Our Mission
To help urban school districts and their partners transform urban schools into places where all students achieve academic proficiency, evidence a love of learning, and graduate well prepared to succeed in post-secondary education, the workplace, and their communities.
Our three Initiatives
Celebrating Excellence and Equity

First, we award some of America’s best urban schools. After an extensive review of student data, followed by comprehensive on-site visits, we identify typical urban public and public charter schools that achieve impressive results for every demographic group of students

Disseminating Best Practices

Second, we study America’s best urban schools and highlight their best practices through print, digital technology, and events such as our annual national symposium

Partnering with Schools and Districts

Third, we engage school and district leaders in intensive efforts to emulate the best practices found in America’s best urban schools.

Our History

NCUST started in 2005 as the vision of then-president of San Diego State University (SDSU), Stephen Weber and then-dean of the SDSU College of Education, Lionel “Skip” Meno.  Both men envisioned SDSU playing a constructive role in improving urban education throughout the nation.  With a generous $2.4 million gift from QUALCOMM, Inc. they established NCUST in 2005.  Joseph F. Johnson, Jr. was hired to serve as the center’s first executive director.

Immediately, the new center established the National Excellence in Urban Education Award Program as a strategy to identify and begin to study some of the nation’s most successful urban schools.  The first five schools were awarded in May 2006 at the center’s first symposium.  These first award-winning schools and their successors nurtured the NCUST team’s conviction that all urban schools could achieve excellent learning results.

Studies of these outstanding urban schools led to many conference presentations and several early publications including articles in Educational Leadership and the Journal for the Education of Students Placed At Risk. In 2012, Eye on Education published Teaching Practices from America’s Best Urban Schools: A Guide for School and Classroom Leaders, the first book based on the center’s findings.

These studies also led the SDSU Department of Educational Leadership to refine its leadership preparation programs in ways that better prepared candidates to pursue the policies and practices found in high-achieving urban schools.In January 2017, our second book, Leadership in America’s Best Urban Schools, was published, describing in greater detail what we have learned about the common characteristics of high-performing urban schools, the structures employed to develop and nurture those characteristics, and the leadership challenges that accompany the transformation of teaching and learning. NCUST has developed partnerships with districts eager to establish outstanding urban schools. The center has supported San Diego Unified School District, Sweetwater Union High School District, Alvord Unified School District, Romoland School District, and River Springs Charter Schools in California; Houston Independent School District and Bryan Independent School District in Texas; and Phoenix Elementary School District and Isaac Elementary School District in Arizona. NCUST coaches help district leaders, principals, and teacher leaders in our partner districts emulate some of the best practices found in schools that NCUST has awarded and studied.  Each of the districts are generating significant improvements in academic achievement. The National Center for Urban School Transformation continues to identify and learn from the nation’s best urban schools.  The lessons learned continue to be shared broadly through presentations, webinars, dissertations, other print publications, and the center’s website.  As well, the lessons learned continue to shape the center’s efforts to engage with and support urban districts that are determined to establish outstanding urban schools.

Our Team
Joseph F. Johnson Jr., Ph.D.
Executive Director

In August 2005, Dr. Joseph Johnson became the Executive Director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation and the QUALCOMM Professor of Urban Education at San Diego State University.

Previously Dr. Johnson served as a classroom teacher in San Diego, as a school district administrator in New Mexico, as a state department official in both Texas and Ohio, as a researcher and technical assistance provider at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas, and as the Director of Student Achievement and School Accountability at the U.S. Department of Education where he was responsible for directing the federal Title I Program.

Dr. Johnson earned a Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Texas at Austin’s Cooperative Superintendency Program. He earned a Master of Arts in Education from San Diego State University and graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

In 1987 Dr. Johnson received the Special Educator of the Year Award from the New Mexico Council for Exceptional Children. In 1989, he was the founding president of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. In 1993 and again in 2000, he received the Educator of the Year Award from the Texas Association of Compensatory Education. In 2003, he received the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Award from San Diego State University’s College of Education.

Lynne G. Perez, Ph.D.
Deputy Director

Dr. Perez is the Deputy Director for the National Center for Urban School Transformation at San Diego State University and has been with the center since 2006. She directs NCUST’s A-PLUS programs, coordinates the work of the Executive Leadership Coaches, and provides direct support to NCUST’s partner schools and districts

Dr. Perez led NCUST’s contribution to an intensive statewide study of California’s continuation high schools conducted on behalf of the James Irvine Foundation and in collaboration with researchers from Stanford University and WestEd.   With Dr. Johnson and Dr. Cynthia Uline, Dr. Perez has co-authored two books – Teaching Practices from America’s Best Urban Schools and Leadership in America’s Best Urban Schools – both of which are based on NCUST’s study of the schools that have won the center’s award.

At SDSU, Dr. Perez has served as a lecturer in educational leadership for the College of Education and was an early implementer in the redesigned Principal Credential Program that focused on school administration for urban schools. In 2007, she won an Outstanding Faculty Award for being the most influential professor for one of her graduate students.

Before coming to San Diego State, Dr. Perez worked as an assistant professor at St. John’s University (Queens, NY) and as a visiting professor at The Ohio State University, where she earned both her masters and Ph.D. in educational administration.

Christina Theokas
Christina Theokas Ph.D.
Director of Research

Christina Theokas joins the National Center for Urban School Transformation as Director of Research. Previously, she was the Chief Program Officer for an out of school time provider where she oversaw development and implementation of a new teaching and learning framework and aligned improvement and evaluation system.

She also spent seven years as Director of Research at The Education Trust. There, she co-authored a book on school leadership in high-performing, high-poverty schools. Her other research and publications focus on effective common-core aligned assignments, defining and measuring college and career readiness, improvement processes in turnaround schools, and understanding gaps at the high end of achievement. Christina also worked in the research and evaluation office of Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia, where she evaluated programs and trained principals and teachers on understanding and using data to make instructional decisions. Previously, Christina worked for 10 years in schools in various capacities – as a special education teacher, school psychologist, and supervisor of curriculum, assessment, and training. She also led the middle school at a special education school in Massachusetts, where her work focused on developing curriculum and programs to meet the social, emotional, and learning needs of diverse students. Christina holds a doctorate in child development from Tufts University, a master’s in school psychology from Mount Holyoke College, and a B.A. from Colby College.

Karen Jones
Director of Operations

Karen Jones has worked for the SDSU Research Foundation for over 18 years and NCUST for the last five. As Director of Operations, she handles a multitude of responsibilities including office oversight, budget management, payroll and personnel management, coordinating travel for NCUST coaches and A+ members, and arranging all aspects of NCUST’s annual America’s Best Urban Schools Symposium.

Mark Wilson
Graphic Design/ Media Marketing

Mark Wilson joined the NCUST team in 2016. Previously working as a freelance graphic designer, audio engineer, and musician in his hometown of New York and Seattle, Washington until recently relocating to his wife’s hometown of San Diego. Mark is responsible for all of NCUST’s design and media needs.

Shirley Y. Peterson, Ed.D.
Executive Coach

Shirley Peterson has been an educator for forty-two years serving as an administrator in a large urban school district for thirty-two years. She served as a high school administrator for eighteen years. During two high school principalships – one in a suburban setting and the other, an inner-city school – Dr. Peterson focused on classroom instruction and support programs for under-performing students resulting in lower dropout rates and increased.  In addition, Shirley led the development of a reading program and secured a site grant from the National Science Foundation of $1.2 million to integrate technology into all curricular areas to support the improvement of instruction and student achievement.

During 2003-2005 she worked as a consultant with the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership. Her work there concentrated on coaching principals to improve their instructional leadership, with an outcome of increased academic achievement.

In 2006, she joined the University of San Diego (USD) as a part-time professor in the School of Leadership and Educational Sciences (SOLES). She has also served as a supervisor for aspiring administrators in USD’s Educational Leadership Development Academy (ELDA) and as a coach in the Principals Ongoing Support and Training (POST) program.

Cara Riggs
Executive Coach

Cara Riggs is a former teacher and principal with a long history of working with underserved urban students and achieving meaningful results. As a principal in Omaha, Nebraska, Cara successfully increased the graduation rate by 20% while also greatly reducing truancy and dropout rates in her school.

She worked with students, parents and community leaders, implementing strategies to improve the culture within her schools with an emphasis on easing transitions between grade levels and increasing college preparedness for all students. Senior scholarships in her school went from two million to ten million dollars in her time there.

As a teacher, Cara taught English, African American Literature and athletics. In 1986 she was awarded “Teacher of the Year” and promoted to “At-Risk Support Teacher” working one-on-one with students in highly challenging life situations including teen parenting, gang involvement, and substance abuse.

In 2012 she published her book, Hope in the Urban Schools: Love Stories which was presented to 500+ new teachers in the Omaha Public Schools to teach cultural proficiency through storytelling. Cara began working as an Executive Coach for NCUST in 2014, lending her many years of experience and dedication to our team.


Barbra Balser
Executive Coach

Executive Coach Barbra Balser is an experienced educator of 33 years with a comprehensive background that includes 13 years as a teacher in elementary and secondary classrooms, three years as an assistant principal, and 14 years as principal of two elementary schools and two middle schools.

Most recently she has worked as an education consultant with the City Heights Educational Collaborative to assist in developing and implementing a strategic process for assessing teacher effectiveness.

In schools where Ms. Balser has worked with principals to develop leadership capacity, student achievement has improved. Her knowledge of curriculum and instruction, complemented by her ability to motivate staff and students, has helped schools make impressive gains. To illustrate, one urban middle school has shown a gain of 80 points on the California Academic Performance Index.

Ms. Balser has served as a mentor to aspiring school administrators in the Education Leadership Development program at University of San Diego for eight years. In June of 2005, she was selected as the middle school principal of the year for San Diego and Imperial Counties. She has served as an adjunct professor in the School of Education at the University of San Diego where she taught classes in administrative leadership.  She has been an Executive Coach with NCUST since 2011.

Hazel Rojas, Ed.D.
Executive Coach

Dr. Hazel Rojas is the president and founder of Achieving Proficiency LLC, an educational consulting firm specializing in educational systems and strategies to increase the achievement of English learners and dedicated to the advancement of all students.

Dr. Rojas earned an Ed.D. from the University of Southern California in the Language, Literacy, and Learning Program. She began her career as a paraprofessional, went on to be a teacher, a principal, director of curriculum and associate superintendent. While serving as an associate superintendent, Dr. Rojas oversaw twelve schools,  evaluated principals, and worked closely with school teams to increase overall performance. She worked as an adjunct professor of language and literacy at California State University at Long Beach.

Granger B. Ward
Executive Coach


Mr. Ward began his educational career as a middle school and high school science teacher and eventually served as a high school principal for seven years in Syracuse, NY. He was formerly superintendent of both the Manhattan High Schools in the City of New York and the Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego.

Over the past decade, Mr. Ward has served as the California State Director and then Executive Vice President for the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) Center, a national and international educational nonprofit supporting implementation and growth of the AVID College Readiness System impacting students at almost 5,000 schools in their quest to be college and career ready. He attended public schools in New York City and received his B.S. from the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in Syracuse. His M.S. degree is from Syracuse University and his administrative credential from SUNY at Oswego.

Rupi Boyd
Rupi Boyd, Ed.D.
Executive Head Coach

Prior to joining NCUST, Dr. Rupi Boyd served as the instructional superintendent of LA’s Promise in partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District for 3 years where she was responsible for improving the academic achievement and overall school operations for over 8,000 students.  She is an instructional leader with an unparalleled record of accomplishment in raising student achievement and of turning around low performing schools.  While in Los Angeles, Dr. Boyd drove an aggressive plan to shift the educational outcomes for students who attended West Adams Prep High School, Manual Arts High School, and John Muir Middle School.

Dr. Boyd’s thoughtful instructional-based and comprehensive approach to improvement is combined with building a team of exemplary external supports for the school; close work with the principals to build their instructional, administrative and overall leadership capacities; and ambitious but appropriate and carefully scaffold, professional development for teachers, counselors and others to address instruction, climate, data-based decision-making and other key levers for genuine school reform. LA’s Promise schools have seen drastic improvement in all critical areas: decreased suspensions and expulsions, CAHSEE pass rate improvement put both schools in the top five of similar schools,  increased graduation rate,  increased  API by a combined 200 points, and finally the schools saw a drastic increase in attendance rate for students and staff.

In a prior position as Area 3 Superintendent for San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), Dr. Boyd supported and supervised 20 schools with oversight of charter schools within the SDUSD. She participated in developing the district Strategic Plan for Student Achievement, Master Plan for English learners, English-Language Arts and Mathematics curriculum along with SMART goals and benchmark assessments. She served on the district work group to reorganize and restructure special education, streamlining services to students with special needs.

Dr. Boyd received a Bachelor of Science from UC San Diego and a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership from San Diego State University. She earned her Master of Science in Educational Administration, California Administrative Credential, Teaching Credential and CLAD certification from National University in San Diego. Dr. Boyd served on the English Learner Advisory Committee for California Department of Education. 

5500 Campanile Dr, EBA 332 San Diego, CA 92182-1165