As an educator of 20 years, Principal Dr. Mario Acosta believes that the mark of a “high quality” leader is one who “[builds] such depth in leadership that the person at the top is almost interchangeable, because [they’ve] built in systems and practices that run deep.” Ever since 2016, when the departing principal first joined the Westwood community, a myriad of policy changes and administrative decisions have been implemented to shift learning styles and reduce student stress. After six years at Westwood, Dr. Acosta has left a substantial legacy on school culture.
Dr. Acosta announced his resignation on Tuesday, May 17, leaving students and staff reeling at its abrupt timing. Questions about the next school year and the effects of the decision began to form at all levels of the community. The editorial board of the Horizon conducted an interview with Dr. Acosta to answer some of these questions.
The following interview with Dr. Acosta has been edited and condensed to maintain clarity.
Q: What were your ambitions for Westwood? When you came into your position, what did you want to happen that has been implemented and what did you want to have happen that hasn’t?
“When I got hired, the things that were pointed out to me that needed to be improved upon [were] academic stress and school spirit. A big focus was trying to bring more balance to Westwood High School, and bring a renewed sense of caring about things beyond just the books. Those are areas I feel like we’ve made really good strides in.
When it came to balance for students, Flex was something we [implemented] in 2018. It was a major shift in students being able to go to bed earlier, being able to collaborate more, and being able to get to their teachers easier.
The other big thing we worked on was [changing] the ways that the classroom looked day to day. Homework loads went down. There’s places where it’s [still] high, but across the board, homework loads came down. We did a lot of focus work with our teachers on effective homework and on effective instruction. When I first got here, students weren’t necessarily taking away enough information home so that they could do their homework effectively. We really focused on strategies to help the students retain more information in class.
We did things like no homework Thanksgiving and winter breaks. We placed a big focus on the things that round out a human being. It was a matter of trying to keep those high academic expectations and achievement lovers, while also helping students feel like it’s okay to be 16 and 17 and 14.
[We] even [did] things like building seating up front to eat. That was something that got started even before the pandemic. When I got here, the atrium was empty. There were no chairs, tables, nothing. It was just an empty hallway space. I would say I’m proud of the movement we’ve made to try and round out the experience at Westwood High School.
Another thing we [accomplished] was we took class rank out. That helped a ton with stress and competition amongst [those] outside of [the] top ten percent. [The fact] that we’ve gotten rid of class ranking has really helped that competitive environment.
The thing we haven’t gotten to that I wish we could have was to think about how we grade at Westwood, and try to shift the focus away from grades to learning. I’ve talked to so many students at Westwood over six years and I hate that everything’s about tests. I wish I could just focus on learning the things that matter. We didn’t get there, and I will regret that we didn’t get all the way there.
I’m pretty confident that had the pandemic not hit us, we would have gotten to that point by now. But two years ago, we basically had to just stop all forward movement. It just became about keeping everybody alive and safe. I do regret that I’m leaving [at a time] where the environment is still very focused on tests and grades, and less on the purity of learning what’s critical, so that you can take that out into the world after high school.”
Q: Will learning management systems such as Schoology and FlexTime manager continue to be utilized?
“To my knowledge, there’s nothing I’ve heard from the district level that’s changing [learning management systems]. We here at Westwood are looking for a better learning management system than FlexTime Manager, because it’s kind of frustrating and doesn’t have an app for the students. I don’t think [the district] has any intention of going away from Schoology. So yes, those should still exist next year.”
Q: What are your hopes for the school and its administrative policies going forward after your leave? What would you say to our next principal as parting advice?
“I haven’t thought my full advice out yet for my [successor] but I’ll give you a rough draft. My hope for the school is that we continue on this trajectory of allowing Westwood students to recreate what education looks like. I wanted Westwood to become a high school that [is] at the forefront of all high schools in the world on how education can look.
We’re still very early in that journey. The idea of somebody [giving] you information, you [copying] down notes, and [regurgitating] it on a test [is] an extremely antiquated way of operating. That’s not how the world functions outside of schools. Outside of schools, problem sets are provided. Teams of people have to say, okay, what are the outcomes that are expected of us? You have to work it out, design, create, problem-solve, and think.
I want this school to be more of a think tank. Where kids are given the resources and through the experiences, gain the content that we are meaning to give you instead of just feeding it to you so you can turn around and bubble in a test.
My advice for my [successor] is that the blueprint is [already] laid out. The pandemic obviously caused a little bit of a swerve, but it’s why I spent so much time and effort this spring to help our student body try and re-norm into traditional norms. Every other school that I talked to, they’re like, ‘Well, next year, we’re gonna get tough again and reset everything,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re late, because now the students spend another summer not remembering what that looks like.’
What I was able to do here was give you guys freedom and allow creativity, because this is a place full of great people. I hope my [successor] is able to continue down that path.”
Q: Did you come into this school year planning on leaving? And when did you come to finalize your resignation decision?
“No, I did not start the school year anticipating it would be my last year. What happens in life [is that] as you mature, you learn to listen to whatever higher power you believe in—God or the universe—or whatever this guiding force is for you.
An opportunity was presented to me around spring break that will give me the chance to use the skills that I’ve crafted over my long career. It’s my 20th year as an educator and I’ll be able to go out and support schools across the country and even globally a little bit. [I’ll be] almost principaling other principals, helping other superintendents, [and] working with teachers across the country. [I’ll] just get a chance to go out and multiply the impact that I’ve had here on a grand scale. It just was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
Not everybody gets [this] opportunity. For principals, the typical path is when you’re tired and old, they put you in the central office and that’s your next step to impact the district at a broader level. But I’ve just been given this blessing, [as] it’s not just this district now. I can go out and be a positive force for students and for education on a national scale.
[I can implement] this vision about schools not being just [about memorizing]. I now get to go press that out on a bigger scale, and maybe create a bunch of Westwoods all over the country.
[It] certainly wasn’t what I was anticipating, and it was easily the hardest decision that I’ve ever made professionally. If you guys were to talk to my wife, she’ll tell you [that] I went back and forth for a very long time and she got really sick of me talking about [how] I don’t want to leave, but I understand this opportunity [comes] almost once in a lifetime.
You sometimes have to put faith in whatever that higher power is to you and say well, ‘If the universe, [or] if God put this opportunity in front of me, I need to explore it. If I don’t take it now, I’m not going to get another shot.’”
Q: Can you elaborate on the specific factors that led you to make this decision?
“Simply that I had this [opportunity]. I don’t think I could name any other opportunity that I would have left the school for. Central office jobs [and] superintendencies [were] never in my career path. I just never saw myself going down that road. I was gonna retire as the Westwood High School principal. I was pretty convinced of that until recently when again, God or the higher powers that be, laid this opportunity there. There were no other factors that led to [this decision].”
Q: Did online school and student behavior after COVID-19 have any impact on your decision to leave?
“Did it impact my decision to leave? No. All we had to do was help you guys re-train back into traditional school because pandemic school was really different [from] traditional school. We trained you guys to be successful in pandemic school, and in doing so, we trained you to not be successful in traditional school.
Traditional school requires a level of rigidity [and] safety, whereas pandemic school [had] no borders. Your second question was, did the behaviors drive my decisions. 100 percent. I realized right after Omicron [in] January [and] early February, we were still living pandemic rules. I wasn’t counting tardies, we weren’t doing any of that stuff. It was like, ‘Hey, let’s just stay safe.’ Once Omicron ended, I said, ‘Okay, if we’re gonna do regular school, we have to reteach regular school.’
[My decision] was simply this opportunity that happened to coincide right here at the end of this school year. There was nothing negative that made me want to look for this opportunity. This opportunity sort of presented itself, and I had to stop and think about it.”
Q: We recently saw that you currently hold a position as an associate at Marzano Resources. Do you plan to continue with Marzano in the future? Or is the opportunity you mentioned aligned with another public education organization?
“That’s where I’ll be now. [I’ll be] working [full-time] with that group. As I described, it’s me supporting schools, principals, [and] districts across the country in doing the exact work that we’ve been doing here in the last few years.”
Q: There are certain staff members that have been working here with you for a long time, in addition to community members, parents, and students, that may feel like in some way, they were almost blindsided because of any unfinished business that this administration may have had at Westwood. What would your response be to any staff member or any parent who felt like they had been sticking with you and your plan for Westwood?
“There are people who are here [who] came to work with me. There are parents [who] put their kids in this school because of me, and I’m not saying that in a humorous tone. I know that because they told me [that they] weren’t going to come to Westwood, but [reconsidered] because of the changes [I] made. So I acknowledge that not being here will potentially impact the experience of some people here.
But what I would say in return is that a mark of a high quality leader is that you build such depth in leadership that really, the person at the top is almost interchangeable, because you’ve built in systems and practices that run so deep that they’re not reliant on me.
I found a lot of that here [when I was hired]. There were principals [who] worked here decades ago, who put in some of the things that we still do today. They aren’t here [now], but those things live on. Leaders [who] have come before me have all installed little pieces of everything we are. So [I’ve gotten] to leave my little pieces [here too]. I’m confident that whoever comes in and sits in this office after me will just add onto those pieces. We’re not going to see a loss in things that we’ve been doing or things we were going to do. We’re going to see a gain, because a new leader is going to come in with a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective just as I did six years ago and say ‘Okay, everything here is really good. Here’s a couple of things that we can get better at.’
I’m highly confident in this staff, in our student body, [and] in the Westwood culture. You’re not going to miss Dr. Acosta at all. Things are going to continue and won’t be long before people will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about that guy.’
For any student reading this, life is really challenging because you have to balance your professional aspirations with your personal aspirations. My children are all in high school now. The other factor here is that I’m looking for an opportunity to get to be around my kids more because my kids are going to leave [soon].
Sure there was a professional opportunity, but that also marries with a personal opportunity now. I’m around you guys a lot but I’m not necessarily around my own kids a lot. This other opportunity is not only good for me professionally, but it provides me different flexibility to be around my own kids. The clock is ticking for me before they are off and grown up.”
Q: Do you have any plans for a good-bye to Westwood at graduation or at the end of finals week?
“Graduation was going to be a goodbye for me to say thank you to the community. I don’t want next week to be about me in any way. Next week, [we] focus on the seniors and [focus] on ending school. I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t want to be a distraction.
I don’t have plans to [prepare] any kind of goodbye. Because of AP tests, I haven’t been able to get on the intercom, [but] like I said, I was trying to not make this about me and make sure that the end of the year was about our senior class and finishing a tough year.”