Education Is A Civil Right
"New Leaders told me I couldn't quit," Michelle Pierre-Farid reflects on her first day as a principal in 2003. Her school was slated for closure. Part of our third cohort of Aspiring Principals, Michelle and her team transformed her school in three years.
Michelle now serves as our National Senior Executive Director, Strategic Partnerships and Alumni Impact. Her impact on students has been far-reaching, from school principal to Chief Academic Officer in Cleveland Metropolitan School District to Chief of Schools for LEARN Charter School Network.
In honor of New Leaders 20 year anniversary and National Principals Month, we sat down with Michelle to learn more about her leadership and her vision to support our alumni.
Thinking back to 2003, what made you want to join New Leaders and become a school principal?
I remember that day. I was a teacher in Baltimore and I drove down to D.C. to attend an open house. I wanted to learn more about this new organization called New Leaders. I’d read about it in an article and thought it sounded interesting. While I was there, I heard Jon Schnur, co-founder of New Leaders, name education as a civil right. That every child has the right to a great education.
I don’t think I had the words in my head at that time to understand why I was so passionate about giving children who look like me the best education. But when he said that, I thought that’s right. Every child deserves a great education. It is a civil right.
I decided to apply and got invited to do a full-day interview, what we call “the day in the life of a principal.” My mom bought me a brand new suit. She told me that I needed to look the role. But when she picked up afterward, I said, “I didn’t do well.” She said, “Well, at least you know what it’s like.” But inside I was thinking: who wants to be a principal after all that?
That April, I received an email telling me I had been selected for the D.C. cohort. I couldn’t believe it. I still have that email. I’ve saved it after all these years.
That summer, I did my residency and the best part was that experts in the field—Jon Saphier, Rick DuFour, and Ronald Ferguson—literally sat in front of us, teaching us and engaging in deep conversations with us about what it means to change education for students of color.
To see that passion in everyone around you. That was something. And knowing that when we finished our training we had to make a difference. There was no if, ands, or buts about it. If we were the principals, our kids had to get smarter.
Tell us about your first year as a principal?
Well, it did not start the way I hoped. After the first day, I called New Leaders and said, “I’m not going back.” I had to call the police three times. The first time for a fight between two parents. The second because kids were throwing food in the cafeteria and honestly, I didn’t know what to do. And, the third, because a teacher accidentally injured a student. I was undone.
But New Leaders told me I couldn’t quit. The next day, they sent a team to support me. My leadership coach sat with me the rest of that week and we figured things out. New Leaders was always doing things like that to support me. My cohort members did the same.
My school was one of the lowest-ranking schools in the district. It was on the list to be closed. Three years later, we won an award for being an outstanding school. I opened a Spanish Immersion program, the first of its kind on the Southeast side of the district, because it served mostly African American students. I got funds to improve the library. We named our classrooms after colleges to help create a culture of high expectations.
Our school went from being one of three schools slated for closure to outranking other schools in the district. If it wasn’t for New Leaders, I would have quit and never looked back.
Looking back, how do you think New Leaders changed you?
I was a good teacher before New Leaders. I knew classroom instruction, but what I didn’t know was how to drive it through adults. New Leaders helped me to create a clear vision around excellence and then work to get the whole school to buy into it. They taught me how to organize my data. How to help teachers truly understand and use what the data was telling us. And, how to change mindsets.
New Leaders provided me with the language to help people understand that education is a civil right. That it’s not enough to love on our kids, we have to teach them. New Leaders gave me the skills to truly be relentless about getting results for kids.
What brought you back to New Leaders to head up our alumni impact work? And what is your vision for alumni?
New Leaders is always in my heart. It’s exciting to see how the organization is evolving and our impact is growing. It’s truly different from when I first joined in 2003.
My vision is threefold: We want to support our alumni in their professional growth. We want to bring our alumni together and forge new connections and community. And we want to amplify our voices as leaders across the nation.
What is your advice for leaders right now?
The road is not easy, but the road cannot be walked alone. I think sometimes we’ve had this belief that we can be the “superwoman” or “superman” of education. But we can’t. It is a collective effort. You have to have a community to make change happen for our children. We’re here for you.
To read Michelle’s advice for American Rescue Plan (ARP) investments, visit her blog: Looking Back to Move Forward: Lessons Learned to Drive ARP Investments