The listening principal, Dr. Kambar Khoshaba, shares how student voices impacted leadership and staff as well as the students themselves, all leading to increased equity. Hear how equity in middle school honors classes was achieved by focusing on student strengths and possibilities. A personal approach to parents and students has produced results.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening. I’m thrilled you’re here.
Steve: 00:34 Student voices increase equity. Joining us today is Dr. Kambar Khoshaba, the principal of Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, Virginia, and the author of several articles around principal leadership. Kambar was featured in a EducationWeek article titled, “Students Sought Changes at Their Middle School – Their Principal Listened. I reached out and I asked that listening principal to join us. So welcome Kambar.
Kambar: 01:07 Thank you for having me here. It’s an honor to join you and looking forward to sharing the things that have worked for us and also hearing ideas from you, what kind of things you’ve had success with as well. So I always believe relationships are reciprocal. Let’s give something, let’s take something and I look forward to this time together.
Steve: 01:28 People told me when I first get into blogging, that it was designed for learning. That if you blogged, you learned and when I expanded it to podcasting, the same thing has come true. So would you give listeners a little bit of your background and the work that you’ve done in the area of school leadership?
Kambar: 01:46 Sure, Steve. I don’t have a traditional path of coming into education. I started off as a school psychologist, did that work for a few years and a lot of the psychological testing, educational testing, projective testing, and quickly found that while that is rewarding work and necessary work, I was not having the opportunity to create connections with kids to the degree that I wanted to. And so I went into teaching. I taught students who had emotional disabilities at the high school level and then from there, I went into administration and this is my 20th year in administration. I’ve spent 11 years at two different middle schools, eight of those years, I’ve been as a principal. And then I’ve also worked nine years at a high school – two different high schools here in Chesapeake, all 25 years have been in Chesapeake.
Kambar: 02:35 But yeah, that’s been my journey. There’s been opportunities, both at a school level and central office level for leadership and I don’t know that there’s any one path. I think we all are kind of figuring it out and trying to do the best we can to help kids along the way and there is no template. It is ever changing as society and kids change. And so my current role as a principal Steve, I’ll tell you, the best job I’ve ever had in my life – being a principal of a middle school, and I’m now getting ready to transition to a high school in Fairfax and returning home to high school has also been a dream of mine so I’m looking forward to it.
Steve: 03:18 Talk a little bit about being a listening listening principal and I have to say, I read quotes from your students who also used that phrase in describing you as a listening principal. So how’d you get there?
Kambar: 03:35 My school psychology background didn’t hurt. But I think a lot of it was, I grew up in a single parent household with two older sisters. If I didn’t wanna listen, they’d make me.
Kambar: 03:45 Let’s keep it real. A lot of it, the first teachers are at home.
Steve: 03:52 You bet.
Kambar: 03:53 And I had some very influential teachers and I’ll tell you in all sincerity, my two sisters were like mothers to me. I mean, they
doted on me, they encouraged me, they straightened me out when I needed to be straightened out. My father raised all three of us. Very unusual situation. He was a guidance counselor, a public school, high school counselor and I have to attribute a lot of my perspective of that active listening to him.
Kambar: 04:19 He continues to be a mentor for me. He’s 86 years old, continues to just be an incredible role model for me. And so as I’ve gotten into school, I use a business mentality of listening to my client to design a customized product for them. And the clients, of course, are the students. They’re the primary clients. Teachers, parents, community members are also clients, but it’s really the students, who, if we design programs for them, we need to hear their voice on whether or not they’re receiving our product the way we intended it to be. So obviously, it’s been several years since I’ve been a middle school student, so I can tell you what I think they would enjoy, but they’ll shoot straight and tell me whether something’s working, not working and how to make it better.
Steve: 05:10 The article that I read mentioned several changes that occurred from student voices. And one of them was around the the dress code. So you want talk a little bit about what you found there?
Kambar: 05:24 Yeah. We talk about shooting straight – I mean, I did not have a design of let’s see how we can change our school. That was not the purpose. I’ll take you back a couple of years. As we were in March of 2020 and the pandemic hit and all of us were thinking we might be outta school for like a week or two, it turned into much longer than that, of course. And around that same time, everything that was happening with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor was happening around our country and staff members and students were hurting and they needed to talk. And at the time they needed to talk, the pandemic happened and they were suddenly isolated. So talk about frustration. You’re feeling these emotions but you have no one to talk to about it with.
Kambar: 06:06 So I started off with the staff. We created the social justice council with them. We met for five weeks and just took an article about leading equity through COVID and beyond. And we just spent some time talking about it. It went so well. It was such a resounding success. I said, well, let’s see if we can extend this social justice council to students, not covering the same article, because we’re not talking about leading equity, but let’s see what’s on their minds and talk about some social justice issues. And this is where they very quickly identified our dress code as being racist and sexist. When you put something out for kids to talk about, check your ego at the door, because they’re not throwing bouquets at you, right? This is something where I wanted them to be real.
Kambar: 06:53 How do we get better? So when we started the social justice council, I just asked them what’s on your minds as things that we need to improve at our school? Dress code and the enrollment honors classes were two of their top issues. And then we talked about a couple of other things as well, but as we went into it, I told them, well, listen, let’s not just talk about feelings, who’s willing to go up there and find some research for me? They came back – I’m might kidding you, they came back with like six articles around the country and not just in Virginia, this is an issue where students of color are getting hit with more dress code violations than their counterparts and girls are getting dress code violations more than boys.
Kambar: 07:39 So how do we address this? And so I asked them specifically for recommendations of how they would wanna tweak our dress code. They identified things like we need to increase the length of the shorts. Like we had it where the shorts had to go a couple inches above your knee. They’re like, we can’t find anything fashionable like that. So we raised it to mid-thigh. They asked about having the holes in their jeans. Again, it could only be like an inch above your knee. They wanted to raise those up because that’s how fashion was. Girls wanted to wear their leggings without having to have a shirt that covers them down to the middle of their thighs. And so things of that nature. And so as we talked about it, I couldn’t really disagree with them. I mean, everything that we approved, when I go to a mall, to indoor our outdoor mall, I see these people wearing the very clothing that these girls were talking about wanting to wear and nothing negative is happening from it.
Kambar: 08:29 So why are we creating a situation that is overly oppressive? One girl told me, and was cited in the magazine, Natalie, she said, I worry more about being dressed coded than I am worrying about what I’m gonna learn. And Steve, I’m telling you, that day was the day in my heart that I committed that we’re gonna change the dress code. Because if I have a student feeling that way at my school, and I allow that to continue happening, then shame on me for being the principal of that kind of situation. So I asked them along the whole way, I wanted to empower them to see that they have power in their voice. This is the first time that they really get to practice the democratic process of putting your voice out there. And I’m not talking about politics, I’m just talking about getting your voice out there.
Kambar: 09:19 And so they did a presentation for our faculty and they presented four different dress code items they wanted to have adjusted. None of the faculty disagreed. I mean, walking into it, I can’t tell you that everybody was on board, and after it was over, I can’t tell you everybody was on board, but nobody voiced a concern at that time. I shared the results with the parents, asked them to contact me if they had any concerns, of course worked in collaboration with my central office. And so we changed the dress code policy. But the best part was, we have a video recorded morning announcement program, and I had the four leaders of this program, the social justice club, they came forward and they did the presentation to their peers, their classmates, and they presented the changes. They got all the credit because they deserved it. And it was an inspiring story to see 12, 13, 14 year olds take a chance and take a risk on putting their hearts on the line, knowing that these adults who we’ve had this policy in place for at least two decades, no changes, they took a chance and it paid off.
Kambar: 10:28 I guess I’m proud that we updated our dress code, but I’m more proud of the students for putting themselves out there and seeing the leadership ability that’s within them.
Steve: 10:39 Well, move on to talk about the students raising the question about equity and the advanced classes, because that really jumped out at me when I read the piece.
Kambar: 10:52 Yeah. Well, I had I had heard a couple years prior of that, one of our central office administrators shared data with us about the disproportionality data that we had in most of our schools where certain groups of kids were getting suspended more than other groups of kids. And it was primarily our students of color getting suspended more often than their counterparts. And so we’ve been doing equity work, Steve for several years, I’d say six years. And when I have this data, we were about year three or four. And and again, defense mechanism kicks in – how could we be having this kind of problem? I mean, we’re a school of equity. How are we missing the boat? Here’s why we’re missing the boat –
Steve: 11:30 I just wanna get this – the kids pointed it out to you. Correct?
Kambar: 11:33 The kids pointed this part out to me, yes. But the background was there in my mind. We’ve got some equity work that was a blind spot. The academics was a blind spot because just like the discipline was a blind spot for me because I was thinking, we’re doing all this stuff around student voice and making sure kids are feeling good about being school. How is it we could miss this? Well, when we got to the social justice council, the kids said that. They said, we don’t see any diversity in our honors and gifted programs. So I got the data and again, they were right. On the year that we started this, our school was 37% black and our honors program was 24% black.
Kambar: 12:15 So we had a 13% disproportionality rate with zero being perfect proportionality, we were minus 13. So how do you change that? Well, I could tell you one way that it would not work and this is just philosophical. I don’t believe we tweak a discriminatory practice and think that it’s gonna be fine. At the root of it, it was still discriminatory. And so we needed to pull it out root in stem and start over. And so that’s what we did. Before we were looking at state test scores and we were looking at that you had to be pass advanced on the state test score. And you also had to have an advanced reading level to get in. The third criteria was a teacher recommendation. And again, these are the three criteria that led us to being a minus 13%, the second highest disproportionality rate in our school system for middle schools. Out of 10 middle schools, we were the second worst.
Kambar: 13:10 So what we did is I asked teachers. I went to teachers and said, talk to me about the characteristics that students have in your honors and gifted programs who are successful. And they came up with seven criteria. I didn’t get to put a limit on it. Just tell me the criteria that what you would gauge as being successful. They talked about things like kids who are organized, students who are independent learners and ambitious about learning. Students who are avid readers, not advanced, but they want to read. So we took these seven criteria, put on a ranking of low, medium, or high and let teachers, parents, and students rate students on these seven criteria to get in. So where we started with this, of course, we promoted that we’re looking for all students to come in, but we’re really encouraging students who are in average classes to try an honors class if you’re making an, A or a B in there.
Kambar: 14:00 I had zero kids sign up. So then I pulled the rosters of all the average classes, took the names of all the kids who got A’s and B’s, and we made individual phone calls. 83 students of color who were not recommended for honors because we started this process after the course requests were already submitted in January, February time period. So we started this like in June, but I didn’t wanna wait a whole nother year. We’ll save these kids. So we made individual individual phone calls, 83 kids, and every parent accepted every parent wanted their child to come in. And the other thing we changed was that in a middle school concept, we have teaming going on where the English, Math, Science, and Social Studies teachers will each take about a hundred kids.
Kambar: 14:50 And the kids rotate those same four teachers. Then we have another team of a hundred and another team of a hundred. So in the past, we would require that if you took an honors class, all your classes had to be honors. Change that to say you can be honors in one subject and average classes in the other three, which was reflective of the natural tendency, that some of us has strengths in them and some subjects, but not in all. So like I said, 83 kids signed up for one or more new honors classes and at the end of the first semester, 91% of them had an, A or a B in those honors classes. So why is that important? We know that we want kids to have as many doors open when they finish high school as possible. Certainly college is one of those doors.
Kambar: 15:34 So in order to get into a four year college, as a freshman going into college, obviously the more AP and honors classes you have, the more likely you’re gonna be accepted. Well, if you’re gonna get into AP classes, you have to have honors classes along the way before you go in there and when do you ever start taking honors classes? It gappens at a middle school level. So I think it’s critical at a middle school for all my middle school colleagues out there. We gotta get kids into these honors classes, not because we’re gonna put them on track to go to college, because every child doesn’t need to go to college, every child doesn’t wanna go to college. Some want to go military, someone go to workforce, but we are in the business of creating opportunities, not shutting doors. And so, like I said, college is gonna be one of those doors we wanna make sure is open.
Kambar: 16:13 So that’s where it started. That’s where we needed it to do work. And this year, we went from a minus 13% under or disproportionate disproportional rate for our black students, we’re now plus 2%, over-identified black students in honors classes. I’ve had kids come to me this year on an individual basis saying, is there any way, is it too late? Can I get an honors? I’m like, yeah, there’s no timetable on this. It’s all about kids who are ambitious, who want to secure a better future for themselves and us bulldozing any barrier that’s in front of them to allow them to realize their potential.
Steve: 16:50 As I’ve been listening to you, it just keeps going through my head of, it’s really defining what what people talk about when they
say a growth mindset. So this decision isn’t made on what you’ve scored in the past, it’s a decision based on potential that you can illustrate. And if you’ve got a belief in your potential, we’re gonna have a belief in your potential.
Kambar: 17:17 That’s exactly it – hit the nail on the head there. I never want a student to say, I had this dream of trying this, but Dr. Khosaba said, no, I couldn’t do it. It’s gotta be the exact opposite of that. I didn’t believe in myself, but I had a teacher, a secretary, a principal who said, I believe in you. You can do this. And so I think most of us share that same mindset, it’s just, how do you break away from the historical practices of your school or your school division and start looking at a new system for today’s kids?
Steve: 17:55 I’m wondering if you’d kind of give some words of advice, both to to teachers as well as to school leaders around the concept of tapping into student voices.
Kambar: 18:10 Well, I’m as much of a learner as the next person, Steve, when it comes to this. But I can tell you where, where I’ve found a little
bit of success is when we’re asking students about their beliefs, their feelings, their perceptions of things, that we are open to changing. For example, I’m not at a point yet where I feel comfortable with students wearing hoods in school. I’m not judging schools that do because every school culture is different. In my school, in the Southeastern portion of Virginia, I worry about being able to tell which kids are which, and if you have a hood on your face and the draw strings are pulled, I can’t see your face.
Kambar: 18:57 So I’m not gonna ask kids about whether or not they wanna change that I might ask them how they feel about it if there’s some big issue, but I don’t wanna fake them into thinking that this is gonna possibly change. I ask about their voice to be heard on things that I’m wondering about that I feel like have the potential to be changed or updated. We do it in a variety of ways. I mean, I’ve done something as technical as running a Cahoot or in our cafeteria kids bring their devices to the cafeteria. We have TVs in there, post some questions, kids log on to, like I said, Cahoot or Nearpod and then they give us their opinion. We’ve done something as technical as that, or we’ve done something as low tech as taking a whiteboard into the hallway with some dry erase markers and asking kids to just tell us how many teachers at school do you feel like you can connect to if you had a problem – 0 1, 2, 3, or four or more? And kids will put check marks.
Kambar: 19:48 Student voice doesn’t have to be complicated. To “wow” them, to steal your term from your book, to “wow” them, I think we just have to ask them how they feel. We have a student advisory council that we meet with four times a year, once each nine week period. One of our students said when we asked the question, how can we improve our student advisory council? They said the fact that you’re just asking us how we feel, ot means a lot to us. Sometimes you can’t change things like, you know, one time a student asked me, well, can we get Koolaid to come out of the water fountain?
Kambar: 20:21 Well, I can’t do that. So it’s not about children telling us what to do and I think that’s where some adults kind of get a little
bit uncomfortable students.
Kambar: 20:30 They aren’t telling us what to do, they’re just telling us their perceptions. Go back to the business mentality. If our clients are coming into our restaurant or to our retail store and they’re buying a lot of gadget X, but not gadget Y, don’t we want to ask about why gadget Y? Is it just you don’t need gadget Y? Is it too highly priced? But you gotta ask them, you gotta survey them and you might not like the feedback in terms of, it’s not gonna make you feel good, but you can make adjustments so that they buy into the product and they buy into the service. And that’s what this is all about. You and I have already had our middle school experience. That’s done. They haven’t had their middle school and high school experience, or even elementary school experience. So why not ask them what we can do to help improve the service model for them? And I think that’s the biggest thing to me is talking to them about topics that are meaningful to them, topics that we are willing to to bend on, negotiate on, to improve the educational experience for kids.
Steve: 21:27 Well, thank you so much. Would you tell the listeners how they might be able to connect with you? I’ll post the EdWeek article that I talked about, I’ll put the link to that in the lead-in to the podcast, but I’m sure there’s things you’ve said that people would like to ask you a question about or find out more details. How can they connect?
Kambar: 21:48 Sure.Well as I said, I’m in the middle of a transition, so I’m gonna give you my email address. It’s email@example.com. I’m gonna have a Twitter and I’m gonna have an IG account, but I don’t have those set up yet so those will be forthcoming. But for right now, the best way, and you can also just go to the school website as well, South County High School, if you go to that website, I’ll have the link there for my email address and very soon we’ll have the Instagram and Twitter accounts there too.
Steve: 22:25 Well, as soon as you get those things set up, let me know and I’ll put them back out to folks. I look forward to checking back in as
you get into your new role and and finding your new learning as you step in there. Best of luck to you.
Kambar: 22:42 Thank you, sir. Take care.
Steve [Outro]: 22:46 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley, ponders out loud on iTunes and pod B. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs Barkley.