Transforming Schools for a New Reality in the Year Ahead

Educators are deep into planning this summer. Here’s how one New Leaders alum and principal is engaging all voices in creating a new vision for their school community.
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“A positive lens is what’s needed in a time of crisis,” observes Nichole McCrae, New Leaders alum and principal of IDEA Public Charter School (Grades 9-12) in Washington, D.C. With the 2019-20 school year officially over, educators and leaders across the country are deep into planning. This summer, McCrae is bringing together her faculty, students, and families to create a new vision for schooling in 2020 and beyond. 

In addition to weekly virtual town halls for parents and scholars, McCrae set up three voluntary task force teams for her teachers and administrators. Each team focuses on a key area of need: the master schedule, social-emotional learning; and staff professional learning and support. Using New Leaders evidence-based Transformational Leadership Framework (TLF), McCrae keeps everyone focused on the same driving questions: “How do we become more equitable? How are we focusing on the scholar at the center?”

The TLF identifies and prioritizes the highest-leverage leadership actions specific to the crises and the opportunity we face. The framework articulates leader actions at three key levels – the system, the school, and the team – as well as across five categories central to school improvement and student achievement. Designed to spark conversation and guide planning for the year ahead, the TLF supports leaders in addressing the widening educational inequities and systemic racism in our nation’s schools, while ensuring a safe return for students and staff.

Specific to the Learning and Teaching category, for example, McCrae and her team zero in on student engagement data. They are comparing data from this past spring to how scholars engaged pre-COVID so that they are prepared to meet student needs the moment students return, whether that be within in-person, remote, or hybrid classrooms. “We want to focus on what’s best for the scholar and then present that to the parent so that they can make a well-informed decision for their child’s educational needs.”

The TLF is also helping McCrae reflect on how best to lead all three teams. “How are we ensuring there is equity of voice?” she asks. “How are we hearing everyone, especially at a critical time, like today, when equity matters and so do all of our scholars that we serve.”

Listen as McCrae describes her approach to engaging all voices – scholars, parents, staff and community partners – in creating a new vision for excellence and equity within her school community.

As a leader, McCrae uses the TLF as a self-check – a way to refine her own personal leadership skills as she continues to lead her school community toward change and greater inclusiveness. “This full-circle approach is allowing me to truly allow the team to fly this plane… to show that I truly trust the team. The design that’s coming up is full circle. It’s not top-down driven. It is full circle.”

This summer and the school year ahead are unlike any other. There is no blueprint for managing the current public health crisis, nor is there one for how best to respond to this turning point for racial equity and the demand that Black lives matter. Working together, school communities, like IDEA Public Charter School, are rising to meet this moment.

McCrae’s advice to leaders is to be open-minded and positive. “Let go and join in the experience with your team… Allow your creativity to be on the forefront. And, remain positive. That positive lens is what's needed in a time of crisis. Your staff, they desire it. They want it.”

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Nicole McCrae

Nicole McCrae

Nicole McCrae is entering her fourth year as principal of IDEA Public Charter School in Washington D.C. She began her education career in 2006 with a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship to teach in France. Upon her return, she began teaching English at IDEA Public Charter School and then rose to the principalship. A New Leaders alum, McCrae is also a member of New Leaders’ Exploring New Schools program. She is a poet and the proud mother of three daughters.

Nicole McCrae

Nicole McCrae

Nicole McCrae

Nicole McCrae


This is our Leadership Changes Everything Series where we're elevating leader voices from across the country. Today I have with me Nicole McCrae from IDEA Public Charter. It's the oldest standing public charter school in the District of Columbia. She will share with us her insights on how she has used the TLF 2020 to begin her planning for next school year.

The TLF has been a tool that we've used in our organizational programming. We've used it in our staff development. We've used it in our summer redesign work. I am excited to use the TLF 2020, because of the title. It says: Transforming Schools for a New Reality. This is a new reality. It is unchartered territory for us. The TLF 2020 is uniquely designed to not only focus on school redesign, but to focus on the whole child. It is requiring school leaders to think about the redesign and the new work involving this focus throughout a crisis through different lenses. It's requiring us to engage parents. It's requiring us to keep the scholar at the center. And, more importantly, it's requiring us to have a focus on equity.

How are you going to use the TLF 2020 to drive your planning for your school community?

We’ve created task force teams. We have a master schedule task force team. We have an advisory, social-emotional learning task force team and a team that focuses on staff support, IT, and professional development. So those three teams are now designing a relaunch on how do we become more equitable? How are we looking and focusing on the scholar in the center?

Specifically, looking at the Learning and Teaching category in the TLF 2020 and the focus on data, we have already started pulling scholar data from how did the scholar perform pre-COVID? How did the scholar engage with their teachers? And looking at their virtual attendance: what was their attendance rate? How do they do on assessments that were virtual? How long did it take them to assess? Those scholars who've received behavior support services, did they check in with their counselors? Were those relationships evolving or did they become stagnant?

We're looking at all of those factors when we are now determining what type of schedule is best for the scholar in the fall. I know all schools are challenged with coming up with different reopening and reentry design ideas, and we want it to focus on what's best for the scholar. And, then present that to the parent so that they can make a well-informed decision for their child's educational needs.

How is the tool making you think differently about things that you might not have otherwise been thinking about in the absence of a tool like this?

The TLF 2020 is now making us think differently, especially around the vision and what does the vision for virtual learning look like? It's also making me think differently around the leadership style that has to go into this type of work. There's so much change that's coming down the pipeline. It's going to be very important to have that buy in.

So a part of our work and using the TLF 2020 will allow us to build the relationships and test out some of the things that we're going to do with our scholars, but now do it with our staff and make it in a voluntary-style basis so that we're able to get some of their feedback. And, at the same time, we are bringing them in along the process before we introduce it in the fall.

What we have been doing strategically for the past month is having an hour-long meeting with the three task force teams where teachers were able to volunteer to give ideas and share what they would do differently. We co-partnered with CityBridge Education. They do this work. They are masterminds in the design innovation work. So our teachers will be a part of sharing and pitching their ideas in a way where they are sharing what this redesign can look like. From there, we will test it in July.

It has really been an incredible experience gaining their voice. But it's also allowing us to relate to some of the elements that are identified in the TLF 2020 with high-performing teams. I’m looking at what are the characteristics of those individuals who are serving on the teams? How are we ensuring that there's equity of voice with everyone? And hearing everyone, especially at a critical time like today where equity matters and so do all of our scholars that we serve.

How will this benefit your leadership specifically?

It is allowing me to truly allow the team to fly this plane. It is allowing me to show that I truly trust the team. The design that's coming up, it's full circle. It's not top-down driven. It is full circle. Not even bottom-up because our parents also have a voice and a leg in this work as well. We hold weekly town hall calls where parents are giving their ideas and their insights. And, we're bringing in the scholar’s voice. The prototype that we are designing cannot stand without the scholars' input. This full-circle approach is allowing me to trust, it's allowing our staff to feel like they have a hand in this work, because they do, and it puts them in the forefront as well.

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