As we embark on Black History Month, it is important to illuminate the salience of high-quality leaders of color in schools across the country. Nationwide, only 10% of principals are Black, yet principals and leaders of color are essential to schools and further contribute to diversifying the teacher workforce.
Research shows that schools with more Black principals have higher percentages of Black teachers, increased student performance and increased enrollment of Black students in gifted programs. Far too often, schools, districts and CMOs with strong leaders of color are not uplifted and celebrated. Yet, Black innovation, intellect and excellence are interwoven into the very fabric of this country.
One such pillar of excellence in the education sector is a school in New Orleans, Louisiana, led by a visionary Black principal with pride and high expectations for roughly 15 years. Named for the visionary, activist, presidential advisor, leader and UNCF (United Negro College Fund) co-founder Mary McLeod Bethune, New Orleans’, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary Charter School has consistently made its mark in the city.
Driven by the phrase, “Where Great Minds Grow,” Bethune has consistently set high expectations and achieved positive academic gains for students. In the 2018-19 school year, Bethune received a “B” rating for student growth. The school, which enrolls 84% of disadvantaged students, also performed better than 65% of all Louisiana schools for African American students. Clearly performing above expectations, 93% of students in the school have zero out-of-school suspensions, allowing for more time in the classroom.
From One Mary to Another
Like Mary McLeod Bethune, the current principal, Mary Haynes-Smith has been a leader and a fierce advocate for students in New Orleans for many years. In fact, in 2014 she received the Orleans Public Education Network’s (OPEN) most distinguished annual award, the Enduring Impact Award for leading the work to help the school consistently achieve high test scores for low-income students.
In a video from The Education Trust, she explains that she “truly believes that every child can learn.” This sentiment undergirds the mission and belief of Bethune: Increase academic success by promoting educational development for all learners.
Setting High Expectations
Bethune is serious about setting high expectations for all students. In an environment where African American students disproportionately experience the belief gap, it’s important to set high expectations at an early age in elementary school. Having a strong group of teachers and leaders of color may also contribute to elevating expectations as recent research has shown evidence of systemic bias in teacher expectations for Black students. Non-Black teachers were found to have lower expectations of Black students than Black teachers.
Perhaps one reason the school has seen much progress is due to their intentional efforts to ensure the staff is not only qualified but also reflective of the student body. Bethune students are 97% African American, and 93% of teachers are African American as well (this is well above the national average of 7% for African American teachers).
This is especially important because decades of research have shown that Black teachers have a positive influence on black students. Also, almost 70% of Bethune’s classes are taught by an appropriately certified teacher. We know teachers matter—they are essential to creating a positive learning environment for students and Bethune believes in and invests in their teachers.
‘Basic Isn’t’ Good Enough, Mastery Must be Pursued’
As we celebrate the vast contributions of Black people across the country, let’s commit to uplifting strong pillars in the Black community like Bethune Elementary. Black principals matter. Strong schools that set high expectations for all students matter. Bethune’s motto—“Basic Isn’t’ Good Enough, Mastery Must be Pursued”—should serve as a model to other schools that seek to set high expectations for all students.