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4041 N. Central Ave., Ste. 1200
Phoenix, AZ 85012



2019 Exemplary Principals Bios


The Arizona Republic published Superintendent Steve Watson's op-ed, Recognizing Exemplary Principals Around the Valley.

2019 Exemplary Principals

Dr. Ana Gomez del Castillo

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School: Kyrene de los Lagos


District: Kyrene School District

About: “Dr. Gomez del Castillo has been a leader for our innovative dual education academy providing students opportunities to reach high levels of proficiency in a second language with literacy and content in both English and Spanish for many years. She consistently conveys high instructional expectations in the school and has established systems and structures school-wide with a focus on improving instructional practice and improving academic outcomes for all students. Dr. Gomez del Castillo is a respected leader among her colleagues and staff and continues to seek opportunities for professional growth.”

-Kyrene School District Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely

Nancy Branch

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School: Kyrene de la Mirada


District: Kyrene School District

About: “Nancy is always thinking of ways to bring the joy of learning and excitement to all of the students at her school. Nancy has built a strong culture of engagement with her staff and has developed a leadership academy at her school for her students. She has successfully built strong community partnerships. She is open to trying something new to provide her students with the most engaging and relevant learning experiences possible. The students at Mirada not only achieve high levels of academic achievement, they also exhibit a passion for learning and an understanding that education is a lifelong endeavor. There is a reason Mirada is an A+ school and that is due to Principal Branch’s strong leadership.”

-Kyrene School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mark Knight

Tony Smith


School: Auxier Elementary School


District: Chandler Unified School District

About: “Tony Smith met with students and the community to establish a unique vision for Auxier Elementary School. He personally conducted tours during construction to create a culture of caring that focused on developing strong relationships and excellence in education. Auxier Elementary continues to to increase in enrollment, maintains high standards for student achievement and attracts a high number of open enrollments from surrounding areas. His high visibility and connectivity with students, staff and parents, contribute to strong parent and teacher surveys of performance for Tony. He continues to add 10% staffing each year to accommodate the growth and families love the option of choosing instruction in classic or traditional classrooms. Tony exhibits high quality leadership traits and maintains a passion to provide every child with a highly qualified teacher in a quality learning environment.”

-Chandler Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Camille Casteel

Tricia Graham

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School: Canyon Springs STEM Academy


District: Deer Valley Unified School District

About: “Mrs. Graham is a passionate, innovative leader who embraced STEM on her campus through careful planning and programming, as well as participation in the APS/NAU STEM Focus School for the Future Grant for which she currently serves as a mentor. Mrs. Graham brought national recognition to the Deer Valley Unified School District in the 2017-18 school year when Canyon Springs received National STEM Accreditation from AdvancED and officially became Canyon Springs STEM Academy. She was nominated and named Principal of the Year by her peers in the district and her school was recognized as an A+ School of Excellence by the Arizona Educational Foundation in the 2015-16 school year. She is an excellent example of leadership for the Deer Valley Unified School District.”

-Deer Valley Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Curtis Finch

Dr. Linda Price-Barry

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School: West Wing School


District: Deer Valley Unified School District

About: “Dr. Price-Barry has created and cultivated a student-centered campus culture. She has a natural way of working with parents to best support their children. She is a passionate leader who supports her staff through quality instructional practices, innovation and continuous improvement practices. Dr. Price-Barry demonstrates extraordinary leadership, strategic planning, customer focus, measurement, workforce focus and results which align with the district’s mission, vision and core values. She was named Principal of the Year for the 2015-16 school year by her peers. As a testament to West Wing’s commitment to excellence, it was named an A+ School of Excellence by the Arizona Educational Foundation in the 2017-18 school year. She serves as an excellent example of leadership for the Deer Valley Unified School District.”

-Deer Valley Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Curtis Finch

Thea Hansen


School: Carol Rae Ranch Elementary School


District: Gilbert Public Schools

About: “Mrs. Thea Hansen came to Carol Rae Ranch three years ago. It has always been a high performing school but Thea has continued to work with the teachers on making data-informed decisions to guide instruction. Additionally, Thea and her staff have been working on quality common formative assessments. Thea is currently mentoring another principal and is highly thought of by her staff, community and colleagues.”

- Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane McCord

Megan Gestson

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School: Irene Lopez Elementary School


District: Roosevelt School District

About: “Megan Gestson is an exemplary principal in every way. I can provide data that shows she took her school from 14% passing in ELA to 35% or that she took her school from 19% passing in math to above the state average at 45% in just three years… There are so many numbers that I can use to demonstrate what an outstanding job she is doing turning Irene Lopez School around, but if I focus on the numbers, I am not doing justice to the real work Megan is doing at that school. Her teachers brag about her constantly and they will clearly follow wherever she leads. She is well-respected among her colleagues and she is a mentor to many of them who look to her for guidance. She leads with compassion and dignity but she leads. She makes the difficult decisions when they need to be made. She perseveres in the face of difficulty and teaches her students to do the same. In short, she is the principal we all want for our own children. I know no one more deserving of recognition for her work.”

- Roosevelt School District Assessment and Evaluation Specialist Stacie Banks

Tamara Jagodzinski

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School: Hopi Elementary School


District: Scottsdale Unified School District

About: “The leadership of Tamara Jagodzinski includes the ability to address the interests of a highly involved community. Her goal is to address the needs of all students through the use of innovative and traditional ideas. Mrs. Jagodzinski has led the construction of a rebuild. Through a collaborative process, in the past two years she has been able to include all stakeholders to address the construction needs as well as the educational needs of all students. She is a very patient individual who leads by example. She sees her active parent community as a positive component of the school she leads. Some of her strengths include her ability to be resourceful as well as she appreciates and respects the wisdom from individuals with more experience. She is responsive to the needs of students, parents, community and staff.”

- Scottsdale Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Ibi Davila Haghighat

Diana Cameron

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School: Sandpiper Elementary School


District: Paradise Valley Unified School District

About: “Diana Cameron is one of Paradise Valley’s finest administrators. She serves as the principal pf Sandpiper Elementary School, which is home to a renowned Spanish immersion program. Her visionary and facilitative leadership style is nothing short of remarkable. She inspires all she comes in contact with to accomplish great things for students. Under her leadership, the school has flourished and is a place teachers love to teach and students love to learn.”

-Paradise Valley Unified School District Superintendent Dr. James P. Lee

Jessica Larsen

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School: Aguilar Elementary School


District: Tempe Elementary School District

About: “Jessica Larsen is one of the most amazing principals I have had the pleasure of working with in my 37 year career. She has transformed a struggling school into an innovative, highly-engaging and dynamic learning environment for students and adults. Through her vision and tireless work, Jessica has built bridges of collaboration, respect, trust and love throughout her school community. Student achievement is soaring, teachers are on the cutting edge of innovative instructional practices, standards and project-based learning is integrated throughout the instructional day and her community is continually wanting to know how else they can support, partner with or be embedded in the school culture.”

-Tempe Elementary School District Superintendent Christine Busch

John Trezise

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School: Hermosa Vista Elementary School


District: Mesa Public Schools

About: “Mr. John Trezise is passionate about creating equitable learning environments that cultivate student learning. He works tirelessly to obtain resources for his students and staff so that they have all (needs) met while on campus. John is very organized, efficient, extremely competent and has an excellent rapport with people of all ages. He is always willing to assist others and has volunteered to take on many different tasks to improve student achievement within our district.”

-Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ember Conley