School & District Management

This Principal Is an Unabashed Advocate. Here’s How That’s Helping Students

By Denisa R. Superville — May 20, 2021 4 min read
Derrick Lawson, the principal of Indio High School in Desert Sands, Calif., was the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals Advocacy Champion of the Year this month.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

More than 90 percent of the 2,000 students at Indio High School, in Indio, Calif., are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

And when the coronavirus pandemic hit, those students, some of whom live in rural areas or whose parents work on the farms in the region’s agriculture sector, had to make high-stakes decisions that many of their peers from higher-income families nationwide didn’t have to.

There’s the student whose mother died during the pandemic, prompting the young girl to take over her mother’s housecleaning service.

There’s the student whose internet was so slow that only one person in his household could be online at a time, so he decided that he’d already had his turn and prioritized his younger siblings’ education.

“Those are the stories that really propelled my actions this year, even more so—to be more committed and on top of my efforts to push more services and for equity,” said Derrick Lawson, Indio High School’s principal, who was named this month as Advocacy Champion of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The association gives out the award to a current or former principal or assistant principal whose volunteer activities help advance its policy priorities.

For Lawson, a 27-year principal in the Desert Sands Unified School District in the Coachella Valley region, from which he also graduated, broadband access for students and families—especially those in rural environments—has been a focus of his advocacy work this past year.

The extent of his students’ technological challenges came into sharp view when Lawson and other school staff started home visits last September after nearly a quarter of students failed to show up or check in for their classes on Zoom or Google Classroom.

It’s a cause that’s also championed by superintendents and others who work in public education after witnessing the sharp socioeconomic and geographic disparities in internet access amid the pandemic.

Lawson’s advice for advocates in this area: “Don’t make it political; don’t make it partisan. Broadband is the electricity of the 21st century. We need everyone to have access.”

And so it was heartening for Lawson when the Federal Communications Commission announced the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program this month, which would provide up to a $50 monthly discount toward broadband service for low-income families or those who suffered significant income loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also provisions to help families buy laptops and other devices.

“I’ve been fighting for [expanded broadband access] all year because of my kids,” said Lawson, who has been principal at his high school for five years.

Raising a voice for equity and access

Lawson has always been outspoken about his students’ needs—especially ensuring that students from low-income families have access to nutritious meals. Indio High School was the district’s largest food delivery site during the pandemic, distributing about 1,900 meals daily.

In addition to expanded food and internet access, Lawson’s volunteer advocacy this year has centered on increasing Title II funding to districts and states so that principals could get training and other supports to lead remote or hybrid schools. And going forward, Lawson expects to continue pushing for assistance to help teachers and students with their social and emotional health.

Students have experienced a health crisis, economic crisis—which he calls a food crisis—and a social crisis in the span of a year, Lawson said.

In a normal year, Lawson would head to Capitol Hill to press federal legislators or to Sacramento, the California state capital, to discuss school leadership priorities.

Don’t make it political; don’t make it partisan. Broadband is the electricity of the 21st Century. We need everyone to have access.

But social distancing and other pandemic-related safety measures made some of that difficult this year. While he met safely with local lawmakers when they were in their districts this year, the bulk of his efforts migrated online and to the telephone.

He urged other principals to contact their representatives during coordinated social media campaigns on Twitter, by telephone, and by mail. With other state coordinators, he helped to craft the specific language principals should use when they reached out to lawmakers. Lawson also participated in online meetings with legislators to discuss his and fellow school leaders’ priorities amid the pandemic. And he and school staff members also shared their pandemic experiences with national media.

Over the years, Lawson has cultivated relationships with some lawmakers and their education staffers. They sometimes call on him and ask how a proposal or policy would play out in schools and he’s called to explain why a proposal was a good or not-so-great idea, he said.

Sometimes legislators were amenable to his suggestions and input; other times, they’d say their conference was not in favor of it, he said.

Principals may struggle with their role as advocates

Principals, who often do not enjoy the same level of job security as teachers, are sometimes hesitant to step into the public advocacy role and may see it as getting involved in politics.

Lawson views it differently.

“It’s about the kids I represent,” he said. “These are the kids I work for. These are the families I work for, and I am trying to help.”

Principals shouldn’t think they’re veering out of their lanes when they advocate, Lawson said. Most legislators want to know how schools work, what makes sound education policy, and how proposals that come before them in state capitals and on Capitol Hill will unfold in schools, he said.

“I am not a policymaker,” he said. “We have legislators who are policymakers. But as I tell principals, we have to have a seat at the table. … If we don’t speak up and say, ‘This is how this policy translates,’ or ‘This is how it will work in a school system,’ then we are the guilty party because we’ve sat back and said nothing.”

Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Citing Safety and Challenges Serving Marginalized Students, Principals Eye the Exit Door
Nearly 40 percent of principals say they plan to quit soon—a finding that probably reflects stressful work conditions.
4 min read
Woman standing in front of exit door.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Are Secondary School Principals and Their Students on the Same Page?
A new poll of secondary school principals and their students show some key differences in how they see school.
2 min read
Unhappy woman with head in her hands and shown with paint splatter effect
School & District Management Medicaid Changes Could Provide a Big Boost to School Mental Health Services
A new law could make it easier for schools to bill Medicaid for services like counseling and health screenings.
6 min read
A boy sits on a small wooden chair, leaning over a small wooden table to color as he talks to a woman who sits across from him on a low grey sofa.
School & District Management Opinion Start the School Year With Purpose. Here Are 5 Priorities
Despite the challenges educators face, they know how to improve schools for students and teachers, writes an education professor.
Tyrone C. Howard
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration of public school opening for a new school year