Maria Lewis '91 (Liberal Studies)

Alumna makes a difference in troubled school

Maria Lewis
     Photo by Randy Pench, The Sacramento Bee


The photo of Principal Maria Lewis helping 5-year-old Valerie Soto-Galvan with her alphabet lesson at Woodland’s Whitehead Elementary illustrates the close, caring philosophy of yet another Sacramento State graduate who is transforming a formerly troubled school.

Since Lewis came to Whitehead two years ago, test scores have improved, student and staff morale is soaring, and parents are paying more attention to their children’s education. In short, a culture of low expectations has been replaced by a robust commitment to student learning.

Starting from the premise that every child can learn, Lewis has the résumé to back up her claim. Before coming to Whitehead in 2010, her 12 years in the district as an administrator included Lee Middle School as vice principal and, later, principal of Freeman Elementary.

Having turned low-performing Freeman around, Lewis was tasked with doing the same for Whitehead, which by federal standards had for seven years been a failing school. The situation was so dire that concerned parents were pulling their children from the school. That has changed, as enrollment has increased in the last two years from 365 to 433.

Lewis hails from Mexico and shares a similar background with many of her students, allowing her to connect with them on a personal level.

Raised and educated in Woodland, she understands the community because she never left, except for the time spent earning her academic degrees at Sac State. She was the first in her family to earn a college degree.

Her children are enrolled in Beamer Park Elementary School’s Spanish Immersion Program. No such program existed when she was an isolated, Spanish-speaking 8-year-old sitting in the back of the room. But a teacher spotted her art talent and tutored her. Lewis eventually enrolled in a bilingual program and blossomed.

“I intended to study engineering in college,” she says, “but a friend noticed my affinity for relating to youngsters in a church group and suggested I become a teacher.”

Lewis came to Sacramento State via the Summer Bridge Program and majored in liberal arts. She also worked for Sacramento State’s CAMP (College Assistance Migrant Program), where she bonded with students and instructors.

Education Professor Harold Murai became her mentor, shaping her curriculum and encouraging her to become a teacher. “He was very supportive and helped me complete my degree in four years,” Lewis says. She fondly recalls Sac State’s Bilingual- Multicultural Center for teacher credentialing as well. “We were like a family,” she says.

The soft-spoken principal has created a can-do culture at the school that inspires students and staff alike. A case in point is a teacher who says the “positive climate at the school starts with the principal and trickles down through the staff and students.” She adds, “I am glad to be a part of the teaching staff this year, and I am so impressed with the overall climate and culture of the school that I am open-enrolling my own child in kindergarten at Whitehead next year.”

A Whitehead parent reflects that enthusiasm: “My boys’ experience at this school has been wonderful. The teachers are committed and caring; the principal is committed to the success of all children.”

Lewis epitomizes a new wave of principals being brought into low-achieving, often low-income schools to turn things around – in this case giving parents, most of whom don’t speak English, a voice.

“Many of the parents are working two jobs,” Lewis says, “so it’s been difficult to get them involved in school activities.” But Maria Lewis, who routinely works 12-hour days, is determined to make a difference in the lives of Whitehead’s children. This is precisely what she is doing – one very busy day at a time.

Sacramento Bee profile on Maria Lewis: "Principal put strugging school on new path"

Article written by Alan Miller, Sacramento State's Office of Public Affairs, published December 2012