A commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) requires more than just words; it requires action. To learn how school leaders help to ensure their school communities make everyone feel welcomed, supported, and cared for, Principal Leadership contacted Michael C. Brown, the principal of Winters Mill High School in Westminster, MD, and the president-elect of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals; Dan Richards, assistant principal of Manchester Essex Regional High School in Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA, and a member of NASSP’s Board of Directors; and Dr. Karen Ritter, the principal of Niles West High School in Skokie, IL.

Principal Leadership: What does DEI mean in your school?

Brown: Diversity, equity, and inclusion in my school really means everything. We have one of the most diverse populations in my county. We have a good population of students on free and reduced-price meals. We are diverse as far as our population of students in special education. So, students feel that they live and breathe it each and every day. For me, it’s imperative that our students, staff, faculty, and school community all embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion and understand what it means, and know that it is continuous work. It’s something that we’re not just talking about now because it may be a hot topic, but something that kids will carry with them throughout the rest of their lives and hopefully make them better citizens in our great country.

Ritter: Niles West is probably the most diverse school in the Chicago suburbs. It’s diverse in race and in socioeconomic status. We have students with special needs. We have a large refugee and immigrant population. In every possible way, we are diverse. With diversity, equity, and inclusion, as school leaders, diversity is not something you can control in terms of your student enrollment. But you can control the equity and the inclusion in your school. As principals, as instructional leaders, it’s our moral imperative to make sure that we provide the equity and the inclusion in our schools.

Richards: My school is in a predominantly affluent, white community outside of Boston where we have very few faculty, staff, and students of color. When you look at how we include DEI in our community, it looks different than an urban school, and it’s more of a challenge. The values and mission of DEI have to be more of a consistent message coming from the entire school community, and we have to remind faculty and staff members that the work of DEI goes beyond skin color but also extends to religious beliefs and personal identity. We need to remind students that our school culture embraces DEI, and it is found in different forms. It’s a value of our school community, and it’s a consistent message to our students, faculty, staff, and caregivers.

Principal Leadership: How have you made DEI a priority in hiring faculty and staff?

Richards: We try to hire the best we can when it comes to faculty and staff of color, different backgrounds, and personal identity. But like many other surrounding districts, we’re competing for personnel, and faculty and staff don’t necessarily seek us out because we’re not as diverse. Again, we have to make sure it’s messaging that we’re pushing out—that we recognize, celebrate, and embrace DEI. We need courageous faculty and staff to see that we are a welcome and supportive school community. Our messaging needs to be continuous and ongoing. We just come right out and say it: “We are committed to doing better and committed to the work of how best to support all of our faculty, staff, students, and caregivers.”

Ritter: Our faculty is probably about 80% white. We’ve made efforts to attract teachers of color and retain them. Because our school is so diverse, it’s really our No. 1 appeal for new teachers. So, we have a lot of teachers of color that do want to apply here because they want to feel like they are making a difference here for students who look like them. And we do hire a lot of teachers of color. I’m also the first principal of color in the school. Representation matters. However, our teacher retention rate is what we still need to pay attention to. To Dan’s point, we are competing for the same teachers because there are very few across the country. Making them feel like they belong here and making them feel supported is really important, just as it is for diverse students. In years past, there have been several teachers of color, specifically Black teachers, who have left for various reasons. And we’re trying to look into the reasons why this is happening. We’re really trying to figure out what supports are needed and how we can improve, just as many school districts are doing.

Brown: I’m in a rural area outside of Baltimore in a predominantly white school district. Our school is in the city of Westminster, which like I said earlier, is the most diverse compared to the rest of the county. We have faced our own individual challenges when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion just because, as a county, that’s not something that we’ve historically had to prioritize. The last couple of years have been difficult with getting that message across and doing that work because it’s new. What I’ve tried to do is bring more teachers of color into my school. I work with HR. I’ve gone on trips to New York, and other places to try to recruit individuals. I’ve probably been the most successful principal in my school district when it comes to bringing in individuals of color and keeping them at their respective schools.

But we have a long way to go as a school district to be able to tackle those types of issues, and it really comes down to how comfortable you’re making people feel regardless of their color. You can only do that through awareness. One of the things I try to do is make sure that every month there is something to celebrate as far as culture. For example, September is Hispanic Heritage Month. What are you doing as a school leader to recognize that culture and bring attention to it as a school? I’ve started diversity chats where we have a conversation online, which we started during the pandemic, and we just kept that rolling. Every month, we get a group of students and somebody from the community to lead a conversation that hopefully will edify the community on that particular culture, whether it be foods or interests. Then, we put that recorded conversation out to the entire school community. It became so popular that the district made the chats available throughout the entire county. Little things like that can really change the scope of the work.

Principal Leadership: Do you feel that you were prepared to take on DEI work once you entered the principalship? Did your principal preparation or previous positions prepare you to tackle this work?

Richards: As far as university preparation, no. There was no class I can point to specifically, with my two master’s degrees, where it was incorporated. I feel in the northeast here in Boston, we are taking great strides to be relevant with what is happening in society today in order to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion into our school cultures. With what has happened in our society in the last five to seven years with protests and trials, we feel as if we’ve got to get a supportive statement out quickly because our students are being impacted by the events. I hope new administrators coming out of preparation programs are studying and discussing real action items and real stories rather than hypothetical situations, which is what my preparation program offered.

Ritter: I’ve had some coursework in culturally relevant teaching and teaching immigrant populations. Courses like that, that are very general. And that speaks to the diversity part of DEI. I think your lived experiences and the school populations that you work with really teach you a lot more than what you learn in prep programs. For the equity part, it’s really about noticing and pointing out inequities that exist in systems like schools and then changing policies, practices, and procedures to be more equitable. I think what we need to focus on, and it’s not something that you can learn in a prep program, is the inclusion part, making people feel like they belong. Focusing on relationships, on restorative practices, repairing harm, trying not to make people feel othered. And that’s the essence of this work, and what we can do in schools is really focus on the inclusion part.

Brown: Being an African American male, I feel prepared through my life experiences. I also feel prepared having spent 16 years working in Baltimore City Public Schools. And now, coming out to a rural area, it just gives me firsthand knowledge of a lot of different things that people just take for granted. Many people here have never been in a diverse situation or worked in a diverse situation. It’s not their fault. There are just some things that they never had to think about, and they don’t know why they should have to think about it. As school leaders, it’s important that you are able to share some real experiences. You learn a lot more and get a lot more credibility from your folks if you can share experiences that you have personally dealt with. It goes a long way because they want to know about you. They understand what things are conceptually. They want to know what you have experienced and how you’ve handled different situations.

Principal Leadership: In your careers, have you ever had to get buy-in for DEI work, and if so, how have you gone about getting it?

Brown: That would be a big yes. It’s subjective a little bit because some people may think they don’t need it because what comes to mind is that diversity and inclusion work is only for racist people, so I’m not a racist person. But you need to break things down for people so they can see why we do this work. Breaking it down means sharing personal experiences and offering different scenarios and letting people see that some of their actions have been kind of on the other side of it. They can see that’s not necessarily how they should have said something or reacted to a certain situation. Then they can see OK, well I have harmed some people. I just didn’t know I did, but I have. And so now you can work on being more aware of how you talk to people, how you deal with certain situations. We’ve done different things, such as book studies, which have been difficult for a lot of people because it doesn’t feel good. DEI work does not feel good to a majority of people. Nobody wants to do something that doesn’t feel good. Why do we have to talk about something that just doesn’t feel good? So, you have to kind of ease their worries. Even for myself being African American, there are things for me to learn because I can only talk about being African American. I can’t talk about being Asian or being Hispanic. I can’t talk about that. And there are different biases that I have or had. You share that and it helps ease people into these difficult conversations.

Ritter: I agree with you, Michael. Listening to people’s lived experiences really helps. All educators should look at their own personal relationships and circle of friends. If you honor diversity in your personal life, surround yourself with a diverse social circle, and look for ways to learn from others, you will understand how they’ve experienced the world, and also see more clearly the inequities in school systems. And there are people who will say, “I’m not here to teach you about what it’s like to be a Black man or an Asian woman, that’s not my job.” You’ll hear people say that, but I think that we have to hear those stories in order to empathize and understand what the biases are that they’re experiencing so we can do something about it.

And the important thing is, as a school you’re not doing equity work for buy-in. That’s not how you should approach it at all. It’s all of our responsibility to make schools more equitable. It’s about hearing people’s experiences, understanding the harm that’s been caused, and really trying not to call people out on it, but instead bringing an awareness to inequities. But we must really listen and understand people’s experiences and be passionate enough to try to do something about it to try and change it.

Richards: When you start looking under the surface about implicit bias, unconscious bias, however you identify it, we all have some level of bias. I’ve been in a couple of districts where we’ve done this work and it’s messy no matter where you go because it makes you look inward as an individual and recognize your own biases. It took years of reflection on my own language, on my own cultural upbringing, on my personal and professional practices to identify that yes, I have biases and now that I have recognized and adjusted them, I know I can take action to be more cognizant and adjust my thinking and actions. It takes a strong person who is willing to be reflective and open to taking this journey. Many people tend to be naturally defensive when it comes to self-reflection and DEI work. This is understandable and expected. We all have to go through that messy journey in order to come out the other end of it to be a more inclusive person, knowing that you have not arrived, knowing that you are on a continuous journey of reflection and growth.

Principal Leadership: DEI is increasingly coming to include neurodiversity. Is there anything specific you have done as a school leader around inclusion for neurodivergent students?

Brown: We have a regionalized autism program within my school, so all of the kids are kind of immersed in that every day. We have a peer group that volunteers in the autism program where they give their time, they help out my instructional assistants and teachers in that program. They work with those students one on one, and so once they get that experience, you can just see how much they care for those students. They walk them around, they’re holding their hand, they’re making sure they’re getting the things they need. And that’s been going on since I’ve been principal.

Those type of things kind of spread throughout the school where you don’t see kids coming through the hallway making fun of kids because of how they look. That doesn’t happen at my school. I think a big part of that is because they know these kids have certain challenges, but it’s nothing to make fun of. And our autism program does a phenomenal job of doing different schoolwide fundraisers. They sell a lot of T-shirts. The staff buy the T-shirts so they’re wearing the autism T-shirts on Fridays, so it lets the school know that as a faculty we’re here to support them. And the kids take that leadership from the adults. It’s a great environment.

Ritter: We have an arts appreciation class that is team-taught. I think there are probably three or four instructors in there. Students from our special ed programs and gen ed program work together with the fine arts department. And they put on some type of production each semester. Last year, they did a whole student-written play and musical around Beatles’ songs. Students from our special needs classes perform with our gen ed classes, and it’s fantastic. People look forward to these performances every year. They do an art class together. And it’s always something that is showcased in the whole school. And everyone loves it. That’s something that’s been here for a long time.

Richards: When it comes to levels of autism, it’s so unique to the individual. My faculty and staff make the difference in personalizing learning for the student. We have special programs, a learning center, and an autism program. Our faculty really do take the time to find out what the student’s individual needs are. They customize the learning environment and instruction to the individual student to help them feel comfortable and part of the school and classroom culture. On a daily basis, our students are able to see how we accommodate and include students with autism, and that spills over to our school culture and values. I am fortunate to work in a respectful and accepting school community.