One day I was sitting in a shared office with my teammate, Jessica. We had just returned from our monthly leadership meeting and were talking about the concept of distributed leadership. Shared leadership was the model our district was moving towards under the leadership of the new superintendent. His vision was simple but revolutionary: to reinvent school management by dismantling the hierarchy. In this vision, managers no longer had to be “omniscient”, and shared responsibility was encouraged, a new practice none of us had experienced before.
To better understand this template, we delved into some readings to see how we could customize it for our school community. After a relaxed stroll on Twitter, Jessica and I stumbled upon Leadership with Latoya, a podcast that explores a variety of leadership topics. In one of the episodes, Latoya discussed the lessons she learned from co-directing.
At that point, it became clear: we could rethink Pershing Primary School by implementing a co-principality model.
It seemed drastic 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 bestowed on us by our superintendent and the support of teachers, staff and parents in our district?
The decision to pursue this new model could not have come at a better time. My school needed a radical change to increase academic performance and enrollment and revitalize the sense of pride, confidence and joy in the school and in our surrounding community. With the right engines in place, our school would become a school 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 to be the person I am today. Coincidentally, I happen to be an alumnus of the same school district where I am now co-principal. So, as you can see, my desire to serve this community is personal.
I know firsthand some of the experiences my students will have as a result of their postcode. The University City School District is minutes from Ferguson and located on Delmar Boulevard, one of the most racially divided neighborhoods in St. Louis, Missouri. At the same time, my school district has produced remarkable graduates who have made an impact around the world:
- Dr Hadiyah-Nicole Green, a medical physicist who developed a cancer treatment using laser-activated nanoparticles;
- Ambassador Virginia E. Palmer, US diplomat and former US Ambassador to Malawi;
- Wiley Price, award-winning photojournalist; and,
- Tennessee Williams, playwright and screenwriter who wrote A tram named Désir.
Needless to say, the 267 students at my school are part of an elite group.
As a child, I loved being in school. I can remember the names of all my teachers, and to this day, if I meet any of them, I am kissed with the same love I felt in grade 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 it filled me with a sense of security and stability. I have seen role models every day and have been pushed to be the best version of myself. I cannot express how grateful I am to every teacher who has supported my development, and these experiences have undoubtedly influenced my practice as an educator.
I remember a conversation I had when I was a substitute teacher before I became co-principal. During recess, another teacher approached me. During the conversation, she learned that I was an alumnus of the school. Then, out of nowhere, she said:
“You know, Daniel Boone has always been the worst performing school in the district. ”
I was shocked. His words seemed like a punch to my soul. I immediately felt the need to defend my experience, but at that point, I didn’t have the words to respond. Finally, I managed to say, “Really ?! I did not know.
This conversation has been playing in my mind since that day and has had an impact on what I previously thought about my school community. I had no idea, and for that, I was grateful.
Subconsciously, this fueled my desire to work in the same neighborhood that educated and served me. Therefore, I thought it was important to change the discourse for our students today and to rethink our school with community and collective leadership in mind.
Stay true to the process
There was no roadmap for the future that my fellow co-director and I were trying to create. So we had no choice but to trust the process, trust ourselves and rely on the dedicated members of our community to bring this overhaul to life.
After completing 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’ve had a few 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 led community think tanks. We invited five to seven families to discuss their hopes and dreams for their children. During our initial invitation, some families were initially surprised that we asked them for their opinion. They had never been invited to participate in the decision-making processes of the school in this way. What should have been a 30 minute conversation went on for hours. We have learned that our entire school community benefits from the expansion of the community we serve and not just the students themselves.
- Student contribution: Towards the end of the school year, we started to conduct empathy talks with the students. The students shared their feelings on a wide variety of topics. One student shared, “We need a rap fight club so that the students don’t have to fight. »Rap fights? What a good idea ?! Another of our first victories 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 be done, our awesome Garden Leader shares what the students can do to make sure our garden thrives. Through empathy interviews, we looked at the innate intelligence of our students by combining their interests with the resources of the school.
As a result of these changes, students are empowered to make their voices heard, entrusting their co-supervisors to take their thoughts into consideration. What started out as a pilot proposal grew into what the students needed, what the community needed, and what I needed.
This overhaul allowed me to reward my district for providing me with a positive school experience that protected me from the harsh realities of the world. My only hope is to continue to co-create a space that protects and empowers the students I serve.