Students of color make up nearly half of the children enrolled in the Eden Prairie school district, a suburban system near Minneapolis.
And like many school districts, Eden Prairie’s roster of principals did not reflect the diversity of the student body. In fact, five years ago, principals and associate principals of color made up about 18 percent of the district’s school leaders.
This year, nearly half of the principals and associate principals are people of color.
How did the school system move so far in just a few years?
First, a commitment driven by the district’s values, according to Superintendent Josh Swanson, who came to the district of more than 8,000 students in 2017.
Eden Prairie’s mission to inspire students, in part by forging meaningful relationships and connections, bleeds into everything the school system does, said Swanson, who is white.
One of the things that emerged from a community-engagement process after Swanson arrived was a recognition of “that need for belonging and connections and diversification of our workforce leadership,” Swanson said.
That led the district to begin to think strategically about how to increase the number of school leaders—and more broadly staff of color—working in the system.
The percentage of people of color on the schools’ overall administrative teams and in the district’s central office also increased to 50 percent. Swanson said the number of teachers of color is also increasing, though it still lags student enrollment.
“I will tell you, from my lens as superintendent, there is no single strategy,” Swanson said. “It really becomes, ‘How do you put multiple strategies together to make that happen?’ ”
Network, network, network
That’s a go-to tool for Carlondrea Hines, the associate superintendent of academics and innovation, who joined the district in 2021.
Hines, who is Black, has built up a Rolodex of exemplary educators of color—teachers, principals, and others—with whom she’s worked and encountered over the years.
That Rolodex comes in handy when vacancies arise. She scrolls through her contacts to see which one might be the right fit for the school and the community.
And even if someone doesn’t think they’re the right fit for the current vacancy, Hines always asks: “Do you know anyone that would be a good fit for our district?”
“They may have a reference that we may be encouraged to reach out to, to inquire if they would be interested,” Hines said.
Networking also includes ensuring that the universities with which the district works know that the school system is focused intently on diversifying its staff.
Look for fit
The process of filling a school-based vacancy begins with surveys of the school staff, students, and families. They’re asked questions like: What are the strengths of the school site? What would you like to see in a school leader? What challenges will the new leader have to address? What strengths should the new leader possess to help the school community grow?
It’s about “really listening to our community who identify the needs,” and then searching for candidates who demonstrate those characteristics, experiences, and expertise, Hines said.
Targeted questions during the interview process also help separate those who’ll work successfully with students of color—and other communities—from those who won’t, and who can further the district’s goal to inspire students and build connections and relationships.
“We want to see [that] the candidates and leaders [who] are coming through the system looked at our values, looked at what we are trying to do to say, ‘Yes, that’s me,’” Swanson said.
District leaders also seek examples of how candidates have made a difference for students of color.
“But we’re also looking for how you’ve impacted white students—knowing that even those students, within those groups, there is such a diversity inside some of those groups as there is between them on a regular basis,” Swanson said.
School leadership can be a lonely job for any administrator, but especially so for leaders of color, who make up about 20 percent of those running public schools.
Eden Prairie has seven affinity groups for school leaders, including for Black men, Black women, white women, white men, Asian-American women, and bi-racial school leaders.
The groups are facilitated by exemplary school leaders or those with backgrounds in social architecture and psychology, and they focus on the social, instructional, and personal aspects of school leadership, Hines said.
This year, for example, the leaders are working on how to create school environments that allow every student to be successful and how leaders showed up for their staff and students every day, Hines said.
Tap the current staff
Tapping—looking at the talent already in the system and helping them get to the next rung on the career ladder—has also helped, Swanson and Hines said.
“We are continuously tapping people on shoulders and providing development opportunities for folks, as we think about ‘grow your own,’” Swanson said. “Looking at … the support staff who could be great teachers, [and] what teachers could be good administrators.”
It is also about elevating those who demonstrate superior abilities and having conversations with them about their career plans.
“That gives them the encouragement and the validation that they have the skills and the ability to be great leaders and other people see that in them,” Hines said. “That tap is so important when it comes to building others up as they look towards their future [trajectory] in the field of education.”
“When we have folks that share any kind of interest, we are always tapping into that and figuring out [what are] those next steps,” Swanson said. “And it’s personal and individual.”
What “are things that we need to add to your repertoire or your toolkit, if you will, so that you’re prepared for whatever the next step is when it comes along.”
The district has developed a ‘grow your own program’ for students who are interested in going into teaching and who can take university courses in the final year of high school toward a college degree. But that’s a longer-term strategy, Swanson said.
Right now, it’s often about helping those already in the system and encouraging teachers, by saying, “I noticed this about your work. This is impressive. Have you thought about this?’ as we think about tapping people on the shoulder,” Swanson said. “We are doing that with students, too.”
Quennel Cooper, the principal of Prairie View Elementary School, was one of the school leaders of color who joined Eden Prairie more recently.
Cooper was the only principal of color in his previous district, the nearby Inver Grove Heights, where he’d worked for eight years. He wasn’t exactly looking to move, but he started noticing peers in his network of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) school leaders going to Eden Prairie, he said.
Eden Prairie has a good academic reputation, so Cooper talked to his colleagues about the additional draws. He looked at the district’s mission and vision and was also impressed that the associate superintendent was a Black woman, which he said was “powerful.”
“I said ‘This district is doing something,’ ” Cooper said. “It made me want to come up here. A lot of times, as a BIPOC leader, you’re the only one in the district. You’re the only person of color in the district. And to be able to get this experience, to see other BIPOC leaders around me, I couldn’t miss this opportunity. I couldn’t.”
Cooper felt that he would be better supported at Eden Prairie, especially since one of the top leaders was a person of color, but also because there were colleagues with similar backgrounds and experiences around him.
He has found support in one of the district-created affinity groups. He also has assistance from an associate principal and an instructional excellence educator to help with the instructional part of the job and better support students’ academic growth.
Cooper also feels that the district’s commitment to equity and efforts on cultural proficiency means that leaders of colors aren’t always asked to address issues of race and equity when they emerge.
“When you are the only one in the district—the only BIPOC in the district—when something comes up with race, they come to you,” Cooper said. “That’s so uncomfortable.”
Representation matters, not just for the school leaders, but also for teachers and students, he said. In his last job, he hired the first teacher of color in the school.
Cooper recalled wanting to be the president of the United States when he was growing up and being told that it’s never happened before, so it wouldn’t happen. He looked around the classroom, and saw only pictures of white men. He shelved that dream.
But his now teenage son can dream of being president, having seen a Black president and Black-Asian female vice president.
The same is true for students seeing leaders who look like them.
“When I walk through a school, my kids see me. They can go, ‘Oh, I had a Black male principal, I can do that,’” he said. “You have to see something in front of you; you have to be able to touch it. We see things on TV sometimes, and we don’t believe it can happen. But if you can see it in front of you, you can touch it—that’s huge.”
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