Growth Accelerator Principal JuDonne Hemingway on the Importance of Empowering Black School Leaders

In the mission of working to provide an equitable education for all students, the importance of giving students of color access to educators who look like them simply cannot be overstated.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, though, just 46% of public school students identify as white — while more than three-fourths of principals and teachers identify as white. The demographics of American educators simply have not kept up with the rapidly changing demographics of our country.

Accelerate Institute is committed to changing that.

In the current school year, we have been working with 26 Growth Accelerator principals in Chicago and 40 leaders from throughout the country in the Leadership Academy. At more than 90%, the representation of leaders of color in this talented cohort far exceeds the national statistic of just 22% of public school principals who are leaders of color.

Among these brilliant and inspiring leaders is JuDonne Hemingway, principal of Noble Network of Charter Schools’ Gary Comer Middle School in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. She boldly leads her work as a Growth Accelerator principal through the lens of her identity as a Black woman. As we celebrate stories of Black excellence this Black History Month, hers is one that we are truly excited to be able to share with you today.

Read JuDonne’s personal essay for Accelerate Institute below, in which she shares her own perspective on why she believes that, with the support they deserve, Black school leaders — and all school leaders of color — are uniquely positioned to help students of color realize a different reality. We hope that her insights serve to inspire and challenge you. 

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When it comes to enacting social change, Deepa Iyer’s “Social Change Map” says there are many important roles that we can take on in our collective pursuit of equity and social justice. For myself and other educators of color, this often looks like serving as healers, builders, disrupters, and visionaries in systems and schools that have historically underserved our young people. The last few years have taught me that my role as a principal is not just a beautifully nuanced tapestry of all of these important roles, but also inextricably linked to my experiences as a Black woman from Chicago’s South Side who leads deliberately and unapologetically — with a whole lot of audacity, vulnerability, and fullness of heart. I am grateful to not be an anomaly, as it is my belief that school leaders of color across this country have been showing up and leading boldly, with an innate sense of connection, ever since Day One. Though this leadership position has not always been celebrated, it’s high time that we explicitly name it as being necessary and worthy of investment. 

Principal Hemingway says, “As a Black woman, leader, parent, and product of public education in this country, I personally know that while brilliance is equally distributed across all students, access to a quality education is not.”

I recently read an article that named empathy as the most important characteristic for effective leadership. When the world was flipped on its head in 2020, leaders across many industries had to figure out how to humanize their work and take care of their people during a period of unprecedented and unpredictable change. I would argue that educators and school leaders of color had long ago figured out this key ingredient — centering every single effort we make entirely around the humanity of the students, families, and communities we serve. Before the world knew the importance of wellness, school leaders of color were doing the work to care for communities in ways that shaped progress well beyond the schoolhouse walls and our roles as school leaders. When school leaders have themselves experienced life on the margins, they are much more likely to facilitate belonging for their students and families. 

As a Black woman, leader, parent, and product of public education in this country, I personally know that while brilliance is equally distributed across all students, access to a quality education is not. As a school leader who’s lived experience mirrors that of many of my students, I feel personally responsible for ensuring that they are afforded every opportunity to live choice-filled lives. It is why in the post-pandemic years, my school has placed a major focus on providing many of the wraparound supports we know our young people and their families need — including access to housing, mental and physical health supports, access to family counseling, financial planning, and more. We’ve over-invested in socio-emotional learning support for our scholars, built out an extensive repertoire of enrichment opportunities to create spaces for expression and self actualization, and worked to make our approach to literacy and STEAM more culturally relevant and more focused on college- and career-readiness. Many school leaders of color have done similar work to enhance their school community because it is work that we didn’t need a pandemic to help us understand why it mattered most.  

And yet even with our innate ability to see power and possibility in the communities we serve, many school leaders of color are still struggling to see success in their roles. Leaders and educators of color are leaving the work in droves in what many experts are calling “The Great Resignation.” If my assertion is true — that school leaders of color come to the work with many of the tools we need to be successful — then why has the turnover among principals increased exponentially over the past several years? Why are educators of color deciding to exit their classrooms? 

I believe that the answer is twofold: 

  1. we are far too often placed on glass cliffs, left to tackle some of education’s most complex and insidious challenges without the support and development we need to do the work well; and
  2. when we lift up our voices to share our experiences or request support, we are often silenced, ignored, and overlooked. 

The 2019 Education Trust and Teach Plus report called, “If You Listen, We Will Stay,” spoke on how to not only recruit educators and leaders of color, but to actually retain them. This report, and others like it, highlights the need for more investment in ongoing professional development for educators of color to both sharpen the innate skills and experiences they bring to the work alongside acquiring the hard skills necessary to do the work well.

This is why organizations like Accelerate matter. The Growth Accelerator program focuses on helping both myself and my leadership team develop the mindsets, knowledge, and skills necessary to pursue change and take my school further, faster. As a leader of color in this program, I am being pushed to effectively build strong systems and supports for my school that will ultimately disrupt the systems that have led to inequitable outcomes for the students I serve. Though I might innately understand what it takes to help my scholars feel seen and heard, Accelerate is helping me create a culture of accountability that holds me and my team responsible for the outcomes we say matter most. And while my vision for excellence has always shaped how I “do” and “be” as a leader, Accelerate has helped me transfer those aspirations to strategy. In this program, my values are no longer just what I espouse but rather what I enact — consistently and unequivocally. School leaders of color deserve this kind of development because while representation will always matter, without investment, it will also always be wholly insufficient. 

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Interested in maximizing your own impact in helping to deliver an equitable education that empowers students to succeed? 

Here are three final recommendations from JuDonne that both education reformers and school leaders can start putting to use immediately:

District leaders/education reformers

  1. Acknowledge the innate brilliance and power that leaders and educators of color bring to the work and invest in getting more leaders of color into spaces of influence. 
  2. Once you’ve got them there: invest in the ongoing professional development of leaders and educators of color to develop the technical skills needed to successfully lead in their schools.
  3. Listen to their voices and experiences. And if they aren’t sharing, be critical of how you might not be creating an environment where they can. After all, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”- Arundhati Roy 

School leaders of color

  1. Be unashamedly proud of what you instinctually bring to the table. Pursue spaces of healing and community with other school leaders of color. You are not in the work alone.
  2. Reimagine what’s possible for the scholars you serve and pursue the innovations necessary to create a new reality. Follow your instincts, which will likely help you create further disruption. 
  3. Invest in yourself. Pursue (and demand) the development and support you need to be an exceptional organizational leader. Get training on the hard skills necessary to lead in the principal role effectively — both for your students and school now, and for the increased impact that you will give rise to in the future.