Serving Underrepresented Kids

For many, a life serving others is a calling. For some, it is a legacy.

Nicole Anderson

Nicole Anderson

Such is the case with Nicole Anderson, principal of Highland Elementary School in the Vallejo City Unified School District. Anderson’s grandfather was Jesse Bethel, the first African American to serve on the Vallejo School Board, a position he held for nearly two decades. 

“He had a passion for education,” Anderson said. “He was a real advocate for kids of color.”

Anderson follows in her grandfather’s footsteps and is proud to continue his tradition of public service. She took over the 630-plus student Highland Elementary School in 2011. The K-5 school in the San Francisco Bay Area has a 35 percent English learner rate and 84 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The importance of education was instilled in Anderson at a very early age.

“It was not an option not to go to school,” she said. “A part of growing up was knowing education was important.”

But Anderson wasn’t always sure she would become an educator herself. She began her studies at Oregon State University as a business major. And, although offered a basketball scholarship, Anderson’s grandfather reminded her that her studies should be her No. 1 priority.

“I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, I see the seed my grandfather planted,” she said.

Basketball was always her passion. After college, Anderson set out to turn that passion into a profession, and got a job as a basketball coach.

“I love working with kids, and I love coaching,” she said.

Her principal saw her potential as an educator, and encouraged her to pursue a teaching credential. As soon as she stepped into the classroom, she knew she was on the right track.

“I loved it right away,” she said, adding that now, as an education leader, there is no doubt she made the right choice.

Education never ends. There’s no retiring in education. There are so many ways to support other educators.
— Nicole Anderson

Anderson’s strength as a leader comes from her ability to empower others. Rather than top-down leadership, she gives her staff duties that use their personal skills and provide them with a sense of ownership in the outcome. She also believes strongly in creating a team, and includes all stakeholders in the process – from teachers to students to parents.

Creating an engaging, powerful learning environment for all students is one of Anderson’s highest priorities. Budget cuts mean fewer resources for professional learning, so Anderson must come up with creative ways to strengthen teaching and learning.

“We try to make time to reflect and share best practices on how to effectively reach all kids,” she said.

Another priority is ensuring parents feel connected to the school. Language barriers and economic limitations can sometimes make parental involvement tough, but Anderson counters this by making use of technology, hosting special events such as family reading and art nights, and making personal phone calls home, in both English and Spanish, which she does herself.

As a parent of young children, Anderson said she can relate to parents and help them support their own children’s endeavors at school.

“I can take off my principal hat and put on my parent hat,” she said. “I can shift gears and think, ‘what would my own third grader need?’”

Finding balance in her work is a constant demand. As a school principal, she is both instructional leader and manager, and it can often be difficult to find time to do both. This is especially difficult in light of the state budget cuts to public education, which means reductions in key staff members who otherwise would take on tasks such as discipline or facilities.

On a recent school day, Anderson visited a handful of classrooms to observe and guide the learning that is taking place. Like most principals, she does this on a daily basis. Her visits were derailed on several occasions as she single-handedly addressed several issues unrelated to learning: a squabble among fifth-grade girls, a student talking in class, and a flooded boys’ restroom.

“These kinds of discipline issues take time away from my work as an instructional leader,” Anderson said. “I don’t have a vice principal.”

Her work promoting diversity echoes the work of her grandfather. She focuses on the student achievement gap and the need to provide students of color with the resources they need to succeed academically.

“Equity is probably the biggest elephant in the room,” she said. “I’m having those conversations like my granddad did. I ask the same question: ‘How do we address that?’”

Anderson said she hopes to continue the legacy her grandfather began by staying active in the field of education and supporting those who, like her, feel the draw to public service.

“I want to take what I’ve learned and help other young administrators,” she said. “Education never ends. There’s no retiring in education. There are so many ways to support other educators.”

Originally appeared in EdCal, www.acsa.org