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School & District Management Opinion

Principals Have the Public’s Trust. It’s Time to Leverage That Trust

By David E. DeMatthews — March 02, 2020 5 min read
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Principals are among the most trusted community members, and they have tremendous power to address pressing inequities within schools and society, but few principals are trained to recognize their full leadership potential.

In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, almost 85 percent of the public believes principals care about the students they serve “some of the time” or “all or most of the time.” In addition, 4 out of 5 respondents believe principals both handle resources responsibly and provide fair and accurate information. These results rank principals’ care for others and trustworthiness higher than those qualities in police officers and religious and military leaders.

Yet, in my experience, few principals recognize the power they have within their communities to effect change. As a professor in a principal preparation program, I interact with aspiring leaders who question just how much principals can really do to meaningfully impact their school and community.

I have worked in previous jobs with many principals and assistant principals in Baltimore, Washington, and El Paso, Texas. Most have told me their primary duty was to raise student achievement. They also told me their role did not include engaging in political activity.

Some might argue that principals are trusted because they avoid political activity, but the idea that principals can actually do so and remain effective amid pervasive educational and social inequities is out of touch.

The idea that principals can avoid political activity and remain effective is out of touch."

The impact of systemic poverty and economic segregation, a lack of access to adequate housing and healthcare, public education funding shortfalls, and xenophobic immigration policies wreak havoc on millions of students and families. Students do not shed their life experiences when they enter school.

As every educator knows, what happens outside of school impacts what happens inside the classroom. Principals who care about their students and aim to increase student achievement cannot afford to ignore social issues.

And in pressing forward on social issues, today’s principals have models from the past. Historian Vanessa Siddle Walker documented how, for example, black principals in Georgia during the 1950s publicly and privately challenged funding inequities and racial segregation. During the Jim Crow era, principals cultivated statewide networks that were plugged into civil rights efforts to defeat the status quo politics that trapped black families in poverty.

These days schools serving immigrant communities have been heavily affected by the Trump administration’s policies. Many students arrive at school dealing with fear and uncertainty. They are anxious, for example, about a caregiver who may have been or will be deported. Some students take on family errands to limit an undocumented caregiver’s exposure to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers conducting raids.

Children who experience high levels of stress, fear, and uncertainty are at greater risk of social and emotional difficulties and academic failure. Thus, the Trump administration’s immigration rhetoric and policies are not just a social problem, but a school problem that principals must take on.

In my travels across the border region and elsewhere, I have found principals following in the footsteps of those documented by Siddle Walker. I will not go into detail about where principals are organizing and supporting immigrant families because some states, politicians, and school board members are hostile to such actions and are advancing anti-sanctuary city laws, However, I will highlight the power principals have when they leverage their networks in service of vulnerable students and families.

One group of principals in a Mexican-American immigrant community meet privately to learn about challenges experienced by families, identify legal and financial resources available for those impacted by deportation, and disseminate information to ensure individuals understand their rights. As immigration policies change, the principals engage with lawyers, activists, and grassroots organizations to better understand what is happening and communicate with families. Schools are often one of the few organizations that can quickly disseminate public information, but as with the principals in the Jim Crow South, many of these efforts are not visible outside of school circles.

Principals have also publicly supported improvements in teacher working conditions. Such improvements reduce teacher turnover and improve student achievement. In recent years, teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Chicago, and several other large districts went on strike after looming budget cuts and shortfalls. In Oakland last year, 75 principals signed a public letter of support for teacher demands, including higher teacher pay and increased state education funding. More than two dozen of the principals traveled to the state capitol prior to the strike to support their teachers.

Principals have the opportunity to communicate with families when districts engage in politically contentious reforms to address racial and economic inequality. For example, Howard County Public Schools in Maryland recently shifted enrollment boundaries to address socioeconomic segregation. While decades of research indicate the integration helps to close test score and opportunity gaps, some parents felt threatened by the rezoning. Howard County principals are in an important position to address unwarranted fears and organize supporters.

I provide examples of principals engaging in thoughtful political activity to show how in this way principals can benefit their schools and communities. The Pew Research Center’s findings that principals are deemed among the most trustworthy individuals within our society was of no surprise to me because principals have chosen a career path that does not bring fame or fortune, but does focus on improving the lives of the children in their community.

I recognize political activity brings with it the threat of job loss. Political work also adds to the countless demands that are part of administering a campus. From what I’ve seen, however, carefully taken risks can significantly help teachers, students, and families. I hope all principals recognize the legacy of courage in their profession and trust that their communities are ready to work with them to ensure students and families are safe, cared for, and able to be successful in all aspects of life.

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