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Black Principals Network: A Case Study on Connection, Learning, and Growth

Updated: Feb 20


Background

Being a principal – and in particular, a Black principal – can be a challenging and isolating role. The Black Principals Network (BPN) is dedicated to supporting Black principals by providing opportunities for community, restoration, and professional development, and working towards liberation. 


The seeds of the program were planted in 2020, as Black school leaders were navigating the pandemic and a racial reckoning. “Black school leaders already are a big minority in school leadership spaces and were experiencing this in a more intense way because of the racial reckoning. They had to experience that and lead schools through it,” said TaraShaun Cain, executive director of BPN. BPN first served as a platform for resources but evolved as its home moved from Schusterman Family Philanthropies to the Surge Institute. BPN used this opportunity to reimagine its work and make it more sustainable. They hired the organization’s first two full-time staff who led focus groups and surveys to understand needs and opportunities, updated their mission and vision, and identified core principles to guide their work. Through this, they identified their goals for the community of practice: 1) create a space where principals could learn with and from each other, and 2) grow the network’s reach and sustainability. All of this would support their mission of providing principals with new ideas and tools to support teachers and students. 


The Leadership Collaborative

As BPN led focus groups with Black principals, they kept hearing a desire to be in community with one another, see what others are doing, and share resources with each other. The organization decided to pilot The Leadership Collaborative (TLC) from April to October of 2023. “The Gates community of practice provided the structure and feedback to help us fine tune the program and make our vision clear for what we wanted this cohort to be,” said Angia Kincey, program manager of BPN. The community of practice also provided activities, lesson plans, and examples (like how to create opportunities for participants to share knowledge with one another and highlight the successes and challenges of each organization) that BPN then adapted to use with the TLC cohort. TLC was made up of 20 Black school leaders across the U.S. The group gathered for 4 virtual sessions and 3 in-person sessions. As part of the program, members participated in a professional learner series, principal coaching (similar to executive coaching), teletherapy, and a “problem of practice.” In the “problem of practice,” participants identified a problem in their work they wanted to address through TLC. Those problems were grouped into 4-5 themes, and then in each session, they broke into small groups by theme so participants could work through those problems together. After every session, BPN distributed brief surveys, made real-time changes based on the feedback, and communicated those changes to participants. 


TLC participants shared formal and informal feedback that the program helped them deepen relationships, learning, and leadership. 90% of participants said they now have a sense of community that they didn't have before, 94% said their leadership abilities improved, and 72% of participants said they plan to stay in their jobs for another 2-5 years as a result of participating in the cohort. One participant said, “This was the first training/fellowship experience I've done and left every session more aware of myself, as a person and professional… and felt like my voice and perspective was equally as important as the next person, no matter charter, public, rural, urban, diverse, or otherwise in terms of school backgrounds that we serve.”


The program also encountered several challenges. For one, it was a big financial cost, which was aided by the community of practice grant for its pilot year. However, “as the glimmer of hope that existed because of the focus on equity after the racial reckoning after George Floyd, those funds are starting to rescind, and there are political challenges to finding funding in some places as well,” TaraShaun said. Another challenge was finding good times to meet because members lived across time zones and had different school calendars. Some participants struggled to get their superintendents to understand the program’s value and sign on to their participation. But one of the biggest challenges was making time to participate. The role of principals includes navigating emergencies. Throughout TLC, attendance was unpredictable as principals responded to last-minute emergencies and other urgent situations. For virtual sessions, BPN encouraged principals to take the day off and not go into their schools, to avoid being drawn into daily needs. 


Growing the Network

For its second goal, BPN focused on expanding its reach. When the two BPN staff members started, the majority of the 340 people on the listserv were inactive, and social media followers numbered below 40. The staff began tailoring the newsletters and social media content to the needs they heard in the focus groups and surveys. They established a consistent communications schedule so network members would stay looped in but not oversaturated. When they announced the Leadership Collaborative, they built off the momentum by highlighting and tagging each participant on LinkedIn so their networks would see the news and begin following BPN. They now have over 800 newsletter subscribers and over 1200 social media followers. “The community of practice changed our perspective around social networking, what it could be, and how we can use it to engage members,” Angia said. The community of practice also helped them learn from network consultant Amelia Pape about the “spectrum of engagement,” which BPN is now using to design a plan for how to meet network needs by tailoring offerings to each level of the spectrum.


Now, as they prepare to launch the second year of TLC, they are leveraging pilot participants to recruit from among their networks, interview applicants to the next cohort, and provide professional development sessions during the cohort and to the BPN network more broadly. “Alumni are serving as advocates and ambassadors and getting our brand out there,” TaraShaun said.


Paths Forward: Key Considerations and Advice

In the Leadership Collaborative’s pilot year, BPN learned several lessons that can apply to other cohort programs. 

  • Identify what data you want to collect early on. Though BPN distributed surveys after each TLC session, they realized after the fact that the surveys focused on qualitative data but didn’t gather enough quantitative data, which would have helped the network in grant applications to secure funding for the program’s second year. Community-of-practice sessions with the TA Results Lab lifted up new methods for collecting data, too. “I wish we would have had a better understanding of what we wanted them to walk away with and what we wanted to know based on their experience,” Angia said. “We could have done a pre-survey for baseline data, and asked the same questions again at the end.” 

  • Create affinity spaces. TLC provided space for participants to see their commonalities as well as the differences they faced depending on their gender; the social and political context of their community; whether they lead elementary, middle, or high school; and other factors. “Adults also need positive exposure to people in their role,” TaraShaun said. For example, the organization sees a big need for Black male school leaders to connect with one another and other Black male mentors. BPN realized affinity spaces could provide meaningful opportunities for subsets of the cohort to gather resources, ideas, inspiration, and support that ultimately helps them better support their students. See more in this blog post about the role of affinity spaces


BPN wrote a case study and reflection on the inaugural year of the Leadership Collaborative. Read it here.


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