Catching up with Ryan Award Winner Jody-Anne Jones

It was just another seemingly ordinary day late in the school year at Uncommon Schools’ North Star Academy Clinton Hill in Newark, New Jersey the day that Principal Jody-Anne Jones was honored with the 2018 Ryan Award. Or so she thought.

As Jody settled into her regular routine, little did she know that Accelerate Institute CEO Nora Ligurotis was waiting in the school gymnasium to surprise her with the prestigious award. “The day I won the Ryan Award, I lost it,” she told Accelerate Institute while describing the emotional scene surrounded by her loved ones, students, and staff.

Jody was selected as a winner of the award for her transformational leadership that helped accelerate student achievement at North Star Academy. As principal, she helped lead 72% of students to meeting or surpassing expectations on the 2017 PARCC exam in English-language arts, compared to just 56% of students throughout the state. For math, 60% of students met or outperformed expectations, compared to just 45% of students throughout New Jersey.

Jody-Anne Jones, a 2018 Ryan Award winner, knows a thing or two about school leadership.

Born and raised in Jamaica, Jody moved to the Irvington area with her parents and siblings in search of new beginnings when she was 11-years-old. Once there, she quickly made New Jersey feel like home. “You just begin to know how to navigate it after a while,” she explains. “I never sat back and said, ‘Oh this is completely different from what I’m used to.’ … Of course, there’s an adjustment period. But you think to yourself, ‘We are going to take the good out of this.’”

Jody likens that same gritty attitude to her approach to school leadership, which she’s now, nearly five years after winning the Ryan Award, taken to new heights to expand her influence in creating equitable learning environments for children in Newark and beyond. As Senior Director of School Support for Uncommon, she is charged with training the organization’s Principal Fellows before they go on to lead at several schools in five different cities around the Northeast.

Nora and Jody recently sat down to catch up on all that Jody’s been up to lately. Read on below for a lightly edited transcript of their discussion, in which Jody covers topics including her new role, what makes Uncommon Schools such a special organization to work for, and what she misses most about her days as a principal.

NL: After eight years as a principal at North Star Academy, you’re now impacting several different schools in your role as Senior Director of School Support. What is the key to addressing the unique needs of each individual school?

JJ: With leadership, you have to have a sense of authenticity. You have to give leaders time to reflect on why they do the work; who they are as individuals; the vision that they have. I think it starts from there, … because every leader has a different story and it’s going to come out in different ways. So I want them to be their true selves and bring that to the work, but at the same time, there are different training methods and different techniques they have to learn as a leader.

For example, there is a way that you lead a professional development session. There are different steps you have to take to inspire people, to model for them, to give them feedback, there is a system to all these methods. Now, the way you deliver the message, though, and the story that you tell and how you’re inspiring to others is going to be authentic to you. …

I’m not trying to make a carbon copy for school leadership, I’m trying to say that, “There is a way to do it well, and that these are the ways to do it, but you have to show up as your authentic self and you have to define what that is and what that looks like to create your own vision.” And then I help them navigate that, which I think is very hard for leaders to do…

NL: Accelerate Institute is also committed to recruiting and developing transformational school leaders — particularly, a pipeline of leaders who reflect our country’s demographics. What advice do you have for Accelerate and other organizations invested in strengthening the representation of people of color in school leadership roles?

JJ: Representation — it starts in the classroom. It’s all about making it very clear what the criteria are to be successful in this work, and what the qualifications are. There are so many great teachers who would be excellent leaders, but they feel like it is not a reachable goal for them — they find it to be impossible. One reason is because leaders aren’t having conversations with them about how to get involved. And two, it’s because they don’t have the framework or the training to really get there. But with the right support and training, great teachers can become excellent leaders for our children. …

I think getting there through the work that Accelerate Institute is doing … is really about, “How do we navigate the conversation? How do we train people? How are we letting people know that, ‘Wow, you’re just a second-year teacher, but I see you one day becoming a principal; I see you one day becoming a Dean of Curriculum and Instruction. Let’s talk more. Let’s discuss the steps in order to reach your goals’” I think that people often don’t know how to navigate these conversations and I don’t think people are always spending the time that’s necessary to invest in their people properly.

NL: What are some telltale signs you look for that indicate an educator has the potential to be effective in a school leadership role one day?

JJ: You can tell if someone loves our children by the way they talk about them. If a person in an interview is going to say, “Those kids” or “those children,” — It makes me pause. Instead, it’s “our children,” right? So it’s key to make sure that they’re culturally responsive, that they understand that you don’t pity our children….You have to love our children and empower them. You have to be able to give me an example of when you’ve gone above and beyond for them that’s concrete and specific.

Also, being open to feedback. I’m very firm with the feedback that’s being given when we go through the interview process and I think anyone who works for Uncommon feels, “That’s true.” And if you’re open to feedback, I can assess that you demonstrate a great mindset. Not only are you open to the feedback, but you’re also urgent to implement the feedback.

Lastly, being a master teacher is really important. It’s very hard for me to see a principal who’s never taught before become an effective principal. It’s not an administrative task to be a principal, you have to be able to train people how to teach. So being able to be a master teacher, I think it’s really important and the proven record comes from the student data itself.

NL: Are there any important lessons you took away from your time as principal at North Star Academy that help guide your philosophy on school leadership today?

JJ: You have to love your people. … A kind word goes a long way. You need to praise your people beyond just, you know, data. … My school became even more loving and positive when I started to also recognize the little things, … and that was a beautiful thing. That was the first lesson that I brought with me when I transitioned into this new role.

I think the next lesson is always making sure that our students are at the forefront of every decision that we make. I embodied this belief as a principal and I train the fellows to embody the same mindset. When they’re having difficult moments or things are challenging, I ask, “Who’s the student who inspires you the most?” to bring that back to the work to help them. I think those were two critical lessons that drive my work.

NL: What makes Uncommon Schools such a special organization to work for?

JJ:  Uncommon has really great people who can see the potential in others. … I think, just to see the greatness in someone, is a beautiful gift. Uncommon, as an organization, is very results-driven. We’re very innovative. We want to figure out a framework, we want to find out how we can really make sure that our students excel and go to college and have opportunities. … Sometimes there are schools that say this, but they don’t prepare our children to excel. They don’t look at the data; they don’t really push them; they don’t really teach teachers how to really teach. They just say, “We love our children, and that’s enough” — that’s not love, right? Love is really, “If you love me, show me.” And that’s what Uncommon does beautifully.

NL: What do you miss most about your time as principal?

JJ: I miss consistently seeing the children being celebrated. Seeing the growth, oh gosh, just thinking about it now — I miss that; I love that, I love that so much. Seeing a student who’s been having trouble on an exam, and I go in there and they are killing it and I pull them out and I’m giving them a high five and really laughing, you know, I miss that. …

I miss my people; my faculty. And the parents. You know, when I see the parents it’s really nice. When we were outside, we’d laugh; we’d talk. Some of them were probably thinking, “Uh oh, here comes Miss Jones.” And I’m saying, “No, no, it’s ok” [laughs]. Those moments are fun, and those day-to-day things are some of the things that I miss.

Watch the Ryan Award profile video for Jody-Anne Jones