It doesn’t matter where your school is in this country, we can guarantee you that inequities exist. Take a look at your data and classroom practices – are there an equitable number of children of color in your honors and AP classes, do they have access to your best teachers? Who has been identified for special education?
To truly tackle inequities requires transformative leaders who have the courage to make and manage change and mobilize others toward that change. This takes time, it requires building and nurturing relationships, gathering support from the community, taking risks that come with hard conversations, and creating a learning environment that supports people in changing long-held behaviors and beliefs.
This kind of change requires a culture of leadership that grooms aspiring leaders at all levels of the school system to advance to other positions, sustaining institutional knowledge and experience in the system while also bringing in external talent who have new ideas and challenge thinking.
We each benefitted from a more than 30-year history in our respective districts. We both held numerous leadership positions from teacher to school leader to district administrator and, finally, to superintendent. We were able to lead with an equity lens and work with our boards to make some lasting changes thanks to the credibility we developed over the years. When we became superintendents, we had a longstanding commitment to our districts and could immediately build on the equity work that had already been done by previous superintendents and school boards. We knew how the system worked.
For me, Ann, people already knew what I stood for. For years I intentionally shared with parents, business leaders, clergy, school board members, why I do what I do, that I believe in the potential of every child. As the district’s Chief Academic Officer, I worked with the superintendent to lead a culture shift to make it attractive for our most effective principals with proven track records to work in our most struggling schools. That shift took 7 or 8 years, but now that culture has been sustained and I believe it would take a lot to unravel. In examining how we assign students to schools, board members and I also had a laser-like focus over 18 months to engage our community in hundreds of conversations, in groups, in people’s driveways, at the supermarket, about whether we were ok that more than 70 schools in the district had a high poverty rate. Were we ok that, among 50 U.S. cities, our children born into poverty are the least likely to be able to move out of poverty? I was able to have those uncomfortable and difficult conversations because the relationships I had forged over the years led our community to know and deeply understand that I had their best interest in mind. I heard people, some of them my former students who were now parents in the district, saying, “If Ann is willing to recommend changing the boundaries of schools where she was a principal then this must be a change she truly believes in.”
For me, Valeria, it took a few years to build a solid team of courageous leaders who were faithful to the district’s goal of achieving racial equity, who were working for kids no matter what. I started by bringing data that showed racial inequities to the school board and then building a common understanding and language around racial equity. That took time. I simultaneously worked with my leadership team to get to know one another, find our strengths, and break down silos. Inequity and silos go hand in hand. We needed the ESL teachers talking to the special education and gifted and talented staff. A number of schools started the work of going deep on the racial equity journey, self-reflecting and changing their practices with their teams. We were pioneers in the racial equity work at a time when it was widely unpopular. After four years, I saw the work start to take root. People were raising issues of race and equity as solutions to our schools’ challenges, as priorities. When the school board surveyed community groups during the search for my replacement on what they wanted to see in a superintendent, they resoundingly asked for a racial equity leader.
Research has found the longer superintendents are in the job, the greater the chance that student achievement will improve and that new policies will have a chance to have a lasting impact (though superintendents typically stay in their jobs for only three or four years.) Longevity does not just have to mean one person holding the superintendency for years and years, however. Often it is appropriate to hire for the top post from outside the district, to bring in fresh ideas and experiences and help current district staff recognize what they may have been missing and help make bold moves.
Longevity can mean ensuring highly effective staff advance to other leadership posts within the district guaranteeing that the district work continues to strengthen.
We are heartened that districts are increasingly building principal pipelines which, research shows, are financially viable and beneficial. But leadership pipelines must go beyond school leadership, to the district level. There need to be succession plans in place for principal supervisors, chief academic officers, deputy superintendents, and superintendents, to try to maintain some of that institutional knowledge and momentum as leadership transitions occur. Districts can do this by investing in their own aspiring leaders, by having staff who recruit and train for district positions and determine when individuals are ready to move into new roles. St. Paul and Charlotte-Mecklenburg do this.
Leadership pipelines and historical knowledge are critical to running a district, to establishing the relationships needed to make changes that last and to truly tackling the biggest and stickiest problems of inequity that districts face. As the NYC Leadership Academy’s superintendents-in-residence, we welcome the opportunity to work with districts across the country as they build their capacity to lead for equity from various seats, experiences, and entry points. Our young people depend on it.
Verta joined the The Leadership Academy in 2018. Prior to that, she designed, managed, and delivered professional learning experiences and programs for sitting and aspiring school leaders at UnboundEd and New Leaders. Verta began her 20-year career in education as a teacher in Prince George’s County Public Schools, and then as a literacy specialist for the New York City Department of Education. She was principal of Bronx Arts for five years and served for several years as a leadership coach for principals and residents at New Leaders. Verta has a B.S. in communications and middle school education from James Madison University, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University.