School & District Management

With $102 Million in Grants, These Districts Plan to Train Principals With a Focus on Equity

By Denisa R. Superville — October 14, 2021 11 min read
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The Wallace Foundation is giving $102 million to eight districts to focus on developing equity-centered school leaders.

The five-year grant will pour about $8.2 million into each of the districts for their projects. The new efforts include creating partnerships with local universities to fine-tune principal-preparation programs to emphasize equity, developing equity-focused professional development opportunities for current principals, building human resources systems to track how districts recruit and assign principals, and ensuring that principals and assistant principals more closely reflect the student demographics of their district.

This new round of school leadership grants from the foundation builds on its decades-long work stressing the importance of principals. (The Wallace Foundation helps support Education Week’s coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool.)

The foundation’s principal pipeline initiative in six large school districts showed that students in schools led by principals who were part of those principal pipeline programs outperformed those in schools in non-pipeline districts in math and reading.

Additionally, an analysis of two decades of school leadership research published earlier this year argued that equitable practices should be an integral part of the principal’s job.

The report said principals can have significant positive impacts on specific student populations, including students of color, low-income students, and English-language learners, through efforts such as revising discipline policies and leading culturally-responsive teaching practices.

But what should equity-centered leaders know and be able to do? How do districts get more of them into schools? And how do you build a system that prioritizes equity-focused leadership?

Those are some of the questions the Wallace Foundation and the districts in the program are hoping to learn, said Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership at the New York City-based foundation.

The districts in the new program are: Baltimore City Schools in Maryland; Columbus City Schools in Ohio; the Fresno Unified School District, in California; Jefferson County Public Schools, in Louisville, Ky.; Portland Public Schools in Oregon; the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas; the District of Columbia Public Schools; and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Baltimore and District of Columbia school systems have been longtime partners in the foundation’s principal pipeline initiatives.

For others, like Fresno, it’s a new partnership.

“That’s huge for us,” Bob Nelson, Fresno’s superintendent, said of a national foundation supporting the district.

Each district will team up with two universities, as well as their state education department. The universities will also collaborate with other higher-education institutions that have redesigned their leadership-preparation programs.

Each district will gather community input to develop a local definition of equity, and their local school boards are expected to partner in the initiative.

Wallace is also offering partnerships through the Council of Great City Schools, which represents mostly large urban districts, to help school boards in the process; the National Urban League to help with community engagement; The Leadership Academy and the Bank Street College of Education to help districts with their leadership policies and practices; and Learning Forward, which will provide technical assistance and help districts share what they are learning.

The Wallace Foundation will also study the program and its implementation and offer insights from the undertaking. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Iowa, University of Houston and California State Polytechnic, for example, will conduct a three-year study on central office changes as a result of the equity-centered leadership initiative. Researchers at the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California-Los Angeles, Teachers College, and WestEd will look at measuring equity-centered leadership.

District plans to build a leadership tracking system

Leadership development and cutting achievement gaps are key goals in Fresno’s strategic plan.

With the new grant, the district will develop a leader-tracking system to track where leaders are placed, which the district doesn’t always do now, Nelson said. About 70 percent of principals are tapped from within the system, he said.

“Who is applying...? Where are our leaders going? How are they matriculating?” are questions the district is hoping to answer, Nelson said. The system will also look at how long principals stay at one place and the factors that contribute to their retention.

Fresno will also work with National University on a pre-service principal-preparation program to meet the district’s needs. And the district will partner with San Diego State University to develop professional development programs for sitting principals.

While one of Fresno’s goals is to build a leadership force that more closely resembles its student enrollment, Nelson is also focused on developing leaders who can move the needle for students who are often left behind: African American students, foster and homeless youths; English-language learners, especially those who are newcomers, and special-needs students.

(Hispanic students make up 70 percent of the enrollment, but only 35 percent of principals and vice principals are Hispanic, and 47.5 percent of principals are white, though white students comprise 8 percent of students.)

“The key is having every single leader understand what it means to disrupt inequity gaps, regardless of their own personal demography,” Nelson said.

Focusing on preservice and professional development

Columbus City Schools will work with Ashland University in Ohio to start an intensive preservice program for aspiring principals, with a focus on equity, and an intensive equity-focused professional development program for sitting principals. It will also partner with The Ohio State University, in Columbus, on professional development programs for sitting school leaders, including principals and assistant principals, said Angela Chapman, the district’s chief of transformation and leadership. The school system will also work with the state department of education to pilot an equity tool.

The Columbus district wants to ensure that “leading with an equity lens is a part of the program; so [principals] are prepared on the front end, and we don’t have to close that gap on the back end,” Chapman said.

Chapman has been working on pipeline development in Columbus since she moved there in 2019 from the Washington, D.C. district, where she worked with the Wallace Foundation on principal pipelines.

The district has undertaken a number of equity-related initiatives recently, including establishing an equity office last year and retooling its strategic plan. So, when the grant opportunity emerged, even amid the challenges of the pandemic, the district jumped at the chance.

“In years past, we had never prioritized our work and our conversations with principals with a specific focus on equity,” Chapman said. “We said, this is the work that we need to be doing, and this is the work that we need to be leading our principals through. That has to happen, no matter what, whether we get the grant or not.”

Columbus City schools will also work to ensure that its leadership standards prioritize equity and that equity is embedded in hiring policies so the district is getting candidates with a record and a disposition for leading with an equity lens. Questions such as how candidates will support key student populations, how they will close key achievement gaps, and how they will address overrepresentation of specific subgroups in special education, will be an important part of hiring, she said.

We have so far to go, and our achievement gaps between our racial groups are so wide that we knew that there’s no way we were going to move the agenda forward without strong equity-centered principals and assistant principals within our buildings.

The district will also develop a portrait of a Columbus principal— what the district and community expect of their school leaders. Chapman expects the portrait result from engaging with teachers, principals, and the community.

“We know that our school leaders touch everyone in the community,” Chapman said. “This is not work that can be done in a vacuum.”

She hopes the effort will lead to top-to-bottom change and become embedded in the system.

“Not only will we have more talented leaders within our district, but we will have more improved systems, and that work will be long lasting because we will be able to identify talent, we’ll be able to track our talent, we’ll be able to select talent that we need based on the portrait of the principal that we define,” she said. “It will be systems improvement. It will be improvement in professional development, and then certainly specialized, intense programs that will be offered to different administrators throughout the journey of the grant.”

All of those efforts are ultimately geared toward developing more-effective school leaders and improving student outcomes, she said.

“If they are more effective in their roles, then we will see student outcomes improve, and school improvement as a result,” Chapman said.

A systemwide effort to close gaps, end disparities

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, N.C., school district adopted a racial equity plan last year committing to a wide range of leadership actions, such as tackling disparate outcomes for students; clearing barriers for students of color; and implementing culturally-relevant practices.

In a district with huge achievement gaps, it would be difficult to have systemwide transformation without school leaders being a key part of the calculus, Tricia McManus, the superintendent, said.

“We know that leadership is a key lever for making the changes we want to see,” McManus said. “We have so far to go, and our achievement gaps between our racial groups are so wide that we knew that there’s no way we were going to move the agenda forward without strong equity-centered principals and assistant principals within our buildings. We can have all these great goals and all these great plans, but if the best work is not done in every one of our schools, we are not going to meet the goals in our strategic plan.”

In the 2018-19 school year, there was a nearly 30 percent gap in proficiency in reading and math between Black and white students in the district, and Black students were four times more likely to be suspended than white students, she said.

“These are the data points that have caused us to want to focus on our leaders being equity-centered, because we believe we can change this data dramatically through strong leadership...[and] looking through a lens of equity,” McManus said.

While the district had some components of the principal pipeline in place, it’s revamping the system— from pre-service to hiring— to create one that is “grounded in equity-centered leadership, competencies, and behaviors,” she said.

The district, working with principals and assistant principals, has already developed a list of actions that equity-centered leaders should demonstrate, including reviewing classroom demographics to ensure that all students are represented in Advanced Placement classes; creating school schedule that take into account students’ needs; using social-emotional learning to help all students; ensuring that committees and staff are diverse, and having no excuses for why all students aren’t performing at the highest levels, McManus said.

“An equity-centered leader would ensure that that’s happening and would think outside of the box to ensure that’s happening,” McManus said. “It’s literally analyzing every single practice and decision, every single day, through the lens of equity.”

The district will work with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Appalachian State University to co-design two aspiring principal programs that will be centered around the equity actions the district developed.

While Winston-Salem/Forsyth County has partnered with other higher education programs on principal-preparation, equity was not “built into the fiber of the system” nor part of its pipeline, McManus said.

The district is also working with Winston-Salem State University, a historically Black college. While the college does not have a principal-preparation program, it does have a teacher-education program. The district will be working with Winston-Salem to get teachers into the pipeline and eventually into the principalship. It’s also working with North Carolina A&T State University.

McManus hopes that when the project is done, the district will have closed the achievement gaps between demographic groups and ended disparities in discipline between white and students of color. She also hopes to see more diversity among teachers, leaders, and staff. While 40 percent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County’s principals are Black, only 1 percent is Hispanic. She’d also like school climate survey results to show that students feel like they belong and they have the opportunities they need to succeed.

“It’s going to help us move the needle for kids, by focusing on the highest lever in our system—which is the work of our principals,” McManus said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as With $102 Million in Grants, These Districts Plan to Train Principals With a Focus on Equity

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