Tamara Littlejohn has been a principal of Chicago Public Schools for a decade. As a black woman in this role, she is part of a small minority.
“I really do this job because I want to make sure that, #1, kids have someone who looks like them,” she said. As a child, Littlejohn’s mother was his role model, having served as both a Chicago public school teacher and vice-principal.
“I saw just, like, the dedication and love she had for her school community,” Littlejohn said.
Fifteen years ago, Littlejohn received an opportunity from the national non-profit organization New Leaders to train to become a school administrator like his mother. Since 2001, the organization has transformed teachers into administrators through its principal preparation program, Aspiring Principals. Littlejohn completed a year-long principal placement during which she was paired with a senior director and received leadership coaching. She is now the principal of Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Chicago’s Southside.
“I just want to have a lasting impact on my students and my teachers,” Littlejohn said. “When we think about future leaders, we want to make sure that our children have a wide variety of careers, that children see themselves in others and say, ‘Okay, I see Mrs. Littlejohn, I can achieve this, too. ‘”
Research shows that students of color and teachers benefit from having black women as principals. Just under 11% of public school principals nationwide are black, and black women in particular make up 7% of principals nationwide. New Leaders is one of a number of programs aimed at increasing the number of directors of color. In March, he announced a new initiative, the Aspiring Principals Scholarship, which offers an online certification and master’s degree program with historically black institutions Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. The bulk of New Leaders alumni are women, and nearly half are women of color. Additionally, the Surge Institute, which educates and develops leaders of color, promotes the Black Principals Network, an online space for black administrators focused on self-care and sustainability through problem-solving and building leadership. the community.
Developing black educators into school leaders and providing them with the necessary support as they fulfill these roles has a positive effect on students of color, according to recent research. More than half of all public school students are children of color, and black principals generally lead to better academic outcomes for these students, while black principals specifically encourage higher “collective accountability” among teachers. That means their employees are more invested in student learning, improving schools and helping colleagues, the studies show.
“When you look at education, the two most important factors in school that determine student outcomes are the quality of the teacher and the quality of the principal,” said Jean Desravines, CEO of New Leaders. “Now when you want to drive results at scale, the only way to do it is through the principal, because she sets the vision, creates the culture and helps identify, develop, support and inspire the best teachers. If you want to have a collective of great teachers on a large scale, you need effective and transformative principals. »
Researchers have found that directors of color provide multiple benefits to students of color. A University of Minnesota study released in January on the impact of black women in high schools linked black principals to higher student math scores. Black men make up a slight majority of black high school principals, but researchers suggest that black women in these roles have a positive effect on student achievement and teacher engagement in schools.
Nicola Alexander, a professor of organizational leadership, policy and development at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, said the findings suggest efforts should be made to increase the number of black female directors in colleges. and high schools. Often, however, female educators are relegated to mainstream elementary schools, while men are seen as natural candidates for secondary schools, Alexander said. Assumptions about what makes a good leader can lead to the exclusion of black women from administrator roles, despite their strengths, she continued.
“Black women are committed to transforming a negative school culture with limited support, and they are fighting systemic discrimination,” Alexander said. “The success of black female principals is in part due to them providing adequate instructional leadership in such a way that the teachers under their responsibility have a collective responsibility for all students. I think it’s also their experience of discrimination on two fronts, gender and race, that gives them a lived experience that adds a perspective to their leadership that may not be similarly evident to other groups.
A 2019 study by academics at Vanderbilt University found that in Tennessee and Missouri, black principals increased the odds of black teachers being hired by 5-7%. About 13% of the US population is black, but only about 7% of public school teachers are. Black principals are also more likely to retain black teachers, with a 2-3% lower turnover rate.
“Interestingly, we also find that black students have higher math scores when they have a black principal, whether or not they have a black teacher,” said Jason A. Grissom, professor of politics Public and Education at Peabody College in Vanderbilt. University. Grissom is a co-author of the 2019 study on Black Principals, Teacher Racial Diversity, and Student Achievement.
He said the success gains associated with black directors potentially stem from a variety of factors. Black administrators are less likely than nonblack principals to expel black students for in-school suspensions, Grissom found. If a black student has a minor to moderate behavioral infraction, black principals may be more inclined to explore alternatives to removing black children from the classroom and cutting off their instructional time. They can also emphasize culturally appropriate learning, engage Black families in the school community, and make equity a priority in classrooms, even if their teaching staff isn’t particularly diverse, Grissom said. .
When black principals hire black teachers, he added, those educators tend to be highly trained professionals with a track record of student achievement. This undermines the argument that these directors are just hiring friends, Grissom said.
“Sometimes there’s this debate about whether or not there’s a trade-off between having more diversity and having a more effective teaching workforce,” he said. “And I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. Other researchers make a very good argument that diversity is a dimension of quality. It’s a kind of thing that you want to value for its own sake; it brings benefits to your school. Also, in our particular case, when people tapped into these more diverse networks, they could bring in more effective teachers.
Although black principals, especially women, provide benefits to schools, women of color serving as vice principals typically wait longer to be promoted to principal than either men or white women. The costs and procedures associated with earning the advanced degrees and professional credentials needed to become an administrator also pose barriers for black educators, Grissom said. Helping educators pay for additional education or eliminating licensing tests could help increase the number of black principals. The tests can cost several hundred dollars and don’t necessarily predict a potential manager’s success, he added.
New Leaders will provide $5,000 scholarships to its scholars to offset the costs of the Masters Certification and Online Masters Program. The organization launched a pilot of the scholarship program earlier this year and will be accepting applications for the full launch in late April. The scholarship will start in January 2023.
“Cost is something that is close to our hearts,” Desravines said. “We don’t want people going into debt to get a certification or a master’s degree.”
Once black educators become school principals, it’s critical they get the support they need to thrive, according to the Surge Institute’s Black Principals Network. The group aims to empower principals with the resources to prioritize their personal well-being and grow professionally while building a community with other principals across the country via a virtual platform. The pandemic and the political climate have taken their toll on black administrators, said TaraShaun Cain, executive director of the Black Principals Network, which launched last year.
“Black leaders need mental health support,” Cain said. “They need support to deal with the trauma they are going through. People have lost staff members to COVID or family members to COVID. No one is talking to you about leading your school through this.
In addition to meeting the mental health needs of principals, the network will include affinity groups that principals can consult to solve problems. Too often directors feel lonely, Cain said, and the isolation can feel more intense for black directors because they are a minority of directors nationwide.
“Nobody really focuses on leaders,” Cain said. “And if we don’t focus on leaders, especially black leaders who experience stress at higher rates and levels than other leaders, based on the communities they serve, we will continue to see the great leaders resign because they don’t have the resources or support to continue this hard work. “
Desravines said surveys of educators suggest there could be an exodus of school administrators in the next few years. But his organization aims to counter that by developing more black principals and, like the Black Principals Network, by connecting principals with program alumni who share their teaching philosophy.
For Littlejohn, this philosophy is simple.
“Representation really matters,” she said. “But I also want to make sure I prepare the kids that I’m lucky enough to have in my school. I want them to be able to look back on their elementary school experience and be like, ‘You know what, I I was prepared. They prepared me. They gave me experiences.