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January 9, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 9

A Black School Leader Confronts Privilege and Power

As a founding middle school principal in Massachusetts, I learned that working toward equitable and inclusive schools can meet resistance from unexpected corners.
The district I was working in had moved away from its K–8 model and restructured into four stand-alone middle schools, with a goal to diversify and create more equitable learning experiences before students entered the city's one public high school. Previously, the schools had been segregated along lines of race and class and faced persistent achievements gaps. Though some parents opposed the restructuring, the district moved ahead and hired Black men to lead three of the schools.
I was initially well-received in a school where 40 percent of students were White and 60 percent were students of color. That was before I decided to implement changes to improve opportunities and outcomes for students of color. In order to bring about true equity, I needed to focus on those children the district had historically underserved.

Inclusion in Action

Other than lunch, recess, and gym, English language learners and students with learning disabilities—who were roughly one-third of the school population and mostly students of color—shared no space with most of their White peers or those who spoke English as a first language. These layers of intersectionality (the Black student could also be the English learner or the student with special needs) added complexity to scheduling inclusive opportunities.
So, I changed the master schedule to ensure that ELLs and students with learning disabilities had integrated access to the science lab, mainstreamed education, and electives. I made sure more students of color were in accelerated math classes. I also implemented a before-school mentoring program for Black and Brown boys as a place to affirm their authentic selves. I would often use behavioral, suspension, and academic data to support my decisions.
At every turn, there were White teachers and parents who wondered if resources couldn't be better utilized to benefit a "broader" swath of the student body or whether those students could "really handle the rigor." Some complained about how students' needs and behavior interfered with other children's right to a high-quality experience. These sentiments were proxies for racial exclusivity. To keep the status quo was to privilege the White children. I tried to remind parents and teachers that all children are capable—the students just might not be used to high expectations yet.
In privileged spaces, race- and class-based power can undermine official avenues for decision making. A group of parents met to remove me as principal. With the superintendent's complicity, they succeeded. They unsuccessfully tried to involve school committee members; except for one Black parent who later informed me of the plot, the attendees were all White.

A Systemic Problem

Only about 9 percent of public school principals nationwide are Black. How do Black leaders like me engage in social justice work in schools, especially where pockets of racial and economic privilege exist and resist? My dissertation research explores how we navigate these landscapes, unapologetically remove barriers to equity, and build alliances with White stakeholders who may perceive this work as threatening.
When people are called out on privilege, there will be resistance. Black school leaders need White educators who are willing to take some heat and lean into educating their own cultural community. While part of me wishes I hadn't been pushed out, by staying true to my values, I learned lessons and earned the respect of colleagues with similar experiences and of the families for whom I fought.
My experience can inform how we understand the increasing phenomenon of upper-middle-class Whites who move into gentrified spaces that were traditionally neglected by the city, where longstanding residents are majority Black, Brown, and poor. As this trend intensifies, the newcomers have opinions about what a local public school's priorities should be, informed by their own cultural bias and social positioning.
What they often ignore (or are unaware of) is that asserting White privilege in educational spaces feeds industries that benefit from inequality. Since the 1990s, companies have made billions of dollars off the nation's remediation and testing regimes that try to "eliminate the racial achievement gap." That mindset presumes a deficit in a racial group's ability (measured by test performance) rather than a lack of opportunity from the education system. Opportunity gaps result from low academic expectations and deficit narratives about children's abilities, inexperienced or culturally incompetent teachers, disempowered caregivers, their communities' limited social capital, and, at times, racial hostility.
This is intentional policy that norms, centers, and essentializes White beliefs and behavior at the expense of other viewpoints. You do not need to be overtly racist to play a part; any of us can be complicit in upholding systems that greatly harm children of color by pushing them to the margins.

Build a Critical Mass

School leaders need effective ways to improve educational opportunities as demographics change. If you believe students are capable of less because of genes, culture, or poverty, then the focus is on changing the child, his family, or his environment. If, however, you believe in children's inherent brilliance, then you also recognize that our systems must change. The focus then shifts to the school, the teachers and leaders, and the delivery of instruction.
One salient method to bridge divides is through cultural proficiency conversations. I facilitated weekly professional development discussions with grade-level teams about the way race, culture, and implicit bias affect teaching and learning. We examined historic and contemporary oppression across race, ability, ethnicity, class, and gender through articles and book studies. We experimented with ways to make our pedagogy more culturally relevant.
In hindsight, I made the mistake of mandating participation because I believed it essential. One step I'd recommend is to first build a critical mass of staff who voluntarily want to explore cultural proficiency. I would highlight those on board early and centralize students' lived experiences to illustrate why we need everyone to engage. I would continue to raise issues of race, class, and culture in my weekly memos, grade-level meetings, and professional development, signaling its importance to my leadership mission and vision. Surveys and focus groups with students and parents can provide powerful data on their realities and serve to dispel any notion of a "hidden agenda."

Invite Silenced Voices

Another critical strategy is to empower the caregivers of historically underserved students. As principal, I invited the superintendent to meet parents he rarely heard from: those of immigrant students, Black children stuck in self-contained classes because of poorly written IEPs, and White families with children who struggled academically or socially. Caregivers of color stated that they didn't feel welcome at council or PTO meetings. In this case, they were grateful to have the floor. Principals must work with families to bring more voices and seats to the table.
By creating space for caregivers' agency in their kids' education, these talks exposed that the White middle-class norm does not have to be the standard by which we measure children's behavior, parents' engagement, and leaders' approaches. District leadership must be able to act on this understanding; too often, they react through self-interest or a fear of "rocking the boat."

Find Support

You cannot do this work in isolation, especially when juxtaposed against the system you seek to take on. I recommend building alliances with other educators of color and joining affinity groups. When you can, make joint public position statements; for example, fellow school leaders and I argued for family outreach coordinators. Engage in public relations campaigns to control the narrative about what equity means and looks like at your school. Do not underestimate the need for self-care. Be good to yourself physically and emotionally.
The great abolitionist and educator Frederick Douglass once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." U.S. public education has always prepared Black and Brown children to be and do less. I want freedom in all learning spaces for children who look like me to be and become their best selves. I have no choice but to agitate, no option but to plow up the soil and reimagine what sprouts. The added burden for Black social justice educators is that they can become casualties when perceived as a threat. We are fighting for our children's lives as well as our own. That is the price of progress, and I am willing to pay it.

Jamel Adkins-Sharif is a leadership coach, a professor of education leadership, and a former principal. His research focuses on justice oriented school leadership, coloniality in schools, and culturally sustaining educator support.

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