CHICAGO—Principal Macquline King-Morris stepped out of the way of two lines of students heading to the Courtenay Language Arts Center gym. But the stream of elementary-school kids rerouted themselves to deliver hugs, high fives, and huge grins.

Creating a pre-k-8 school where every student feels welcome is at the top of King-Morris’s list of priorities. With a student population that is 48 percent black, 35 percent Hispanic, 9 percent white, and 6 percent Asian, Courtenay is one of the most diverse schools in Chicago, a city known for its stark racial segregation, and King-Morris thinks about inclusivity a lot.

“For me, regardless of the child in front of you, all children can learn if they’re taught,” King-Morris said. “It’s important you don’t get mired in distractions.”

King-Morris, who is black, places her own racial identity low on the list of qualities that make her a good school leader. Instead, she cites her 12 years of teaching, her rigorous principal training through the nonprofit New Leaders program, her propensity to foster teacher leadership, and her willingness to listen.

As a New Leaders principal candidate back in 2006-2007, King-Morris said she was asked what she thought about the potential of all children to learn and about her track record as a teacher-leader up to that point. “Nothing else is as important as what you really act on,” she said. “That was crucial [to New Leaders].”

That may be true, but studies have shown that the race of educators does make a difference to minority students and their schools.

Several studies have demonstrated pronounced benefits for black children with same-race teachers, ranging from better math performance to higher graduation rates. And although the body of research on the effects of same-race principals is still relatively small, it does point to student benefits. For example, a national study published in the March 2017 Elementary School Journal found that black students are more likely to be recommended for gifted programs in schools that have a black principal. (That’s important because black students have been underrepresented in gifted programs for decades.) And numerous studies point to the benefits of diverse organizational leadership, including one by the consulting firm McKinsey showing that companies with diverse boards performed better than those with mostly white men on their boards.

Yet in 2012 only about 10 percent of public-school principals were black while 16 percent of public-school students were black, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Education report on diversity among educators. The same report showed that only 7 percent of principals were Hispanic compared to 24 percent of public-school students.

“We have got to be much more deliberate and intentional about building a diverse pipeline across the educational spectrum,” said Jean Desravines, the CEO of New Leaders, which seeks to improve both the quality and the diversity of urban school leadership.

New Leaders, with its Aspiring Principals program in six cities and the San Francisco Bay Area, is not the only nonprofit that has focused on this challenge, but its success has been notable. The program’s network of educators and district leaders recommend teachers who might be interested in pursuing school leadership via the summer training, monthly classes, paid principal apprenticeships, and two additional years of professional support that New Leaders offers. Since its inception in 2001, New Leaders reports that 1,083 principals have successfully completed the program, 64 percent of whom are people of color—more than triple the national average.

Desravines has a one-word answer to explain New Leaders’ success: mindset. Echoing King-Morris, he said the belief that all children can learn is the primary prerequisite for becoming a strong school leader. But race or ethnicity can help shape that belief, he added.

“We are able to identify non-minority candidates who absolutely, absolutely embody everything” needed to be an excellent principal, Desravines said. “That said, leaders who come from the same communities and who share the background of our students tend to be particularly steadfast in believing that [the students] can achieve at a high level.”

Desravines argues that by focusing on mindset, a willingness to share leadership with other adults and a proven track record of success, his organization can do a better job of picking future leaders than if it stuck to traditional measures like GPAs and the relative prestige of candidates’ alma maters. The results of New Leaders’ selection process, Desravines said, are naturally diverse.

Still, that diversity is necessarily limited by the lack of diversity in the teacher workforce—the primary talent pool for future school leaders. According to the 2016 report on diversity among educators, in 2012, only 7 percent of teachers were black, while 8 percent were Hispanic.

The current dearth of black educators, in particular, is not accidental, nor is it due to a historical reluctance on the part of black people to become teachers and principals. After the Civil War, the black community pushed hard and successfully to be better represented in the teaching force at the segregated schools that were open to black students.

“The black principal was for years the linchpin of his community—the link between the white and black communities, the idol of ambitious young blacks, the recruiter and hirer of new black teachers,” said a 1970 report by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

A principal looks over two students sprawled out on the floor of a hallway.
Principal Macquline King-Morris speaks with third-grade students. (Lillian Mongeau)

But, following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, black principals, especially in the South, were routinely and systematically removed from their jobs.

“Hundreds of [black educators] have been demoted, dismissed outright, denied new contracts, or pressured into resigning, and the teachers hired to replace them include fewer and fewer blacks,” stated the 1970 report.

Nearly 50 years later, the number of black and Hispanic educators has remained disproportionately low. However, there’s some evidence that change is coming. There were more black and Hispanic college students pursuing education majors in 2012 than in 2000, according to the 2016 diversity report. Twenty-seven percent of education majors in 2012 identified as black, Hispanic, or “other,” compared to 22 percent in 2000. And 22 percent of new teachers in 2012 were black, Hispanic, or “other”—four percentage points more diverse than the teaching workforce as a whole.

Nonprofits and school districts across the country have been working to increase the diversity of school teachers and leaders. The public school system in Boston; Call Me MISTER in South Carolina; Dean’s Future Scholars in Reno, Nevada; Teach Tomorrow in Oakland, California; and Teach For America are just a few of the growing number of organizations focused on changing the makeup of the school workforce.

Since the early-2000s, when it came under fire for recruiting a mostly white teaching corps, Teach For America has redoubled its efforts to recruit and admit a diverse group of new teachers. (Full disclosure, I was a TFA corps member from 2005 to 2007.)

Rejecting the notion that they would have to lower their standards to recruit a more diverse corps, the TFA recruitment team decided to broaden its definition of evidence that a given candidate had demonstrated leadership potential. Instead of asking only for the types of college clubs that candidates had led, for example, TFA asked if they had held down a job while in college and what they had learned from it.

“Candidates might be surprised when we’re asking them about the role of shift manager at the cafeteria in their university, but that’s information we think can be extremely relevant,” said Sean Waldheim, the vice president of admissions at Teach For America.

Like New Leaders, Teach For America focuses on certain qualities it wants each of its corps members to exhibit, such as setting goals and successfully pursuing them. The key to ensuring every candidate receives a fair evaluation, Waldheim said, lies in recognizing those qualities can be demonstrated any number of ways. Context is also important, he said. When looking at a candidate’s GPA, for example, it’s important to know if that student was working 30 hours a week on top of his or her course load.

And while Waldheim insists TFA never formally launched a brand-new recruitment strategy and instead just shifted its interview practice, the results of that shift are significant. The 2016 corps was 51 percent people of color, up from just 29 percent in 2006, according an email from TFA spokesperson Danielle Montoya. TFA’s percentage of former Pell Grant recipients, an indicator of low family income, swelled to 48 percent in 2016 from 21 percent in 2007.

Teach For America begins recruiting new teachers in their senior year of college or after they have already graduated. But some researchers say it is critical to reach out to a diverse cohort of students before college to open their minds to the possibility of a career in education.

The idea is to create “a grow-your-own framework,” said Jafeth Sanchez, an assistant professor of education at the University of Nevada, Reno, who studies the development of effective school leaders.

Sanchez is particularly proud of the Dean’s Future Scholars program at her university, which focuses on encouraging future teachers as early as middle school. The program’s goal is to work with students from low-income families to help them become first-generation college graduates intent on pursuing jobs in education.

Students are selected by teachers and invited, with their families, to attend sessions on getting into college. Interested students then take part in summer programs hosted by Reno’s College of Education, are paired with college-age mentors and are offered tuition support once they enroll in college, among other benefits.

“They end up wanting to give back, and teaching seems the best way,” Sanchez said of the scholars. She added, “If they change their mind later on, that’s absolutely okay with the program.”

Like New Leaders and Teach For America, Dean’s Future Scholars is small. It is currently serving 500 students in grade six to 12, according to Mariluz Garcia, the program’s director. So far there are seven K-12 teachers, a counselor and 13 people with jobs in higher education among the alums. Another 19 are currently pursuing degrees in early education, K-12 education or school counseling.

Back in Chicago, Principal King-Morris is keenly aware of her role as a developer of talent among teachers on her staff. “It’s my job to get to know them and to find out what their strengths are,” she said.

King-Morris pointed to the school’s physical-education teacher, Ibrahim Mouzaoui, who has re-scripted his lessons to make it possible to include disabled students and typically abled students in the same class. The extremely tall man, always willing to kneel to talk to students, takes his work so seriously that he has banned “gym class” from the school’s lexicon. Mouzaoui’s commitment to offering a physical education course that goes well beyond a few dodgeball games impresses King-Morris. She recommended him for a district-wide task force on improving physical education in Chicago.

Michelle King, a woman with a gift for teaching struggling readers to master language, is another Courtenay teacher who said she has benefitted from King-Morris’ attention. (Despite the similar last name, the two women are not related.)

King was a veteran teacher at Dumas Elementary when King-Morris became the principal there in 2007. King was initially skeptical of the “kid that’s about to take over our school.” But the new principal, then in her mid-30s, won King over by listening and never asking something of teachers that she wasn’t willing to do herself. When she wanted King to earn a certification for teaching English language learners, for instance, King-Morris earned the certification at the same time. When she wanted King to earn a certification for teaching gifted students, King-Morris signed up for that course too.

King still works with struggling readers, but now, at King-Morris’s urging, she also helps coach new teachers to do the same.

“There’s really not any words to say how much [King-Morris] means to me as far as helping me grow as a leader and a teacher,” King said.

King is black, but demurs when asked whether she thinks a person’s race can affect their success as an educator or a principal. Rather, it’s King-Morris’s openness and skill that King admires. “I can tell her, ‘this is what I think,’ ” King said. “She simply knows her stuff, knows her craft.”

It’s just about focusing in and doing the work, King-Morris said. She thinks anyone looking to hire new principals should “peel back all the layers and get down to the meat of it—what’s real, the potential to lead schools.”

King-Morris does not see her race, or the race of any of her staff members, many of whom are white, as the key to helping students. Yet, at the same time, the children of Courtenay do have the opportunity to see their own racial diversity reflected back to them by their school’s staff, teachers, and leadership. Even if the message that you can be in charge no matter what you look like is subtle, it exists here.

Janiyah Harris, age 9, didn’t mention race when talking about King-Morris. Rather, the bright third-grader, who is also black, talked about the expectations King-Morris sets for her and her classmates: “She gives us rules like: Be respectful, responsible, and safe,” Janiyah told a visitor.

Janiyah is in the gifted class and finished her work early enough to help a fellow student polish a speech. Clearly a leader already, Janiyah could aspire to be anything. But when asked how she pictures her future, Janiyah said she sees herself becoming a teacher.


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.