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New organization sets its sights on diversifying school leadership in Nevada

Jackie Valley
Jackie Valley

Brione Minor-Mitchell encountered less than a handful of Black staff members as a student growing up and attending schools in Las Vegas.

She remembers one support staff member, one dean and one teacher — but no principals. Years later, Minor-Mitchell became a teacher, but it wasn’t until she worked at a school led by a Black principal that she thought differently about her own career path. Suddenly, she envisioned a future as a school leader.

It took seeing someone like herself in the principal role, she said, to let those new dreams take root. A month ago, Minor-Mitchell unpacked boxes at Cunningham Elementary School in Las Vegas, where she is starting her first year as principal. She previously served as assistant principal at Priest Elementary School in North Las Vegas.

She’s hoping a new organization — the Nevada African American Administrators and Superintendents Association (NVAAASA) — can lead others to leadership roles as well.

“There’s talent. There’s genius in everyone,” Minor-Mitchell said. “So I want something that really can help promote that in everyone and can see that genius and really grow that genius.”

The new organization, which launched last month, aims to continue diversifying school leadership across the state through support, development and recruitment. 

Research has shown that students of color benefit from having educators who look like them. For instance, a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Black students who had at least one Black teacher in kindergarten through third grade were 9 percent more likely to graduate high school and 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. A separate working paper published by Vanderbilt University researchers found that student math achievement appeared to improve and Black teacher mobility decreased at schools with a Black principal. Additionally, teachers hired were more likely to be Black.

But school districts across the country generally don’t have educator representation that matches the demographic profile of the communities they serve, especially in leadership roles. During the most recent school year, 69 percent percent of administrative personnel in the Clark County School District were white despite a minority-majority student population. Only 22 percent of the district’s children are white. By comparison, the share of Black administrators has largely held steady at 10 percent over the past five years even though Black students make up 15 percent of the population; meanwhile, 47 percent of the district’s students are Hispanic but only 12 percent of administrators are.

“When we recognize that there’s something missing, we should do something about it,” said Andrea Womack, principal of Brinley Middle School in Las Vegas who’s serving as a NVAAASA liaison. “We should train and we should help support and we should help coach and we should help others find the pathway.”

So what has been the barrier? Minor-Mitchell points to systemic racism, which she thinks has perpetuated unconscious biases, resulting in fewer educators of color being promoted to administrator positions.

“If opportunities aren’t given to you, you’re not going to shine,” she said. “You’re not going to grow, and I think opportunities are given to people who people are more comfortable with — unconscious bias.”

The organization’s debut comes at a time when the Clark County School District will be hiring an unusually large number of administrators. In the spring, the district offered buyouts to administrators who had logged at least 28 years of service. Fifty-five employees — including 28 principals, seven assistant principals and 20 central administration employees — accepted the offer.

Womack sees the situation as an opportunity for the district to fill those vacancies with a more diverse set of education leaders. She doesn’t think it’s wishful thinking, given the district’s commitment to doing so.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara’s five-year strategic plan, approved in March 2019, includes this objective: “Align diversity of administrators, licensed staff and support staff with the student population of the District.”

Jara said diversifying school leadership was “one of the many reasons” the district moved forward with the administrator buyouts this year. 

“As we look through the hiring process, that is a criteria we look for — how do we find the best candidate and certainly a more diverse administrative pool?” he said.

The statewide association is open to anyone regardless of race, location or job. Minor-Mitchell said she expects some community leaders to join as well as teachers interested in moving to administrator positions.

An 11-member board has been created, and what the organizers described as a “soft membership” drive is underway now, with a larger membership campaign launching in September.

During her time as a building leader, Womack said she has had students say, “Oh wow, I can’t believe she’s our principal. She’s Black and she’s a woman,” or adults enter the school and walk right past her in their quest to find the principal.

She’s hopeful NVAAASA can play a role in curbing those reactions and assumptions by creating a future where it’s not uncommon for educators of color to be leading schools or districts.

There’s certainly no talent shortage, Minor-Mitchell said. It’s simply a matter of opening doors and minds.

“They have to unlock their genius,” she said. “Everyone has leadership skills, but they just have to get into the uncomfortable zone. We’re comfortable sometimes with what we’re doing and we don’t see ourselves as leaders, but I think we need to push ourselves and be a little bit more uncomfortable.”

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