Molly Cole, founding principal of Brooke East Boston Charter School, was honored this school year with the Ryan Award for exceptional school leadership, a national award that honors urban principals who are closing the achievement gap.
Cole, who has moved on to a different role with the Brooke Charter Schools network, started Brooke East Boston in 2012 as a replication of the original Brooke Charter School, where she had been a teacher.
Cole opened Brooke East Boston with the belief that every child should receive an academically rigorous public education that will prepare them to succeed in college and beyond—regardless of zip code or socioeconomic status. Under Cole’s leadership, students at Brooke East Boston performed alongside the top schools in the state of Massachusetts, ranking No. 1 for K-8 schools on state math exams, and in the top 12 percent in English and language arts.
I recently had the chance to talk with Molly about school leadership, empowering teachers and closing the achievement gap.
When I was in Boston, I was amazed by how many Dunkin’ Donuts the city managed to put on a corner. Are you a loyal customer? Coffee or tea? And how do you like it?
I love Dunkin’ Donuts! Coffee—just milk!
You started teaching through Teach For America as a first grade teacher in North Carolina. TFA gets a lot of criticism—one of the talking points being that teachers often don’t stay in the classroom after their two-year commitment. What motivated you to stay in the classroom?
Through teaching in North Carolina, I was able to see first hand the negative impact of the achievement gap. I pursued a graduate degree in education policy because I wanted to learn more about what was being done to fix this massive social justice problem. Though there is much work to be done around education policy, I returned to the classroom because I knew that I could make a direct impact on students as a teacher.
In the week before opening Brooke East Boston Charter School in 2012, the basement that housed the kindergarten, and the gym flooded with sewage. How did you not absolutely lose it?!
Ha! It was not the prettiest moment—but I laughed and stayed at school with some fantastic co-workers to ensure that the classrooms were clean and ready for our founding kindergarten class on Monday!
A lot of teachers talk about the lack of professional development, in your path to becoming founding principal, how did you access opportunities for leadership development?
I was able to learn a great deal from fellow Brooke principals and the Network Co-Director, Kimberly Steadman. I would observe lessons and debriefs with them, analyze data with them and flood them with hundreds of questions. I was so lucky to have had their mentorship during my fellowship year!
Under your leadership, students at Brooke East Boston performed alongside the top schools in the state of Massachusetts, ranking No. 1 for K-8 schools on state math exams, and in the top 12 percent in English and language arts. How did you do it?
The teachers at Brooke East Boston! I truly believe that great teaching can close the achievement gap. I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by teachers who work relentlessly to do right by their students and come to work each day eager to get better. They deserve all of the credit.
In leading Brooke East Boston, two of your top priorities were positive classroom culture and relationship-building. With a school that serves primarily students of color and families who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, how do you confront the potential for bias, implicit or explicit?
As a predominantly White staff, we have spent time during professional development exploring bias. We understand that the foundation for any conversation we have should be respect for each other, our students and their families, as well as our school. We have also made the commitment as a staff to ensure that student feels known, cared for and academically challenged.
You just received the Ryan Award for exceptional school leadership, a national award that honors urban principals who are closing the achievement gap, what do you think people in education need to get over for more students to succeed?
I think we need to create more schools like Brooke, where the focus is on great teaching, high behavioral expectations and strong relationships with students. Teachers need to be revered, trusted and supported to continually improve. We need to create classrooms where teachers not only can work to challenge their students academically but also make each student feel known and valued.
If, in addition to being surprised with the Ryan Award, you were surprised with a three-day paid break to rest and recuperate, what would you do?
I’d love to spend time on Cape Cod with my family!