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School & District Management

Principals of Color Are Scarce. Here’s What Districts Are Doing About It

By Denisa R. Superville — December 07, 2021 17 min read
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Clarification: This article has been clarified to describe Winston-Salem/Forsyth County’s consideration of visa sponsorship for teachers who are noncitizen immigrants.

Research continues to show the benefits of educators of color on all students and the positive effects of same-race principals on students and teachers of color—more Black students in advanced courses, higher math scores, and the hiring of more Black teachers, for example.

Still, while 54 percent of students in public schools nationwide are nonwhite, nearly 80 percent of principals are white. There’s an especially yawning gap between the growing Hispanic student enrollment and Hispanic leaders of color: Hispanic students accounted for 27 percent of public-school students in the fall of 2019, while only 9 percent of principals were from the same background that year, according to federal data.

Schools “are growing more and more racially diverse by the year, and we are just not keeping up in the education workforce,” said Diarese George, the founder and executive director of the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, who was also the first Black teacher to be hired in the Clarksville School District. “We have to be more intentional. We have to be more strategic. It’s been on the back burner for a while.”

Yet, if they’re willing to look and devote time and resources to the effort, districts have several tools at their disposal to attract and retain more leaders of color. Education Week looked at concrete approaches that are working for some districts as they work to close these chronic gaps.

Don’t just name the problem, commit to fixing it

It’s not enough for school systems to say they desire a diverse workforce. They must explicitly make a commitment to doing so.

Districts, such as Winston-Salem/Forsyth County in North Carolina and Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., for example, have adopted racial equity policies that list recruiting and retaining an effective diverse workforce among their goals.

In the Jefferson County Public Schools, the racial equity plan adopted in 2019 committed the district to growing the percentage of teachers of color from 16 percent in 2018 to 18 percent by 2020 and increasing the administrators of color from 31 percent in 2018 to 36 percent in 2020. (The plan was updated this summer, with the district pledging to increase the share of administrators of color working in the school system to 49 percent and continue efforts to recruit leaders of color.)

The district also pledges to train the site-based school councils on the importance of staff diversity, expand efforts to steer promising teachers of color into school and district leadership, and review internal policies that may be barriers for educators of color.

After adopting its racial equity plan last year, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools hired former principal Leslie Alexander as an area superintendent to oversee leadership diversity and applied for and received a grant from the Wallace Foundation, a New York City-based philanthropy, to focus on developing equity-centered principals.

As part of the grant, the district plans to work with historically Black colleges and universities in the state—three of which are within a 30-minute drive—to train a pipeline of equity-centered teachers and leaders for the school system and provide professional development for current district leaders.

Such public and unequivocal commitment to workforce diversity helps districts set aside funding or solicit grants, if necessary, to hire staff to lead and support initiatives tied to those goals.

It’s also easier to hold the school system accountable if those goals have targets, benchmarks, and departments responsible for seeing them through as is the case in Louisville. And it increases the likelihood that the commitment would survive multiple administrations, given high superintendent turnover.

“It has to be named, it has to be prioritized, it has to be valued,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, the executive director of Ed Trust Tennessee and the first Latina elected to a local school board in the state.

It’s important to have those one-on-one conversations to say, ‘We are invested in you; here are these opportunities, and we don’t think you’re taking advantage of them.

Develop a pipeline for talent that starts at the classroom level

The recruitment process starts with teachers. If there aren’t a lot of teachers of color entering the profession, it will be difficult for school systems to achieve their objectives of boosting leaders of color.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County has benefited for years from its close partnerships with several local historically Black colleges and universities or HBCUs. While those schools have churned out a steady supply of Black teachers, the district does not have a similar advantage when it comes to Hispanic leaders.

Shaterika J. Parks, the district’s director of recruitment and retention, is developing a similar pipeline for Latino educators. She has partnered with Ana G. Mendez University, the largest private university in Puerto Rico, which also offers online programs and has campuses in Florida and Texas, on recruitment events to tap into the school’s alumni network on the island and in the continental United States.

Districts should develop guidelines and criteria to steer talented teachers into school leadership roles and ensure that all teachers get an equal shot at leadership opportunities.

Leslie Alexander, Area Superintendent of Leadership Development for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School district at North Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Nov. 2, 2021.

Teachers and aspiring leaders should also know how to get from one rung of the ladder to the next, and there should be built-in district supports to help them get there.

Tap talented teachers to take a next step in their career

Promoting from within and actively seeking out candidates of color when opportunities arise are crucial to boosting leadership diversity, Parks said. So are clearing hurdles that keep them from applying for school leadership roles and additional training.

And sometimes, teachers aren’t thinking about leadership positions until they are specifically asked about it or steered in that direction.

That’s how Diamond Cotton, the principal of Kimberley Park Elementary School in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, made the leap from the classroom to the principal’s office.

About three years into teaching, Cotton’s principal inquired whether she’d ever considered school leadership and suggested that Cotton give it some thought.

Even though she’d wanted to be a teacher since she was a child, Cotton had not contemplated moving beyond the classroom. After seeing Cotton’s potential—and that of some of her colleagues—the principal ensured that they all had leadership roles in the school, including opportunities to mentor other teachers and improve their instructional leadership skills.

After completing graduate school and filling in for a colleague in a school leadership role, Cotton knew her future was in the principalship.

She worked as an AP and a principal for several years. And about a year and a half ago, seeing Cotton’s successes with students with disabilities and English-language learners, the then-superintendent offered Cotton the chance to restart Kimberley Park, where all of the students qualify for federal free and reduced-price meals.

Four of Cotton’s colleagues from her first school are also principals in the district—and it all goes back to their principal who spotted their potential.

George, from the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, argues that districts must take a close look at the teachers of color in their districts and not default to the position that there are so few of them.

“You have a lot of people who are sitting on administrator licenses, who have never been an [assistant principal], and who are trying to get into leadership roles,” he said. “We have to start looking at that... What are we doing to support people who want to move into administration?”

Teachers of color can also be overlooked in other ways, George said. They often are assigned to schools and classrooms that present significant teaching challenges; so, when districts are looking for exemplary teachers solely by using students’ test scores as the measure, many teachers of color may not rise immediately to the top of the list, he said.

He argues that districts should consider some of the other skills that teachers of color bring to the table, including their ability to foster a positive climate in their classrooms, work with at-risk students, and communicate with parents and the community.

Develop and support assistant principals of color

Many leaders of color do not make it past the assistant principal role, which George noted is often “a career-killer.”

Researchers in a study on the assistant principalship released this year posited that while there could be outright bias in the hiring process, it’s also possible that APs of color weren’t getting the right experiences—especially with instructionally focused tasks—to prepare them for school leadership jobs. APs of color, especially Black men, are often assigned to discipline and miss out on the instructional, budgeting, and scheduling experiences—all important responsibilities in running a school.

Districts should ensure that APs of color are matched with mentors and have access to professional development resources to develop the wide range of skills and knowledge they need to be successful principals.

“It’s important to have those one-on-one conversations to say, ‘We are invested in you, here are these opportunities, and we don’t think you’re taking advantage of them,’ ” Parks said.

Alexander, the area superintendent in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County who runs the assistant principal program, said the district has been strategic about steering teacher-leaders of color into AP roles and providing experiences that will help them to be successful. Monthly meetings include a focus on curriculum, instruction, data, and equity, she said.

If leaders of color have access to the same types of experiences and professional development as their peers, including on instruction, budgeting, equity, and culturally responsive teaching practices, that would give them an equal shot at open positions.

“We have to make sure that all of our APs have that same level of development,” Alexander said.

Mónica Bruce, a Latina assistant principal who is part of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County assistant principal program, said she’s getting a lot of opportunities to grow and network with other school leaders. She recently participated in an intense year-long course on culturally responsive leadership at a local university through its partnership with the district.

Bruce, who was born in El Salvador and started her professional career in marketing before moving to education, is part of a district association for assistant principals, which has developed workshops and other opportunities for the district’s assistant principals. The group also meets with senior district leadership and passes on concerns, needs, and other feedback.

“We’re always in the loop,” she said. “We’re always provided opportunities, and,...personally, I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of these opportunities.”

Leslie Alexander, Area Superintendent of Leadership Development for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School district at North Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Nov. 2, 2021.

Create alliances with higher education institutions that can help

Historically Black colleges and universities are “untapped resources” for districts that want to increase the leaders of color in their systems, said Jean Desravines, the executive director of New Leaders, a New York City-based preparation program for aspiring school leaders where 60 percent of the graduates are people of color.

But districts must be intentional about forming partnerships with these higher education institutions for their efforts to be successful.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County and Jefferson County districts both plan to use a portion of an estimated $8.2 million in grant money they’re each receiving from the Wallace Foundation to work with HBCUs in their regions to develop a pipeline of leaders of color and provide professional development for current leaders.

Districts can work with the local universities to refine recruitment and selection processes for candidates and ensure that the districts’ and the universities’ goals around expectations for principals are aligned.

I honestly, truly believe that we have not done our true diligence of listening to leaders of color to see what the challenges are.

Districts can also partner with nonprofits and community organizations that work with educators of color.

The Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, for example, is working with two districts as they develop plans to comply with a new state law that requires school systems to set educator-diversity goals.
It has conducted focus groups with educators of color to understand their experiences and has set up affinity groups for educators of color in one of the districts.

“Everyone is not going to be comfortable talking to their districts about the pain points,” George said.

Create a targeted recruitment strategy

Staff diversity won’t happen by chance. Districts must have clear hiring strategies, including where and how they are recruiting candidates.

Parks, the director of recruitment in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, knows the district can’t use the same game plan, which relied heavily on its ties to HBCUs, to boost the number of Hispanic leaders. While there are Hispanic-serving institutions across the country, they have a smaller alumni presence in North Carolina.

Parks had started advertising specific jobs and promoting the district, in general, in Language Magazine, a monthly used heavily by bilingual educators, and on local websites serving the Hispanic community.

The district is also considering visa sponsorship for noncitizen immigrant teachers who have taught in districts elsewhere in the United States, something that Winston-Salem/Forsyth County has not traditionally relied on as a recruitment tool.

Parks has established a bilingual recruitment roundtable, with Hispanic educators across the school system, to hear their ideas on how to reach Hispanic educators and draw them to the district. It was from that roundtable and from Hispanic educators that Parks learned about Ana G. Mendez University.

Knowing that the pool of Latino school leaders is already small, Parks is not above enticing leaders from other districts to join Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

“We have to be creative about who we know who’ve already been in schools, who already have these experiences, who can bring that talent over to us,” Parks said. “The more representation we have, the better I think we’ll do with recruiting other high-quality candidates of Latino descent.”

In the future, Tricia McManus, the superintendent, sees targeted outreach to Latino employees, again recognizing the need for personalization. That may include direct e-mails and invitations to specific employees, inviting them to information sessions on school leadership and how they can enter the district’s school leadership pipeline. Similar outreach worked in Hillsborough County, where McManus worked before moving to Winston-Salem/Forsyth County. Invitations were also given to principals, who were asked to give them to Hispanic and Black teachers and leaders in their schools.

“Everybody feels valued, engaged, and supported in very different ways,” McManus said. “So, I think it’s important that we find out what that looks like for each group.”

In Louisville, the district created a diversity hiring specialist position based in the district’s Diversity, Equity, and Poverty Programs Division and not in its human resources office. The diversity hiring specialist accompanies human resources staffers on recruitment initiatives, plays a critical advisory role in the selection process for principal and other senior district leaders, and works with the district’s university partners.

Being more deliberate and having clear hiring practices “means that we are able to consider more people and consider more individuals of color,” said Aimee Green-Webb, the district’s chief of human resources.

Build on your internal network for recruitment

Parks, who is Black, leans heavily on the expertise of Latino employees—not just teachers—to ensure that she is reaching the right people and looking for candidates in the right places. That’s how Puerto Rico’s Ana G. Mendez University became a district talent source.

“It was literally talking to Latino educators, and they were like, ‘My principal came from there. My AP came from there.’ Clearly, they were producing good leaders,” said Parks.

They also helped Parks organize a national recruitment event, where teacher-candidates dropped in virtually to learn about the district from Parks and Latino teachers and other Latino employees.

“We do have people who are already great, who are working in the district,” she said. “If they feel valued, they’ll tell more people.”

The district is also looking to partner with local agencies to help smooth the transition and settlement for new recruits, who may be coming from abroad, including helping them find housing and reliable transportation.

Listen to the needs and concerns of your employees of color

There’s a lot that those who run school systems don’t understand about the experiences of educators of color, including leaders of color, and that can only come from having deep conversations with employees and taking steps to address their feedback and concerns, George said.

“We haven’t done the qualitative research to talk to them about what the pain points are, the issues, the struggles,” George said.

For example, one of the districts he works with was hiring more educators of color, but not keeping up with the exodus of such educators. The Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance organized focus groups to understand why nonwhite educators were leaving. It found, among other things, that they did not feel they were part of a community and that professional development was not targeted to their experiences or to the communities they served.

Listening to your employees on a regular basis is a way to head off such concerns. In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, Superintendent McManus meets monthly with assistant principals. Those meetings are instrumental in the setting the course for the development APs receive, McManus said.

And monthly meetings with the area superintendent begins with requests for feedback on what’s working and what’s not working.

Districts such as Boston Public Schools and Winston-Salem/Forsyth also have created affinity groups to encourage a sense of belonging and provide mentoring and professional development opportunities for school leaders of color.

“It’s around being intentional and thoughtful about how to ensure that these leaders are being supported or have a safe space where they can engage in conversation about what’s working and what’s not working, discuss some of the challenges they are facing, and focus on their development and support,” said Desravines, of New Leaders.

Trumpet the profession and your district’s commitment to equity

While districts have a chance to steer students into teaching and ultimately into leadership through “grow your own” programs and initiatives, they should also do their best to make education an attractive career option.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County has had a small teacher-cadet program for about a decade, which has been successful in steering students into education. The district is looking to expand that program to seven schools over the next two years, with a specific emphasis on recruiting Latino students into teaching.

Districts also should be ready to discuss their plans with specificity, including their recruitment efforts, the school system’s culture, and the support available to leaders and employees of color.

And they should also tap leaders from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences working in the district—and answer questions from job candidates during career fairs and other recruitment efforts.

“A lot of it has been about mobilizing our current Latino-identifying employees,” Parks said. “It’s something that interests them. They want to bring more Latinos to the community. They want to work in a place that reflects the community they serve.”

Don’t make the job harder

It’s already tough for school leaders of color to be the first or among the few leaders of color in the district. There’s often the weight of feeling like they are representing an entire community.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Bruce, who also stressed that one of the reasons she got into education was to be a role model.

Spanish-speaking educators, for example, are often called on to provide translation services for families. Pupo-Walker remembers being a teacher and having to take time away from teaching or preparation to go to the principal’s office to translate for parents and students.

Districts can also think carefully about how they assign school leaders of color to schools and district networks.

Black school leaders are often appointed to the most challenging schools, without the necessary support to help them succeed, George said. They should be positioned to lead anywhere—not just in the areas that are hardest to staff, he said.

“A lot of the time you have to earn your keep,” George said. “It burns you out.”

When Diamond Cotton in Winston-Salem/Forsyth was first moved to Kimberley Park Elementary, the school was struggling. But the superintendent gave Cotton flexibility to hire staff and create academic support programs. Teachers were trained on trauma-informed and restorative practices and Cotton developed a cadre of master classroom teachers to help their peers. All of these programs had the support of the district leadership.

“It’s important that leaders understand where we are, have the resources to be able to motivate us, but not only that, listen to us and be supportive of the things we’re trying to do in our schools,” said Cotton.

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Principals of Color Are Scarce. Here’s What Districts Are Doing About It

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