“Everywhere I looked, leadership didn’t look like me. But our students did,” says Danielle Edwards, a school leader and Spelman College alumna who sought school leadership opportunities in her school community. In the absence of guidelines and a career pathway, she relied on her network of Spelman sisters and like-minded colleagues to help her navigate her leadership journey.

The lack of clear leadership pathways for educators of color is not uncommon. These barriers continue to prevent teachers of color from moving into leadership roles. Today, 54% of all K –12 public school students identify as people of color compared with just 22% of our nation’s principals and 8% of our superintendents.

A new report by New Leaders, “The Shoulder Tap: Educators of Color on the Leadership Representation Gap and What We Can Do About It,” explores strategies for recruiting and retaining diverse school leaders. In collaboration with Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College, the report examines existing research and elevates insights from the lived experiences of educators of color, who overwhelmingly point to mentorship—and a tap on the shoulder from a trusted colleague—as the first step on the path to school leadership. While each tap on the shoulder matters, we can do more to systematically improve the strength and diversity of our nation’s principals. Below, we highlight various strategies that districts and states are implementing to increase school leader diversity.

Recruiting Future School Leaders of Color

Recruiting educators of color is integral to diversifying the pipeline. Districts can provide direct training to hiring teams (at the district or school level) on best practices for building diverse candidate pools and reducing bias in hiring decisions. Within schools, leaders can address the reality that teachers of color, especially males, are more likely to be tapped for non-instructional leadership roles (e.g., school discipline deans). This choice can result in removing them from the pipeline to school principal positions. By intentionally nurturing the early interest of potential and current teachers of color, we can take a critical first step towards diversifying school leadership—and several districts and states have already begun to do so.

CEO Eric Gordon and his team in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District launched the Teach Cleveland initiative to encourage educators—and future school leaders—from across the country to move to Cleveland for a meaningful career and an affordable and desirable lifestyle. The campaign puts special emphasis on recruiting Hispanic and LGBTQ+ educators by highlighting local community assets.

In the Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District in Texas, Superintendent Greg Rodriguez and officials are strengthening and diversifying leadership by deploying a targeted, personalized recruitment strategy focused on bilingual candidates of color from other communities.

Similar efforts are underway in Baltimore City Public Schools. CEO Sonja Santelises and her team leverage partners, such as Towson University, to help advance local school leader diversity goals. The district also partners with our National Aspiring Principals Fellowship to recruit and prepare school leaders of color in partnership with Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University.

To help close the representation gap in Kentucky, the former Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis championed legislation that increased nontraditional routes into the classroom. He included pathways for paraprofessionals who are often overlooked and typically more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse than the existing teacher workforce. He also supported changes in principal hiring in the state’s largest school district.

Retaining School Leaders of Color

Retaining school leaders of color is also critical to strengthening the pipeline. School leaders cite a number of ways that districts and schools can support retention, including embedding a change management curriculum into principal preparation programs, so that leaders can be better prepared for challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. Moreover, school leaders of color also describe not being afforded the same second chances or grace as their white colleagues when making mistakes. Districts must ensure that all school leaders can make mistakes and recover without facing unjust retribution.

Many of the school leaders we spoke to also described an impromptu form of creating their own professional development and support. They found mentors, developed relationships with school leaders in other cities, or reached out to people doing similar work. Just as mentorship is a critical step in becoming a school leader, mentorship is by far the most salient practice leaders pointed to in sustaining them in their roles. Providing mentors with substantial training in the same equity-centered principles that school leaders receive could help to build a common language and practice for mentoring.

During his tenure at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, former Senior Associate Commissioner Ventura Rodriguez supported various policy efforts to diversify the educator workforce, such as the InSPIRED Fellows program for educators of color interested in leveraging their expertise for current and prospective educational leaders. Fellows also build affinity spaces (professional communities) for teachers and school leaders of color. Since the launch of these and other programs, retention rates for administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals of color have increased.

The Wallace Foundation’s Equity-Centered Pipeline Initiative partners with eight districts across the country, including Baltimore City Public Schools, and charges them with conducting intentional independent research studies aimed at defining equity-centered leadership. The goal of this initiative is to support school leaders in raising student achievement, equipping them with the necessary tools to identify challenges and opportunities to advance equity in their districts.


All students, and especially students of color, benefit from diverse school leadership. Although many school leaders of color today credit a “tap on the shoulder” as a critical moment towards their pursuit of leadership, “The Shoulder Tap” elevates the importance of instituting policies, initiatives, and systematic approaches to diversifying the school leadership pipeline via recruitment and retention, rather than a reliance on individual encounters.

About the Author

Jackie Gran is the chief officer for policy & strategic initiatives and Shahara Ahmed is the manager of policy for New Leaders. Follow New Leaders on Twitter (@NewLeadersOrg).

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