Growing up, I was lucky to go to a high school that in many ways was culturally attuned to my classmates and me. About 80% of us were Mexican American, the rest Asian or Pacific Islander. We would drape Mexican flags around our bodies on Mexican Independence Day while the school blasted our favorite Spanish music in the quad. We learned and practiced the Tinikling, a traditional Filipino folk dance, and watched in amazement as our Samoan classmates performed the Ailao Afi ceremonial fire dance. Speaking a variety of languages on campus and celebrating each other’s cultures was the norm.
However, while the school was culturally affirming, it lacked academic rigor. I’ll never forget the trauma I experienced in feeling so unprepared for college, how many times I came close to walking away. Thanks to my family’s support and encouragement, I stuck with it and was successful, but so many of my friends and relatives did not.
Too many schools continue to fail our students. Too often, teachers are not giving students grade-appropriate assignments or strong, engaging instruction, nor are they holding them to high expectations, a recent study by TNTP found. Students of color and low-income students are disproportionately affected by these trends. The results: The vast majority of students do not have standards-level mastery of their subjects.
This is why at the NYC Leadership Academy, we are sharpening our focus on developing education leaders with the skills and knowledge to create culturally affirming environments while ensuring rigorous, standards-aligned culturally responsive curriculum and instruction. You need all those elements to be able to reach and challenge every student, to be able to prepare every student for success. Students tend to be more deeply engaged in their learning and improve their achievement when the curriculum is culturally relevant and includes their experiences and backgrounds.
Take MS 180 in the Bronx. I recently had the pleasure of spending a morning at this middle school led by Principal Marlon Williams, a graduate of NYC Leadership Academy’s Aspiring Principals Program in New York City. Principal Williams is the first African American male administrator on the five-school campus. By the end of his third year as principal, students from every subgroup – Latinx, Black, white, English language learners, special education students – saw significant increases in proficiency in ELA and math.
Principal Williams made a number of intentional leadership moves to get his school where it is today. His first year, he applied for Title I dollars and used those funds to expand the teaching staff and reduce class sizes; created more inclusive heterogeneous classes; and started giving honest feedback to teachers. He has created a real culture of learning among educators and students.
In every classroom we visited, we met students eager to show off and push their learning. In a 6th grade English class, several hands shot up to read to their visitors the descriptive paragraphs they had just written for a lesson on how to show versus telling in writing. In a 7th grade science class, a student volunteered to explain for us how you can measure the volume of a rock through water displacement. In a history class, students were debating the meaning of the word “imperialism” today and historically. And we got to see a performance by the school’s impressive step team, the M.S. 180 Soldiers of Righteousness, a group of 75 young women who are mixing powerful moves and words – “the mind is a terrible thing to waste” — to reach and inspire their audiences.
Students are clearly being challenged and engaged at MS 180. Why is that? I have a few theories. First, teachers were clearly proud of their students – several teachers and Principal Williams stood to the side beaming as students shared their learning with us. Also, teachers were asking students questions that pushed them to deepen their thinking, and they asked their students to do the same of each other—the expectation was not centered around teacher-to-student interactions but student-to-student interactions. They were expecting students to reflect, to critically challenge themselves and each other. And they did.
Just as important, the school is actively tapping into the culture, background, and experiences of the students. The adults in the building see each child for the individual he or she is. Of MS 180’s 880 students, 68% are Black and 25% are Latinx. The hallways and classrooms are filled with the words and images of many of our country’s great Black and Latinx leaders. One of the first moves Principal Williams made when he became principal was to break up the school into four houses to create smaller communities for the students. These houses are named for James Baldwin, Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama, and Claudette Colvin. Walk through the halls of any house, and you will learn what these leaders stood for, what inspirational words they have spoken or written. The door of an 8th grade math class is colorfully decorated with photos and information about Black female mathematicians and their contributions to the field. In a 6th grade English class, students are reading and comparing texts on the treatment of Black people before the Civil War and in the 1960s.
To get to the learning, Principal Williams said, “You’ve got to get the culture.”
While my high school created a place where my classmates and I could feel proud of our culture, it was perhaps too much about food, fun, and fiesta. Students need to be intellectually challenged, and to learn about leaders and intellectuals who look like them. That is how we will tap into the genius that lives in all of our youth, that is how we can see them, nurture them, and support them to cultivate their own brilliance.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
President & CEO
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & CEO of The Leadership Academy. Nancy joined The Leadership Academy in 2014 and has served as National Leadership Designer and Facilitator, Vice President of District Leadership, and Chief Strategy Officer. She was named President & CEO in July 2018 and continues to serve as an executive leadership coach and facilitator for school systems across the country. She was a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow, and in February 2020 was named among the 100 most powerful education leaders in New York by City & State New York. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker for local and national education organizations and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership and equity for national publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, and Hechinger Report. 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 Administrator’s Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. 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 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 served on the national board of the Coalition of Essential Schools for more than a decade. She is an instructor at NYU and frequently teaches at the Harvard Principals’ Center institutes for School Turnaround Leaders, Urban School Leaders, and Race, Equity, Access, and Leadership. 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. Find Nancy on Twitter @nancybgutierrez or LinkedIn.