When I found out we would be welcoming a new Principal at KIPP Heritage, I knew I wanted to find out more about Danica Donnelly. I decided to ask her if she was willing to do an interview for La Comadre, she quickly said yes and now I am sharing it with the rest of our community!
First off, let’s chat a bit about your educational journey. Why did you decide to become a teacher and educational leader ?
Well when I was graduating college, I was struggling to decide what to do next. I knew that I wanted to work towards making the world a better place and fighting for equity. I had an incredible experience in high school with my own teachers and was interested in having that kind of impact on others. I decided to join Teach For America, and was placed on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota where I taught 1st grade. Working and living on a reservation in a small Native community, I relearned a lot of what I thought I knew about the world. I learned about my identity, many of the privileges I had growing up, and relearned history in a way that it hadn’t been taught to me. In South Dakota, I developed a strong passion for education and the power it has to ensure that all students are giving a high quality, rigorous education so they can choose for themselves what they would like their life to look like.
I then took that passion, and it continued to grow, when I moved to San Jose to work at KIPP Heritage in 2016. At Heritage, I found a place where my values and vision for education matched those of the community and my school. I decided to become a leader at KIPP Heritage because I knew of the increased impact I could have in that role. Teaching is a hard job. I struggled a lot my first few years teaching and I wouldn’t have made it through without those that supported me. I wanted to be able to support teachers, and ensure that students were getting a high quality education in every classroom they entered.
That’s fascinating. Do you have any mentors or coaches? Why have those mentorships been pivotal to you?
Yes! I have so many mentors and coaches that have been pivotal to mine and my student’s success as a teacher. In South Dakota, I learned from incredible leaders that led the new teacher development programs. Their support and training drastically shaped who I was as a teacher, and as a person. I grew quickly from their support and I probably wouldn’t have made it through my first few years teaching without them.
Within KIPP, I have been lucky enough to have strong coaches and mentors. When I first joined Heritage, my coach was Melissa Ulloa, one of the founding Assistant Principals. Melissa pushed me a lot as a teacher and taught me how to create a strong classroom culture, a curriculum that challenged students to think in new ways, and taught me how to respond to data so that my students grew quickly. Other coaches that were pivotal to my success were Tricia Dong and Amy Tran. Tricia coached me for a short time when Amy was on family leave. Tricia helped me navigate my first year as a leader, and taught me to believe in myself and trust that the love I have for our kids, our school, our community, and team will guide me to do the right thing. Amy has coached me for the last three years as a leader and is working closely with me as I prepare to fully transition into the School Leader role next year. I would not be here without Amy. Amy has always pushed me, believed in me, and given me the experiences necessary to be successful. Without Melissa, Amy, and Tricia I would not be the person and leader I am today. They built Heritage from the ground up, in partnership with our community, and I am honored to have learned from each of them as I continue in this new role at Heritage.
Let’s pull back a bit to your formative years; where did you attend college and what did you study?
I went to Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. I graduated in 2014 with my Bachelors of Science in International Relations. Having a degree in International Relations allowed me to take many classes that come in handy today. Mostly, my degree included history classes, which I leaned on a lot when I started teaching 5th Social Studies! I also graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a Master’s of Science in Education in May 2020. I took online classes for three years to get my Master’s while I was working at Heritage and am very proud of that degree!
Building upon that, how did you get to this point in your life? What first or important jobs and accomplishments have shaped your career thus far?
Immediately after college, I began teaching and have held various roles in schools since. I’ve taught 1st grade all subjects, 5th grade social studies, and Leadership for all grades. I also was a Content Specialist and Assistant Principal for the last few years at Heritage. In those roles, I supported teachers in all subjects and have learned so much more about instruction across grades and contents. Additionally, I used to work in a summer school program where I coached new teachers and helped run school operations.
Overall, I’d say that my most important accomplishments have been the accomplishments of my students and teachers that I’ve supported. Over the last five years at Heritage, I’ve seen our students grow so much and work incredibly hard. I’m proud of each and every one of them. Additionally, getting to support teachers and watch them grow has been something so special. I struggled as a first year teacher and I became a coach to make sure that nobody had to struggle the way that I did. Although teaching will always be hard, it’s been really rewarding watching all of the teachers at Heritage grow and learn. We have an incredible staff that are some of the best teachers I’ve ever known.
Looking towards the future, what are your goals as a leader at KIPP?
My goal for the future is to just be as successful of a school leader as I can be. I am so grateful for this opportunity and am excited to learn and grow in this role. I have held many positions at KIPP Heritage over the years and am excited to stay in this role for a long time so that I can grow into the leader that our students deserve. I really just want to make sure that KIPP Heritage is as strong of a school as we can be.
Are there any special projects you’re working on you’d like to share?
Currently, my biggest project and most of my energy is spent on ensuring that we are providing high quality distance learning and planning for our small group reentry plan. This past year has been extremely challenging in education and every single teacher, leader, family member, and student has had to adjust to what we knew before. It has been incredible to see all of our community come together and do what we can to make sure our students are still learning, growing, and feeling connected to one another. While I’d much rather be at school seeing our KIPPsters in person each day, I’m proud of the way we’ve adjusted.
Can you share more about your vision, and why you decided to be a principal? Your predecessor Ms.Tran was with us for a while, and we’re hoping for you to stay a long time too!
Having worked at KIPP Heritage for many years, and working with Ms. Tran closely for much of that time, I feel as though my vision for Heritage is not vastly different from what it is now. I believe firmly in our vision of providing students with the knowledge, skills and character essential to thrive in college while maintaining their identities and connections to the community. Additionally, now more than ever, I think it is important to make sure that our students feel confident writing and telling their stories, and can listen to others with empathy.
There are areas within our school that I’d like to prioritize. For example, our team has worked tirelessly over the last few years to ensure that all students can succeed at our school and that each student gets what they need. I believe that there are ways we can continue to better serve our students with IEPs and English Language Learners so that all students can be successful. We’ve seen significant growth in this area, which is exciting!
KIPP Heritage and our community has become my home over the last five years. I’ve gotten to watch students grow from 5th graders to high schoolers; watch little siblings who once seemed so small grow into current KIPPsters enrolled at school. This has been the greatest gift. I’ve learned so much from students and families in this community. I have no plans of leaving KIPP Heritage and am so grateful that I am entrusted with bringing our school to the next level. I’m excited to work with our families to push our school forward.
I’ve heard you speak a little Spanish. Is that true? If so, how did you learn it?
Yes, I do understand and speak a little bit of Spanish. I took Spanish classes throughout middle school, high school, and college. In college, I was even lucky enough to study abroad for a summer in Guatemala. It has always been a goal of mine to be able to fluently speak Spanish. I am always in awe of people who can so easily navigate two languages! Despite all my classes in Spanish, I’ve struggled to feel confident enough speaking it and because of that I’ve forgotten a lot. I am better at reading Spanish. My goal in the next few years is to become conversational again. I’m hoping to take a conversational class soon so that I can overcome my fear of speaking!
After our interview I was convinced our new principal is the ideal leader for our community school and I am so excited about what Ms. Donnelly and the future will bring to KIPP Heritage!
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