“A leader is someone who knows the world is bigger than themselves.”
Those wise words are not from a principal or a school system leader. They were said to me last week by Kyra Owens, a senior at Gilbert High School in Lexington School District One, SC. Kyra is lucky enough to go to a school in a district that values leadership at all levels, from the superintendent to each and every student.
Over the last two weeks, members of my team and I have taken a deep dive in two school systems we have been partnering with for some time – Des Moines, IA, and Lexington One, SC. It was a humbling and inspiring experience that I will not soon forget. On the surface, these systems could not be more different from one another: Des Moines is a midwestern urban district with an extremely diverse student body; Lexington One is a fast-growing southern suburban and rural system whose students are predominately white. That said, they share an approach to addressing the challenges they each face: They prioritize cultivating leadership skills and mindsets in every stakeholder, from the student to the superintendent. They are building a comprehensive, district-wide approach to leading for equity, and we are lucky enough to partner alongside them in doing this critically important work.
This approach follows a few shared essential practices and beliefs:
Leadership is not positional; it is a way of being. In Lexington One, not only is leadership spread across administrators and educators, students also are stepping into leadership roles and feeling empowered. Founders of the Minority Student Alliance at Gilbert High School explained how the adults in their school made it possible for them to start this club and how it has made them feel their identity is finally being acknowledged. In Des Moines, assistant principals are taking the lead in learning what equitable practice looks like in classrooms and giving teachers targeted feedback.
Create a culture of psychological safety. In Lexington One, Superintendent Little has created space for school and district leaders to admit error or say, “I don’t know,” and be vulnerable in sharing their practice. Dr. Amy Edmonson, a professor at the Harvard Business School, defines psychological safety as a space that enables employees to take risks and experiment and express themselves without fear of failure of retribution. This becomes especially important in understanding biases and how they may impact school policies and practices.
Use storytelling to build relationships. In Des Moines, a 2nd grade teacher takes the time to learn about and honor her students’ customs and traditions. In Lexington One, Principal Kai Brailey prioritizes making sure she and her team know every student’s name and story, and she has her teachers share their stories with each other and with their students through poetry as a step toward building strong, trusting relationships and teams.
Build teams of educators who trust each other. In Lexington One, 1st grade teachers and reading specialists and their principal and assistant principal developed a consistent team approach to improving literacy instruction across classrooms — examining each student’s work and developing shared strategies — and have seen significant gains in student learning.
To sustain change, it must cut across a system. In Des Moines, the focus on identifying inequitable practices as a means for improving students’ access to great learning opportunities stretches from the school board – which developed an equity policy – to the school and district leaders and teachers who are all doing the hard work of reflecting on biases and looking for those biases in the data. In Lexington One, the district leaders are developing leadership standards for every level of leadership to ensure that strong leadership practices are embedded in every decision, policy, and practice.
We will share the work and stories of these school systems in a variety of ways in the coming months. This summer, those stories, and the Leadership Academy’s story will air on public television in a program produced by Visionaries. In the meantime, follow us on our blog and on social media to join us in learning from them and reflecting on how we can adopt and spread some of these practices in our own work.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
Lead Executive Officer & President
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & Lead Executive Officer (LEO) of The Leadership Academy, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and developing culturally responsive school and school system leaders to create the conditions necessary for all students to thrive. Since 2003, The Leadership Academy has done work in more than 375 school districts, state education departments, and education organizations across the country, reaching over 12,000 educators in 39 states.
Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrators’ Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. In 2014, Nancy joined The Leadership Academy and served in various roles before being named President & CEO in October 2018. Prior to her tenure with the Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification.
Nancy is a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and was named one of the top 100 most influential leaders in education in New York in 2020. In 2023, Nancy was named San Jose State University’s Distinguished Alumna.
Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She has served as an adjunct professor for NYU, Teachers College and American University as well as an expert guest at various Harvard Principals’ Center Institutes. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership for publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, Learning Forward’s Learning Professional, District Administrator, and Hechinger Report. She is also the co-author of Stay and Prevail: Students of Color Don’t Need to Leave Their Communities to Succeed, a revolutionary guide to disrupting harmful mindsets and practices in our schools to ensure that students can thrive in their home communities.
Nancy is a member of the Board of Directors at the Hunt Institute, brightbeam, and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC), and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team.