Three years into the Novice Leader Academy, 100% of NLA principals are still leading schools.

By Daniel Meekins, NSNO’s Director of Leadership Programming 

One thing I love about new school leaders is that they’re so hungry to learn. They hold an enormous, high-stakes job, but they’ve got such a fire in them to get it right. It makes sense–they have hundreds of children, and a team of educators, depending on them. 

One new leader is a powerful force all on their own—and when you bring a group of them together, beautiful things happen.  

At NSNO, that’s what we’ve been doing for the past three years with the Novice Leader Academy (NLA). We bring great new leaders together. As a former educator myself, I’ve been honored to lead the program. The participants are new and aspiring school leaders, so they’re novices within the specific role, but they’re true experts in the field. They’re veteran educators, and they’re ready to grow their impact by leading a school. 

The NLA is a two-year, cohort based experience. We select a small group of phenomenal leaders, provide them with expert mentorship and coaching, and offer ongoing professional development and social connection. We provide the resources and the community—and they run with it. We’re proud to share that three years in, 100% of the leaders in NLA are still principals. 

Recently, at our June NLA convening, our two current cohorts came together at the Children’s Museum in City Park for two days of learning and engagement. They heard from expert speakers, like Joey LaRoche, who served in leadership positions across KIPP New Orleans Schools, and Dr. Melanie Askew Clark, who founded and runs Élan Academy. They were also joined by me, members of NSNO’s team, and our two phenomenal NLA mentors, Alexina Medley and Dr. Amanda Aiken. 

Ms. Medley retired just a few years ago after over four decades in education. She worked as a special education teacher, administrator, and principal of Warren Easton Charter High School. Dr. Aiken is a former principal as well, and now the Founder, CEO, and Principal Consultant of A.Leigh Solutions. She recently earned her doctoral degree in education from Harvard University, where she held the Presidential Public Service Fellowship. Both Dr. Aiken and Ms. Medley led sessions for the new principals. They were impressed, as was I, with the dynamic in the room. These new principals weren’t just eager to learn as individuals–they felt like a team nearly right away.

“This group gelled,” Ms. Medley said. “It wasn’t that they knew each other–because some of them did not know each other–but they were willing to trust each other, willing to be open with each other.To say, ‘hey, this is the issue’ – and listen.”

The principals felt the magic of this, too.

Dominique Zenon (left, above), the principal at Lafayette Academy Middle School and a member of Cohort 2, told us that “being a part of Novice Leaders is amazing for me because I always leave feeling more empowered and equipped to do the work.”  

Ta’Nesha Bernard-Kirt (right, above), the principal at Pierre Capdau Charter School and another member of Cohort 2, was also inspired by the sessions, and by her experience with NLA over the past year. 

“I’ve learned to be my authentic self as a leader,” she said. “My experience here has given me the confidence that I need to continue this journey in New Orleans.” 

Each time the leaders learned something new in one of their sessions, they were hungry to learn and develop more. They’d find me and say, “Man, Joey LaRoche’s session was amazing. I would like for him to come do that for my leadership team.” Or “Can I connect with Dr. Clark? I learned so much from her.”

I was happy to help. NLA is so strong in part because of our focus on connection and community.When our leaders want to meet other leaders, we’re glad to facilitate it. This community-building was on full display after the first full day of programing, when we brought both cohorts together for dinner at Katie’s Restaurant in Mid-City. 

We were joined by some very special guests, too–the leaders of Cohort 1, our phenomenal mentors, local school board member Ethan Ashley, and NSNO’s own CEO, Dana Peterson.

This was perhaps my favorite part of the whole convening. The energy was so strong and supportive. There was a lot of laughter, and a lot of serious conversation and vulnerability, too. It felt like a real community–even a family. 

“It was so powerful to see this community, and the network, and the deep care among the different cohorts,” Dr. Aiken said. “It was bigger than what we could have imagined and that felt absolutely incredible.”

Lauren LeDuff-King, a member of Cohort 2 and the leader of Warren Easton’s 9th Grade Academy, was also moved. 

“When we come together, we’re able to connect with shared experience, talk with each other to talk through situations—that’s probably the best part of it, the camaraderie,” she explained. 

That’s what we’re going for. We want our city to feel smaller and more connected.Dr. Aiken told us about how different the mood felt from when she was a new principal a decade ago. 

“You know, when I was a novice leader in New Orleans, it did not feel that way,” she said. “It was siloed…aside from some one-off principal relationships, I didn’t feel this strong community.”

Ms. LeDuff-King and Dr. Aiken’s comments made me realize how lucky we are, at NSNO, to build that community. We’ve been able to do this because we have grown real trust with schools in our city–and that trust is the foundation of a program like this. 

We want leaders to know that it’s not just that NSNO has their back–it’s that they have one another’s backs. We believe those relationships will keep these principals in their roles for longer, which makes schools more stable for teachers and students alike. When we interviewed principals a few years ago, we learned that roughly a quarter of our principals annually leave their roles. That’s part of why we launched NLA. This program works directly to address that–and the fact that 100% of NLA leaders are still principals is a very encouraging sign.  

That night at the dinner, I looked around and felt a real sense of hope. Ms. Medley said that she’s hopeful, too. She was struck that, at the end of the school year, these leaders still had so much energy.

“If they continue with the energy level that they came in with, if they start the year like this, then our kids have a bright future,” she explained. 

She says that will send a clear, positive message to the children. 

“It would be like, ‘I am here to stay. My energy is here for you,” she said.

At NSNO, while our principals are here for their students, we’re here for them. It’s an honor.

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