What has slowed growth in the number of African American school principals in the United States? This was the question that opened “Black Principals: How to Strengthen the Leadership Pipeline,” a panel held during the 46th Annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Leadership Conference.

The discussion featured five African American principals from District of Columbia, Memphis, Tenn, Clinton, Md., Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta, and was moderated by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.)

(from left) Erica Jordan-Thomas, principal Ranson IB Middle School in Charlotte, N.C., William L. Blake, Ed.D., principal at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Clinton, Md., and Elena Bell, Ed.M., principal at Peabody and Watkins Elementary School in Washington, D.C. (AFRO Photo/Brenda Siler)
(from left) Erica Jordan-Thomas, principal Ranson IB Middle School in Charlotte, N.C., William L. Blake, Ed.D., principal at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Clinton, Md., and Elena Bell, Ed.M., principal at Peabody and Watkins Elementary School in Washington, D.C. (AFRO Photo/Brenda Siler)

Nationwide, Norton said the number of African American principals has increased only from nine percent to ten percent in recent years. This small increase prompted the Congresswoman to ask, “What is wrong with the pipeline?”

Though the panel of school principals cited a passion for teaching, the consensus amongst all five pointed to the importance of mentorships as a start for teachers to make it through the pipeline to become principals.

According to William L. Blake, Ed.D., principal at Stephen Decatur Middle School in Clinton, Md., “Mentorships are the number one equalizer that prepares individuals for success. We all know that someone helped us, so we need to reach back to help someone else.

Two principals cited the need for a residency-type of program similar to what doctors and lawyers experience to help prepare for educational advancement. Residency programs were attended by Archie Moss, Jr., who is now principal at Bruce Elementary School in Memphis, Tenn.

“In my third year of teaching, I was in the Emerging Leaders program in Memphis,” said Moss. “I was paired with a Black male principal where I learned how to drive instruction, cultivate leaders, and interact with the community.”

A common theme between the panelists was the challenge to bring in teachers who could best interact with diverse student populations.

“I have to be thoughtful and strategic about diversifying the pool,” said Elena Bell, Ed.M., principal at Peabody and Watkins Elementary Schools in the D.C. public school system. “We struggled to find teachers of color. I had to be very intentional in how I wanted to structure our space.”

When interviewing new teachers for their schools, there was agreement among the principals that in many, cases teachers can improve how they highlight their accomplishments.

“I want to see someone who is a great, amazing teacher before we begin talking about being a principal. I want to know about individual achievement vs. what you have accomplished as a team member,” said Erica F. Jordan-Thomas, principal at Ranson IB Middle School in Charlotte, N.C. “Also, I run across too many teachers who rely on their great rapport with children and not on academic excellence in the classroom.”

Alexandria Bates, Ed.S., the principal of Westlake High School in Atlanta, stressed that principals need to be trained to identify and build a teacher’s capacity in order to move through the pipeline.

All of the principals agreed that being a productive educational leader, whether as a principal or a superintendent, requires developing a strong instructional foundation as a teacher.