Celebrating Heritage and History

In this Principals’ Voices in School Equity blog post, a principal explains his strategies to bring staff, students, and families together to form a more culturally responsive school community.

History is marred with hate, intolerance, violence, and exclusionary practices that have alienated and suppressed groups of people based on their race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. In recent years, our country has crossed the threshold of social reckoning to address and confront these historical inequities and injustices. So what role do schools play in helping society heal and move forward from generations of hardship and struggle?

Schools, especially elementary schools, must play a central and pivotal role in helping to correct society’s failure to uphold equitable practices for all. Elementary schools have an obligation and a responsibility to influence the perspectives of children in their formative years.

Understanding History

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial unrest following the murder of George Floyd, I—an elementary school principal—focused on an initiative with my colleagues at my school to take a deep dive into social justice. As a school of professionals, we all needed a history lesson.

Our school is close to Washington, D.C., where the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016. On the first day of school for staff, we all took a field trip to the museum—the only national museum dedicated exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, history, and culture—to gain a deeper understanding of the stories, contributions, and struggles of African Americans that are an integral part of U.S. history. The trip was a powerful example of being able to gain a wider perspective beyond one’s self so we all can have a positive and meaningful impact on our students regardless of their background and race.

Equitable Access and Diverse Staff

Ensuring equitable access to meaningful content is well within our control as school administrators. Using concrete data to inform instruction, principals have the ability to ensure students have meaningful academic opportunities. Ask yourself:

  • Are your classrooms diverse?
  • Do students see faculty and staff that look like them?
  • Are you providing acceleration opportunities for all students?
  • Is there a process of constant evaluation of student achievement?

In my school, we regularly look at our performance data. We ensure there are mixed abilities in our classrooms and that our classrooms are as diverse as our school. Furthermore, I work hard each year in the summer to focus on hiring the most talented and qualified teachers while focusing on ensuring that our staff reflects the same diversity of our student population and community.

Spotlight on Heritage and History

As a launching point to leading a more culturally responsive school, plan and celebrate monthly heritage recognitions such as Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, and Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, Pride Month in June, and Hispanic Heritage Month from September to October. Look for ways to weave in these lessons year-round, too. (Pro tips: This is a great opportunity to engage with families, too. Plus, students are proud to share about their culture, so give them a platform to share their stories with the student peers.)

Provide opportunities to evaluate the content taught and the resources available in your library and school. Ask yourself:

  • Do you have a wide variety of literature that represents all of your students? You, as the principal, can provide funding to purchase diverse literature for classroom teachers and for the library.
  • Are teachers in your school choosing content and books that reflect your students? If your school is not diverse, are the teachers in your school choosing content and books that reflect the makeup of our country?

Think about how powerful it is when your students see examples of themselves in the stories and content that they read in class. It’s a simple thing that will have a large impact on your students, their view of the classroom and school, and the bigger picture of our society. And it gives all students the exposure to stories that might be different from their own backgrounds, allowing them to learn more about and respect differing cultures.

Leading By Example

As a principal, leading by example is important. Are you confronting and addressing systemic racism and bias in your school? During this past school year, our school system provided all teachers with self-paced training on topics that focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Topics included culturally responsive teaching, confronting biases, and racial equity.

After a cycle of asynchronous assignments and learning, our staff came together in small group sessions to have conversations about the learning that took place. Being able to reflect and discuss the learning was powerful for our staff as they figured out ways to learn, grow, and apply what they learned in their professional practice.

The Journey Continues

The quest for racial justice, more opportunities for equity, and chances to uplift the contributions of a diverse society is a journey not a destination.  This work must be fluid,  continuous, and adaptive.  We, as principals, must be the advocates for this work whether you are in a diverse school or not.  In order to prepare our students for society and the future, it is our obligation and responsibility to ensure we are champions of this work.

Ed Cosentino is principal of Clemens Crossing Elementary School in Columbia, Maryland.