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Scholars Examine How Principals Navigate Changing Demographics

A new paper that delves into how diversity in schools challenges the leadership of principals finds that school leaders, whether white or African-American, often doubt their ability to mediate the racial differences that crop up in their schools when student demographics shift.

Even so, there are major differences between the challenges that principals experience, depending on their race, the researchers found.

Specifically, white principals, rather than asserting their authority to create inclusive environments for all students and staff members, often turned to teachers of color in their buildings to help address issues related to students of color. Those teachers were often seen as the only ones responsible for children of color, addressing multicultural concerns with minority parents, and recruiting other minority teachers.

Black school leaders, on the other hand, found themselves pushing back against stereotypical roles in which they said they were perceived as being hired to handle discipline issues and not for their expertise in instruction. They often did take the responsibility for addressing racial differences with their white colleagues, but doubted how their decisions were received by those colleagues.

The study, by Jean Madsen, a professor at Texas A&M University, and Reitumetse Mabokela, a professor at Michigan State University, was recently published by Sage Publications on behalf of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The researchers interviewed principals and assistant principals from four elementary and three high schools. The three principals were white women. The four assistant principals were African-American. Three were men; one a woman.

The study was centered in four small, mostly white school districts that were part of a countywide voluntary desegregation plan. Those districts are seen in the broader metropolitan area where they are situated as having the best schools. Students from the neighborhing urban district—most of them  African-American—request transfers to the suburban schools, which receive additional funds if they retain the inner-city students.

Most of the education staff members in all seven schools were white. One of the elementary schools had two African-American teachers. There were no African-American principals in any of the four districts.

 

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