NASSP’s Leadership Networks, which were created earlier this year, are designed to give school leaders the space to discuss lived experiences and shared interests. For members of the Leadership Network for School Leaders of Color, the forum has proved especially helpful. Several members say they wish such a network had been available to them much earlier in their careers.
“Before I became a principal, I would have loved the guidance and leadership of other people of color and to have been able to get some sort of mentorship,” says Allison Persad, co-chair of the leadership network and principal of the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in Queens, NY. The school, which serves grades 6–12, is one of five all-female public schools in New York City. “Even in New York City, with all its diversity, I never felt like there was a group I could be part of where people looked like me and welcomed me.”
Persad and co-chair Marcus Belin, both of whom are African American, talk a lot about the lack of leaders of color in educational leadership. “While that seems obvious,” says Belin, principal of Huntley High School in Huntley, IL, “it’s amazing to me when we talk about our experiences how many of us say, ‘That’s happened to me, too’ or ‘Wow, I didn’t know somebody else has gone through the same things that I have.’ So that has brought us together a lot quicker because we have some of those shared experiences.”
“It also shows that we need to continue to do this and promote the work we’re doing so we can make it valuable for even more people,” Belin says.
Learning From Peers
Like other NASSP Leadership Networks, this group of educators participates in monthly virtual meetings. The group acknowledges that the different time zones can make it tough to find convenient meeting times for leaders across the country, but participants agree that connecting with each other is well worth the effort. Every meeting has been full of substance, rich discussions, and lots of participation, the co-chairs say. (Editor’s note: The NHS Student Leadership Network on Mental Health—another NASSP Leadership Network—is featured here.)
One popular feature has been short presentations by what the group calls “thought leaders”—primarily network members themselves who have an area of expertise or interest they want to discuss with the group. One of those thought leaders is Kathy Walker, principal of East Iredell Middle School in Statesville, NC. Walker, who is Black, recently spoke on the topic of unconscious bias among school leaders, especially when it comes to student discipline.
“We all have biases, but I like to dig more into this idea of unconscious bias,” says Walker, who has given similar presentations to staff at different schools. “I usually start very basic, just looking at issues between the sexes, which has nothing to do with color or race. That opens up an awareness so you can start to think about some of the other things you might be biased about.” She notes that it’s one of those rare staff meeting topics where, instead of everyone running for the door when the meeting is over, many staff want to stick around afterward and continue the discussion.
Self-care and managing stress, perfectionist syndrome, and tokenism have been among the other discussion topics. The tokenism discussion really struck a chord because many of the network members have also experienced it themselves. “You think, ‘Was I hired because I’m a person of color or because it helps someone check a box?’” Belin asks. “Maybe it wasn’t intentional, but we need to have that voice at the table to support leaders in that situation.”
Persad says it’s valuable to be able to share the experience of having the additional pressure of always “wanting to prove ourselves or at least feeling like we have to. Being a school leader of color, the margin of error is always so much smaller, at least in our minds.”
So far, she says, the group hasn’t really delved into discussions about curriculum and what to teach, which have generated a lot of unwelcome controversy in some school districts. “I think we should and will get into some of those issues,” she says. “No topic should be too messy for us. The whole goal is to bring liked-minded folks together to talk about what’s necessary.”
Edgar Torres, who recently finished up his third year as principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, TX, and has started a new school leadership job in Denver, is one of a smaller number of Latino leaders who have participated in the network. “I joined because I want to connect with other people in similar situations,” he says. “I would love to be able to connect with other principals who look like me. While principals of color can connect in many different ways, our experiences can be different from those of African American leaders.”
One topic Torres would like the group to discuss is supporting English-language learners in schools. “In Texas, English learners are predominantly coming from Latino backgrounds,” he says. “I’d like to see some type of conversation around supporting leaders as they support English learners, who are generally students of color. That issue is incredibly dear to my heart.”
Even though it’s not a specific charge of the group, Persad is happy that the issue of women in leadership has also come up. “It’s something I think about for myself because there are so few female leaders not just in schools but in most organizations. The gender equity gap is at the forefront of my own goals. And being a part of this network and seeing other women of color being active members is great.”
Belin says he’s committed to the network and passionate about continuing its work. “Our voices need to be at the table so we can share our stories and have conversations that are important to all school leaders.”
For more on the Leadership Network for School Leaders of Color, visit nassp.org/leadership-networks.
Dan Gursky is a freelance education writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.
Sidebar: The Growing Need for Latino School Leaders
As our schools see increasing enrollments of Latino students, one thing many of those students aren’t seeing is school leaders who look like them.
Latina leaders are especially underrepresented—something that Sonia Ruiz is keenly aware of. Ruiz, who is starting a new position as principal of Jane Addams Middle School in Bolingbrook, IL, this school year, believes that school leaders of color bring what she calls a “different lens” to the job that can help students to relate to the principal in a more personal way.
“I had a couple students this year who actually acknowledged that and said they had never had a Hispanic principal and how cool that was to them,” she says.
Ruiz also has shared her own story—a Mexican immigrant who spoke only Spanish when she started school and is now on her way to earning a doctorate—to inspire her students to set their own ambitions high. “One kid said to me, ‘Oh my God! So it’s really true that dreams can come true here!’ You can talk abstractly about reaching a goal, but when they see that somebody like them has already reached it, it becomes more attainable to them.”
Efrain Martinez, principal of Northwood Middle School in Highland Park, IL, is similarly dedicated to showing all of his students—and Latinos in particular—that “regardless of where you’re at in terms of life’s difficulties, it’s your responsibility to take action and look for ways to improve.”
As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15–October 15), neither Ruiz nor Martinez focus much of their schools’ curricula on the specific celebration. For one thing, Martinez notes, it coincides with the beginning of the school year, which is already packed with many events. But more than that, he works with his teachers to make sure they are “culturally competent” when it comes to teaching different content to students of all backgrounds throughout the year. Teachers with that cultural awareness are always better teachers, he says.
Ruiz wants her school to look more broadly at U.S. history. “We often talk about an event in history only on the surface without looking at how it affected different people,” she says. For example, where were Latino people when the Civil War happened, and how did it affect them and their land? “Until I went to graduate school, I didn’t realize how much of our history we don’t know because we don’t talk about it,” she says. “We should be celebrating all of our history and looking at where everyone comes from and how that helped make the United States.”
Language barriers and communication are other obvious areas where Latino school leaders can make a huge difference to students and their families. “It’s a great advantage to be able to speak two languages, especially since we have a lot of students who have just arrived here,” Martinez says.
But more than that, it’s important to be aware of how different parents communicate. One obvious step is to make sure Spanish-language materials are available, but Martinez also has found that texting can be more effective than email in reaching some Latino families. “We can’t assume that everyone has a computer with email access or the time to read emails. But they do read text messages. It’s important to be aware that communication isn’t always equal, but it can be equitable.”
Regardless of the language, Ruiz and her staff have regular conversations with students, letting them know that the staff is there for them, they believe in them, and they are going to do what it takes to help students achieve their goals. “They don’t have to want to follow in my career path,” she says. “I just want them to aspire and be able to reach the things they aspire to.”