Beyond Diversity to Equity & Opportunity

May 5, 2015

by Irma Zardoya, President and CEO, NYC Leadership Academy.

The events this year in Baltimore, New York City and Ferguson have strengthened my firm belief that schools are one of the most important places where we can change the tide of racial inequities and build a country that truly embraces each human being having equal and inalienable rights.

This week I will have the opportunity to participate in the NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF) Summit 2015 — a venue that challenges participants to transform public education so that all children have the opportunity to succeed. I’m particularly pleased that the Summit will continue its focus on diversifying education leadership. The consecutive focus this year from last year’s theme demonstrates an understanding that school leadership matters and changing deeply engrained practice extends well beyond a once-and-doneconvening.

Leadership Matters
If we’re serious about making a difference for students, we will need to move the diversity conversation to one about equity and opportunity. Too many students have been — and are still being — denied opportunities to learn and have access to quality education. However, establishing the conditions and expectations that provide students with the opportunities to be successful start at the top. The decisions leaders make permeate every aspect of a school - from its beliefs systems, kinds of resources available, caliber of teachers, to the interactions with students and parents or guardians.

Leadership is the critical lever and greatest multiplier for improving schools. Our organization alone affects the achievement of tens of thousands of students across the country in a single year as a result of our singular focus on building leadership capacity. While recruiting and hiring for diversity in leadership are essential, developing and supporting leaders is just as vital for student success. This includes residency programs that, like medical residencies, allow aspiring leaders to experience real-life conditions under the supervision of veteran educators. It also includes leadership pipelines that promote advancement and continuous opportunities for professional learning and growth.

Vulnerability as Strength
Effective leadership sets the tone and standard for how teachers, parents and students view and support the most vulnerable students. Are students viewed for their untapped potential and talents or their challenges and circumstances? How school leaders and their staff answer this question makes all the difference. When adults in the school firmly believe allstudents can learn and achieve and then provide opportunities to do it, students thrive.

I believe Brené Brown’s scheduled NSVF Summit keynote speech will resonate for those of us working to develop and support leaders for the never-ending challenges of their roles. Ms. Brown’s research has helped thousands of leaders learn how to turn the most challenging situations into opportunities for personal and professional growth. I relate to this personally and professionally.

My sister and I were the only Puerto Ricans in our Bronx high school of 800 students. We and four other Latina students were all there on scholarship. Suffice it to say the school didn’t exactly embrace diversity, nor did they actively support my quest to pursue scholarship opportunities and entrance to the college of my dreams. Luckily, I shared my mother and father’s drive to not give up. But too many kids — as I’ve observed throughout my career in multiple positions in public education — don’t have that kind of parental support or role models and educators who push them to confront societal and organizational barriers to their success.

Change the Trajectory
My own educational experience, as a student and an educator, instilled in me a desire to find tangible ways to give back to my community. Becoming a bilingual teacher set me on the road to help children who may not have had the advocates or support systems to experience academic success, and yet had exceptional talents to develop and the dreams to follow. These experiences fuel my passion for my work. I am grateful to be a part of an organization that is committed to building school leaders’ capacity and equity, and most importantly to improving the lives of our most vulnerable students. Whether in Philadelphia, New York, or Cleveland, our goals never waiver.

Having recently participated in the U.S. Department of Education’s “Our Students, Our Leaders: Increasing the Diversity of Education Leadership” initiative, I appreciate meetings that go beyond talking about change. All 50-plus education leaders left with action plans — to better support leaders who come from communities of color, have grown-up in lower income communities, and/or are first generation college attendees to be successful as they move through the leadership pipeline assuming positions of greater responsibilities that were previously inaccessible.

The NSVF Summit 2015 has a similar action-oriented agenda and mindset. I look forward to collaborating with passionate, fellow educators and entrepreneurs dedicated to restoring education’s role as the ideal equalizer in America. Together we can create a cadre of school leaders prepared to advance equity and opportunity for all students in every school.