Observations, wonderings and tools on leadership and equity from the NYC Leadership Academy’s staff of school and district leadership experts.

Let’s lead

On June 20, I had the honor of being a keynote speaker at the Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Leadership Learning Tour. I spoke to a room full of principals and district leaders about four questions critical to educational leadership

The secret to a strong plan: Making it doable

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” These words are as true today as when poet Robert Burns wrote them hundreds of years ago. In schools, good planning articulates a vision for student success. Throughout my career as an educator, I have engaged in strategic planning. Curriculum mapping is strategic planning. School improvement planning is strategic planning.  To make real progress, schools and school districts need a plan.

Leaders must be allies for undocumented students

The fear in the town of Morristown, Tennessee, was palpable. A day after immigration agents raided a meatpacking plant there a few weeks ago, more than 500 young people stayed home from school. For many, they thought they would be safer at home than in school.

How do you take on bias in your school? Practice.

Simulations have long been used to give professionals a chance to practice responding to various tasks and challenges. They allow medical students to sharpen surgical skills and military pilots to practice flying in combat. They have also proven valuable in education.

CEO Irma Zardoya on the National School Walkout

Something beautiful and inspirational happened yesterday in schools across America. Students were given a voice, and the world listened.

Don't let fear interfere with equity

Becoming the superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools several years ago put me on a racial equity journey that forever changed who I am as an educational leader. All this while I embarked on my own racial equity journey. This work takes time--it was after five years that changes really started to stick. We must wake up our educational systems that have not been developed to serve our incredible diverse group of students for the 21st Century.

Keeping schools calm and carrying on despite threats

Since the Parkland shooting, threats to schools across the country have increased exponentially. Each threat leaves in its wake frightened teachers, administrators, families, and children. The responsibility of allaying these fears so that learning can continue sits squarely with the district leader and her team. In our years of supporting and developing school and district leaders, one of our foundational teachings has been that leaders set the tone.Learn more about what this looks like in practice.

Black history is not a month, it’s a key to dismantling inequities

It’s Black History Month. 28 short days. We also need to celebrate Groundhog’s Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day and Ash Wednesday. It’s a set-up. It’s not possible for anyone to learn the long, painful, complicated, beautiful, resilient and magical history of being Black in the United States in 28 days.

Every school system needs an equity guardian

Intentionality. Without it, you’ll never make sure every child has access to the resources they need to learn and grow. It is what drives my position as Executive Director of Equity and Access for the Newburgh Enlarged City School District in New York State. My team and I anchor equity in every department in the district, from curriculum and instruction to human resources to community engagement.

Equity takes time, and a leadership pipeline

It doesn’t matter where your school is in this country, we can guarantee you that inequities exist. To truly tackle inequities requires transformative leaders who have the courage to make and manage change and mobilize others toward that change. This takes time, it requires building and nurturing relationships, gathering support from the community, taking risks that come with hard conversations, and creating a learning environment that supports people in changing long-held behaviors and beliefs.


Racial tensions are a critical part of public discourse that cannot be ignored. Because schools are central to our communities, they can play an important role in grappling with and addressing the issues race relations bring. #EquityReads2017 offers a list of some of the books, articles, speeches, and films about racial equity that our staff members found compelling and useful in our work in 2017. Most of these works are new, some are not but are worth revisiting. We have recommended many of these to the school and school systems leaders we work with, and hope it will be useful to you as you plan your work for 2018.

How high school almost held me back

On September 3, 1985, all that I believed about myself as a learner was shattered. It was my first day as a student at Bernard M. Baruch College. I was thrilled to be there, and even more excited that I did not have to take remedial courses. I was ready.

Using mentors to raise students’ expectations of themselves

Two high school principals have taken an innovative approach to addressing inequities in their schools. Seeking to reach the young men who often cut school, arrived hours late, struggled academically, ran out the door as soon as the bell rang rather than take advantage of after school programs, Principal Terri Grey of Bronx High School for Writing and Communication Arts and Principal Kim Swanson of of Life Sciences Secondary School established innovative mentoring and arts programs. 

Leading A Trauma-Sensitive School: Supporting Our Students in Challenging Times

Nearly half of all American children have experienced trauma, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). By the time today’s students reach adulthood, 72% of them will have experienced some form of trauma. Trauma has many causes, including poverty, abuse, and neglect. In the last few months children across the country have lost their homes, or their loves ones, to hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, mass shootings. Some young people are helplessly watching as immigration laws change and threaten to deport them and their family members.  School and district leaders must be ready to support children facing trauma with a compassionate and research-informed response. Adults cannot erase a child’s memory of trauma, but we can work to develop trauma-sensitive schools. Here are some steps every principal or school system leader can take to develop a supportive environment for children who have experienced trauma.

Teachers learn to see their students, and expect more of them

It’s the million-dollar question: How do we close the opportunity gaps that challenge so many of our schools and communities? Last year, three of those principals, at two high schools and a middle school in New York City, put in place innovative solutions that, after just a few months, started to bring about real change: In some cases, students’ grades and attendance improved, discipline incidents dropped, and fewer teachers left at the end of the year. In our first of two blogs detailing the work at these schools (which was supported by a grant from the Booth Ferris Foundation), we share the work of Principal Doris Lee of Village Academy, a middle school in Far Rockaway, Queens. Lee focused her efforts on professional learning for teachers.

Celebrating the power of leaders

October is National Principals Month. While at the NYC Leadership Academy, every day is devoted to school leaders and supporting them in doing this hard work, I am thrilled to use this month to share the stories of principals doing exceptional work, who put their students first and commit tireless energy and resources to supporting their staff in making every day about doing their best for students.

Secret to my success: How I defied expectations and teach leaders to do the same

I didn’t know I was supposed to be a failure until I was in college, and at that point it was too late for them to make me fail. As a lifelong educator, my mission has been to shield children from the dirty secret that poor children of color, children like I was, are not expected to succeed. Leading is not about doing what’s easiest or avoiding conflict, it’s about doing what’s best for the children.

Taking time to trouble whiteness

We are in a critical moment in America, one that places urgent demands on us as educators to consider how we trouble whiteness. To trouble whiteness is to unsettle it, to disturb its naturalness as a way of being or seeing the world that purports to be superior. I have seen school leaders take a couple of critical leadership moves with their staff – teachers, cafeteria workers, office support, building maintenance, security guards – to trouble whiteness, taking on these tough conversations and creating steps for change.

How to be an anti-racism school system leader

This weekend our country experienced an act of terrorism in Charlottesville as a car plowed into a group of protesters bravely speaking out against the white supremacists who marched through the city, tragically killing one young woman and injuring 19 others. With a new school year beginning, school system leaders are consumed by school walkthroughs, student admissions, professional development, and envisioning the best first day for students and staff. However, if your plans do not include how you will speak about and give space for others to speak about the events of Charlottesville, you have become part of the problem. To be a school system leader in our country today means to actively combat racism in and outside of our schools. The future of our country depends on the example we set and how we teach our children.

Building principal pipelines is worth the price – and might cost less than you think

School systems need strong leadership pipelines, yet many shy away from the hard work and, more to the point, the expense of creating systems that will develop and support school leaders. Last week, the RAND Corporation released a fascinating analysis of just how much it costs to develop and maintain a principal pipeline. The researchers analyzed the work of six urban school districts that, with support from The Wallace Foundation over the last several years, have developed and/or improved their principal pipelines. My hope is that these findings grab the attention of districts and states and shows them that creating a principal pipeline is a sound, and potentially affordable investment.

The Power of Leaders

Anyone who works in education knows that great principals can have a significant impact on their students. Yet, in Washington right now, school leadership preparation is under attack. The Trump administration has proposed eliminating Title II, Part A, the very program that sends funds to states to support and train teachers, assistant principals and principals. Their reason? They say there is not enough evidence that these programs work.

So we decided to go into the schools of a few of the principals who have gone through the NYC Leadership Academy’s Aspiring Principal Program. We wanted to hear directly from students how their principals -- Wanda Vazquez, Dr. Reginald Landeau, and Seung Yu -- trained by our research-based standards-aligned program, have made a difference in their lives, and what these principals have been doing to affect students.

Executive coaching can transform principals into system-level leaders

Leaving the principalship a few years ago was bittersweet for me. I loved my job. I was invigorated by my learning community’s focus on entrepreneurial leadership and personalized learning. I adored the students, parents, and colleagues with whom I worked. And I felt successful in every sense of the word. But too many kids in this country attend failing and uninspired schools, and I wanted to learn how to change that. I was leaving the principalship to pursue a doctoral degree at Harvard and begin the work of system level leadership. One of the most beneficial components of my doctoral program was receiving one-on-one executive coaching. Without question, executive coaching enabled me to become a better coach, facilitator, and leader, and I now strive to provide a comparable experience for others.

Thoughtfully designing meetings for school leaders

The end of the school year is quickly approaching, and for those who support school leaders, it's time to figure out what kind of professional learning you will offer this summer and next year. Planning now, while your observations and ideas are fresh, will make for the best learning and help ensure that every moment school leaders are pulled out of their buildings is worthwhile. As you consider your own observations of school leaders' strengths and gaps in performance, ask the leaders what they think they need. Challenge them to think not about the skill or expertise they want to develop, but rather the skill or expertise their school needs them to develop. Good professional learning is about both what is taught and how it is delivered. By taking the time to plan in advance, meetings will be better designed to meet the unique needs of leaders.  

Working together, researchers and practitioners can address education’s intractable challenges

Tough questions come up every day in education. Last week we had the privilege to spend a few days among some of the best minds in education – researchers, who convened for the 2017 American Educational Research Association convention. While their work is not often enough at the forefront of conversations about education policy and practice, it was clear how critical it is for practitioners and researchers to work together to confront education’s many challenges.

Teaching our kids to talk about race takes strong leadership

Teaching our kids to talk about race takes strong leadership

“It’s okay to be uncomfortable, it’s okay to take risks. You have the power to do something about the injustice you see.” I recently heard statements like this in two very different ends of our education system. First, two NYC Leadership Academy coaches facilitated discussions aimed at building skills for talking about race with a group of aspiring principals in New York City. A few days later, my son’s fifth grade teacher said those exact words to her students and their families during the culmination of a months-long study of black civil rights movements in America.

Washington Plays Critical Role in Improving School Leadership: An Open Letter to Secretary DeVos and Congress

President Trump’s proposal to cut $9 billion from the U.S. Department of Education, particularly his call to eliminate all funding for the Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, a.k.a., Title II, Part A, removes the federal government from the business of school leader development. This move goes against everything we know about what makes schools great. I am writing to urge you to consider the critical role the federal government plays in assuring that all schools around the country, charter and district, particularly schools in need of tremendous improvement, have strong leaders at the helm.

Leading with courage, ensuring demography is not destiny

A fellow principal once called me “brave” for accepting the call to lead a school in East San Jose, California. Not because of the academic challenges that existed but because, in her words, it was a “scary” place. This primarily Mexican-American school community was located just two blocks from where I was raised, and where my mother and family continue to live today. On my very first day as a teacher, a colleague who learned I had grown up in the community asked me how many of my siblings or cousins were locked up or drugged out.

Perceptions are powerful. They shape educators’ beliefs about students’ trajectories.

Making Every Child Visible

Making Every Child Visible

No child deserves to be seen as a statistic, to be known simply for the color of her skin or her country of origin. At the NYC Leadership Academy, we believe that every one of our students needs educators who know and honor them for all of their complexities and individualities.

Talking About Race

Much of coaching is about surfacing what might be difficult to take in or hard to say. To coach is often to voice feedback, observing behaviors, calling them out, and working with leaders to explore the impact that their decisions, their actions, and their words, have on others. I often describe the role of the coach as someone who “holds the mirror up,” reflecting back inescapable truths for the purpose of promoting self-insight and, ultimately, self-directed change on the part of the coachee.


From the presidential debate podiums to city streets across America, 2016 was a year of heated discussion and protest about race and culture and the disparities and policies that divide them. Schools, of course, were not immune to these conversations and tensions. As we consider how we can talk about and act on inequities in education in the New Year, we are grateful to have an extensive bank of resources to look to for learning and inspiration.

The Self I Bring: Leading for Racial Equity is Personal

My work in school leadership is personal. When I moved to the U.S. from Ghana at age 10, I came with messaging from my family and community that nothing was impossible for me. The adults in my life -- my village -- believed in me, had high expectations for me.

Increasing the Equity Divide, One Low Expectation at a Time

District leaders, how are you ensuring that low expectations for student outcomes are not plaguing the school system and the stakeholders you are charged with leading?

No More Missed Opportunities

I was presenting at a conference on NYCLA’s recent work around equity when, part way through my presentation, a woman raised her hand and said, “As a white woman, when you use the term ‘social justice,’ that gives me an out to not talk about race.”

School District Leaders - Say Something

Your school leaders need to hear your voice. The results of our presidential election have created tension in communities across the country. There are likely a variety of opinions among your school leaders, among your teachers, among your students, and among your families—even in places you would expect to be of like mind.


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