Learning To Lead: Why One Principal Puts Student Voice And Identity At The Center

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Arria Coburn has been the principal at The Springfield Renaissance school for five years. (Courtesy Arria Coburn)
Arria Coburn has been the principal at The Springfield Renaissance school for five years. (Courtesy Arria Coburn)

When The Springfield Renaissance School closed its physical doors to students in March, staff had to work fast to find a way to connect with kids and attempt to continue the academic material they were working on.

For the first two weeks, teachers experimented with Facebook posts and robocalling families with assignments, which principal Arria Coburn said were very heavily based on grade level standards. But student engagement quickly started tanking — hovering around 20% each day.

"Originally, it felt really remote," said Coburn. "We were sending work out, students were sending it in and there was no human connection."

She could see early on that her students were struggling emotionally with the closure. For many, the school provided a foundation and a level of support that's hard to recreate at home.

"It took us a while to to get it right," she said. "To realize this really has to be a digital platform where we were exchanging ideas." She understood that they weren't taking student needs into account in those first few weeks and that kids also needed to feel heard when school leaders made decisions.

Coburn learned how important student voice and identity can be, after a dispute over students using the N-word in class two years ago.

When she was promoted to principal of The Springfield Renaissance School in 2015, she felt a lot of pressure. She had big shoes to fill. The previous principal was respected and loved by the school community. Coburn wanted to continue that trajectory.

"When I was preparing to meet the families [for the first time], I had this fear building up inside of me," she remembered thinking, "'When they meet me, am I going to be what they imagine the principal to look like?' Because I'm young, I'm a woman and I'm African American."

At first, she says she struggled to define herself as a leader at the school. She wanted to demonstrate to the community that she was going to be a good principal because of her skill set, the fact that she had her masters degree and that she's detail oriented.

"Certainly there are many things that I believe in," Coburn explained. "But I just didn't lead with race. I didn't lead with the fact that I'm a woman."

Coburn didn't want anyone in the community to feel excluded or that she was being biased if she led with her race. The Springfield Renaissance School specializes in English language education. More than half of its students are Latino and about a quarter are black.

During her first couple of years as a principal she said she did her best to stay neutral when race-related conflicts would come up. That changed during her third year as principal.

An eighth grade student was using the N-word in class. When their teacher — who was white -- called to report it to the main office, she repeated the word. The situation was so upsetting to three students, that they left the classroom and headed straight to Coburn's office.

At first, Coburn stuck to the leadership tactics she had leaned on for the past few years: stay neutral. She remembered saying things like: "I hear you" and "I want to figure out what happened." But that just upset the students more.

"'There's no excuse,' she remembered them saying angrily. "'What do you mean? What more information do you need to have, Ms. Coburn?'"

That's when Coburn knew she had to change the way she was doing things.

"Ready or not, I needed to not just be a leader, I need to be a black leader," she said. "And that meant that I needed to share with my students where I stood on issues."

After that tense meeting, Coburn held an assembly for the eighth graders. She addressed the issue head on and then talked to them about her own experience as a black woman and being a mother and the fears she has for her two kids.

In the days that passed, the students responded positively. Many thanked her for her honesty and said they were glad to know where she stood. She believed the school community needed that authenticity to feel connected to her and trust her.

From that point forward, Coburn continued to involve student voices in efforts to lead the school especially when it comes to race and equity.

"That's why it's such a defining moment for me,"she said. "Because it wasn't just about me navigating through this space of being a black leader. It also empowered my students to name who they were as members of the community."

Coburn has thought about that experience a lot when she's faced challenges in her job as principal, including during the pandemic.

When she and her teachers began digging into why student interaction was so low at the beginning of the school closure, it quickly became clear that the students' perspectives and their emotional needs were not being addressed.

Now, Coburn is shifting the way the school uses technology and distance learning. Coburn started using Instagram to communicate with students after hearing that they didn't like Facebook. And she and her team hold regular community meetings with students to gauge how they're feeling and understand what kinds of assignments would interest them.

"Now, we're starting to think of these assignments that are going to push students to think about this situation and what it will mean for years to come," she said.

With each lesson her staff is trying to include ways for students to share and reflect on what's become a global event. From writing assignments to history lessons, teachers are now trying to work in the student experience and the trauma of the current moment to the things they assign.

This segment aired on April 27, 2020.

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Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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