How do we ensure that all secondary school leaders are supported? It’s a question that the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals (MoASSP) is currently working to answer. During a board meeting in the summer of 2021, the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the principal and assistant principal ranks came up in the discussion. At some point, we realized that—in looking around the room—there was only one leader of color among us.

As a state association, we decided then and there to commit to ensuring that all our members—secondary school leaders—were supported and represented. To that end, throughout the 2021–22 school year, MoASSP continued conversations around representation on the state board. In June of 2022, our talk turned into action.

That month, the board assembled for its annual summer retreat to prepare for the school year and set goals for the organization. Everyone around the table offered ways to ensure that the current board would represent diverse voices from across the state. One suggestion included adding an at-large position to the 17-member board. Seeing a need for this new position, board members agreed to create it and eventually asked a few regions from around the state to hold listening sessions to gain a better understanding of the supports that school leaders of color needed.

Two of these regions included the Greater Kansas City Missouri Principals Association (GKCMPA) and the St. Louis Area Secondary School Principals (SASSP), which both held listening sessions with principals from their regions over the next few months. Both associations benefited tremendously from listening to the challenges school leaders of color face.

In August, Torrence Allen, the principal of Belton High School in Belton, MO, and Dr. Adrian Singletary, the principal of Plaza Middle School in Kansas City, MO, co-facilitated a discussion with over 25 leaders of color within the GKCMPA region. The discussion centered around the following questions:

  • What supports does your district have in place to support you as a leader of color?
  • What challenges do you face in your space as a leader of color?
  • How can the local regions (GKCMPA and SASSP) and the state organization (MoASSP) better support you as a leader of color to meet your leadership needs?

Here is what school leaders had to say about the discussion:

“The conversation with over 25 leaders of color was a valuable event for everyone involved. There is power behind gathering individuals with similar experiences and opportunities within our various learning environments and communities. The conversation created a safe space for leaders to express themselves authentically and the feedback was thought provoking and inspiring to not only those who were in attendance but our GKCMPA board as well as some of our neighboring local regions. 

When asked about supports that were in place for leaders of color, participants had a wide variety of responses. Some had stated that their district had no programming and structures in place for administrators of color, while others spoke about robust mentoring programs and district-sponsored affinity groups. What this highlighted is that many districts across our state and perhaps across the nation are at different places of their journey in the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). As much of the recent focus of many school organizations is educator recruitment, it is imperative there is intentionality in retaining, supporting, and growing our leaders of color within our communities.

The discussion then pivoted to the challenges that school leaders of color face. The major theme centered around the feeling of having to always ‘be on’ and not being able to truly be their authentic selves. Specific examples of this included the notion that leaders of color felt they had a microscope on all decisions they made and the impression that people were expecting them to fail. Another example of being their authentic self would be in the realm of professionalism and wondering if cultural markers such as attire, hair, and language would be honored in the spaces in which they lead. This sentiment was expressed by many during the session, and it was not exclusive to suburban spaces. It was also felt in urban settings as well.

There was so much wisdom, experience, and hope within this conversation from dynamic leaders in our region. Participants left energized and, most importantly, left grateful for the opportunity to speak their truth.”

Voting for a New Position

In October, the MoASSP board voted to add a position titled, “At-Large Inclusion.” This position within MoASSP is for a voting member who sits on the board for two years and represents the entire state organization. The hope is that the position will be occupied in years to come by various members of historically marginalized groups. MoASSP also created a sub-committee to begin identifying candidates from around the state to consider for this position. The sub-committee made a recommendation at the board’s meeting in January, and a vote was held.

“Every Missouri school administrator is worthy of an association that represents them as a leader,” says Clark Mershon, the MoASSP executive director. “Shifting from diversity of thought to diversity of representation is the right thing to do. Through the board’s purposeful actions, our association will finally champion all leaders from all communities.”

The work of the MoASSP around DEIB does not end with the creation of this at-large position. Rather, the position is only the beginning of our efforts to continue this conversation centered around supporting all school leaders. Members of the board resolve to listen to leaders within our school buildings so we can help cultivate meaningful conversations and offer continual support for the challenging yet rewarding work of a school principal.

The development of this sub-committee is an important first step, notes Beth Houf, NASSP’s 2022 Principal of the Year, a member of the MoASSP Board of Directors, and principal of Fulton Middle School in Fulton, MO. “I look forward to the continued work ahead to ensure that diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are a continual focus for our organization so that we best serve all principals in our state. I have deep appreciation for the principals who were willing to give feedback and suggestions to help make our goals a reality.”

Corey Willich, EdD, is an assistant principal of Park Hill High School in Kansas City, MO, and a member of the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals’ Board of Directors.