According to an April report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing school data, the percentage of black or Hispanic public-school principals has barely budged over the last 25 years. During the 1987–88 school year, 87 percent of public-school principals were white, 9 percent were black, 3 percent were Hispanic, and 2 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian American, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. More than two decades later, in the 2011-12 school year, the percentage of white principals had declined slightly—to 80 percent—while that of Hispanic principals inched up slightly (7 percent). The percentage of principals who were black or from another ethnic group showed no substantial change, at 10 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
The lack of principals of color has a long and complicated history that mirrors the shortage of teachers of color. As the NCES report notes, because principals are often drawn from the pool of teachers, “teacher demographics [such as race and ethnicity] may affect … principal demographics.” Additionally, for black school principals specifically, the after-effects of school desegregation were devastating. A March 2014 journal article examining the post-Brown v. Board of Education era found black administrators were routinely fired and demoted as school integration took hold—identical to what happened to black teachers at the time. In the decade following the landmark Brown decision, according to the article, an estimated 90 percent of black principals across 11 southern states lost their jobs.
Gradually the racial and ethnic disparity between school principals and the public-school population, which is increasingly students of color, has caught the notice of some districts and educational leaders. In Indianapolis Public Schools, the dearth of Hispanic principals became a campaign issue in the fall 2014 school-board race, as both challengers and incumbents called to address the gap: In a district that was over 20 percent Hispanic, there were no Hispanic school leaders. A feature article in the monthly magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a professional organization of educators, also zeroed in on the mismatch from a national perspective.
“Leadership that represents the cultural and ethnic groups that make up U.S. society is important for all students because the world students will join as adults is richly diverse,” said the 2009 piece in Educational Leadership, concluding that “as U.S. schools become more culturally and ethnically diverse, current leaders have a duty to tap the untapped potential of [similarly diverse] school leaders.”
Christopher Johnson, the black founding principal of Science Leadership Academy at Beeber in Philadelphia, is keenly aware of the impact he says his leadership has on the school’s students, staff, and community. Johnson began as a substitute teacher in the School District of Philadelphia before becoming a school administrator and, like Gutierrez, grew up not far from where he now leads one of the city’s magnet high schools. Johnson said his philosophy as a principal is colored more by his upbringing than it is his race, but also admits that his experience as a black male student in Philadelphia’s public schools has influenced his leadership style.