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Supporting School Leaders of Color

NAESP provides an opportunity for principals of color to connect, learn, and grow around their shared experiences
April 2, 2024 6 Min Read
Kaylen Tucker, NAESP’s associate executive director of communications

According to a 2021 research synthesis, the racial and ethnic makeup of the student K-12 population has changed markedly in recent decades, but the composition of the principal workforce has failed to keep pace. This is a problem because demographic diversity among principals is linked with better outcomes for students of color. Outcomes for teachers of color are better, too, with a higher likelihood of them being hired and staying.

While the demands of being a principal are always challenging, they are often magnified for leaders who identify as Black, Indigenous, Person of Color (BIPOC). The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) has come up with a way to bring much needed support to school leaders of color through its Principals of Color Network. The network provides an opportunity for school leaders of color to connect, learn, and grow around their shared experiences. 

We chatted with Kaylen Tucker, NAESP’s associate executive director of communications, to learn more about the program and how it can help BIPOC principals—and ultimately the students, teachers, and schools they serve. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Wallace Foundation: Could you explain a little bit about how and when the Principals of Color Network got started? 

Kaylen Tucker: The National Task Force on Race and Equity was formed in 2020 by the NAESP Board of Directors to advise the association on issues related to racial equity in school communities, reveal schools’ common challenges and solutions, and support a peer-to-peer network of support for school leaders. The Task Force identified guiding priorities such as strengthening principals as leaders of equity and school assessment and action planning. 

While we already had a group for “diversity leadership,” it focused more on strengthening school leaders’ equity lens in regards to across-the-board issues, such as understanding implicit bias and fostering belonging in school communities. There was a void for an affinity space that helped leaders of color in their pursuit of leadership positions and amplified their voices. 

NAESP was awarded a grant from The Gates Foundation to join a community of other educational leadership groups that were focusing on learning how to leverage such networks. It was through this community that NAESP could pursue its goal of providing an affinity space for leaders of color, which led to the creation of our network.

As a part of our strategic goals, we wanted to help strengthen the principal pipeline and encourage more diverse representation in school leadership. We had two learning questions: How do we better center equity in education networks? And how do we better support practitioners of color? 

WF: Why is it important for diverse school leaders to have dedicated spaces like the Principals of Color Network for support? 

KT: Early in the planning stages we interrogated our own thinking about this question: Why should we have a network for BIPOC leaders at NAESP? There are other organizations that serve this population: Black Principals Network, ALAS Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, for example. 

Principals affirmed that this space is indeed needed within large, national organizations like NAESP. While we’ve turned our attention nationally to more aggressively confront inequities, it’s not always as comfortable for BIPOC leaders to speak openly about the challenges they face in racially mixed environments. They also experience racial bias in their own networks and districts and need a safe space to process and problem-solve. And while some states and districts have already established race-based affinity groups, principals say that it can feel like you’re under a microscope if you are a part of it. Networking with peers who are one step removed can feel more comfortable. 

We also talked about the decision to create a multiracial network that was open to BIPOC leaders—not just of one race. Principals felt that it was important to welcome black and brown school leaders, and that if we built the network properly, folks could network by race or ethnicity if they chose. 

WF: Can you share some examples of topics discussed among the principals in the network?

KT: Our initial needs assessment uncovered some broad focus areas. We did concept mapping around areas that were identified by the network planning committee: mental health and wellness, instructional leadership, and networking. Our network meetings have evolved to address attendees’ problems of practice such as having tough conversations with teachers around implicit racial bias and discipline and supporting alternatively certified teachers.

WF: Can you talk a bit about the representation gap between students and principals and how the network might help students? 

KT: BIPOC principals are more likely to serve in high-needs schools. So supporting BIPOC leaders helps to bolster support for our most vulnerable learners. 

What benefits principals also benefits students, as research shows that their impact on students and schools is larger than originally thought. Principals’ impact on student achievement is second only to teachers. And it is often said that if you want to impact a class, then you strengthen teachers. But only a principal can impact the experience of students schoolwide.

WF: How can principals benefit from connecting with their peers in general?

KT: The principalship can feel like a very lonely job. This loneliness can be especially true for elementary principals who are less likely to have an assistant principal working in the building. As the lone administrator, principals are responsible for people, instruction, and organizational management. 

Communities of practice and peer networks are an important element in retaining principals and strengthening the principal pipeline. Principals can learn from one another and benefit from each others’ experiences. Through a community or network, principals can take part in Knowledge Mobilization—where research, training, and experience can transfer among peers. 

Principals want to build meaningful connections and relationships with other school leaders. That is one of the major benefits to being a member of state organizations and national organizations like NAESP. These networks allow principals to exchange ideas, provide encouragement, and form support systems. I've seen experienced principals make themselves available to mentor other principals, and there is a power in realizing "we're all in this together" when principals see that they have similar challenges and experiences.

School leaders can learn more about NAESP’s Principals of Color Network and join the community here.

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