Op-EdOpinion

WILKINS: School Leaders of Color

Many African Americans leaders in their fields, like me, owe a measure of the achievement we’re proud of to dedicated teachers and school leaders who took the time and care to create a culture where we, as students, felt valued and encouraged to learn. For students of color in particular, developing this culture presents added challenges and strong school cultures do not develop magically on their own. To the contrary, school leaders must take intentional steps to build a community where students believe in their potential and have the confidence to take the risks necessary to fulfill it. Across this country, school leaders of color are taking advantage of the autonomy provided by charter schools, which are all public schools, to introduce programs and practices that both expand students’ notion of what they can be and promote an inclusive school culture. Too often, these stories of success of both school leaders and students of color aren’t shared for the benefit of other schools and classrooms who yearn for fresh and innovative ideas.

That’s why we, at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, are researching and sharing our findings of the successes we’ve seen so they can be replicated and adapted in very different classrooms, with diverse students, from Los Angeles to the Outer Banks. With that goal in mind, this week, we released our report, “Identity and Charter School Leadership: Profiles of Leaders of Color Building a Strong School Culture”⁠— the final report in a three-part series examining how the experiences of leaders of color influenced them to build a school environment where students learn, grow, and thrive.

One finding from the report that struck a familiar chord with me is that effective school leaders of color “emphasized the value that students and their families offer rather than seeing their primary roles as compensating for or working around perceived deficits.” More simply stated, these profiled leaders saw the challenges facing students of color as opportunities to be innovative and creative. This is where the flexibility that charter schools allow not only provides options for our students, but creates creative spaces for teachers and school leaders of color. Each of the leaders profiled in our report has a unique story to tell about pulling from their own experiences to create environments and build cultures that are more inclusive, responsive, and innovative than the environments they grew up in as students of color. Too often the one-sided rhetoric of the unions attacking charter schools obscures the reality that flexibility and options in education is a win for teachers too.

What we have also learned from developing this report, as well as the two that preceded it (you can read all three reports in this series at: https://www.publiccharters.org/our-work/publications?keys=identity&type=75&tags=All&date%5Bmin%5D=&date%5Bmax%5D=), is that there is no one formula or set of practices that erase the challenges that students of color face in classrooms every day. But that’s the good news! Through the examples illustrated by the reports’ profiled school leaders of color, we saw a wide range of approaches, practices, and models that are helping all students succeed. We must preserve and encourage experience-led and tailored approaches to providing a pathway to succeed for our kids no matter what public school they attend ⁠— charter or district-run.

Amy Wilkins is the senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In 2013, Wilkins was named Senior Fellow for Social Justice at The College Board, where she led efforts to increase AP enrollment among high achieving African American students, and addressed the achievement and attainment gaps separating middle-class African American students from their white peers.

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