Expertise in K–12 Leadership: Meet Dr. Bernadette Ortiz-Brewster
In the late 1990s, as a sixth and seventh grade Spanish teacher at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Dr. Bernadette Ortiz-Brewster created the middle school’s first website. Now, she says, we might chuckle at its simplicity. But at the time, and for Punahou’s teachers, administrators, and students, it was groundbreaking.
“It was a plain page, a single color background, and it had these little audio links on it,” says Dr. Ortiz-Brewster, who earned her PhD in Education from Walden University. “I taught all the teachers how to record their voices and put them on the website. And that was a really big deal back then, for the kids to be able to be at home and click on something and hear my voice. It was funny because the parents would tell me, the kids all sound like you now because they’re listening to your audio files in Spanish.”
That early project, showcasing Dr. Ortiz-Brewster’s interests in innovation, technology, student achievement, and education leadership, was a sign of things to come. Today, as director of strategic partnerships for Pearson Online & Blended Learning, Dr. Ortiz-Brewster launches fully virtual online Connections Academy public schools that serve K–12 students across the United States for Pearson’s Online and Blended Learning division. “We work in 29 states and have 44 schools now across the United States,” she says.
In addition to her role at Pearson, Dr. Ortiz-Brewster serves as the board president of The Complete Player Academy (TCP) and is board vice president of Gifted Minds Prosper, an advocacy organization focused on gifted and talented educators, students, and their families.
A School Opener and Innovator
Prior to joining Pearson, Dr. Ortiz-Brewster spent more than 20 years in schools in Hawaii, Texas, and Maryland. She was founding director of technology at Island Pacific Academy and founding school director at American Renaissance Academy, both located in Kapolei, Hawaii. She was the assistant head of middle school at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, and the middle school head at Good Shepherd Episcopal School in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
And then in 2013, she got an offer that changed her life: Would she come to Maryland to become founding principal of College Park Academy (CPA), a public charter school in Prince George’s County? CPA was to become a “bricks-and-clicks” school, where students would learn in a blended format. As it was conceived, all the resources—textbooks, gradebooks, and such—would be online through Pearson’s online education management system. Students would receive instruction in math, science, language arts, and social studies from face-to-face teachers. Pearson virtual teachers would offer the electives.
Dr. Ortiz-Brewster, originally from Staten Island, New York, says she didn’t want to leave Texas, where she and her family were living, to move back to the East Coast. And she wasn’t sure she and the job were right for each other—all her leadership and management experience had been with private schools. But the organizers, a coalition that included the dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Education, the district leadership of the local school system, a local senator, and city council members, saw her experience as a plus.
“I met with these incredible people and they said, we want someone who thinks outside of the box; we want someone who has private school experience because we want someone who has experience leading innovative schools,” she says.
“I started looking at the demographics of Prince George’s County and saw how very different it was from the populations that I worked with at the private schools. I am Latina, and I always felt like I wanted to make more of a difference for students of color. So, I said, you know what? This could be something that can really make a difference in this area. I came home to my husband and said, ‘I’m just going to go for one year.’ I got an apartment in College Park, Maryland, and would come home once a month to visit my family in Texas.”
She joined the school in June of 2013 and opened it that September. “It was probably the hardest work I’ve ever done in my career,” she says. “It was a whirlwind of an initiative because we were starting basically from scratch. I had to hire staff and we were in an old facility, so we had to rewire it… It was unbelievable. We had 325 sixth and seventh graders. That’s how we opened the doors. We turned on 300-and-something laptops on the first day and the internet went out. As typical educators, we had a Plan B. We had the kids do a writing contest and the essay that won was, ‘When the Lights Went Out at College Park Academy.’”
The Value of a PhD in Education
The year that Dr. Ortiz-Brewster pledged to CPA stretched into more than five years. When she left in 2018 to return to Texas and join Pearson, she was CPA’s executive director. And she had added PhD to the end of her name. In 2016, she had received her Walden PhD. Her dissertation, appropriately, was: Examining U.S. Middle School Students’ Achievements in a Blended Learning Environment.
Dr. Ortiz-Brewster said she knew early on, while still working in Hawaii, that she wanted to earn a PhD in Education. “I’m a lifelong learner anyway. I just love learning,” she says. “And I felt like it would really help to become an expert in my field to the highest extent possible, to help people feel that they can believe what I’m saying, because there’s just something about having an EdD or PhD at the end of your name. And, I also felt that because it was a very small Island that I was living in, that my experiences were limited. I wanted to make sure that I was able to learn with a national or global group and see what was going on outside of the island.”
Walden’s global reach is one reason she chose the accredited university’s online PhD program. “I read in the literature about the global community and that’s one of the things that resonated with me. And I remember taking my classes and having conversations with classmates and fellow school leaders where I was saying, ‘Well, this is what I’m doing in Hawaii. How does it work where you live?’ And then they would give me their perspective from another country. And I was like, whoa, that's so cool. What better way to learn from all over the world than to do it in a (virtual) classroom where you all have access to each other?”
The flexibility of Walden’s online PhD in Education degree program was the other key selling point. Dr. Ortiz-Brewster started her PhD degree program after opening a second school in Hawaii, and with her third son, “literally a newborn,” in her lap. Being able to work when you want, from home or office, makes Walden’s education PhD program an excellent choice for parents, she says.
“I would complete my school tasks in between kids’ naps and anything you could possibly think of as a working mom. So, I would love to encourage parents to go back to school and not to be afraid of that because it is so flexible. Being able to make your own schedule is a huge, huge thing.”
The hardest part? Getting started, she says.
“It’s just making a commitment that you want to make a change. I say, take the first step and just register. And then you take that first class and you get really motivated; you get really excited,” she says. “I think it helped shape the path that I took because every time I learned something I would apply it to what I was doing. Or if I had a question and I was stumped on something, I could ask a faculty member or one of my colleagues: How do you do it there? So, I think it helped me navigate my career, too. And you’re not going to know until you start. Just take one class—take a class.”
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