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Founder of Solar Prep is living her vision…
Want a fulfilling career? Get a mentor like Nancy Bernardino.
May 07, 2018
Founder of Solar Prep is living her vision…
Want a fulfilling career? Get a mentor like Nancy Bernardino.
May 07, 2018

Nancy Bernardino was born in Mexico, raised in Dallas, was the first person in her family to graduate college, married her high school sweetheart, has four boys, is the founder of Solar Prep School for Girls (a choice-school in Dallas ISD)—but, these days, she spends most of her time working on a doctorate (EdD) in Educational Leadership from Southern Methodist University.

Nancy’s dissertation focuses on what school districts can do to recruit and retain Latina principals in urban school districts. A significant factor turns out to be having a mentor. Once you know Nancy’s personal story, this won’t surprise you one bit.

Looking for a mentor of your own? Sign up for Talk to a Teacher to ask questions about the profession and get free career advice.

First to... everything

Nancy’s parents didn’t have any formal education. In fact, she explains:

Neither of my parents made it past second grade—it wasn’t an opportunity given to them. For my mom, coming to the U.S. was about giving her girls an opportunity to do something more.

Nancy shared that—especially in the village where her family is from—women are significantly marginalized. So, her family knew the value of an education. For Nancy, school and extracurriculars were always put first.

If I wanted to get involved in any organization, I had full support. When I was 13, I joined the League of United Latin American Citizens, and I found my first mentors in education.

Mentorship is a theme in Nancy’s life. After testing into The Hockaday School, a competitive private all-girls preparatory school, Nancy’s youth sponsor set up meetings with her and her family, stressing the importance of pursuing a college degree and working hard.

But these meetings were not always easy to get to: “I lived in east Dallas, and Hockaday was in north Dallas. I had to leave at 5 in the morning, take multiple city buses, and then take a nap before school started at 9. In retrospect, my parents can’t believe they put me on a bus across the city, but the opportunity was too great to miss.”

After graduating from high school, Nancy attended Southern Methodist University (SMU), majoring in communications. However, a switch in focus became more or less mandatory when:

I realized kids that looked like me were struggling because they didn’t have the same academic opportunities I did, so I decided to go into education.

Nancy graduated from SMU with two degrees—one in Public Affairs and another in Spanish (later, she would receive a Master of Liberal Arts and conduct Advanced Graduate Studies in Dispute Resolution). Then, she entered the working world.

Opportunities to advance in education

In her first education job, Nancy worked as a second grade bilingual teacher at George W. Truett Elementary School. She caught the eye of her principal, who soon became a personal advocate. So when that same principal opened a new school, E.D. Walker Middle, Nancy was encouraged to take the EC-12 certification test that would allow her teach Spanish to older students.

Curious to know how teacher certifications work? Check out Getting Certified to learn more about your options.

Nancy taught Spanish to middle schoolers, but her career progressions didn’t stop there. After all, her ultimate goal at the time was to become a principal:

When I entered education—and this was part of my lack of experience—I emailed the director and said my goal was to become a principal. I didn’t get a response. Now I know that this is because you must be a teacher before you’re a principal in order to support the work that teachers do.

So, Nancy transitioned to Dan D. Rogers Elementary to become an instructional coach. In this new role, she supported teachers with professional development advice, feedback and teaching materials. This additional experience qualified Nancy for more competitive positions, eventually enabling her to become the principal of John Q. Adams Elementary in 2012.

Outside of mentorship, one of Nancy’s greatest reflections on finding opportunities for advancement in her career centers on empowering women:

Over the years in my career, I’ve noticed that women are not really great at selling themselves. We hold ourselves back, whereas men tend to take the leap. So, as a boss, I encourage women to apply to positions for promotion—and assure them that they’re ready to do so. You have to make it an expectation.

Like in other industries, it’s imperative to build a solid technical foundation—and build your network—in order to gain expertise and progress in your career. Whether it’s adding on certifications to teach new and different subjects and grade levels, or moving from a teaching position to one in administration, a good mentor and self-confidence can go a long way.

Think you’re ready for a fulfilling career in education? Build your Roadmap to get started.

Putting it all together

Nancy was the principal at John Q. Adams for three years. During her time there, and after reflecting on finding her voice across school districts, Nancy noted the benefits that an all-girls school would play in Dallas-Fort Worth.

How to ensure DFW gets such a school? Build it. Nancy and cofounder Jennifer Turner worked on plans for the school for a year-and-a-half, after going through Dallas ISD’s intensive proposal process, which included interviews. During the planning year, she traveled across the country observing high-performing schools and incorporating best practices into her own model. The proposal was submitted in 2015, and by 2016, Solar Prep opened its doors to students.

A fundamental piece of the puzzle turned out to be STEM:

My co-founder Jennifer Turner and I witnessed how often girls were lost in the shuffle, particularly in math and science. We know STEM fields are under-resourced by women, so we had the chance to introduce that programming at Solar Prep.

Nancy went back to her network: “I reached out to my colleague at Hockaday, and discovered it was important that we start delivering this message in the lower grades.” Nancy saw the need for getting STEAM curriculum to girls as young as 5 years old.

Did You Know? STEAM adds the arts and social/emotional curricula to regular STEM programming.

Last year, Solar Prep served students in grades K-3, and next year there are plans to add pre-K and fourth grade to the mix. Highlights of the school’s unique programming include blended learning, station rotation and design thinking.

We want to become a hub where other educators can come learn from us. We’re constantly giving tours to interested parties. As a result, my teachers are often recruited to become leaders of other project-based learning initiatives on other campuses.

Ultimately, Nancy sees this as a measure of success: that her teachers can educate others to do great work.

Teachers have endless horizons

Your career is won among friends. Build your network, find mentors along the way, and always reach for the next step on your ladder.

There are a lot of areas of opportunity for growth and career advancement for teachers. But this is not something that can be done alone: When you connect the district to the city, you’ll find the individuals who will guide you to the right path.

Nancy Bernardino is one of those individuals, and we’re thankful for her this Teacher Appreciation Week. Take all the wisdom you can get from those who’ve accomplished amazing things.

If you’re interested in learning more about teaching, consider taking the next step:

Header image courtesy of the SMU blog.