California school principals: Leading staff and students through uncertain times

A principal’s job in California has always been a pressure cooker. But the constantly changing challenges of the pandemic have tested principals’ limits. They have responded to unprecedented hardships of students and families while meeting difficult demands of the district and the state.

Many teachers credit their principals for sustaining their morale and sanity the past three years.

In this roundtable discussion, EdSource’s John Fensterwald and Anne Vasquez spoke with California principals and explored questions such as:

  • What do school leaders wish people knew or better understood about the current situation facing schools?
  • What are the hardest challenges – and what can be done about them?
  • What’s going well? What needs to be celebrated?
  • Long term, what needs to happen to address the staffing crisis facing education?
  • Years from now, when we are no longer in a pandemic, what will we have learned from all of this?

Read more about this roundtable.

Please scroll down for more information about the panelists.



Vito Chiala

Principal, Overfelt High School in San Jose

Vito Chiala is serving in his fifteenth year as the principal of Overfelt High School in the East Side Union High School District in San Jose. Prior to becoming a principal he was an associate principal, English teacher, Leadership teacher, and school reform coordinator, all at Overfelt. He got his start in education teaching in a continuation high school in East San Jose.

As principal, Chiala has formed strong partnerships with educational, political, professional and community organizations in an effort to create opportunities for increased student academic achievement. Driven by a strong belief in the potential of all students and the need for social justice, he has worked to create a community based school that prepares all students to graduate prepared for college and Silicon Valley careers.

Greg Moffitt

Principal, Fairmont Charter Elementary School in Vacaville

Greg Moffitt is principal of  Fairmont Charter Elementary School in the Vacaville Unified School District where he works with students, families, and educators to make the world a better place.

Greg has been a school administrator since 2012 and believes in fostering school communities that are inclusive and that celebrate student and staff success. Previously, Greg was a middle school teacher and student activities director.

Greg is a graduate of Brown University with degrees in Education, History and Policy, and a Master of Arts in Teaching. He lives in Davis, CA with his wife, daughter, and their two dogs.

Leyda W. Garcia

Principal, UCLA Community School in Los Angeles

Leyda W. Garcia is principal of the UCLA Community School in Los Angeles. She was born in Guatemala and emigrated to the USA when she was in 7th grade.

Her experience as a Guatemalan-American, first-generation college student informs her approach to education which is grounded in social justice, equity, and access.

She attended Stanford University where she earned a B.A. in Psychology and M.A. in Education with a focus on language, literacy and culture. She began her teaching career in 1998 in San Mateo, CA as a bilingual educator.

Julie Giannini-Previde

Principal, Dow’s Prairie Elementary School in McKinleyville

Julie Giannini-Previde is principal of Dow’s Prairie Elementary School in Humboldt County.  Julie took on a new assignment, leading the TK-2 site in the district, in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. Before this, Julie worked for 20 years as a teacher and principal at McKinleyville Middle School in the same district.

Julie attended Humboldt State University where she earned a B.A. in Social Science and an M.A. in Education with a focus on assessment, feedback and grading.  She is currently leading her school district and many others in her rural county in a multi-year Science of Reading training to improve literacy outcomes for all students.

Kilian Betlach

Principal, Elmhurst United Middle School in Oakland

Kilian Betlach is the principal of Elmhurst United Middle School in the Oakland Unified School District. Betlach earned a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Boston College and a master’s in Educational Leadership from San Jose State. He taught 7th and 8th grade English, ELD, and newcomer classes in East San Jose for six years before taking on the role of assistant principal at Elmhurst in 2009.

Betlach was promoted to principal in 2012, and two years later earned OUSD secondary principal of the year honors. In 2018, he was selected to lead the merger of three East Oakland Middle Schools. His work at Elmhurst has seen a dramatic reduction in disproportionate outcomes for Black students, the highest teacher retention of any district middle school, significant growth in enrollment, and a consistent quintuple increase in the percentage of students reading on grade level over a three-year period.

Marjorie Wechsler

Principal Research Manager at the Learning Policy Institute (LPI)

Marjorie Wechsler is the Principal Research Manager at the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and co-lead of LPI’s Educator Quality team. She leads mixed-methods research studies related to teacher and leader quality, with a focus on supporting and documenting systems change to advance equity. Prior to joining LPI, she was Co-Director of SRI International’s Center for Education Policy. Wechsler received her Ph.D. in Education Administration and Policy Analysis from Stanford University, an Ed.M. in Education Policy from Harvard University, and a teaching credential and B.A. in psychology from Brandeis University.

John Fensterwald

Panel moderator; Editor-At-Large, EdSource

John Fensterwald joined EdSource in 2012. For three years before that, he was founder and editor of the “The Educated Guess” website, a source of California education policy reporting, sponsored by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. For the preceding 11 years, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997. His wife is a retired teacher, and their daughter is a neurology resident at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine.

Anne Vasquez

Panel moderator; Executive Director, EdSource

Anne Vasquez took the helm as EdSource’s Executive Director in May 2021. Previously, she served as Director of Content and Strategic Initiatives at EdSource. In that role, she helped shape editorial strategy, grow partnerships and expand the organization’s footprint throughout California. Prior to joining EdSource, Anne was an executive at Tribune Publishing, where she most recently served as Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Chief Digital Officer. She previously was the Managing Editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Anne began her career at The Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News, where she was an education reporter and later an editor.

Stephanie Levin

Research Manager, Learning Policy Institute

(Note: Stephanie Levin is joining us behind the scenes to help respond to audience questions)

Stephanie Levin serves as Research Manager at the Learning Policy Institute, where she is also a member of the Educator Quality team, focusing on school leadership through research on professional learning and principal turnover.

She co-leads LPI’s Equitable Resources and Access team. Her work centers on school finance, resource equity, and other issues that shape equity and access in K-12 education. Levin has more than 15 years of experience as a mixed-methods researcher and project manager focusing on educational equity; school finance and budgeting; teacher and school leader professional learning opportunities; and the impact of federal, state, and district policies on teacher effectiveness and student outcomes. Prior to her work in education research, Levin was a consultant, policy analyst, and budget analyst addressing issues shaping the experiences of children and families in urban settings.

Levin received a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, an M.P.P. from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a B.S. in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.