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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Leading for Diversity: How School Leaders Achieve Racial and Ethnic Harmony


"People would like to see our race problem disappear. And the way they think it's going to disappear is by not talking about it. But the real way you make it disappear is by talking about it, learning about it, and understanding it, and then you'll see a change, not just by ignoring it." – a 12th grade student

The Leading for Diversity research project emerged from a Principals' Forum developed by ARC Associates in 1995. Participating principals expressed a need for successful strategies to implement in their schools: strategies to dispel racial tensions, class conflict, and violence (particularly violence related to race or ethnicity); to create a vision that includes students of diverse backgrounds; and to increase staff members' understanding of cultural differences. These principals were among a growing number of educators aware of a lack of attention to diversity issues in the preparation of school leaders. Administrative preparation programs have traditionally emphasized management skills (Fullan 1999) and have not given adequate attention to the need to mediate the new diversity that characterizes many urban and suburban schools (Contreras, 1992). The Leading for Diversity work builds on Allport's theory of equal status contact (1954), Maslow's hierarchy of needs (1968), theories of racial identity development (Tatum, 1997), and multicultural inclusion theory (Banks, 1993) in an effort to integrate diversity issues in the theory and practice of leadership.

To inform the future preparation of school leaders, CREDE researchers at ARC designed a 3-year study to document the approaches of school leaders who are proactive in addressing racial/ethnic tensions in schools and in encouraging positive interethnic relations. Although the study focused on race/ethnic relations, we assume there is an underlying commonality among all forms of intolerance and oppression, whether people are the subject of harassment because of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, or any other kind of "difference."

This research brief presents six of the key findings from the study. The researchers used a nomination process to select 21 schools representing different levels (e.g., elementary, high) and geographic regions of the U.S. To be considered for the study, schools had to have (1) at least three ethnic groups; (2) a tangible history of interethnic conflict, either in the school or community; and (3) leadership that was implementing innovative approaches to prevent racial/ethnic conflict and improve interethnic relations. The researchers conducted qualitative case studies of these schools to describe approaches used by school leaders in different contexts, collecting data that included interviews with 1009 individuals, observations of 441 classes and other school and community events, and relevant school documents and records.

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