CATEGORY: Advocacy, Teachers and Leaders

Tolu Jan 25, 2024

This past October, Achievement First, along with hundreds of charter schools, gathered in Albany, NY to attend the annual New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) Conference. NYCSA is a nonprofit membership organization that strives to unify the voice of charter schools across the state, in hopes of providing the most effective public charter school experience for students. As a proud member of the organization, representatives from our team were in full attendance and excited to cheer on one of our principals as they presented during the conference. Alicia Harper, Principal of AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary School, was selected to share her strategy on transforming her school’s culture. Known as the “Turnaround Whisperer,” Principal Harper has fostered an environment that teachers enjoy working in and students love to learn in. We connected with Principal Harper to hear more about her school’s amazing transformation, some of the challenges she has faced as principal, and a few of her goals going forward. How were you selected to present at the NYCSA conference? It was a total shock! One of my mentors in this Educational Leadership space often mentions how impressive it’s been that my school was able to make such significant growth in a short amount of time under my leadership. A few weeks before proposals were due, she gave me a nudge to submit a proposal on turning around a school and fostering a strong school culture. I was reluctant, but still submitted the proposal. I wasn’t confident that my session would be selected, but I was pleasantly surprised when I received the congratulatory email! I guess I have something to share with folks after all. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as you started your work as principal? There were quite a few challenges, if I’m being honest, but I’ve always been able to be laser-focused on my overall goals for my scholars and my overall vision for my school. One big challenge was turning around our adult culture or staff morale. When I took over the school, our adult culture was pretty low, with around 57% of staff members feeling favorable about our school. There was very little trust between staff members and the leadership of the school. Staff members did not feel heard, appreciated, valued, or psychologically safe. Leadership did not feel respected. All in all, it made for a very unpleasant place to work. My very first mission and goal was to increase our adult culture data by re-building relationships between our leadership team and our staff members. It took a lot of work – reflecting on my own leadership practice, skill-building of my deans, re-setting the vision whenever we geared off course, falling down, dusting off, and getting back up again. But now? Our adult culture data is very strong because of the work we put into it.  During your speech, you mentioned you needed to focus on the teachers to turn the school around. Could you speak more to that? I strongly believe that cultivating great schools is for the kids, but it’s about the work of the adults! When I took over the school, at first I did not focus on the actions of the students – which students were performing well, which weren’t; which students were behaving well, which weren’t; etc – instead I focused on the work of the adults! After focusing on ensuring adults felt psychologically safe at my school, I then shifted my focus to (1) set a clear vision for our school, (2) invest staff members in the vision, and (3) include staff members in the things we needed to go after in order to meet our vision. I set a high bar for what will be required of my staff members in order for us to meet our lofty goals, and I try to always be transparent with them when communicating our progress to our goals. I find that once adults feel positive about work, they work! Hard! Tirelessly! Relentlessly…. In order to meet our goals. What were some structures/systems that you put in place to improve your school’s overall performance?  I focused on one thing at a time. (It’s a marathon, not a sprint.)
  • Redefining adult culture: In order to focus on adult culture, I had to focus on my leadership team being the model of excellence. Together, we were able to redefine what it meant to be a leader at our school and rebuild trust amongst the adults.
  • Collaborate with staff by listening to their feedback: It is extremely important to me that my staff members feel heard and as though their opinions matter.
  • Invest in teachers by coaching and developing them: I set the expectation that coaching and development needed to be an integral part of school, which means that I needed to be the instructional leader of my school and my leadership team needed to be the instructional leader of their grades. We spent a disproportionate amount of time in classrooms, coaching teachers, leading planning meetings, and looking at scholar work in order to move our data. 
All of this has led to massive growth in my school. Not only has our culture gotten stronger, but our teachers have been able to increase their teaching practice, which has led to our school exceeding our math goals.  What are some of your goals for AF North Brooklyn Prep ES in the coming school year? Now that we’ve met our adult culture goals and we’ve climbed to the top of our network in math, this year I am laser-focused on us exceeding our reading goals, and we’re already off to a great start! Because of our coaching and development structures, we’ve been able to make so much progress in our reading and ELA goals! I cannot wait to see where we end up at the end of this year! What has been the most rewarding about being principal at AF North Brooklyn Prep ES? So many things! I love seeing the growth! I love seeing how much my deans have grown as the leaders of the school. They’ve increased their skill as people leaders and as instructional leaders. I love seeing how much my teachers have grown! They’re not only building great relationships with kids, but they’re also showing their scholars that they can achieve great things. Most importantly, I love seeing joyful students who love coming into our school building each and every day because they thoroughly enjoy being at our school. I feel extremely grateful to be able to lead North Brooklyn Prep ES and will always work hard to make our school magical. 

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