“Education is an equalizer. All of us who are in education, we’re not in there for money. We’re there for impact,” said Shehnaz Wadhwania, currently the founding principal for Abram Agnew Elementary School in California’s Santa Clara Unified School District. Before becoming a school leader, Shehnaz followed a unique career path in education, where she felt she could make the greatest impact.

Born and raised in Mumbai, Shehnaz first saw the impact of being an educator when she was in eighth grade. At the time, her family needed money to pay for her and her siblings’ school tuition, so Shehnaz decided to tutor girls to support her family’s education. Through her work tutoring girls in math and science, Shehnaz saw the confidence these young women developed as a result of education, and later became inspired to pursue a profession within this field. 

Before deciding to work in education, Shehnaz pursued a number of degrees from the University of Mumbai, including Bachelor’s degrees in English Literature and Labor Law and an MBA with a speciality in Human Resource Management and Development. In 2001, her husband received a job offer in the United States, so Shehnaz, her husband, and their young daughter moved to New Jersey. Her husband knew of his wife’s dreams to work in the field of education, and he encouraged her to pursue a Master’s degree in teaching, which she later received from Columbia University’s Teachers College. 

Shehnaz’s teaching career in the United States began at Uplift North Hills Preparatory School, an IB school in Dallas, where she started as a high school AP and IB English teacher, and later became an IB coordinator and instructional coach, the English Department Chair, and finally Dean of Instruction. She began to progress from teaching to serving in school leadership roles. For three years, she worked as IB and AP Coordinator at Renton High School and then Assistant Principal at Stevenson Elementary School, both in Washington. 

In August 2019, Shehnaz became the Founding Principal of Abram Agnew Elementary School in Santa Clara, CA. Currently in its design stages, Agnew Elementary is part of a campus that also houses a middle school and a high school. All three schools are newly constructed, state-of-the-art, and scheduled to open in the fall of 2022. 

 “The vision is for all three schools to be innovative and cutting edge,” Shehnaz said. “We are going through the design-thinking process, and as part of this, we have interviewed parents, students, and teachers.” 

According to Shehnaz, the schools aim to have a student-centered approach, personalizing deep learning for students and incorporating interdisciplinary teaching, while also focusing on building their social and emotional competencies. 

When physically designing a school, every detail requires thought and planning — from the building’s architecture and exterior to the type of chairs in classrooms. One unique aspect about Agnew Elementary is that it will feature flexible learning spaces for students, an alternative to the traditional rows of desks and chairs. Shehnaz described how one third of the classroom is designed for one-on-one teaching, one third is designed for small-group learning, and one third is designed for whole group lessons. Each classroom features different types of furniture — from floor-level seating to mid-level bar stools and movable desks of different lengths. 

In addition to physically designing the school, Shehnaz is also working on developing the school’s vision and culture. 

“Very rarely do principals get the opportunity to design a school and have a vision for that school, and then hire people, and then have their staff develop and support that vision. I’m really excited. I’m reading lots of books and attending lots of conferences as part of the research process on what some of the best and innovative practices are around the world,” she added. 

Opening a brand new school is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but even more rare about this design experience is that Agnew Elementary is part of a Pre-K to 12 campus. 

“It’s not like I’m designing this elementary school, and I don’t know what experiences students will have in middle and high school. It’s like all three principals are working together, and there’s a continuum and thread that students will have,” Shehnaz said. “They’ll continue with the philosophy that’s common to all three schools.” 

Though most of Shehnaz’s teaching experiences have been at the high school level, she chose to become a school leader at the elementary level because she considers learning at that age to be crucial. 

“[When I was at Renton High School] I would see students wanting to take college-level classes, but their writing and reading skills were at the third and fourth grade level. I wished I could turn the clock back and do a good job at the elementary school level,” she explained.  To make a real impact on her students, Shehnaz knew that the elementary level would be an important place for offering students a solid foundation of math and literacy skills, which would later help them in middle and high school. 

When asked what advice she would give to aspiring school leaders, Shehnaz emphasized the importance of identifying one’s own core values and leading with a strong vision. 

“Believe in yourself and your ability to impact the lives of students without depending on external factors like praise or recognition,” she said. 

She also added the importance of having a strong, supportive team. 

“You build leaders so that when you leave, that institution can still run. Don’t make it about yourself, make it about your team so you can empower others,” she said. 

In addition to focusing her career on education, Shehnaz has also regularly volunteered with the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board. Much of Shehnaz’s work in education has been inspired by our faith’s ethics and values, particularly the notions of generosity, kindness, and helping those who are marginalized. She emphasized the importance of excelling not just for ourselves but also for our communities and the nation as a whole. 

“When I apply for jobs, I prefer at-risk or high-needs schools or positions because that is where the highest impact is and the greatest need. By helping vulnerable populations, you raise the overall caliber and quality of society,” she said.