The importance of school leadership on student outcomes is well documented in all types of public schools. But how are strong leaders informed and influenced by their experiences and racial identities? This question receives much less attention.
While certain practices of good leadership are ubiquitous, an individual leader’s experience and identify often informs innovative approaches to solving the most difficult challenges. To explore some approaches, the National Alliance partnered with Public Impact, an education research nonprofit, to better understand how the identities of the most successful charter school leaders of color in the country shape how they lead.
Even without consideration to race, effective school leadership is often difficult to define, but we agree that effective school leaders set and cultivate a school culture that supports a safe and encouraging learning environment. They recruit, develop, mentor, and retain staff to ensure the best possible teachers are in the classroom. They connect with parents and local leaders to ensure the school is sensitive to the needs of the community. They do all of this—and more—while managing budgets and ultimately answering for their school’s academic performance.
For charter schools, defining the components of effective school leadership is even more complex as leaders have more autonomy to develop unique approaches to address the challenges that face their school. Additionally, the role of the principal as a potential mentor and role model is perhaps more meaningful as charter schools are often located in communities that have historically been underserved and are often communities of color. The importance of this role was particularly evident in our discussions with the leaders in our initial report.
The leaders we spoke with for our first report on building an effective staff—Eric Sanchez, Henderson Collegiate in North Carolina; Frances Teso, Voices College-Bound Language Academies in California; and Jamar McKneely, InspireNOLA in New Orleans—had different approaches to addressing the needs of their schools. However, they all highlighted the importance of developing their teachers and training them in empathy to reduce biases in their schools while maintaining high expectations. The leaders served as mentors for their teachers and spoke to developing future leaders of color as their mentors once did for them.
As we delve into other profiles with school leaders of color from across the country in future reports, it is important to remember that good leaders are just good leaders, regardless of skin color. The way that racial identify informs practice and experiences of these school leaders inspires them to become great leaders and develop top-notch approaches for students, teachers, and their communities. This should serve as a model for all leaders regardless of race.
We look forward to continuing to explore the question of how identity informs practice in school leadership and learning more about the innovative approaches in play from school leaders of color at charter schools.
Nathan Barrett, Ph.D., is the Senior Director, Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.