It’s the million-dollar question: What can principals do in their schools to make sure all students, regardless of race, culture, background, are given opportunities to learn and be challenged while also getting the support they need to be successful? How do we close the opportunity gaps that challenge so many of our schools and communities?

Coaches at the NYC Leadership Academy work closely with principals to support their efforts to address inequities. Last year, three of those principals, at two high schools and a middle school in New York City, put in place innovative solutions that, after just a few months, started to bring about real change: In some cases, students’ grades and attendance improved, discipline incidents dropped, and fewer teachers left at the end of the year.

In our first of two blogs detailing the work at these schools (which was supported by a grant from the Booth Ferris Foundation), we share the work of Principal Doris Lee of Village Academy, a middle school in Far Rockaway, Queens. Lee focused her efforts on professional learning for teachers.

In the 2015-16 school year, 16 percent of the teachers at Village Academy left for teaching positions in other schools. That same year, 32 students were suspended. While the school had been successful at moving students from far below proficient to almost proficient, and had doubled ELA proficiency scores, Lee and her team knew they needed to push students further. Some students were not making progress.

The data did not lie, Principal Lee knew. Nor did classroom practices. Too many students were not engaged in their classes. They were acting out or disrespectful. Many teachers responded by sending students out of class and pushing to suspend them for poor behavior.

“I knew there was a gap in understanding between the cultures of the kids and the teachers, not only by race, but also by economic level and by background,” Lee said. “We had to build relationships with kids.”

She started by changing school discipline policies from punitive to restorative, and training teachers on restorative justice practices. At the same time, she led her staff in assessing their individual cultural proficiency, using a rubric by Raymond Terrell and Randall Lindsey.

The teachers also began meeting weekly in grade level professional learning communities. They read articles about student behavior and teacher expectations in urban schools. The 6th and 7th grade teachers read and discussed as a group Christopher Emdin’s “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all, Too.”

“At first, teacher conversations about race and bias were so uncomfortable, you could cut the air in the room with a knife,” Lee said. The staff of black and white teachers, who were serving primarily black and Latino children, discussed skin color, culture, upbringing, views on how children should behave and whether they should be seen and not heard. Do you want to punish kids? Or restore kids? And what are the unintended consequences of each?

“We were asking, ‘What are your expectations for our kids and how do they align with the kids’ culture?’” Lee said. NYC Leadership Academy coach Sonia Bu coached the grade team leaders to facilitate those hard conversations, to engage teachers, pushback at the right times, and make discussions meaningful.

Lee also organized an all-staff retreat in March. They developed folders that told each student’s story – achievement over the last three years, attendance, and student work. Lee and her leadership team put a child’s photo on each folder, and asked each staff member to place a star next to the folders of the students they knew well enough to know their likes and dislikes, whether they had a sibling, if they had spoken with their parents. The students with behavior problems had lots of stars, as did the very low performers. But the quiet students who were performing close to or on grade level were not nearly as well known, nor were the English language learners. They began to see which students were falling through the cracks.

“That was a big turning point,” Lee said.

For teachers, the conversations during the PLC’s and the retreat were eye opening and, in many cases, transformative. One 7th grade English teacher said she had always run a strict classroom, where her attitude to students was, “It’s my way and that’s it.

“I realized that that gets me nowhere,” she said. “They may be sitting there compliant with me, but they’re not enjoying it or engaged in anything I’m doing. That’s not why I became a teacher. I want to inspire them to do better, to share knowledge. You can’t motivate a child by talking down to them.”

She has learned to be more open with her students, and in turn they are more open and comfortable with her. “They’re able to say to me, ‘I think you’re being unfair right now,’ and we can compromise, or I can explain the rationale behind my decisions so that they understand why I am asking them to do something. It’s no longer me telling them to do something just because I said so.”

Inspired by Emdin’s advice to trust students to lead their own learning, and to raise expectations, a 7th grade science teacher expanded a robot-building project from her honors class to the entire 7th grade. She brought in the robot kits, and had students helping students. At first, she said, giving up control was scary. “But when I put it all on them to explore the learning on their own, they learned a lot more than I could ever teach them,” she said. “They taught me things.”

With the shift to having restorative conversations, student suspensions fell by 5 percent last year. Student proficiency in math rose by four percentage points. Only two teachers left the school, and teachers gave the school a higher ranking for its supportive environment on the city survey.

This year, the professional learning communities are focusing on growth mindset, and plan to celebrate each child at least once a month by providing students with authentic and meaningful opportunities to be successful.

Said Lee, “We don’t have control over where the kids come from or what they have experienced, but we do have control over how we build relationships, how we interact with and work with our kids.

“We all have biases, and it’s ok to have these biases as long as you acknowledge them and you’re willing to challenge them. People don’t really want to be put in that place of discomfort. But if you’re comfortable all the time, how are you growing?”

In our next blog we will detail the work of Principal Terri Grey of Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts, and Principal Kim Swanson of Life Sciences Secondary School, who each established innovative mentoring and arts programs for their struggling students.