More Equitable Outcomes Through Student-Centered School Leadership

By Robert Low

Leading for Equity: Equity-Focused, Learning-Centered Leadership edWebinar recording link


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With so many issues for school and district leaders to deal with during this difficult time, staying focused on students’ learning experiences may not always seem like the top priority. But district officials from Alabama and Minnesota, who are determined to provide an equitable education for all their students, recently explained how listening to students and taking action based on student input is a key factor in achieving successful outcomes.

Dr. Jermaine Dawson, Chief Academic Officer of the Birmingham City Schools in Alabama, and Dr. Chris Lennox, Superintendent of the Mounds View Public Schools in Minnesota, discussed their priorities and processes during an edWebinar hosted by AASA, The Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, along with Max Silverman and Michele Mason, Directors at the University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership (CEL).

Leadership for Equity

While introducing the framework for educational leadership CEL developed and the Birmingham and Mounds View districts now use, Silverman noted his organization had shifted its focus from instructional leadership to transforming schools and empowering all students to achieve their hopes and dreams. This came as a result of discussions CEL had with students over the course of a year.

CEL’s educational leadership framework is organized into four “dimensions”—an equitable school community, a culturally responsive teaching and learning environment, effective resource management, and a collective style of leadership.

Focusing specifically on the teaching and learning environment, Mason emphasized the importance of including student agency in a district’s vision for learning and assessing students’ strengths, as well as their needs. The curriculum and pedagogy should be based on research about social, emotional, and academic development, and adult learning theory should be applied to teachers’ ongoing professional learning.

To eliminate inequities, expertise in all four dimensions needs to be combined with a well-defined set of practices that include consideration of research on social justice, responsible leadership, and racism’s impact on learning. At the same time, there needs to be an asset-based approach that remains centered on students’ experiences, including those students furthest from having their needs met through traditional forms of education.

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Leading by Listening

In Mounds View Public Schools, this type of approach is used with about 12,000 students, roughly 60% of whom are White, 10% Asian, and 10% Black. For Dr. Lennox, there’s an emphasis now on starting conversations and asking more questions, rather than just having educational leaders impose their own visions. By prioritizing student voices and engaging other members of the community, district leaders and principals are then prepared to take the steps that lead to better student experiences.

These types of practices are combined with a belief every child can and will learn, and educators need to create the conditions for opportunities to happen. This requires a willingness to adjust traditional approaches in order to meet individual needs, while also maintaining an ongoing commitment to high expectations and a growth mindset.

In Birmingham City Schools, a similar approach is being used with the district’s 20,000 students, the majority of whom are African American, with another 10-15% identified as Hispanic. Dr. Dawson is focused on bringing students to the center of the conversation through the use of surveys and discussions, and then creating prescriptive plans based on what the students are saying.

Key aspects of this process include making sure students have agency to drive their own learning and imagine a future beyond where they are now. Educators need to have or develop the skills of being culturally sensitive and having a listening ear. There also needs to be an anti-racist curriculum in which students can see themselves.

Citing his own experiences with extreme poverty and homelessness as a student, combined with the impact of his teachers telling Dr. Dawson he could become what he wanted to be, Dr. Dawson now emphasizes the importance of a shared belief that what matters most is “not the house that they come from, but the school that they go to.”

This edWeb broadcast was hosted by AASA, The Superintendents Association and AASA’s Leadership Network, providing premier professional learning for educational leaders.

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About the Presenters

As the Executive Director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), Max Silverman provides leadership for improving school systems focused on equitable outcomes for students. Throughout his career, he has served in a variety of leadership positions including classroom teacher, school principal, district leader, and most recently as deputy director of CEL. As executive director, he is dedicated to building the know-how and collective efficacy of educators, school systems and states to create a future where every student experiences a rigorous, world-class education. Max continually seeks opportunities to build and share his expertise both locally and across the country, including serving as the vice-chair for the Rainier Prep Public Charter School Board in Seattle, and collaborating in the Deeper Learning Leadership Forum.

Michele Mason joined the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) in June 2019 as the Director of Instructional Leadership. Michele supports district partnerships and provides instructional leadership support for district and school administrators. Prior to CEL, she served as a district administrator, non-profit leader, school administrator and high school English teacher in suburban and urban areas. Michele is interested in how empowered central office staff can support the principal as an instructional, strategic and visionary leader. Michele will complete her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in May 2021.

Dr. Jermaine Dawson is the Chief Academic Officer for Birmingham City Schools. Jermaine is a native of Atlanta, Georgia where he attended and graduated from the Atlanta Public Schools. He graduated from Morehouse College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. He then received his Master of Arts degree in educational leadership from Kennesaw State University. In 2019, he received his doctorate degree in educational leadership from Northcentral University. Dr. Dawson has a passion for the education of youth and has served in a myriad of capacities.

Dr. Chris Lennox began his tenure as Superintendent of Mounds View Public Schools on July 1, 2016. Lennox has been with the District since July 2015, serving as the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction. He came to Mounds View from Bloomington Public Schools where he was assistant superintendent for three years. Lennox previously served Stillwater Public Schools as Assistant Superintendent of Learning and Instruction for four years and as the high school principal for five years. Prior to joining Stillwater, he was with South St. Paul Public Schools for eight years in various capacities, including junior high principal as well as dean of students, assistant principal and eventually principal of the high school.

About the Host 

Valerie joined AASA early in 2019 as the Assistant Executive Director responsible for guiding leadership development services and programs. With years of experience in the superintendency and roles in instructional technology, she knows that AASA’s Leadership Network can be a substantial resource for school leaders trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing delivery of K-12 education.

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Leading for Equity is a free professional learning community on for school and district leaders who face many challenges leading schools and driving school improvement for all students, especially now with COVID-19.


The AASA Leadership Network drives superintendent success, innovation and growth, shaping the future of public education while preparing students for what’s next. We are the largest, most diverse network of superintendents in America. Passionate and committed, we connect educational leaders to the professional learning, leadership development, relationships and partnerships they need to ensure a long career of impact.


Robert Low has more than 30 years of educational publishing experience, ranging from editing and product management to online advertising and content development. He also works with to write articles on their professional learning edWebinars.

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