School of Education Alumna Spotlight: Mary Bixby '70 (BA) '86 (MEd), Curriculum and Instruction (2023)

School of Education Alumna Spotlight: Mary Bixby '70 (BA) '86 (MEd), Curriculum and Instruction (1)

Please tell us about your degree program at the School of Education.
USD provided me an invaluable educational foundation that set me up for career success. I graduated with my Bachelor’s in 1970 and went on to earn my Master's in Education in Curriculum and Instruction in 1986. Later, I also pursued graduate coursework in Leadership Studies, which was one of the first of its kind and spearheaded by the late Dr. Joseph Rost.

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Who was your favorite SOE professor?
It’s a tie: Dr. Edward Kujawa Jr. and Dr. Robert Infantino Sr.

Where was your favorite place on campus?
During my undergrad years, I loved Founders Hall. My bedroom door in Founders led directly to the choir loft that overlooked the chapel where I spent a lot of time in contemplation.

How were you involved as a student?
By the time I was in the graduate program, my life was incredibly busy. I was working as a school administrator, raising three children with my husband, and completing graduate coursework. I did manage to find time to supervise USD’s student teachers in five different school districts. While challenging, it was also immensely fulfilling. That experience gave me direct and broad insight into how different districts functioned and informed my subsequent vision for educational reform.

What is your fondest memory from your time at USD?
Deep and meaningful discourse within and outside the classroom stands out. I value the one-on-one attention I received from USD’s esteemed faculty. They fueled my intellectual growth and showed genuine interest in my academic development. Within my student study groups, we had robust conversations related to what we were learning. We were eager to share our perspectives with our professors, who always appreciated our efforts and took the time to hear our views and offer their own opinions. Within our program, we learned the difference between leadership and management. Leadership was about significant and deep change, and I had an insatiable appetite to learn how to be a leader. Once I graduated and left the intellectually stimulating university setting, I was steeped in my career and had to make an effort to find places where I could have that level of thought-provoking discussion. But I knew this was essential in order to explore new territory and skillfully break the status quo in my profession.

Tell us about your journey since graduating from the School of Education.
When I started my master’s program, I was already a full-time teacher. For twelve years, I taught in Catholic schools, followed by being a Catholic school administrator for eight years. Learning about leadership within the master’s program motivated me to transition to the public sector. At the time, Dr. Thomas Payzant was the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. He had a reputation of being an extraordinary leader, and I was eager to work under him when I was hired as a specialist of alternative education in the central office. In this role, I created a new program that partnered with entities such as the San Diego Community Colleges, the Boys & Girls Club, Private Industry Council, and San Diego Unified. I started the first parent-infant center created for mothers as young as seventh grade as part of an alternative school. This is one of the most rewarding works of my career.

In 1992, charter school law was passed in California. The following year, a member of the greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce Business Roundtable for Education approached me and asked if I’d be interested in starting a charter school. The group heard about the work I had done in creating an alternative educational program in Horton Plaza for students at-risk. They knew about what my team and I had accomplished to recover dropout students. We worked with the district to create the first charter school in San Diego County. Our students received training in retail sales and merchandising, along with academic support to earn their diplomas. This internship, combined with coursework, was one of the first public school programs of its kind. Students were able to work in the mall while earning their high school diploma. After a year of preparation, we launched the charter in 1994. Today, we’re still in four Westgate Malls in San Diego, and these efforts continue to be successful. Throughout our program, students who have struggled in other academic settings have been accepted to all UCs, state schools across the country, and Ivy League universities. Our schools are located on forty-three sites throughout Southern California. In the 2021-2022 academic year, we served 8,500 students and graduated over one thousand students.

With hard work and discipline, we are encouraged to see that our program has exceeded our expectations. Thanks to the rigorous and eye-opening academic instruction I received at USD, I had the strong foundation necessary to innovate and create a cutting-edge program that benefits both students and our employees. We have two schools—one for students (Altus Schools) and one for employees (Altus University). At the heart of our program’s success is our rigorous leadership training that permeates all levels of our organization. This proprietary program is our secret sauce. From teachers to support staff, all employees are trained to practice our version of leadership. Together, we collaborate, create, and innovate. I’ve gained great professional satisfaction from countless hours spent working with my staff to make our vision come alive for our students. In addition, I’ve traveled nationally and internationally describing our approach, as well as sharing and learning from CEOs and other leadership professionals representing businesses, hospitals and medical care facilities, post-secondary educational institutions, and other nonprofits.

My late co-author, Dr. Tom Davis, and I chronicled our educational reform experience in Charter Storm. In it, we described the growth and expansion of charter schools. I am currently working on my second project, Leadership Storm, which will be published next year. SOLES provided my initial spark of inspiration, and in my work, I provide a comprehensive leadership guide that shows readers across multiple sectors how to practice leadership that breaks the status quo, resulting in positive lasting change. As a leader in educational reform, USD provided me the background necessary to tap into my potential. Being surrounded by brilliant professors and students within a supportive Catholic community equipped me with a burning desire to create a team designed to address our nation’s biggest challenges and solve problems with fearlessness, boldness, and confidence. While their work has often been difficult, earning national recognition and, most important of all, improving the lives of thousands of students has been a dream come true and a realization of everything we’ve ever wanted to achieve.

Can you tell us more about Altus Schools?
At Altus, we are driven by our deep commitment to enrolling students that would have otherwise dropped out of school. We are proud of the successful track record our students have. This is due, in part, to holding staff and students accountable to high standards throughout our program. Because everyone plays a role in the leadership relationship within our eight schools, each person has a unique connection to our purpose, which is to provide motivation and inspiration to disengaged students with specific needs—special education students, the highly gifted, and those at risk. Our individualized and personalized program uniquely connects teachers and their pupils.

We’re WASC accredited, we have NCAA and College Board–approved classes. The hybrid program offers AP courses and local community college dual-enrollment opportunities. Providing our students with the resources they need is fundamental to their success. Each student is loaned a computer for their academic studies. Counselors, nurses, and mental health professionals join with community resources to address student needs.

During the coronavirus lockdowns that sent students and parents throughout the country scrambling to fend for themselves, we didn’t lose one instructional day. Prior to the coronavirus, all our teachers had received Leading Edge Certification from the San Diego County office, which is a course that teaches effective and engaging practices for remote and virtual learning. With our staff prepared to implement the latest digital educational resources with their students, we were able to provide a seamless educational experience. During 2020, because of our reputation throughout San Diego County, 563 students throughout the region sought to attend our Schools, and we accepted all of them.

How has your SOE education impacted your career and your career goals for the future?
A large part of the design for our innovative schools was based on my work at USD. Over the last thirty years, not only has it been meaningful for the over 44,000 students we have served and the 15,000 students we have graduated, but also our anchor school, the Charter School of San Diego, has received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige Award for Quality Performance and Excellence. This is the only national award presented by the Office of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Commerce. We first received this recognition in 2015 and then again in 2021. To date, we are the only K12 school to ever have received this award. I was also honored to have received two awards from USD: the Bishop Buddy Award acknowledging those who have exhibited extraordinary contribution and commitment to humanitarian causes as well as the SOLES Remarkable Leaders in Education recognition.

It was during my time in the leadership studies graduate classes that I formalized my leadership philosophy. I had time to think deeply, and based on my research and learning, I developed a platform that, over 30 years, has shaped and informed all my work. I use this philosophy in the engagement of our workforce, which usually includes close to three hundred people. It supports the training that we do.

We have established a school within a school. Every segment of the workforce comes for expert training for professional and personal development. We are working with the California Commission for Teacher Credentialing to establish a program that helps us prepare our future teachers. In 2023, we will be offering free instruction and certification for all our instructors.

Today, my theory, philosophy, and training have influenced our organization’s leadership in such a way that our sustainability is assured. Our outcomes are positive, our workforce is known for its high-level performance, and our schools are extremely successful. They are a model for strategic planning, professional development, community outreach, and fiscal viability. During my work at SOLES, all these elements were considered, explored, and ultimately envisioned. It is awesome to think that the ideas instilled by the faculty at the SOE during the 1980s and 1990s have had such a far-reaching impact on educational reform locally, at the state level, and nationally. Most importantly, students, staff, and the community at large have benefited from a unique program that has been replicated repeatedly.

I think all levels of study that I've done at USD not only prepared me in terms of innovation and taking new paths, but also supports how our organization deals with the rapid change that's occurring now. The study might have been a while ago, but it remains relevant to the work I'm doing every day. We frequently have guests from across the country representing hospitals, businesses, and education. In commenting on how they value their takeaways, they often highlight their understanding of our systems approach to the development and improvement of an organization.

I love what I do, and I remember everyone from USD with the greatest affection. Of course, I'm eternally grateful to them.


Amanda Gonzales
(619) 260-4539

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