Real champions inspire us because we know they give everything to make a difference. Through this column, we are helping make known real champions in the lives of children and youth. At NCUST, we are thankful for all the many equity champions who are, each day, changing lives, changing schools, and changing communities.
In New York City’s South Bronx (the nation’s poorest congressional district), Principal Alexa Sorden and her team of dedicated educators transformed a twice-closed, low-performing, persistently dangerous school to become one of the highest performing schools in New York State. Almost all the school’s students are Black or Latinx, however, students of color at Concourse Village Elementary outperform White students in New York State in both English language arts and mathematics. If all schools in America performed like Concourse Village, the “achievement gap” as we know it, would no longer exist. Concourse Village Elementary was a 2020 gold winner of the America’s Best Urban Schools Award.
As a young child, Principal Sorden was interested in becoming an attorney; however, as a high school student, she completed community service hours by tutoring a first-grade student for a semester. The following summer, she saw the student with his mother and the mom told Alexa, “Thank you. Because of you, my son knows how to read.” At that moment, she decided to become a teacher. “I wanted to teach children how to read. I wanted to set them free,” she explained. “Learning how to read reduces the chances of going to prison, especially for Black and Brown students; therefore, I chose education to make a true difference in the lives of others.”
Since she became an educator, she has served as a teacher, literacy coach, director of student achievement, and principal. After successfully leading a middle school, she became the principal of Concourse Village Elementary. Teachers and parents perceive Principal Sorden as a true instructional leader. In describing herself, she explained:
I model a lot. I’m the happiest when I’m in the classrooms. I love teaching. So, I model for teachers how I plan the lesson. I model how to teach concepts. I model a positive attitude about what we believe our children can achieve. I model by how I treat children, how I interact with them, and how I hold myself to the same expectations to which I hold our teachers. I model respect for the children in front of me because that is what they merit. I walk the talk.
Principal Sorden believes the successes achieved at Concourse Village are attainable at other schools. She emphasized that success depends upon 1) establishing consistent structures that create stability, trust, predictability, and coherence, 2) creating a positive, loving, and nurturing environment where students have voice and choice, and 3) providing high-quality, culturally relevant instructional materials.
Principal Sorden explained that school administrators must lead by modeling how students are treated, influencing the climate of classrooms, and elevating the instructional expectations for all students. To explain more specifically what this means and what it looks like, she described what she looks for when she visits classrooms. She shared:
When I enter a classroom at Concourse Village, I expect to see students leading small groups, and students leading whole groups. I expect to hear students’ voices. I expect to see teachers engaging with students in a thoughtful manner. I expect to feel a sense of love and respect. I expect to see students annotating texts. I expect to see students engaging in respectful debates about important questions or topics and using evidence to support their assertions. I expect to see smiles. I expect to see students who look as if they know that the classroom is their learning space and it was designed for them. I expect to see students taking risks by asking questions or giving answers to questions they had not anticipated. I expect to see students feeling joy. I expect to see students feeling a sense of order and intentionality. And, if I don’t see all I expect, I will be most concerned if I don’t see the sense of joy, love, and safety. The other ideas about things like leading student discussions or probing student thinking could be part of the normal learning curve for teachers. With time and professional development, they could get there. I have more flexibility in those areas. But the sense of joy, love, and safety, those are non-negotiables for me.
NCUST is proud to celebrate Principal Alexa Sorden as a true equity champion. More can be learned about Concourse Village Elementary, Principal Sorden, and her outstanding team of educators in the soon-to-be released book When Black Students Excel: How Schools Can Engage and Empower Black Students.
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