Long before Carla Santorno started her education career, she used to “play” teacher in the school she set up for neighborhood friends in the basement of her family’s Denver home. Those activities helped set the stage for the Tacoma Public Schools superintendent’s future as a “mission teacher” — an educator who has spends his or her whole life knowing “I want to have an impact on young people.”

You can be a highly successful education leader even if teaching hasn’t always been your goal, says Santorno, who has been Tacoma’s superintendent since 2012. But, “it’s like anything else, whether you work for a Fortune 500 company or a hospital,” she says. “If you know your core is totally committed to the service you want to provide, that does help in aligning your work.”

Santorno has been lauded for reshaping academic programs and educational outcomes for the racially and ethnically diverse district, in which 63 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

Under Santorno’s leadership, the district has seen its four-year graduation rate increase by 27 percent over the past decade, with six straight years of gains. More than 80 percent of Hispanic, African-American, Pacific Islander, and multi-ethnic students graduated in 2015.

Strong leadership has been key to Tacoma’s improvement, as has a laser-like focus on what matters. School districts must have “the guts to say, ‘That sounds like a great thing you’re doing, but it just isn’t going to work with what we’re doing now,’” she says.

“When you’re an urban school district, often you get lots of offers of help, but if you take miscellaneous help that’s not committed or dedicated to your goals, you’re not going to make any progress,” Santorno says.

Now that’s a leader on a mission.