This public school principal is passionate about pursuing equity

by Nancy Shohet West ’84

Trelane Clark ’92, P’22 remembers telling then-headmaster Tom Wilcox when she was 14 years old that her goal was to be a school principal. She achieved that goal in July 2020, after more than two decades as a teacher and administrator in public and private schools in the Boston and D.C. areas, when she was named principal at Hooks Elementary School in Chelsea, Mass.

Chelsea is a working-class, largely immigrant city with a predominantly Latinx population. How do you meet the specific challenges of running a school in a generally underserved community? 

I believe it’s the responsibility of teachers and staff in a school system to fully involve students and their families in the educational process. We strive to engage in culturally responsive teaching: learning about and honoring our students and the cultures in which they exist. That may include their racial identity, their ethnic identity, and their linguistic, demographic, and socioeconomic identity. It means investing time in learning about our students’ cultures, yet not depending on students and their families to teach us. It means doing the work ourselves. It might mean saying to a student, “I don’t know Arabic. Can you teach me how to say your name the way your family says it?” It means recognizing that what is considered respectful behavior in children varies from culture to culture. It means talking with your students about their interests, their families, their pets. The teachers who get the most academic success from students are the ones who know their kids backward and forward.

 

What values do you as a leader most want to demonstrate to your faculty and students?

One of my greatest passions is equity for students, teachers, and families, which to me means providing them with the resources — personal, educational, capital — to be successful. It’s our imperative as educators to provide whatever kids need. But that doesn’t come with a manual, and it doesn’t come easily. It requires us to look at how to make the best use of what we can offer our students. They need to feel that they are a part of what’s happening around them and that they have some agency over their own development. I also want my students to know they are safe, loved, and cared for at school.

As a Black female school administrator, how do you approach the responsibility to be a role model at a time when there is such urgency around waking up to white supremacy? 

The United States has very few Black female principals and superintendents. Before becoming a principal, I served as assistant principal in two different suburban communities. It was important to me to be seen in this role by students of color, but I soon realized that as much as those students needed to see me, as a Black female, in a leadership role, so did my white students. I was the only Black woman school-based administrator in both towns. Those positions were instrumental in teaching me many aspects of principalship, even as I faced challenges related both to my race and to being a female. As I was modeling something to my students, I was on a journey, learning more about the space I occupy as a Black female school leader.

How have you found mentors — and mentored others — beyond your own school environment? 

When I first became an administrator, I located a national group called Black Women Education Leaders and started engaging with it through social media. About a year later, that organization invited me to be a panelist for a webinar. Now I’m the vice president, and I’m so grateful to have found them. They highlight my strengths and support me with common struggles as a principal. I’m always connecting with other school leaders, and I try to support those interested in education in whatever ways I am able. 

“If we remember to look at them in terms of the promise they have, if we bring them what they need, they’ll go above and  beyond all of our expectations. I want to see my students blow me out of the water.”

– Trelane Clark ’92, P’22

Having taken on your first principalship in July 2020 in a school system that has stayed remote for the year, you haven’t yet been in the building with your students and teachers. What do you envision when students return to classrooms? 

Right now I just want to see my kids. I want to fist-bump, high-five, and hug them. I want to visit them while they’re learning, walk down the hall with them, talk about the books they’re reading. Kids are so much fun. They are challenging and invigorating. They ask questions. They bring a vibrancy and hope to life that sometimes we adults forget. If we remember to look at them in terms of the promise they have, if we bring them what they need, they’ll go above and  beyond all of our expectations. I want to see my students blow me out of the water.

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