The Path to More Diverse Leadership

Today, children of color are the majority of the nation’s school-aged population under 15 years of age and 31.6% of NAIS member schools' total student enrollment. By 2045, the white population is  expected to become the minority group. These and other trends suggest that greater strides are needed to increase the racial, ethnic, and cultural composition of independent school leadership to ensure our industry derives the benefits that diversity promises—from producing stronger teams and bringing in greater creativity and insights to improving academic and social outcomes for all students.

Like industries outside of education, independent schools lack diversity at the senior-most leadership level. In 2019, NAIS found that just 8% of heads of school are people of color, and only 16% of all administrators are educators of color. One frequently untapped resource in the independent school leadership pipeline is the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner, 77% of whom identify as a person of color. The most recent NAIS “State of Diversity” findings show practitioners taking on an increased role in their schools, with larger budgets and more responsibilities. These findings correlate with another key outcome in this year’s survey: The tasks, functions, and duties of DEI professionals span all areas of school life, signaling that the role is among the strongest stepping-stones to headship.

A Leader’s Skill Set

Since 2009, NAIS has conducted “State of Diversity” report four times (2009, 2014, 2017, 2019) to capture the role, function, and background of DEI practitioners in independent schools and identify the top challenges they currently face. The 2019 report included 346 practitioners. Findings show diversity practitioners more likely to hold a full-time position (54% compared to 34% in 2009) and lead budgets of more than $30,000 or more (33% compared to 10% in 2009). 

The 2019 report highlights the wide range of responsibilities in the DEI practitioner’s portfolio. Roughly 70% contribute to decisions around hiring and curriculum development; 84% have program oversight responsibilities; 72% lead workshops and other professional development opportunities; 64% develop and monitor strategic planning; 52% manage budgets; and 48% meet with the board on DEI issues and concerns.

One survey respondent drew this connection to headship: “I am the only person in the building that actively works with students and teachers from K–8. I’ve had experience working with budget, admission, and advancement. My ability to listen, make suggestions based on strengths, and general knowledge about literally every part of the school is due to how I redefined this role.” Because of varied daily responsibilities, and positions in the administrative hierarchy that include assistant head of school and division head, many DEI practitioners understand and have proven experience with the challenges and complexity of headship.

Leadership for a Changing World

Despite the challenges, DEI practitioners are motivated to move into leadership roles with increased responsibilities. Twenty-five percent of respondents directly named a school leadership position (such as head of school, dean, etc.) as part of their five-year goals, and they see their experience as a strength in this pursuit. One practitioner stated, “I would like to be a division head and eventually head of school. I think an equity lens should be applied from every vantage point of leadership. It would be the baseline of my foundational work in every leadership role I have moving forward.”

Many of the practitioners who did not explicitly state in the survey that they sought to be a school leader spoke about taking on more responsibilities in their communities, be it moving into external consulting roles or entering the higher education arena. Many more practitioners would likely express such interest if schools actively structured the position as part of the leadership pipeline and staffed the role to advance the institution’s espoused DEI values and 21st-century student outcomes.

When considering the impacts of changing demographics on their school communities and the leadership needed to leverage these differences for future success, heads of school who employ DEI professionals are wise to tap this reservoir of able and willing talent. DEI practitioners are often in the room where critical decisions are made, with 76% of full-time practitioners being a member of the administrative team. These administrators are leading schoolwide initiatives, managing budgets, and helping ensure progress for a school culture that supports all members of the community.   

The Need for Support

Research shows that mentoring is a career success driver, and this is especially true for people of color and white women who recently reported that their primary mentorship relationship was vital to their careers. However, just 14 practitioners out of over 250 who responded to this question reported having a mentor at their school who could help provide a sounding board during difficult times, and only 17 practitioners stated they had a sponsor at their school. Most of the in-house mentorships described were informal, with most meetings occurring on an ad-hoc basis. Conversely, some practitioners have successfully sought more formal mentor relationships and a community of support outside their schools: “I've created a network of friends and diversity practitioners at other schools,” one respondent said.

The lack of structured internal support for early career practitioners and the variability of external connections leaves the majority of practitioners without ready access to the kind of relationship proven to help navigate workplace culture, understand power dynamics, test assumptions, collaborate toward effective decision-making, and advance in their chosen profession.

Meanwhile, educational leaders in almost every position—including the diversity practitioner—report elevated levels of stress and burnout. The complex and highly charged atmosphere associated with managing racial and cultural conflict, the slow pace of change common when addressing institutional inequity, and the lack of internal supports are some of the reasons respondents described the role as stressful and associated with burnout. Still, many practitioners try to balance stress with their love of DEI work: “I cannot imagine sustaining this level of emotional involvement/stress [in my job] over such a long period of time… [but] I love this work and I love supporting conversations about our larger world and social change.”

Initial Next Steps

Heads of school can advance the leadership skills and competencies of DEI practitioners by creating a formal mentorship program at their school and serving as a mentor and sponsor. The key distinction between a mentor and a sponsor is that a mentor advises aspiring leaders and a sponsor advocates for them. Developing a mentor-mentee relationship between the DEI practitioner and head of school can be mutually advantageous. Through mentorship, DEI practitioners can accelerate their leadership learning and gain the support all employees need to maximize productivity and engagement. Through collaborative planning and direct reporting, heads of school can learn equally from DEI practitioners who bring a different perspective and skill set to school leadership discussion and decision-making.

Over the past decade, the demands of DEI work in schools and other organizations have grown in depth and scope. Independent school practitioners have risen to these challenges, taking on more responsibility and increasing their skills and capacity to help the school adjust to the changing landscape. By making use of formal audits—including the school’s strategic plan for DEI and data from the NAIS Assessment of Multiculturalism and Inclusivity (AIM) or similar studies—and checking in regularly with the DEI practitioner, heads of schools monitor the changing landscape and strengthen the DEI practitioner role. Moreover, by recognizing their role as DEI champion, heads of schools can build crucial partnerships with practitioners, and help diversify the talent pipeline needed in the independent education industry.
Caroline Blackwell

Caroline G. Blackwell is vice president for equity and justice at NAIS. 

Davis Taske

Davis Taske is a former research analyst at NAIS.