How to Build Collective Effort In Schools Right Now
“One of the biggest challenges right now is maintaining momentum. We know a single principal can’t do that all alone. It has to be a collective effort,” reflects Alfredo Nambo, New Leaders alum and Interim Chief Education Officer at Acero Schools in Chicago. In this new role, Nambo is responsible for implementing Acero’s strategic plan across the charter network. He leads the Acero academic team and supervises all 15 elementary and high school principals, developing their leadership and supporting them to better support their students and staff.
Acero Schools serve primarily immigrant Latino communities and emergent bilingual students, much like Nambo who immigrated to the U.S. in second grade. “The pandemic deeply affected the communities we serve,” he observes. “It is still with us.” To do the work we need to do in schools, he adds, principals have to be present for their students and then equally present for the adults they are leading. This is not easy, especially as teachers continue to leave the field.
"One of the biggest challenges right now is maintaining momentum. We know a single principal can’t do that all alone. It has to be a collective effort."
Yet, across the network, Nambo is finding ways to bring people together and remind them of what is possible. “I don’t want education to be a process based on luck. I want it to be that every child has the best teacher, the best resources, the best school.”
We sat down with Nambo to learn more about his leadership journey and what propels him forward. His top five leadership actions can help fuel momentum in your school or district, too.
Pause before you jump in
In response to Acero’s anti-racism resolution, Nambo is leading network and school leaders through an exploration of what it means to be a more culturally responsive network. In addition to extensive training, the network gathers to discuss the implications. “The charge is for us to learn more, to think and reflect, to understand the context of our school communities and of ourselves. People often want to jump into action right away, but I think it’s important to learn as much as we can first.” The end goal is to center the network on bilingualism and train principals and staff on developing biliterate students. “Reflection,” he notes, “is often a missing step.”
Create spaces to connect and reflect
“It can be difficult for adults and students to identify and talk about the trauma and the losses of the past few years,” explains Nambo. Several of his schools lead regular community circles that allow everyone to share, to reflect, to honor different experiences and perspectives—and then to keep moving forward. These systems of social-emotional support are helping to drive (not replace) learning and teaching. “Observing these circles really gives me hope.”
Lead with your values
“The pandemic affirmed for me that your values can carry you as a leader. You can apply them in any situation.” The continuous process of reflection, learning, and more reflection—and how it leads to deeper understanding—is a key value for Nambo. So, too, is the willingness to be flexible and pivot when that is what is needed. “As a principal, it took me years to really understand how to support adults to support children. I alway connected with the children and families. But you have to know what you bring as a leader, how you look at a situation through your values.”
Focus on students, not competition
As a charter network, Acero is a part of the larger Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which provides support and resources. At times, notes Nambo, there can be a disconnect. Take for example the pressure schools face with regard to student enrollment numbers. That can easily shift the focus toward competition and away from learning what different communities need and how schools can best support students and families. “We need to take the competition out of it. This is an opportunity for us to help each other because, ultimately, it is the students who lose out.”
Stay rooted in your why
In every role, from bilingual teacher to principal to system leader, Nambo sees himself in the students, in their parents, in the barriers they face. Until his immigration status changed in high school, he never expected to go to college. Mentors encouraged him to pursue teaching. His family supported him. A professor suggested he apply to New Leaders to become a principal. “I was lucky,” he reflects. “Education was transformative for me. But what if I didn’t have that professor that year? What if? This is a very personal journey for me. I see what happens when systemic structures don’t allow everyone to reach their dreams.”
"I don’t want education to be a process based on luck. I want it to be that every child has the best teacher, the best resources, the best school.”
Nambo’s advice to leaders right now:
In difficult situations, even though they will rattle you, you can always come back to your values and stay centered. Leading in this way, your team and your community begin to trust you because they know your values and they see that what you are saying is connected to your actions.