
Tagorda's greatest success as a Broad resident has been establishing and institutionalizing a comprehensive effort to measure and bolster student achievement and college readiness. Some of Tagorda's accomplishments related to the initiative include securing more than $32 million in government and private sector grants over the next seven years to offer students more robust learning opportunities; forging agreements with Long Beach City College and California State University-Long Beach to accept all Long Beach Unified students who meet minimum entrance requirements; and increasing the number of students completing the federal financial aid form by about 50 percent in just one year.