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Creating A Culture of Belonging: A Changemaker’s Story

Creating A Culture of Belonging: A Changemaker’s Story

June 14, 2023

Noelani Gabriel-Holt is the principal at Girls Prep Bronx II Elementary School located in New York, serving kindergarten through third grade. Girls Prep is a part of the Public Prep charter school network. The network has seven single-gender public charter schools across five campuses in Manhattan and the Bronx. We first got to know Noelani back in 2021 during the National Alliance’s first-ever Changemakers Awards for going above and beyond for her school and community. In addition to advocating for inclusion and restorative justice, she served on the Cambridge LGBTQ+ Commission in Massachusetts to help create safe spaces.  

We caught up with Noelani during Pride Month to discuss her role as a school leader and ways to establish a welcoming and inclusive school environment.  

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A PRINCIPAL?

Ultimately, what inspired me to be a principal was my AP U.S. History teacher. I initially wanted to be a journalist writing about hip-hop or politics until we did a unit in her class that made connections between educational equity, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Movement. I became passionate about understanding the inequities in the education system of my hometown. I wanted to understand why those inequities existed and what could be done about them. It was because of this experience I decided that being an educator would allow me to impact social change and help to dismantle systemic inequities in Black and Brown communities.  

WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT YOUR ROLE? 

What I enjoy most about being a principal is the joy you experience when you see a child thrive in a supportive environment. Being a principal gives you the opportunity to impact so many lives. Working in a single-gender school, I have the privilege of watching our girls grow into confident readers, mathematicians, scientists, and agents of change. That is a gift in and of itself.   

WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU AT GIRLS PREP? 

Every day, I greet my families and scholars at arrival. I greet them all by name to ensure they know the first second of their day that they are seen and known. I love this part of my day because it shows families that I’m available to them. I want to hear from them. I want to know how they feel things are going for their child in our school. I also love this part of the day because I get an opportunity to see every child as they walk into our building and do a pulse-check. I have the opportunity to lay eyes on them and know how their day might start, and that is powerful data to have as a leader.   

HOW DO YOU APPLY YOUR EXPERIENCE AS AN INCLUSION AND RESTORATIVE JUSTICE ADVOCATE? 

As a leader, our role is to create the conditions for others to bring their gifts to the community and shine. With the understanding that things will always change and that everyone is unique, I strive to create conditions that feel supportive, flexible, and expansive to give everyone the opportunity to thrive. As a principal, there is a delicate balance of needing to see how the entire ecosystem of an organization fits together while also understanding the unique experience of each member of the ecosystem. My north star is always: we work for the kids. Everything we do on their behalf has to be with their best interest and needs in mind. This means we also need to provide an environment where adults can grow and be challenged. If our goal is to be inclusive and restorative, we must dismantle perfectionism. We are in pursuit of excellence, not perfection. The difference is that perfection is about meeting an unattainable standard someone else has set. Excellence is about getting better and wanting more for yourself. At Public Prep, we believe that every scholar in our care has inherent greatness. Every teacher in our care has inherent greatness. Being inclusive and restorative means creating the conditions to help them to achieve that greatness. 

WHAT RECENT SUCCESSES AT GIRLS PREP WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHARE? 

I am incredibly proud of the work that we have done to develop a strong literacy program in our earliest grades. We are ending the year with over 70% of our kindergarten and first grade students reading on grade level. Literacy is power. Literacy is access. Literacy is liberation. Our teachers have embraced the Science of Reading because they understand that our children need solid foundational skills so they can fall in love with reading. Our network and school have made a genuine commitment to ensuring that every scholar builds a love of literacy. Teachers, families, leaders, and colleagues across our network of Public Prep and in our school Girls Prep, have committed to that priority this year. Connected to our reading growth, is family engagement, of which I am also proud. The level of investment and involvement from our parents and guardians at Girls Prep Bronx II is truly unique. Ninety-five percent of families attended our last round of family-teacher conferences, which illustrates the investment our families have in their scholars’ education. Our families recognize they play a crucial role in our scholars’ success in school. I am proud of the learning partnerships we have built this year that have led to such phenomenal results for our scholars. 

AS A QUEER SCHOOL LEADER, WHAT GUIDANCE DO YOU HAVE FOR SCHOOL LEADERS LOOKING TO CREATE AN INCLUSIVE AND WELCOMING ENVIRONMENT FOR THE LGBTQ+ STAFF AND STUDENTS? 

Start with your values and stick to them, unapologetically. Our core values at Public Prep are scholarship, excellence, community and integrity. If our actions are driven by our values, then we will consistently strive to have an inclusive and welcoming environment for staff and students including those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Another key action for school leaders is to ensure your school policies specifically address issues of discrimination related to gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. While LGBTQ+ people and identities are not new, the language and best practices for schools to support LGBTQ+ folks are constantly improving and evolving. Ensure your policies around acknowledgment and use of the correct pronouns and names are clear in your handbooks. Also, be clear and consistent with students, families, and staff regarding the inclusion of key texts or units in your curriculum. In my experience, because there is a high level of disinformation about the LGBTQ+ community, the more transparent you are about what is being taught and why, the more confident families feel that they are in the loop. With regard to curriculum, it is important to remind our communities that as schools, we are tasked with preparing our children to have the skills they need to thrive educationally. Learning how to communicate and express understanding across all lines of difference is part of how we prepare our children to be positive members of the global community. 

WHAT DOES CELEBRATING PRIDE MEAN TO YOU? 

Pride is joy. Pride is safety. Pride is love. Pride is protest, acknowledgment, and celebration. Pride Month is an opportunity to reflect on how we create space for everyone across the spectrum of gender, gender expression, and sexual orientation to be themselves authentically. During Pride Month, schools should provide scholars with opportunities to learn how they can foster a community where everyone feels they belong. During other months of the year, we often recognize important figures. The reality is that many of the trailblazers and activists we celebrate during Latinx Heritage Month or Black History Month for example, are also LGBTQ+. When we recognize the fullness of each person’s identity, we can truly understand the impact and accomplishments they have made on our world. 

HOW CAN READERS SUPPORT STUDENTS AT GIRLS PREP? 

We are a growing school that will be adding one grade every year until we reach 8th grade. We are always looking to make connections with community members, organizations, foundations, and donors who want to support our growth or connect us to resources. Anyone living within the New York City metro area can support Girls Prep Bronx II by visiting during College and Career Week, hosting our school at your workplace or alma mater, being a guest reader, or volunteering your time. If you would like to make a gift to Girls Prep Bronx II, please visit our website. On behalf of our scholars, staff, and families, we appreciate your support! 

 

Brittnee Baker is the manager of communications and marketing at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 

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