Written By: Tammie Workman, Education Consultant and Former Urban Schools Leader with Stacey DeWitt CEO of Connect with Kids Network.
Important Role of Principals
In her role as principal of NYC’s Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science (AMS), Ingrid Chung understands the enormity of her role.
Chung also understands the additional pressures her students face, who are majority Hispanic and Black, because of the color of their skin. “There have been studies that have shown that the weight of life and the weight of pressure is heavier on young men of color because of how they look. So, someone might perceive a kid who’s 12 years old as a 16-year-old young man and as a result that perception requires him to act in a different way. So no longer are people perceiving you as children outside on the block. They’re coming up to you as if you’re a man and that requires a kid to act a certain way. Many of them are having to balance that. Then, you come into school where people tell you to sit down and do all these things. It is difficult. And it causes kids to not want to be in school because there’s multiple things happening outside of the school that sort of the negate all the things that they’re taught in school.”
Because AMS serves students in grades 6-12, Chung and her staff see firsthand how traumas and daily challenges can affect motivation for students to stay engaged in school. “We have the privilege of seeing our kids grow over the course of seven years. Many of these young men as middle schoolers had seen a lot of success. They were in the honors algebra class. They were in the Honors elite class. They were really expressive during class and really motivated to be knuckleheads but also be successful in school. They were really into just being in school. But sometime during high school about ninth or tenth grade this feeling goes away. We see our former young men leaders sort of start to falter and start to move away from wanting to be in school or move away from the active participation, move away from feeling like school was somewhere where they belonged. They have attendance issues, they have trouble with accumulating credits, and they have disciplinary issues.”
“We’re a school in the poorest congressional district in the country. A lot of our kids live in poverty. A lot of them come from single parent households, which is not to say that a single parent can’t raise their kid effectively, but more that they already are missing father figures oftentimes. They live in neighborhoods that are not necessarily safe all the time, particularly if you are a young man and you don’t want to associate with gang life. So, things like that can be really difficult to navigate.” – Ingrid Chung
Fortunately, AMS has many structures in place to support their students through the ups and downs of their daily lives and the changes they experience. Embedded within their academics, AMS utilizes small class sizes, collaborative planning, and inquiry teams; they also embrace social emotional learning through a comprehensive advisory system for all students and provide home-school liaisons to foster communication and relationships – including intentional home visits. They additionally offer two gender-based programs for students who need more than foundational support.
Young men in grades 9-12 who could benefit from this additional support can participate in a program called Umoja. Umoja provides participants with a sense of community, belonging, and shared experiences that motivate them to engage (and re-engage if necessary) in school and with each other.
The Umoja program was developed as part the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Equity and Access focus on improving the outcomes for Black and Latino male youth. “Umoja is a Swahili term for unity, and at our school, it is our boys leadership program,” explains Chung. “We target our most at risk boys and high school from grades nine through 12th grade. The guys are all leaders, and it is a cohort model. So as seniors graduate, we add a new batch of freshmen (20 per year) into the program, and it is designed to ensure that students who are young men of color can exercise their leadership skills in a way that will make them college and career ready and be able to impact their community both inside and outside of the school. So, whatever they do becomes contagious to others.”
Per the AMS website, “The Umoja community spends a week in August at Black Rock Forest building our bonds as a family, and when we return to school, we come together every Tuesday to reflect on our growth and the challenges we face ahead.” Throughout the year, these young men and their adult leaders participate in a variety of experiences and, importantly, also hold each other accountable for staying the course with grades, with behavior, and staying in school.
According to Chung, “We aren’t making anything new. These kids and these young men already have everything within themselves and this is just an opportunity for them to see that within themselves. And so, whatever that is, whether it’s leadership, strength, power, all these things combined, we help them see I’m starting with their excellence and not what society is saying is their deficit.”
Angel Diaz, a former Umoja member, spoke of his experience as a high school senior. “I’ll be honest. Umoja changed my life. It really put me on the right path. I can’t say I’m closer to any other men in this world than these people… And I can’t say I’m closer to any of the teachers here than who are here, too. And it was just probably the greatest thing that ever happened.”
Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Associate Professor, Teachers College, Columbia University, “Critical love is a profound and ethical commitment to the communities that you’re serving. Respect is part of it. Care is part of it. But liberation is at its core.”
It takes many hands and the willingness of a school principal to get this work to the ground for programs such as Umoja to succeed. Paul Forbes, former Director of the ESI department who now provides equity trainings across the country, worked with Angel and other young men in the Umoja program during those early years of the program. He realizes how activities such as attending a ballgame with each other or going on a college tour can be life changing for students – a simple act of caring enough to be involved and show students camaraderie and possibilities for their lives. “I think we’re in this together. Umoja really gets our young men into a mindset of ‘we’re here to support and lift one another and we don’t need to do this alone’.”
Ingrid Chung, Paul Forbes, and many other leaders are changing the outcomes for students daily with robust, targeted supports both in and beyond academics. They are intentional in the design and understand that by meeting students where they are, students can then meet their full potential. Leadership that builds hearts and minds is most definitely changing the narrative. And we are most definitely here for it!
Deeper Dive on The Important Role of the Principal
Recent research points to the need for effective principals such as Ms. Chung and the important leadership they provide.
A recent Wallace Foundation report, How Principals Affect Students and Schools should leave no doubt about the critical role these principals and principals everywhere have in their schools and school communities, beyond the traditional role of building management, even the critically important instructional leadership they provide. This is especially crucial for students of color, who yearn to be seen, heard, affirmed, and yes, guided toward positive life outcomes.
Synthesizing 2 decades of research, the report outlines 7 unified findings:
- Effective principals are at least as important for student achievement as previous reports have concluded—and in fact, their importance may not have been stated strongly enough.
- Principals have substantively important effects that extend beyond student achievement.
- Effective principals orient their practice toward instructionally focused interactions with teachers, building a productive school climate, facilitating collaboration and professional learning communities, and strategic personnel and resource management processes.
- Principals must develop an equity lens, particularly as they are called on to meet the needs of growing numbers of marginalized students.
- Effective principals are not equitably distributed across schools.
- Principals are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, but representation gaps with students are growing, which is concerning, given the payoffs to principal diversity.
- Research on school principals is highly variable, and the field requires new investment in a rigorous, cohesive body of research.
The 7 above should be viewed as inter-connected components and of course, equity should undergird everything. Whether it be aligned systems, climate, culture, staffing, funding, or curriculum and instruction, equity should not just be a north star, but a principal and school’s mandated lens in which to see, plan, and act for the benefit of the students they serve.
We agree that more targeted research on the role of the school principal is needed. However, we currently know from this body of research that principals both directly and indirectly affect outcomes for students, especially for marginalized populations, in areas of discipline, culturally responsive education components, and teacher turnover. Those are critical items that every district should get working on sooner rather than later.
There is no better time than now to look at hiring practices, discipline practices, curricula choices, and professional learning for teachers. There are a wealth of resources and models available.
Want the full report? The 136 page report is a good tool for a deeper dive with your leadership teams, with teachers and parents, and of course, with aspiring and current principals. Though school communities have known the value principals bring to their schools, it’s heartening to read the affirmation that principals not only matter, but they matter greatly.