We need school leaders who reflect the students they serve

We need school leaders who reflect the students they serve

Gerald Boyd, principal of IDEA Hardy, with some of his students. Courtesy of IDEA Public Schools

This article originally appeared on Chalkbeat

Most educators can pinpoint a moment in their lives when they realize what impact they want to make on their students’ lives. Many take inspiration from Nelson Mandela, who once said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Those words continue to echo loudly, especially as we take a moment to reflect on Black History Month and celebrate the contributions and achievements made by those in our community and across the country.

Gerald Boyd  Courtesy of IDEA Public Schools

As the executive principal at IDEA Hardy, a high-performing Houston public charter school, I share the same sentiment as so many of my fellow educators: to help students achieve success and change the world. However, what is severely lacking in our education system is leaders in our schools who reflect the population of the students they serve.

Let me tell you why this is so important.

I am from Houston and was the first in my family to graduate high school and attend college. When I got to the University of Texas at Austin, alongside 10 of my high school classmates, I saw first-hand the inequities in access and quality of education. During my first semester, eight of us were put on academic probation, and four years later, only two of us — myself included — graduated. This showed me that we didn’t have the tools and resources to succeed, and without support, most of us had lost faith that we could be successful.

In my second year at UT Austin, I joined the elite Black Greek lettered organization, Kappa Alpha Psi. For the first time, I witnessed young, Black men achieve. One of our brothers graduated from Harvard Law School and another graduated from Nebraska Law. When I saw them succeed, I believed I could, too. This inspired me to join Teach For America after finishing college to teach in my hometown of Houston.

Fast forward a few years, I am proud to have been one of the first principals in IDEA Public Schools to achieve an “A” school rating from the Texas Education Agency, in San Antonio, Texas, at IDEA Mays.

I made the decision to run two schools 15-minutes away from where I grew up. Since this is where I was raised, I understand what many of the students in my community are up against because I’ve experienced much of it myself. Many students in second grade were reading at a kindergarten level, but I knew that with the right support and intervention, they’d be able to succeed. Part of that means being able to show my kids what success looks like, and that it is within reach for them, too.

However, few schools across the country have diverse teaching workforces that represent the student bodies they serve. For instance, recent federal data shows that 79% of public school teachers were white, and less than 7% were Black. Public charter schools in Texas, however, employ significantly more teachers of color than traditional district schools. For instance, about 1 in 4 charter teachers are Black compared to 1 in 25 teachers at district schools.

Students of color need to know that success is possible for them, which cannot happen if we are sidelining educators of color. It should be a top priority to support educators of color determined to pay it forward. That is how we can help the next generation of leaders of color thrive.

We need to make sure that educators of color have mentors who can uplift them and that our leadership teams are diverse. This past year, I was proud to train school leaders on what it means to lead a school and a community. Mentorship like this ensures more leaders of color can succeed and uplift others. Our educators should feel empowered to bring their identities and their stories to their jobs to show up for themselves and our kids. This means that our teachers can talk openly about difficult topics in their classrooms, and our students know that they can turn to their teachers and school leaders for guidance.

Additionally, flexibility around teacher certification — a long, expensive process that research shows doesn’t lead to higher student achievement — would also help more educators of color enter the profession. This would remove the barriers that make it more difficult for people of color to become teachers. Take a look at Texas. Public charter schools here, along with traditional school districts that apply to be Districts of Innovation, are able to hire non-certified teachers in certain subjects and provide them with high-quality training throughout their careers.

As this year’s Black History Month comes to an end and we think about ways to better foster equity in all parts of society, we cannot forget about the classroom. When our children walk into the school building, they should see themselves reflected in their teachers, their principals, and their school staff. But it is going to take more than individual educators to make systems change. We must all be committed to ensuring that every student has the necessary tools and opportunities to flourish.

The turning point in my college career was when I witnessed other Black students and leaders around me achieving things that I had not imagined possible for myself. We must prioritize our students of color by empowering educators who have walked in their shoes and whom they can look to for inspiration and guidance.

The future generation is counting on us.

Gerald Boyd is the executive principal, IDEA Hardy in Houston.

New Program Will Train More Black Men to Become Preschool Teachers

New Program Will Train More Black Men to Become Preschool Teachers

Early Learning Director Kahlil Mwaafrika gives a presentation at Crispus Attucks High School. Provided by Blake Nathan


After teaching for more than 20 years, Kahlil Mwaafrika said he’s used to being an anomaly in urban Indianapolis schools. As an adjunct professor of early childhood education at IUPUI, only a handful of his hundreds of students are Black men.

“There’s very few people who look like me in buildings,” he said.

So in early 2018, he started working on a program to recruit, train, and place Black men as Indianapolis preschool teachers.

Mwaafrika brought his idea to Blake Nathan, CEO of the Educate ME Foundation, an organization that works to diversify the national teaching population by recruiting and retaining educators of color. Earlier this year, Mwaafrika and Nathan formed the idea into a program called Educate ME Early and partnered with Early Learning Indiana to create 50 two-year fellowships for men of color.

They hope to address the barriers that discourage men of color from working as preschool teachers, including a lack of representation in preschool classrooms and the misconception that teaching preschool is like a babysitting job.

Early Learning Indiana is providing funding for Educate ME to give fellows up to $1,000 in stipends throughout the two-year commitment. Once the fellows complete training and begin working, they’ll be paid $10-14 per hour. Educate ME will place fellows at Early Learning Indiana’s nine child care centers before staffing other sites.

Brittany Krier, chief strategy officer for Early Learning Indiana, said early learning teachers have an “unparalleled opportunity for impact” by working with students in the most formative years of their lives. The organization has been looking to diversify educators while trying to recruit more preschool teachers in general.

“As a field, we have some work to do to welcome more men, and more men of color, into the profession overall,” Krier said. She views this program as a starting point in the push to make Indiana teachers more reflective of their students.

It’s not clear how many Indianapolis preschool teachers are Black, since the state doesn’t track that data. But among full-time K-12 educators statewide, almost 93% are white, according to the state’s education department. Nearly 30% of students in Indiana are people of color, however, creating a disconnect in representation.

In early childhood education, 36% of the nationwide workforce are people of color. In Indiana, that number drops to 14%, according to a press release from Early Learning Indiana. Of Indiana’s some 30,000 early childhood educators, 7% are men.

This poses a challenge for both students and people of color, especially men, who are considering becoming teachers.

“It’s difficult to recruit young Black men if they don’t see themselves represented in the field,” Nathan said.

Preschool teacher Zachary Ferguson has been working at Day Early Learning in Fort Harrison for eight years. Of his 20 co-workers, only one is a man. He advises Black men who might be hesitant about entering the field to “take a chance.”

“I think we just have to strive to do better for our kids,” Ferguson said.

Becoming an early learning educator in Indiana requires much less training than for other grade levels, Mwaafrika said, making it easier to enter the field. But this also contributes to a stigma that can discourage people from considering early childhood education as a career.

Nathan said people often view it as a babysitting job. He hopes this program will help show people the benefits of working with children and the impact they can make. If a Black student has at least one Black teacher in grades three, four, or five, they are more likely to graduate high school, according to a 2017 study by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.

Black educators can influence students of other ethnicities as well by “opening their cultural lenses,” Nathan said.

“Other races need to see African American teachers in the classroom that are well-educated and very competent in their instruction,” he said.

The Educate ME Early fellows start with an orientation through Early Learning Indiana and a state-required 12-hour training on topics including safety, curriculum, and discipline and child development. The candidates will spend their first year co-leading a classroom and can work as a lead teacher in their second year.

The program also offers a network of support for the new teachers, which Nathan believes is an important step toward keeping them in the field. Educate ME matches the fellows with mentors and connects them with other men going through the program.

The recruitment process has been slowed down by the coronavirus. When Nathan and Mwaafrika started accepting applications in Januarythey went into schools and organizations to meet people face-to-face. The state’s stay-at-home order forced them to move recruitment online.

Now they’re about a quarter of the way toward their 50-person goal, Mwaafrika said, and are accepting applications on a rolling basis.

While the program offers an opportunity for people who have been laid off due to the economic recession, Nathan said, they “still want people that have it in their heart to want to make a difference and change lives.”

One of the new fellows, Damani Gibson, said he has always enjoyed working with children, and he’s excited about the impact he could have on young students’ lives.

“Sometimes it just takes that one person to say ‘Hey, you can do this, you can do that, I’m here with you, I’m here to walk these steps with you to get you to where you want to be,’” he said.