Saturday, October 20, 2018
The RP Group
Meet Our Coaches

The LFM Academy focuses on promoting organizational coherence within each college through the integration and coordination of college nullprograms including equity, student success, basic skills, and professional development.

California Community Colleges need strong, innovative “middle” leaders — faculty, department chairs, directors, deans, student services professionals, researchers, classified staff — who can effectively respond to the myriad of reforms facing our institutions, facilitate communication, and move stakeholders to action. The RP Group is working to develop this group of critical change makers through our Leading from the Middle (LFM) Academy.

Robert Gabriner (Director)

Robert Gabriner (Director)

Robert Gabriner is one of the founders of Leading from the Middle; an RP Group program established in 2013. He currently serves as the program’s Director.

For the past 56 years, Robert focused his energy and career on social justice through the civil rights movement and within higher education reform. (Read More)

As an educator for 21 years, he taught at several community colleges and has served as executive secretary of the Peralta Federation of Teachers; the president of the Community College Council of the California Federation of Teachers; as the Dean of Research, Planning, and Grants at City College of San Francisco; as Vice Chancellor of CCSF and the Director of the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program at San Francisco State University from 2009 to 2016.

Since the 1990s Robert Gabriner has provided key leadership to the RP Group, including founding the RP Group’s Center for Student Success, a key source for statewide research on student success in California Community Colleges.

As one of the architects of the Community College Reform Act of 1988, he also served on statewide task forces that became the foundation for the 2004 Community College Accountability Act and the 2012 Student Success Act.

Rebecca Wong (Curriculum Lead)

Rebecca Wong (Curriculum Lead)

Rebecca Wong has been with Leading from the Middle since its inception in 2013. She is a Steering Committee member, coach, facilitator, and most recently, took on the role of lead curriculum developer for the program.

Rebecca started her career in education as a high school teacher at one of the largest high schools in California located in a very diverse and economically challenged community. (Read More)

She has served as a Chapter I Resource Specialist; has helped develop and evaluate programs designed to improve proficiency in Language Arts and mathematics; and has coordinated the University and College Opportunity Program, assisting underrepresented students in enrolling in 4-year institutions after high school graduation.

Rebecca has served as chair of the Mathematics Department and as the Division Chair of the Science/Math division at West Valley College and is currently the director of its Title III grant. As an active leader in her community, she also serves on the Board of Directors of the Mayview Community Health Center, which provides high quality healthcare to low-income people in the South Bay.

Ireri Valenzuela

Ireri Valenzuela (Coaching Lead)

Ireri Valenzuela joined the RP Group as a senior researcher. In this role, she leads the evaluation of the Education Planning Initiative and leads projects focused on gathering student voices to help inform the efforts of California Community Colleges to address student equity gaps and create more equitable experiences for students to support their success.

Ireri joined Leading from the Middle in 2017 and currently serves as coaching lead and as a member of the LFM Steering Committee. (Read More)

Coming from a family of social activists, Ireri has focused her career on social justice issues for the past 23 years, through her work in the areas of education and advocacy focused on systems change.

She taught English to Latino and South East Asian immigrants in the Central Valley. Inspired by the impact education had on the lives of her low-income and immigrant students, Ireri returned to school and got a masters in Adult Education. Subsequently, she developed, implemented, and led a workplace education program for formerly homeless adults — part of the Supportive Housing Education Collaborative funded through a Community Development Block Grant in San Francisco.

Early in her career, she helped developed and lead the Campus Change Network (CCN), a group focused on working with community college practitioners seeking to address equity issues on their campuses by leading systems change efforts.

Ben Gamboa

Ben Gamboa (Research Lead)

Ben Gamboa began his participation in Leading from the Middle as a member of the LFM Crafton College team. Subsequently, he became an LFM coach and is now the Research Lead and a member of the Steering Committee.

Fascinated with effective and transformational leadership, Ben has led several transformative efforts, including revitalizing staff participation in college governance through the Classified “9+1,” procedure aimed at supporting undocumented students; and leading a professional development program for aspiring future faculty members. (Read More)

Currently, he serves as President of the Crafton Hills College Classified Senate; is involved in leading the implementation of Multiple Measures assessments; and is developing a College Promise program fully funded through community philanthropy.

Previously, Ben served in appointed and elected leadership roles for a classified labor organization, where he led outreach efforts for six years — communicating the organization’s message to its quarter-million members and the California electorate.

Outside of higher education, he has served on the San Bernardino City Workforce Investment Board delivering job training programs and successful job placements to thousands of unemployed residents. He currently serves on a water district community advisory board leading efforts to improve responsible water-use and to reduce excessive consumption.

Rose Asera

Rose Asera (Evaluation Lead)

Rose Asera began her participation in Leading from the Middle as the Academy’s internal evaluator. She is currently a member of the LFM Steering Committee and a researcher and leader for the RP Group, where she has helped produce the Strengthening Student Success Conference. In this role, she worked with the the partner organizations, the conference’s steering committee, and RP Group staff to build the breadth and depth of the conference content.  (Read More)

Rose Asera has also served as director of the Carnegie Foundation’s community college project, Strengthening Pre-collegiate Education in Community College (SPECC), which was a powerful incubator for segments of present day community college work and has been responsible for nurturing a number of campus and statewide leaders.

Across her career, Rose has been a leader from the middle, side, and back. While she steps to the front when the need arises, she prefers to provide support from behind the curtain.

Anniqua Rana

Anniqua Rana (External Coordination Lead)

Anniqua Rana is currently the External Coordination Lead for LFM and a member of the Steering Committee, evolving into these roles from her initial participation as an LFM participant with her Cañada College team.

Anniqua has worked with faculty on her campus to support student language needs across disciplines and has coordinated the Basic Skills Committee and the ESL Department at Cañada. (Read More)

Later, she became the coordinator of the Center for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the College, and was a founding steering committee member of a network of educators and partners exploring systemic solutions to support adult immigrants achieving English language competency in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

During this time, she spent many of her summers in Pakistan coordinating multiple two-week training sessions on technology, language learning, and leadership in higher education with the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan.

In 2009, Anniqua also worked as the Bay Area Network Coordinator for 3CSN, where she helped plan and implement the 3CSN Network and the Basic Skills Initiative Leadership Institute.

She currently holds the position of Interim Dean at College of San Mateo.

Kristina Whalen

Kristina Whalen (Coaching Co-Lead)

Kristina Whalen’s first joined LFM as a participant with her City College of SF team and recently became an LFM coach.

After years of following her passion for teaching in the community college system, Kristina Whalen moved into district-level leadership positions, including Department Chair for Communication Studies and SLO Coordinator at (CCSF), which, at the time, was under heavy sanction for its outcome assessment practices. (Read More)

In this latter role, Kristina worked with other like-minded faculty leaders to further institutionalize a standard process for reporting assessment while validating the necessity of varied and multiple methods of collecting assessment data. She and her team also worked closely with the CCSF Research and Planning Office in order to inform and support the college’s assessment and equity goals.

In addition to these roles, Kristina Whalen has served as Chair of the Student Preparation and Success Committee; on two accreditation self-study teams; and as a member of the Accreditation Steering and Professional Development Committee.

Currently, she is the Dean of Fine, Applied and Communication Arts at CCSF, guiding support for 10 departments and the Fort Mason Art Campus. District-wide, she works on the launch of a Maker Space, on the introduction of a campus-wide Early Alert system, and with Basic Skills Initiative coordinators.

Alex Adams

Alex Adams

Alex Adams began his participation in LFM in 2017 and became a coach in 2018.  He is an Institutional Research Coordinator at Fresno City College, and before that, worked as a graduate assistant for both the Institute for Social Research and the Department of Political Science at the University of New Mexico. (Read More)

He has over ten years of experience in social science research and is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of New Mexico with a specialization in Survey Methodology.

At Fresno City College, his work has focused on planning, research, and evaluation for the Student Equity Plan, Basic Skills Initiative, and Student Support and Services Plan. He has developed many Tableau dashboards designed to provide understandable, actionable data used to inform strategic decisions focused on increasing student success and closing equity gaps.

Melissa Bader

Melissa Bader began her participation in Leading from the Middle in 2016 as a member of the Norco College LFM team. She joined the Leading from the Middle coaching team in 2018. Melissa brings a great deal of college leadership experience to LFM, including serving as the Chair for the Communications Department and lead for the English discipline. (Read More)

She has also been a member of her Academic Senate, has attended the State Senate Leadership Institute; and has led the development of a a training program for new full-time faculty.

She has also served as the District Enrollment Management Representative for Norco College in her multi-college district; is the current Chair of Chairs, and is the current Institutional Strategic Planning Council Co-Chair for her college.

Melissa’s work with her LFM team helped establish the meta-majors and initial pathways for Norco College, and she is now co-chairing Norco College’s Competition Initiative and the Norco California Pathways Initiative workgroup.

In addition to helping develop a nationally-recognized summer bridge program focused on appropriate placement in English and math, Melissa has played an integral role in the effective onboarding of incoming first-year students.

Diane Boynton

Diane Boynton

Diane Boynton first participated in LFM in 2016, and joined the coaching team in 2018.

She is chair of the Department of Speech Communication at Monterey Peninsula College, where she is active in numerous college committees including Accreditation, Facilities, the Education Master Plan, Program Review, and administrative hiring. (Read More)

Currently, Diane is a tri-chair of the President’s Advisory Group, a member of the Academic Affairs Advisory Group, and a member of the Planning, Research, and Institutional Effectiveness Committee. Diane also provides direction and support to faculty and staff, assisting with program planning and needs assessment, as well as conflict management.

Phyllis Braxton

Phyllis Braxton

Phyllis Braxton currently works as a health sciences pathway counseling faculty member at Los Angeles Trade Technical College and also serves as a district coordinator for the Los Angeles College Promise Program.

Currently, Phyllis is working on her dissertation for her doctoral program that focuses on the study of career aspirations of current, mid-level administrators to determine the perceptions and experiences that impact administrators’ decisions to pursue a community college presidency.  (Read More)

She has served in a variety of leadership roles throughout her 19 years in the California Community College system including faculty coordinator for Matriculation at Los Angeles Southwest College and College of the Canyons; Associate Dean over EOPS and Dean over Counseling and Matriculation at Pierce College, Interim Vice President over Student Services at West LA College and at Los Angeles Harbor College.

She has been extensively involved in leading student success and equity efforts such as developing college success coursework, creating learning communities and summer bridge programs, developing assessment and placement models, program review and assessment, and student learning outcomes for both academic affairs and student services.

Misty Burruel

Misty Burruel

Misty's Bio coming soon...



Erin Denney

Erin Denney

Erin Denney began her participation in Leading from the Middle in 2016 as a member of the City College of San Francisco team. Then, in 2017, she joined LFM again, this time as a coach. Erin has served in a number of professional leadership roles at City College of San Francisco, including that of Basic Skills Coordinator for the English Department, during which time she built a core group of dedicated faculty and implemented innovative, grant-funded changes to the curriculum. (Read More)

During her time as CCSF’s Professional Development Coordinator, she led several efforts including; researching and implementing best professional development practices, creating a Professional Development Committee, creating a Professional Development Plan, and implementing online flex reporting on her campus.

Currently, she is the Department Chair of the CCSF English Department, where she has led efforts to rebuild the department’s pre-collegiate English sequence, which included a full revamp of the English Placement Test and integration of multiple measures as part of that placement system.

Vicki Fabbri

Vicki Fabbri

Working now as an LFM coach, Vicki Fabbri began her participation in LFM as a lead member of the Cabrillo College team. The team spent two years with the LFM program developing ideas about how guided pathways could be applied to the college and setting the stage for the college’s acceptance into the California Guided Pathways Project. (Read More)

Vicki’s role as an education leader began in the late 1970's as the coordinator of substance abuse education and prevention for the Guam Department of Education.

After graduate school she was the Assistant Director of the Program on Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawaii Manoa for several years. When she returned to teaching in California, she led a 5-year program planning process for the San Jose State University Communications Department.

Vicki has been at Cabrillo Community College since 2000 and during that time has participated in many college initiatives and committees. A few specific roles include: faculty Union Executive Board Member, Union Vice-President, Academy of College Excellence Director and Master Mentor trainer, faculty senate representative, faculty student-success and equity Coordinator. Currently, she is the Department Chair of the Communication Studies Department.

Debra Polak

Luis Enrique Flores

Luis Enrique Flores was a member of Merced College’s two-year Leading from the Middle team in 2016 and 2017, and joined the coaching crew in 2018. Luis hopes to create safe and active spaces that fosters dialogue around the dynamic intersections of race/ethnicity, gender, abilities and other isms, and the impact they play in leadership development. (Read More)

He is currently a Senior Research Analyst, serving on a variety of committees, from shared governance to curriculum to Institutional Review Board (IRB) to CSEA’ E-Board, and works on a variety of initiatives, such as learning communities, MMAP, and guided pathways.

Outside of community college life, Luis has participated in various leadership institutes in and out of the Central Valley and currently sits on several boards, advocating for and committing to community-oriented social justice, including Valley Land Alliance (VLA), a non-profit promoting ag land and open space preservation in Merced County.

He is a graduate of UC Berkeley and the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Luis, a proud cachanilla, enjoys slow food, Latin American art and community organizing/activism.

Vandana Gavaskar

Vandana Gavaskar

Vandana Gavaskar began her participation in LFM in 2017. Currently, she is a Director for a Title V grant at Santa Barbara City College focused on creating pathways for part-time students.

Vandana brings more than twenty years of teaching experience to her work, beginning her career as English faculty at The Ohio State University. (Read More)

She has also served as full-time faculty at three other post-secondary institutions. 

During her career, she has developed and participated in programs for student success in partnership with campus, statewide and national initiatives focused on equity and cultural diversity. She continues to lead workshops for various professional organizations and has also helped to develop a Center for Academic Excellence for a consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Chris Hill

Chris Hill

During her community college career, Chris Hill has served in faculty leadership including serving as Academic Senate president, and in administrative positions spanning both instruction and student services — all of which helps her bring a broad, student-focused perspective to her work.

Chris has also led initiatives and facilitated college-wide work (such as guided pathways, Achieving the Dream, and integrated planning) that have resulted in transformational approaches to student success and institutional effectiveness. (Read More)

Her methods include engaging faculty, classified staff, administrators and students in meaningful discussions on how the college can improve processes and/or alter approaches; and by coalescing the ideas generated into a coherent plan for implementation and evaluation.

She currently serves as the Dean of Research, Planning, and Institutional Effectiveness at MiraCosta College

Debra Polak

Linda Legaspi

In 2017, Linda Legaspi began her participation in LFM as a member of the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) team, representing the college’s English Department. She has been a full-time faculty member at CCSF since 1997, teaching primarily developmental reading and writing.

Since 2016, she has been the Assessment and Prerequisite Coordinator for CCSF Office of Matriculation, working with various departments to maintain placement test validation and ensure prerequisite enforcement and is currently the chair of the Matriculation Advisory Committee for CCSF’s Academic Senate. (Read More)

Linda is the CCSF lead for the English/ESL Work Group on the Bridge to Success Task Force (the college’s collaborative initiative with San Francisco Unified School District). She also is a member of the college’s Guided Pathways Task Force.

Previously, she has held leadership roles including mentoring new full-time, tenure-track faculty and serving as search committee chair for full-time and part-time English department faculty hiring.

Lillian Marrujo-Duck

Lillian Marrujo-Duck, Ed.D.

Throughout her career, Lillian Marrujo-Duck has served in a variety of leadership positions including faculty member in the Social Sciences, where she led the implementation of outcomes assessment in City College of San Francisco’s (CCSF’s) History discipline. Recently, she joined the Academic Senate Executive Council in representation of 1,600 faculty members working to reestablish the college’s accreditation and served as President of the CCSF Academic Senate and Co-Chair of the college-wide Accreditation Steering Committee throughout the college’s unique two-year Restoration process. (Read More)

As Interim Dean of the School of English and Foreign Languages, Lillian shifted her focus to restoring the college’s enrollment and furthering efforts to close achievement gaps. Her approach to departmental and programmatic leadership is based on her dissertation research exploring faculty experiences with outcomes assessment and effective strategies for institutional change.

Lillian joined the LFM coaching team in 2018.

Barbara McNeice-Stallard

Barbara McNeice-Stallard

Barbara McNeice-Stallard has over 27 years of experience in higher education research beginning with sleep deprivation, catecholamine reactivity, facial expressions, and quality of nursing work life. Currently, her focus is on improving student success in community colleges. Barbara works for Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) as the Director of Research and Institutional Effectiveness... (Read More)

where she helps strategize the integration of planning for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Guided Pathways project.

Barbara also currently works with the RP Group as the Lead for the Integrated Planning (IP) area of the Applied Solution Kit (ASK). Previously, she served as RP Group Board President and is one of the original core members of the RP Group’s Strengthening Student Success (SSS) Conference Steering Committee. As one of the original members of the Leading from the Middle (LFM) Steering Committee, she coached several LFM colleges who participated in the academy.

As part of a certificate program for continuing education for teachers at Mt. SAC, Barbara has also taught faculty how to conduct their own research and how to evaluate their students’ learning.

Holly Piscopo

Holly Piscopo

Holly Piscopo has served in both formal and informal leadership roles at Sacramento City College (SCC), all of which relate to the intertwined goals of improving how the college addresses basic skills, student equity, and student success.

At SCC, she served as Staff Development Coordinator responsible for the college's two-year Engagement and Empowerment initiative where she worked to connect the aspects of the Basic Skills Initiative with efforts focused on student equity. (Read More)

Holly also served as the SCC BSI Coordinator where she focused on streamlining the program to focus on intentional integration of instruction and student services.

Holly began her participation in LFM in 2014, where her college’s team created the ESTEEM program (Essential Support Teams in English, ESL, and Math, implemented shortly thereafter at SCC. She joined the coaching team in 2018.

Debra Polak

Debra Polak

After “graduating” from LFM’s first academy in 2013, Debra Polak continued her involvement with LFM, and currently serves as an LFM coach and facilitator.

Debra has worked in the California Community College system for almost twenty years, and shortly after becoming a full-time English faculty member at Mendocino College, she was asked to coordinate the college’s ESL program. In this role she was instrumental in growing the program and bringing on the college’s first full-time ESL instructor. (Read More)

Debra has also served as the first Basic Skills coordinator at Mendocino College; was involved in organizing union affiliation for full-time faculty; served as Curriculum Committee Chair; and as Dean of Instruction and Dean of Centers, where she led the establishment of the new Center on the Mendocino Coast, previously under College of the Redwoods.

Currently, Debra serves as the Interim Vice President of Instruction at Mendocino College.

Despina Prapavessi

Despina Prapavessi

Despina Prapavessi first became involved with LFM in 2015, as part of a team of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) faculty and deans from Diablo Valley College (DVC). She joined the LFM coaching team in 2018.

Despina is currently the Dean of Mathematics/Computer Science and Business/Culinary Divisions at DVC. In that role, she supports the Stemovation project, a multi-faceted, ongoing initiative to bring equity in STEM to the college. (Read More)

Previously, she also helped build the recently endowed MESA (Math, Engineering and Science Achievement) program that currently supports over one hundred low-income, first-generation students. As a math department chair at DVC, she led the department in math acceleration and to eventually adopt Statway data — a type of information set that has shown marked improvements on achievement gaps.


Prior to that, Despina achieved a National Science Foundation grant, “Integrating Field Trips into Calculus Courses” and was the Principal Investigator for two national Hewlett Packard Higher Education Technology for Teaching grants.

Debra Polak

Christopher J Smith

Chris Smith, a former LFM participant, has been teaching biology at College of San Mateo since 2006 and became a full time instructor in 2011. He joined the LFM coaching team in 2018.

He has been a regular member of the Curriculum Committee and the Distance Education committee.  (Read More)

As part of a faculty team, he was awarded a District Chancellor’s grant to explore approaches to online education, and subsequently, he presented his research on online social activity and group work at California Community Colleges Online Teaching Conference as well as at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Chris has also been a regular attendee at the ASCCC institutes on Online Education, Curriculum, Continuing Technical Education, Biotechnology, C-ID teams, and Accreditation.

Debra Polak

Gio Sosa

Gio Sosa is the Senior Research Analyst at Chaffey College, where he works on an array of projects relating to student success, access, and learning outcomes.

Currently, Gio is a member of IEPI’s Data Disaggregation Applied Solution Kit (ASK) team and has focused on examining the use of technology to enhance learning and well-being. (Read More)

His most recent work (manuscript in submission) includes an investigation into the impact of a video game intervention on the memory and cognitive abilities of adults over the age of 65.

Gio recently served as the Interim Dean of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, and Planning at Crafton Hills College and as the Project Manager for the implementation of a data warehouse at San Bernardino Community College District.

In his spare time, he teaches psychology classes at Cal State Fullerton. Gio is a former, 2013 LFM participant.

Debra Polak

Michael Takeda

Michael Takeda began his participation in LFM in 2017 as a member of the Fresno City College team, which leveraged its time and experience with the academy to begin the process of developing the Guided Pathways framework for the entire college.

Michael played a key role in establishing the structure for the initial Pathways student cohort, and implementing many of its key elements, including a new and comprehensive first-time-student orientation and the FCC Common Read. (Read More)

Using his experience at LFM, Michael is now part of the official workgroup that will manage the campus-wide implementation of Guided Pathways.

He has led the charge for pre-collegiate course acceleration, including membership on the FCC Pilot team for the RP Group’s Multiple Measures Assessment Project (MMAP) and Common Assessment Initiative.

In addition to his academic responsibilities at Fresno City College, Michael has co-organized a series of annual events to celebrate Asian culture, In his current role as President of the Asian American Faculty and Staff Association, he has fought for the disaggregation of demographic identifiers for Asian students, and founded events to celebrate achievements and connect the campus to the community.

Diva Ward

Diva Ward

Diva C. Ward has been working in higher education for more than 20 years. Building on her librarian roots, Diva found her passion in higher education while working as an Assistant Project Director for the Upward Bound Program. She first discovered her passion for students, data, and data storytelling by working with low-income and first generation students with Upward Bound. (Read More)

After spending more than 10 years working with TRIO, Diva then worked as a Hub Director for the Biotechnology Center — housed at Ventura College and funded through the California Economic Workforce and Development Department.

Diva also served as a Title V HSI Grant Director and Director of Student Support at Cañada College and continues to work as a collaborator and community-building instrument of change. She also continues to use data, data storytelling and data analysis as tools to guide her work and the design and implementation of programs and services that positively impact student success.

Keith Wurtz

Keith Wurtz

Keith Wurtz participated in the first Leading from the Middle cohort in 2013 as a team member from Crafton College. In 2018, he joined the Leading from the Middle coaching team. Keith started his career as an Adjunct Sociology Instructor at Chaffey College teaching courses in marriage and family, sociology, research methods, and statistics. (Read More)

Early in his career, he began working as a research analyst, and ultimately became Director of Research and then Dean of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, and Planning at Crafton Hills College.

While at Crafton, Keith worked with faculty to implement a well-received student learning outcomes assessment process. He has also has received commendations and awards in data collection and dissemination, research, and planning. He has served on the RP Group Board, facilitated 3CSN workshops, and has been a member of the Chancellor’s Office IEPI Technical Assistance Team since 2015.