One day I was sitting in a shared office with my teammate, Jessica. We just came from our monthly leadership meeting and were talking about the concept of distributed leadership. Distributed leadership was the model our district was moving towards under the direction of the new superintendent. Her vision was simple but revolutionary: reimagine school leadership by dismantling the hierarchy. Under this vision, principals no longer had to be “all-knowing,” and shared responsibility was encouraged, a new practice none of us had experienced before.
To understand this model better, we immersed ourselves in readings to see how we could personalize it for our school community. After a casual stroll through Twitter, Jessica and I came across Leadership with Latoya, a podcast that explores various topics on leadership. In one of the episodes, Latoya discussed the lessons she learned from co-principalship.
At that moment, it became clear: we could redesign Pershing Elementary School by implementing a co-principalship model.
It seemed radical at first, but I felt hopeful and invigorated to try something new. I turned to Jessica and said, “Why not us? How could we lose with the power vested in us from our superintendent and the support of our district’s teachers, staff, and parents?
The decision to pursue this new model couldn’t have come at a better time. My school needed a radical change to increase academic achievement and enrollment and revitalize the sense of pride, confidence, and joy in the school and our surrounding community. With the right drivers in place, our school would become one that serves students and families through education, community partnerships, and family empowerment.
Ultimately, the plan we created would become a beacon of hope, love, and connection for our school community.
Coming from a Community of Excellence
Despite my wildest ambitions, I never intended to become a school principal; my goal was to serve in the community that shaped me into the person I am today. Coincidentally, I happen to be an alum of the same school district where I now serve as co-principal. So, as you can see, my desire to serve this community is personal.
I know firsthand some of the experiences that my students will have because of their zip code. The University City school district is minutes from Ferguson and located on Delmar Boulevard, one of the most racially divided areas in St. Louis, Missouri. At the same time, my school district has produced notable graduates who went on to make an impact in the world:
- Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green, a medical physicist that developed a cancer treatment using laser-activated nanoparticles;
- Ambassador Virginia E. Palmer, an American diplomat and former United States ambassador to Malawi;
- Wiley Price, an award-winning photojournalist; and,
- Tennessee Williams, a playwright and screenwriter who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire.
Needless to say, the 267 students in my school are a part of an elite group.
As a child, I loved being at school. I can remember the names of all my teachers, and to this day, if I run into one of them, I am embraced with the same love I felt in elementary school. My school was unique because the teachers stayed in the school systems for years, and generations of families had the same teacher; knowing that filled me with a sense of safety and stability. I saw models of excellence daily and was pushed to be the best version of myself. I cannot express how grateful I am for every teacher who supported my development, and these experiences undoubtedly informed my practice as an educator.
I recall a conversation I had when I was substitute teaching before becoming a co-principal. During recess duty, another teacher approached me. During the conversation, she learned that I was an alum of the school. Then, out of nowhere, she said:
“You know Daniel Boone was always the lowest-performing school in the district.”
I was in shock. Her words felt like a sucker punch to my soul. I immediately felt the need to defend my experience, but at that moment, I didn’t have the words to respond. Finally, I managed to say, “Really?! I didn’t know that.”
That conversation has played out in my mind ever since that day and impacted what I previously thought about my school community. I had no clue, and for that, I was thankful.
Subconsciously, it fueled my desire to work in the same district that educated and served me. Therefore, I felt it was important to shift the narrative for our students today and redesign our school with community and collective leadership in mind.
Staying True to the Process
There was no roadmap to the future my fellow co-principal and I were trying to create. Thus, we had no choice but to trust the process, trust each other, and lean on the devoted members of our community to bring this redesign to life.
After finishing the first year of our school redesign, Jessica and I found different ways to maximize collaborations with students and families to build a dream team. Fortunately, we had some notable wins along the way:
- Family Engagement: First, Jessica and I increased family engagement and involvement by focusing on customer service. Throughout the school, Jessica and I conducted community think tanks. We invited five to seven families to discuss their hopes and dreams for their children. Upon our initial invite, some families were initially surprised that we asked for their input. They had never been invited to participate in school decision-making processes in this way. What should have been a 30-minute conversation lasted hours. We learned that our entire school community benefits when we expand the community we serve and not just the students themselves.
- Student Input: Towards the end of the school year, we began conducting empathy interviews with students. Students shared their feelings on a wide variety of topics. One student shared, “We need a rap battle club so that students don’t have to fight.” Rap battles?! What a great idea?! Another one of our early wins was allowing students to explore our community garden. During recess, students could explore the garden and pick fresh vegetables and flowers. When there’s work to complete, our amazing garden facilitator shares things students can do to ensure our garden thrives. Through the empathy interviews, we leaned into the innate brilliance of our students by combining their interests with the school’s resources.
Because of these changes, students are empowered to use their voices, entrusting their co-principals to take their thoughts into consideration. What started as a pilot proposal became what the students needed, what the community needed, and what I needed.
This redesign allowed me to repay my district for providing me with a positive school experience that shielded me from the harsh realities of the world. My only hope is that I continue to co-create a space that protects and empowers the students I serve.