Associate Professor, Chair-Department Educational Leadership Administration

Chuck Salinas

September 07, 2017
Chuck Salina still gets a little choked up when he thinks about the power of positive relationships and their potential to raise our society to new heights.

In a partnership between Gonzaga, the federal government and the state of Washington, Salina was loaned to the Sunnyside School District as a researcher and then as principal of Sunnyside High School from 2010-12. When he began, the graduation rate was 49 percent in this low-income community. Now, little more than three years later, the Sunnyside graduation rate has reached nearly 90 percent, which leads the Yakima Valley, and continues to grow.

Salina says what he brought to the district was a belief system founded upon his Jesuit, Catholic, humanistic foundation. Three things helped turn this program around: 1. the power of positive relationships and the trust they build, 2. the use of data to support positive change rather than as punishment, and 3. the creation of systems that support teachers in their work.

“Too often the blame for lack of success falls upon the teachers,” Salina says. “That’s backwards. We need to look at responsibilities differently, and focus on improving systems that better support teachers in their work. Thus, their work becomes more intentional.”

When Salina left Sunnyside High after two years, he noticed a new swagger and a sense of hope. “The students, teachers and administrators had a ‘Together We Will!’ attitude. The support they received made them feel powerful to make a difference,” Salina says.

“Students say, ‘The teachers care about us now.’ Of course, the teachers always cared about the students, but it’s more apparent now due to intentional supports given at all levels of the team approach,” says Suzann Girtz, GU associate professor. Her research allowed Gonzaga to share lessons learned with the state Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office to scale this work on the state and national levels. Salina, Girtz and then-Assistant Professor Joanie Eppinga wrote one book on the turn around, “Powerless to Powerful,” and a second book is in the works.

Meanwhile, the same Sunnyside leadership team is in place. Salina’s assistant principal Ryan Maxwell is now the principal, who, by the way, was just named Washington state’s Principal of the Year. “The staff wouldn’t let the district hire from outside and mess up what we had begun,” Salina says.

Salina also passed on kudos to AVP Patricia Killen, former Education Dean Jon Sunderland and Dean Vincent Alfonso for their support of the program.