Currently, black males have the lowest high school graduation rate of any population in the country. However, secondary principals can provide the best answer to creating a culture of success for all students, including black males. Research and experience demonstrate that when black males attend schools with effective leaders, they have higher rates of success. So, what are the successful practices that secondary principals can implement to assist with the high school graduation rate of black male students? Equally important, what do these practices have in common?

Culturally proficient leadership allows secondary principals to display values and behaviors that model effective and positive interactions among students, teachers, and the communities they serve. These types of leaders embrace diversity and see it as the stimulus for overall student success. Culturally proficient leaders engage effectively with individuals in schools and communities and handle issues that arise when cultural differences are not being addressed. When leaders are culturally proficient, they do more than advocate for another culture—they understand the culture, and they celebrate it from a leadership perspective.

In addition to our experience as urban leaders, we have evidence from interviews with secondary principals (names will be kept anonymous) whose graduation rates for black males were 80 to 90 percent—well beyond the national average of 59 percent for this subpopulation. These principals effectively applied the essential elements of culturally proficient leadership, which we have organized into five key strategies that will drive results.

Five Key Strategies

1. Assess the Culture

Encourage teachers to build strong relationships by having ongoing conversations with their students. This practice ensures that teachers connect with their students and have a good understanding of who they are. In addition, successful principals survey the staff, teachers, parents, and students about school culture and school climate. They then analyze the survey results, take the results seriously, and create a plan to instill a culture that celebrates and welcomes diversity.

2. Value Diversity

Create opportunities for black males to have a voice. Demonstrate that diversity is not just tolerated but celebrated. Partner with local colleges, and embrace a growth mindset that emphasizes how diversity should be celebrated. Principals who practice culturally proficient leadership talk about black males and other students within their schools with a distinct energy. They show that all of the kids are their kids; no matter their race, they belong. Create a clear belief that all of the students within the school deserve a high-quality education—that they are a family.

In tandem with professional development sessions, empower students and teachers within the school to create programs that celebrate diversity. Allow students to lead programs and establish pathways for student voice and vision. One principal authorized an African-American history program for which students developed a curriculum around history, dance, music, and art with a culminating event for students, families, and staff. Another principal had students develop and lead a professional development session for faculty about the hijab. In yet another school, field experiences were held in the community to celebrate Hispanic cultures, contributions, and cuisine. All of these programs connect students, involve them, and demonstrate that school is their school and they matter. In addition, it is important to hire staff who represent their students by actively seeking teachers and others who look like the students they serve.

Keep in mind that sometimes developing a culture of celebrating diversity does not happen immediately. Over time and with consistent effort, school culture can change.

3. Manage the Dynamics of Difference

Have courageous conversations with staff, teachers, and community members. One principal talked about the importance of advocating and managing the dynamics of difference for his students in the community. When people in the community ask about the presence of more black students, he confirms the students’ presence in the community and invites people to come by the school so they can meet these awesome kids.

Culturally proficient leadership includes practicing strategies to resolve conflict among people interacting with other cultures as well. Culturally proficient leaders understand there will be cultural differences within their schools, but it is their job to educate all and create a sense of harmony within the school. Principals must manage the dynamics of difference from student to student and adult to student.

Black males are often sent to the office for disciplinary reasons and are suspended and expelled at a rate three times higher than that of any other population of students in the country. Instead of immediate suspension or expulsion, sit down and talk to the adults and students about their definition of insubordination and the nuances of different cultures. These conversations may happen frequently at first, but then they require less emphasis because cultural knowledge becomes embedded and understood. Provide and participate in an array of training opportunities, and foster initiatives that reinforce cultural proficiency. Give students of all cultures a path for sharing their experiences and their suggestions.

4. Adapt to Diversity

Change practices, beliefs, and policies that have racial bias—such as disciplining students for their dress or hairstyle. School leaders should share culturally relevant and responsive information and knowledge with their teachers and staff. Do this by modeling these practices, providing ongoing professional development, and consciously reinforcing a welcoming and responsive school culture in collaboration with the students.

5. Institutionalize Cultural Knowledge

Promote the celebration of other cultures. Review the curriculum for culturally relevant and connected content, and revise Eurocentric curriculum and materials. Partner with local colleges and universities to establish links, connect with experts, and open doors to higher education. Students in schools with culturally proficient leaders feel welcomed and embraced by staff and students in all aspects of their unique talents and cultures, including their tone of voice, their music, and their cultural norms. Students are not forced to “code switch”—changing oneself to fit into the dominant class.

Successful high schools that demonstrate the value of diversity show great strides in the graduation rate for black males. Their success comes not only from tolerance, but also from celebration. Culturally proficient leaders take the time to listen to students from all cultures in their schools and make them stakeholders—viewing cultural diversity not as a burden, but an asset. These leaders support the hopes and interests of students because they know and value them. The actions of culturally proficient leaders allow all students, families, and staff to feel welcomed and connected. This pathway leads the school community to be responsive to all students and results in academic and social-emotional success for black males.

Marck E. Abraham, EdD, is the principal of McKinley High School in Buffalo, NY. Marie Cianca, EdD, is an associate professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.