Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

The Principal as Community Advocate

By David E. DeMatthews — August 29, 2016 5 min read

Principals in the Baltimore city schools and in urban communities across the United States need to be angered and prepared to act in response to a U.S. Department of Justice report released Aug. 10. The report details how police officers routinely discriminate against black adults and children, including by violating their constitutional rights, as well as through physical, emotional, and sexual assault via public strip and cavity searches.

As a former high school teacher in Baltimore, I know educators are not surprised to learn about the oppressive behavior bred into policing in a city that also suffers from systemic poverty and a lack of access to adequate housing, health care, and quality schools.

While public schools do not create institutional racism and police violence, they have an important role in educating a community beyond mere academic standards set by the state. Communities like those in West Baltimore at the center of the Justice Department report have a right to demand that schools prepare citizens and future leaders capable of advancing our democracy and creating a more just society.

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Urban principals already have enough challenges in managing school budgets, hiring effective teachers, ensuring teachers provide high-quality instruction, addressing disciplinary and parental concerns, and dealing with the additional daily demands of running a school. However, they cannot deny their important role as community leaders or the power of their schools as community resources.

Schools are among the few public spaces where people struggling to deal with poverty or police violence can congregate to discuss relevant and critical issues. Together, community members can draw from the knowledge and expertise of professional educators and grassroots community groups to engage in advocacy or develop academic, social-emotional, or professional skills.

Principals not only have the ability to offer their schools as community public spaces; they themselves often become community leaders from spending extensive time in the community, developing relationships and trust, and knowing firsthand the many challenges confronting that community. Many principals have long-term relationships with multiple generations of a single family after spending decades within local schools.

Principals must have a principled understanding of how their school fits into the community."

Principals’ access to school resources, deep and sustained roots with local families, and understanding of community needs place them in a strategic position to reject any pretense of impartiality or neutrality about police violence and institutional racism. Instead, they are well-positioned to be angry and take action. They must become change agents who think critically about the lives of students and recognize that public education will be insufficient if community issues like police violence do not change.

It is now time for urban principals to be activists who are rigorously curious about community needs, morally and ethically driven, and prepared to mobilize their schools, classrooms, teachers, and families in service of a safer and more just society.

This means principals must engage teachers in adapting curriculum to teach about the history of police violence; depths of institutional racism; causes of the school-to-prison pipeline; disparities in income, health, and housing; and other indicators of our society’s shortcomings. Principals must also extend their work beyond curriculum and instruction, however.

They must reconsider how they discipline students; how police are utilized in schools and on campuses; how students are segregated because of disability or language; and how teachers and the school as a whole engage with parents, community organizations, and government agencies. Principals must ask themselves, “Do we marginalize our own students? How do police officers within the school engage with students? How do we engage with all parents? Why are there not more community and grassroots organizations partnered with our school? How do we collaborate with other government agencies to provide the services our students and families need—or hold them responsible for their failure to do so?”

In short, principals must have a principled understanding of how their school fits into the community and how its resources can help families and students.

Principals, educators, and policymakers may be concerned that these recommendations are unrealistic, given the pressures, politics, and demands of the job today. They might argue that in a different world, a principal would have time for such actions and activities, but not in today’s schools.

In response to such reasonable questions, I direct my attention to the work of educational historian Vanessa Siddle Walker. Walker documented how black principals in Georgia during the 1950s managed to act both publicly and privately to challenge inequitable school funding and segregation. In the era of Jim Crow, they managed to create safe, inclusive, and high-quality public schools that prepared black children to be successful professionals, as well as to fulfill their civic responsibilities.

The contents of the Justice Department’s recent reports on the Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., police departments document how unjust conditions remain intact in many communities. Teenage boys are strip-searched in public without cause, harassed and arrested for legally standing in a public space, or beaten and called the “n-word” and other slurs—all by police officers.

Such conditions require any caring individual to organize and act, but particularly require the full attention of principals, because such injustices are intricately tied to student emotional and academic well-being. Students must be prepared not only to survive in such an inequitable society, but also to change that society. They must be prepared to address previous generations’ shortcomings both in regards to policing and creating a democracy that is proactive in addressing injustices.

I recognize asking principals to engage in advocacy is potentially threatening to their employment and adds to a stack of demands, but who else is positioned to engage in such leadership? While other important community stakeholders are stepping up in response to police violence, I hope urban principals recognize they are among the few individuals well-positioned within their communities to make a change.

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2016 edition of Education Week as The Principal as Community Advocate

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