The only time my 15-year-old daughter stepped into her high school in the 2020-21 school year was for her state exams. Every other day of her freshman year was spent at home in virtual school. Like so many young people across the country, she had a year of extreme ups and downs. She regularly struggled to get her homework done and her grades reflected that lack of motivation. Yet she passed her state standardized tests without a problem. She gained a heightened sociopolitical consciousness through the Black Lives Matter protests and by watching the impact of global warming in our home state of Texas and across the country. She saw close family members suffer through cases of Covid-19 and lost her grandfather. Through all this, she has learned to be more attuned to her mental health and to bring her authentic self into different situations. As she begins her year, she worries about going to school in person as the Covid-19 infection rates rise again.

School and school system leaders will give young people like my daughter their best chance at success in this most unusual time – after living through the most complex 18 months of their young lives — by centering student stories and experiences. How will leaders support young people for whom school was not working before the pandemic?

In our Framework for Culturally Responsive Leadership, we lay out eight actions that research and our experience has found are important for leading the development of a school that is inclusive, human-centered, equitable, and responsive to every single student.

As a former principal and a mom, here’s my advice to principals across the country on how to use these eight actions to create more inclusive schools:

1. Create a culture of EQUITY AND ACCESS.

Consider how your identity informs the way you lead, the decisions that you make, and how that lens informs school policies and practices.

Pro-tips:

  • Partner with families, staff, and communities to ensure fair treatment and equitable access to all academic, social and emotional opportunities.
  • Don’t make assumptions about a student based on their test scores. Get to know how they really experienced the last year, what they learned, and what they need from their teachers and their schools to excel for this upcoming school year.

Questions to consider:

  • What are your blind spots and how are they affecting the decisions you make?

2. Develop a shared MISSION, VISION, AND CORE VALUES.

Develop incremental mission statements that they can shift and change over the school year.

Pro-tips:

  • Bring families, students, staff, community members together to develop a shared vision. Then align all aspects of your school and district to that vision to ensure you are considering and addressing the learning needs of every student.
  • Longer term, take your school through an equity audit that gathers input from a range of stakeholders, and then develop a strategic plan that addresses the needs of all your students.

Questions to consider:

  • What is your mission for the first 90 days of school, the next 90 days, etc.?

3. Provide INSTRUCTION that is rigorous and engaging for every student.

At the heart of effective culturally responsive instruction is a shared belief that every student can excel and a commitment to building strong relationships with students and continuously improving curriculum and instruction for every student.

Pro-tips:

  • Regularly and systematically review and assess curriculum, assessments, learning materials, and instructional practice to ensure all students have access to consistent culturally responsive learning environments and experiences. Include student feedback as an important part of those reviews.
  • Many states have passed bills like Texas House Bill 4545 that gives schools an opportunity to provide extended time to students who struggled academically last year. Consider how you will use the additional time to support students based on what they need and how they learn.
  • Data comes in many forms — individual conferences, observations, self-reflections, quantitative assessments. Support teachers in utilizing all forms of disaggregated data to set individualized learning goals that help each student become an independent learner.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you believe that every student can excel? Do the members of your team believe this?
  • What are you doing to continuously improve curriculum and instruction for every student across the school?

4. Facilitate evidence based ADULT LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT

To best serve each of their students, educators and leaders need ongoing opportunities to learn and improve their practice.

Pro-tips

  • Keep in mind that we need adults to be well for the students to be well. Adult learning needs to include strategies around adult self-care and resilience.
  • Learn about staff members’ personal identities, backgrounds, and stories and how those impact their mental models, decision-making, and approach to teaching and learning.
  • Create spaces for story and experience telling.

Questions to consider

  • How are you investing in your people and developing their capacity to be their best for every student?

5. Manage OPERATIONS AND RESOURCES.

Principals in culturally responsive schools continuously review enrollment in enrichment courses, specialized programs, and sports and adjust resources as needed to guarantee access to all students. At times this could require redirecting funding to programming that serves more vulnerable populations.

Pro-tips

  • When interviewing teachers and other staff members, ask questions that will help identify candidates who will best serve your community. Some recent questions I have seen include, “How does your privilege serve you in this work? How are you using it to create more equity?” and “How do you embrace students as artists with their own ideas? How do students get the chance to express themselves in your class?” and “What are your classroom mission/vision statements? How do you modify these statements so that they apply to all of the diverse learners in your classroom?”

Questions to consider:

  • How will you spend the influx of federal stimulus dollars in ways that support your students most in need of support?
  • How are you ensuring that classrooms with the most vulnerable populations receive the most effective teachers?

6. Engage in PERSONAL LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT

Great leaders take personal responsibility for the work. A culturally responsive principal is a lead learner.

Pro-tips

  • Strengthen the culture of feedback among your leadership team and teachers. Ask for feedback formally through a 360-degree process as well as at the end of every conversation you have with the adults you lead.
  • Reflect on how you react to disappointment and difficulties.

Questions to consider

  • What is my personal plan for growth this year?
  • How do I admit errors, and learn from, navigate, and move forward from mistakes and setbacks?

7. Commit to STRATEGIC CHANGE AND CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

The beginning of this school year comes with challenges. Mask mandates, laws trying to ban teaching the truth of the history of the United States, and in some districts a lack of funding to establish virtual school options for students.

Pro-tips:

  • Leverage National Equity Project’s Safe to Fail experiment approach to try out short-term solutions to problems that are revealed through stakeholder feedback and other data while generating data to analyze and adjust in real time.

Questions to consider:

  • Am I basing my decisions on what is a politically safe decision or on how I can be courageous to best support my families and community?

8. Prioritize COMMUNITY CARE AND ENGAGEMENT

These past 18 months taught us how critical it is to have a school/home connection. Many principals have noted that talking frequently with each family throughout the pandemic was essential for keeping students engaged.

Pro-tips:

  • Provide critical support and resources that families need to ensure their children can have access to the school community and teachers.
  • Facilitate an inclusive and caring school culture and create a true partnership with families and communities.

Questions to consider:

  • Does every young person in my school feel like they belong whether they are in their classroom or the cafeteria?

After a few weeks back at school, my daughter is showing a clear focus in the stories she shares with me each night: the teachers who are making efforts to build relationships with their students. She notes which teachers are conscious of using correct pronouns of their students. She speaks to structures that are working to build a school-wide community like pep rallies and collectively constructed class agreements. A daily study hall gives her time to complete all her homework assignments and she’s focused on taking the PSAT and AP exams this year. At the same time, she questions the purpose and intent of other structures like dress codes focused primarily on female attire. We are both concerned as we receive regular emails from her school notifying us of confirmed positive Covid cases.

Principals, as you move through your first months of school, recognize that your students are watching and want you to be able to answer a few essential questions: Does every young person feel safe, valued, and respected? Is every young person being challenged and engaged and being given the opportunity to learn to think critically, communicate, collaborate, and show empathy? And if not, why not?

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Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D.

Chief Access & Equity Officer

Mary Rice-Boothe, Ed.D., joined the The Leadership Academy in 2015 and currently serves as Chief Access & Equity Officer. In this role, she oversees The Leadership Academy’s internal and external equity strategy, design and collaboration, and ensures expanded access to our work through different learning systems. At The Leadership Academy, she has had the opportunity to  partner with school systems in Des Moines, IA; Hillsborough County, FL; and the state of Wisconsin to support them in implementing their equity policies. Mary has also supported the development of equity-focused resources for district-level leaders looking to name and dismantle the inequitable practices they are seeing at the school and district level. Mary came to The Leadership Academy with more than 20 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, mentor, and coach. Before joining The Leadership Academy, she worked at New Leaders, a national non-profit organization, as Executive Director of Content and Assessment, leading the team that designed, developed, and delivered content and assessments for the organization. She began her career in education as an NYC Teaching Fellow in East Harlem and is also a member of The Leadership Academy’s APP Cohort 3. Mary is a certified Courageous Conversations about Race Affiliate and a certified Facilitative Leadership Trainer. She sits on the board of directors of Marathon Kids. Mary holds a BA in Metropolitan Studies from New York University, an MA in English and English Education from the City College of New York, and a Doctorate Degree in Leadership and Organizational Change at the University of Southern California. Mary lives in Austin, Texas, with her mom, husband, daughter and son.