How an experimental redesign in school leadership saved the school and my community

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One day I was sitting in a shared office with my teammate, Jessica. We just got back from our monthly leadership meeting and were talking about the concept of distributed leadership. Distributed leadership was the model our district was moving towards under the direction of the new superintendent. His vision was simple but revolutionary: to reinvent school leadership by dismantling the hierarchy. In this view, principals no longer had to be “omniscient” and shared responsibility was encouraged, a new practice none of us had experienced before.

To better understand this model, we immersed ourselves in the reading to see how we could personalize it for our school community. After a casual walk on Twitter, Jessica and I stumbled upon Leadership with Latoya, a podcast that explores various leadership topics. In one of the episodes, Latoya discussed the lessons learned from the co-principality.

At that moment it was clear: we could redesign Pershing Elementary School by implementing a co-principality model.

It seemed radical at first, but I felt hopeful and invigorated to try something new. I turned to Jessica and said, “Why not us? How could we lose with the power bestowed on us by our superintendent and the support of the teachers, staff and parents in our district?

The decision to pursue this new model could not have come at a better time. My school needed a radical change to increase academic performance and enrollment and revitalize the sense of pride, trust and joy in the school and surrounding community. With the right drivers in place, our school would become one that serves students and families through education, community partnerships and family empowerment.

Eventually, the plan we created would become a beacon of hope, love and connection for our school community.

Coming from a community of excellence

Despite my wildest ambitions, I never intended to be a school principal; my goal was to serve in the community that formed me into who I am today. Coincidentally, I am a pupil from the same school district where I am now co-principal. So, as you can see, my desire to serve this community is personal.

I know firsthand some of the experiences my students will have due to their postcode. The University City School District is minutes from Ferguson and is located on Delmar Boulevard, one of the most race-divided areas in St. Louis, Missouri. At the same time, my school district has produced notable graduates who have made an impact around the world:

  • Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green, a medical physicist who developed a cancer treatment using laser-activated nanoparticles;
  • Ambassador Virginia E. Palmer, an American diplomat and former US ambassador to Malawi;
  • Wiley Price, award-winning photojournalist; And,
  • Tennessee Williams, playwright and screenwriter who wrote A tram called desire.

It goes without saying that my school’s 267 students are part of an elite group.

As a child, I loved going to school. I remember the names of all my teachers and still today, if I meet one of them, I am hugged with the same love I felt in elementary school. My school was unique because teachers stayed in school systems for years and generations of families had the same teacher; knowing that it filled me with a sense of security and stability. I have seen excellent models every day and have been pushed to be the best version of myself. I cannot express how grateful I am for every teacher who has supported my development and these experiences have undoubtedly informed my practice as an educator.

I remember a conversation I had when I was a substitute teacher before I became co-principal. During recess, another teacher approached me. During the conversation, he learned that I was a student of the school. Then, out of nowhere, he said:

“You know Daniel Boone has always been the lowest performing school in the district.”

I was shocked. His words felt like a punch in the soul. I immediately felt the need to defend my experience, but at that moment I didn’t have the words to answer. Eventually, I managed to say, “Really ?! I didn’t know.”

That conversation has been going on in my mind since that day and impacted what I previously thought about my school community. I had no idea, and for that I was grateful.

Unconsciously, it fueled my desire to work in the same district that educated and served me. Therefore, I felt it was important to change the narrative for our students today and redesign our school with community and collective leadership in mind.

Stay true to the process

There was no roadmap for the future that my fellow co-principal and I were trying to create. Therefore, we had no choice but to trust the process, trust each other, and lean on devoted members of our community to bring this redesign to life.

After finishing the first year of our school’s redesign, Jessica and I found several ways to maximize collaborations with students and families to build a dream team. Fortunately, we’ve gotten some major wins along the way:

  • Family commitment: First, Jessica and I have increased family engagement and engagement by focusing on customer service. During school, Jessica and I conducted community reflection groups. We invited five to seven families to share their hopes and dreams for their children. At our initial invitation, some families were initially surprised that we asked for their input. They had never been invited to participate in school decision-making in this way. What should have been a 30 minute conversation lasted hours. We have learned that our entire school community benefits from the expansion of the community we serve and not just from the students themselves.
  • Student entrance: Towards the end of the school year, we started conducting empathic interviews with students. Students shared their feelings on a wide variety of topics. One student shared: “We need a rap battle club so that students don’t have to fight.” Rap battles ?! What a great idea ?! Another of our early victories was to allow students to explore our community garden. During recess, students can explore the garden and pick fresh vegetables and flowers. When there is work to be completed, our amazing garden facilitator shares the things students can do to ensure our garden thrives. Through empathy interviews, we leaned on the innate genius of our students by combining interests with school resources.

Due to these changes, students are empowered to use their voices, entrusting their co-chairs to take their thoughts into account. What started out as a pilot proposal became what the students needed, what the community needed and what I needed.

This redesign allowed me to pay back my district for providing me with a positive school experience that protected me from the harsh realities of the world. My only hope is that I continue to co-create a space that protects and empowers the students I serve.

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