Recruitment & Retention

How Schools Can Support Leaders of Color, According to Experts

By Evie Blad — January 28, 2022 3 min read
Baron Davis, Superintendent of Richland School District Two, in Columbia, S.C.
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Retaining and supporting educational leaders of color is crucial for creating positive learning environments that serve the nation’s increasingly diverse students.

That’s the message three education leaders shared with former principal and author Peter DeWitt in an Education Week Seat at the Table discussion Jan. 25. Watch a video of their discussion here.

While about 53 percent of public school students are people of color, about 80 percent of the educators and administrators are white. To ensure that school and district leaders more closely reflect their students requires attention and investment at every point along the talent development pipeline, from supporting young Black teachers, to providing them opportunities to move into leadership, to giving them the tools they need to succeed in those roles, said Baron R. Davis, superintendent of the Richland School District Two, in Columbia, S.C., and a 2021 Education Week Leader To Learn From.

And some of the struggles with drawing educators of color to the field feed back into teachers’ and principals’ own experiences with inequities while they were students, he said.

“We are asking [educators of color] to participate in the marginalization that they probably even experienced,” as students, Davis said. “And so they have a really negative perception of what the educational experience looks like. They didn’t see a lot of representation, so they don’t see that as a viable option for themselves.”

Davis spoke to DeWitt alongside Andrea Kane, an education leadership professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former superintendent; and Patricia Alvarez McHatton, the senior vice president for the Branch Alliance for Education Diversity, an organization that works with minority serving institutions to build a more diverse teacher workforce.

Here are some highlights of the discussion.

Leaders need consistent support to succeed.

Kane left her rural Maryland school district last year amid an uproar over a letter she wrote following protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I had a member of the community who decided that I was indoctrinating children by saying we have to find a way to help our children make sense of the images they see on TV,” said Kane, who described the feeling of being under a microscope as a Black woman in leadership.

But tensions with a school board that had no African-American members started well before that, she said. The community may not have been aware of that dynamic, Kane said, because she “kept leading and we kept progressing.”

“There are so few Black superintendents but even fewer Black women superintendents. Particularly it is difficult if you are leading a district that doesn’t look like you,” Kane said. “It’s tough to get Black teachers and, when you look at the matriculation from teacher to leader, the numbers start to dwindle the higher you go in leadership.”

A divisive political climate has made it even more difficult to lead.

DeWitt asked the speakers if it is difficult to be in a high-profile leadership position as politicians stir pushback over how schools discuss issues like race and sexuality.

“Pushback is really an understatement,” Davis said. “It is an all-out strategic assault on educational leaders. Period.”

Read More About Educational Leaders of Color

Leslie Alexander, right, talks with North Forsyth High School Assistant Principal of Instruction La Quisha Linder about what to expect while interviewing for the Winson-Salem/Forsyth County School District principal talent pool. Alexander is the Area Superintendent of Leadership Development and is working to develop a principal workforce that is representative of the district's demographics.
Leslie Alexander, right, talks with North Forsyth High School Assistant Principal of Instruction La Quisha Linder about what to expect while interviewing for the Winson-Salem/Forsyth County School District principal talent pool. Alexander is the Area Superintendent of Leadership Development and is working to develop a principal workforce that is representative of the district's demographics.
Alex Boerner for Education Week
Stephanie Parra, Governing Board Member at Phoenix Union School District and Executive Director of ALL in Education Arizona, sits for a portrait at the nonprofit’s space at Galvanize Phoenix in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. on Nov. 15, 2021. Phoenix Union is majority BIPOC students, but school board and educator demographics in Arizona lag behind in representation and opportunity.
Stephanie Parra, Governing Board Member at Phoenix Union School District and Executive Director of ALL in Education Arizona, sits for a portrait at the nonprofit’s space at Galvanize Phoenix in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. on Nov. 15, 2021. Phoenix Union is majority BIPOC students, but school board and educator demographics in Arizona lag behind in representation and opportunity.
Caitlin O’Hara for Education Week

Davis said he stays “mission focused,” opening meetings by asking “how are the children?” The answer he wants to hear? “The children are well.”

Successful equity efforts are grounded in district policies.

Diversity can’t be a “box check thing,” Davis said. Rather, school systems need to create comprehensive equity policies and interrogate how their practices affect marginalized students. Districts should “sweep around their own front door first,” he said.

Alvarez McHatton agreed. Leaders need to show all teachers, including teachers of color, that they are serious about equity by fostering a “culture of inquiry” that involves digging into data and making it a “habit to really question assumptions,” she said.

“The experiences of students of color impact a decision of whether they want to re-enter a space that at times was extremely traumatizing for them as students,” she said.

Watch the conversation here. See other Education Week Seat at the Table discussions here.

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