Our city’s school leaders want to work together.

Principal attrition, in New Orleans and in our nation, is high. Too many educators end up leaving the role, which is both enormously important and enormously stressful. When we surveyed 85% of New Orleans principals, over 70% said the work feels unsustainable.

So we asked them what would keep them in their roles—and what might push them out.

They felt three key things could help sustain them: more time, more professional development, and a collaborative, professional community.

New Orleans’ school leaders appreciate the freedom they have to make school-level decisions for their own individual communities. But they also wanted to learn from their colleagues citywide. They knew the problem they were solving one week could be the same one facing a colleague’s school the next. A fellow principal’s great idea could serve their students, too.

The collaboration they sought needed a structure. To facilitate these conversations and build this community, New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) launched the Principal Collaborative. It provides a way for public school leaders to come together and learn from each other. The collaborative had its first meeting, or “Principal Convening,” over Zoom at the start of October. Seventy-two principals registered, representing 80% of our city’s charter management organizations or single-site schools.

NSNO’s CEO Patrick Dobard welcomed the group.

“I want to thank you for the hard work you do each and every day. You are on the front lines at some extremely challenging times…we have this crisis dealing with COVID, and the crisis of the chronic, systemic inequities and systemic racism that continue to permeate our society. But we know that you are great school leaders, and because of the work that you do, we know that our students are in really good hands.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell followed with opening remarks. She welcomed leaders with a message of encouragement and an offer to help.

“I really want to hear, I want to listen, learn, and pivot…ultimately, it is about the children that we collectively serve and the families we continue to serve as well…so believe in yourselves, and know we’re here to lift you up and provide you with the support you need,” she said.

Principals then broke into small Zoom “breakout groups” to share their own thoughts on sustainability in their work.

NSNO’s Chief Innovation Officer, Alex Jarrell, spoke when they came back together. He talked more about the purpose of the collaborative, which will have more sessions over the course of the year. He spoke from his own experience as a former principal.

“It can be awfully lonely at the top, leading a school—you all know that. And if this community works, we want to make sure that the leaders of our schools don’t feel like that—that you know to reach out when times get tough,” he said.

Jarrell launched the next set of breakout sessions, in which principals got more specific about what they hoped to get out of upcoming convenings and other opportunities to connect.

Towana Pierre-Floyd, the principal of Frederick A. Douglass High School, closed the conversation out and summarized some of what she heard.

“Our shared goal is to create a brand new world for our kids, one where we can actively work together to eradicate racism, eradicate poverty, to do these big lofty things a lot of us signed on for…I’m excited about this space we’re creating together, to not just have the spirit of collaboration but the structures in place,” she said.

Principals then had the chance to reflect on that spirit and those structures. They completed a survey about their experience, and the results made clear that the session had met a real need. Ninety-seven percent of principals on the call responded, and of those principals, 97% rated the session four or five out of five.

Their comments told a clear story of purpose and engagement.

Many principals reflected on the ability to be more efficient and effective through collaboration:

Others left feeling hopeful:

Many shared a vision for a stronger school system and city:

Working as a team, the principals are well positioned to reach that vision. They were clear that they wanted collaboration, not contests, in our public school system.

NSNO is committed to designing sessions that meet these needs and to giving principals the chance to access key leaders. In upcoming convenings, principals can collaborate and connect, not just with one another, but also with State Superintendent Cade Brumley, former State Superintendent John White, and Dr. Howard Fuller, Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

“This group is full of brilliant people who want to make this world a better place,” Pierre-Floyd said. “And it would be incredible if we could do that together.”

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