Reshaping School Leadership for the Future

Hear from leaders in the field on why representation in school leadership matters and how developing equity-focused and diverse principals can be a game-changer for students.
group of teenage students with their principal group of teenage students with their principal
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“You know in the first 10 minutes of walking in a school building if the children there feel seen, loved, and safe,” observed Dr. Lisa Herring, Superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools. “To serve as a superintendent is to make bold, wise, and strategic decisions on who will lead our schools, love on our kids, and serve in the building.”

Dr. Herring joined New Leaders CEO Jean Desravines along with Joaquin Tamayo, Chief of Staff for the Deputy Secretary of Education, and Dr. Donald Fennoy, former superintendent of The School District of Palm Beach County, for an insightful panel discussion at the SXSW EDU conference this March. The topic: the future of school leadership in America. 

Today, over half of all students in K-12 public education identify as people of color, yet only 20% of our nation’s public schools have a leader of color. And, 40% of our public schools do not have a single teacher of color. This is known as the representation gap. And it does not have to be the reality. Research shows that diversity in school leadership leads to better student outcomes for all students, especially underestimated and unserved students of color. Representation in leadership allows students of color to see themselves reflected in the leaders in their schools. 

Learn what each panelist had to say about the importance of diversifying principal pipelines and developing the next generation of equity-focused school leaders. (The full audio recording is also available.)

photo of Lisa Herring

Dr. Lisa Herring, Superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools

“For the last two years, our students have had an extraordinary interruption in their education, but students of color are experiencing dual pandemics—a pandemic around public health and one around social justice. Our students of color need to see and experience a representation of individuals who look like them, and if not that, individuals who understand them—understanding that is not tied to myths or perceptions, but authentic, genuine experiences. 

 As a superintendent, you need to have a passion and compassion for the communities you represent. Atlanta is a combination of high poverty and high socioeconomic status. I have a responsibility to be thoughtful around all of that…. Superintendents have a responsibility to bring on leaders who can see the best in children and build up the best adults to teach those children.”

photo of Joaquin Tamayo

Joaquin Tamayo, Chief Of Staff in The Office Of The Deputy Secretary at U.S. Department of Education

"We have a situation where the working conditions in our schools and districts are not where they need to be. And at the same time, we have more young people of color enrolling in higher education. Why would they enter education? How will they see education as a place where their talents are going to be utilized, valued, and built upon? We need to grapple with that reality. 

We encourage all system leaders to really audit what is going on in their system to see where leaders and teachers of color need more support. We need to redesign systems so the working conditions encourage young people to go into education and so we can rebuild the diverse pipeline to school leadership…. Where we see success nationally is where superintendents are taking working conditions seriously."

photo of Donald Fennoy

Dr. Donald Fennoy, Chief in Residence at Chiefs for Change, Former superintendent of The School District of Palm Beach County 

"So many of our teachers are gatekeepers for students having chances to excel. And principals are the ultimate gatekeepers. When I was in K-12 school, I was never allowed to take advanced courses, ever. As an African American male student, I didn’t fit the profile. We need equity-focused and diverse educators getting into these principal roles to give all kids a chance. 

For Black men in leadership, often, the world never gets to see you because we act so scared to share our truth. When you go into these leadership roles, it’s on leaders like us to help you realize who you are in this work and see the value of who you are in this work.”

photo of Jean Desravines

Jean Desravines, CEO, New Leaders

“I am the youngest of 10, a first-generation Haitian American. I lost my father at 17. As a result, my mother had a mental breakdown. So I went to my high school principal and told him I had to drop out. He sat me down and said, “You’ve been dealt a tough hand…. You will be successful in life, and I’m going to do everything possible to make sure that happens.” He helped me find a place to live, secure a job, apply to college. I am who I am today because of him. When I talk about the role a principal can play, it’s based on my lived experience. At New Leaders, we are committed to developing more leaders like my principal. It is our belief that every school in America needs a strong, equity-focused leader.”

Today, disparities within our K-12 education system limit access to resources, opportunities, and supports. As a result, far too many students of color and students from communities with lower incomes do not receive the education that they deserve, resulting in lost potential in academic outcomes, high school and college graduation, and lifelong success. This does not have to be so. A quality K-12 education can, and should, be accessible to all children. 

At New Leaders, we know the solution to disrupting systemic inequities is to build the capacity of diverse, equity-minded school leaders who are committed to the success of every child. Our National Aspiring Principals Fellowship, launched in partnership with two prestigious historically Black institutions, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, does just that. The Fellowship is training the next generation of equity-focused school leaders who better reflect the students they serve.

"Representation in school leadership matters because this is America,” concluded Tamayo. “We can do this thing. We can right this wrong." We could not agree more. “This is a national crisis,” added Desravines. “It demands nothing less than our full attention and strongest commitment so that every student has a chance at success.”

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