Sacramento’s Katherine Johnson Middle School is named after the first black woman to work as a NASA scientist. It’s also the first school in its district named after a person of color. Dr. Shana Henry, Katherine Johnson Middle School’s principal, knows the value of this kind of representation. Her mission: prop up the voices of marginalized education leaders and students.
A pioneer in her own right, Dr. Shana Henry continues to braid representation, community, and stories into her 17-year career in education. Her commitment to amplifying under-represented voices is evident in her Principals of Success podcast, leadership strategies, and commitment to empowering students to tell their school’s story.
Our CEO Ben Pankonin caught up with Dr. Shana Henry on her groundbreaking podcast, her mission for Katherine Johnson Middle School, and the power of representation in education. Check out the full interview below!
Ben Pankonin: Tell us about your podcast.
Dr. Shana Henry: The podcast is called Principals of Success. It started two years ago this spring, and it came as a result of reading a book called Leading While Female, which talks about the female educator’s journey and how it’s typically capped off at principal/director level, not really rising to the superintendency seat. In that book, some data really stayed with me after reading it. It said that about 24% of the superintendents across the country are women, but less than 6% are women of color. And that data just, I don’t know, it was hard to swallow and hard to think about. They’re out there. They’re doing great things. I’m one, I feel like I’ve done a good job. I know a lot. I started to think about their stories and who was capturing their stories and the Principals of Success podcast was born. And so each week I try to interview someone from across the country, that’s leading a school. I try to get women of color. So 90% have been, and that’s what we do on the podcast.
BP: What’s next for the podcast? What do you see coming next? And do you have any stories of what it’s led to just asking about these stories?
SH:Well, it has resonated with a lot of women. I’m amazed that people listen to it, that’s first and foremost, and that they love hearing more about the stories more than they do about the leadership strategies. So that’s been really interesting. I thought it would be the other way around, but people have loved hearing the humanity behind the people and the leaders.
We already held our first virtual conference last summer. So that was pretty cool. So we did that and hopefully a YouTube channel is coming soon, but mostly, I just want people to have an awareness of the women that are out there. And hopefully bring up some more female leaders after being inspired by the stories that they hear.
BP: What has telling these stories meant to you?
SH: It has fed my soul. And when I say that, I don’t say that lightly. When I started the podcast, it came at a time in my life where I wasn’t really sure if I was staying with the district or leaving the district. And it was a hard year overall. I started to question myself as a leader and that was after 15 years of being a principal. And so every week when I interview these women, I feel like it’s professional development for me. I feel like I can hear their passion and journey, and it keeps me going because there’s like-minded people out there like me who want to do good. They have a journey, a story, and barriers they overcame, and they’re doing amazing things for kids every day.
BP: That’s awesome. So this has developed a bit of community. How do you see that community developing?
SH: Well, I think it’s building a network of people across the country. So now I have a new circle of sisters that I never knew about before that are not just within arms reach–they’re across the country or to the Hawaiian Islands. Across the water. So it’s been really cool. And I think it’s created just awareness of people saying, “Oh, these should be future leaders. They do have an opportunity and they should have access.”
”Every week when I interview these women, I feel like it's professional development for me. I feel like I can hear their passion and journey, and it keeps me going because there's like-minded people out there like me who want to do good. They have a journey, a story, and barriers they overcame, and they're doing amazing things for kids every day.
BP: So tell me about the next journey for you.
SH: So the next thing is creating a space specifically for Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders. They are very underrepresented in education, but they climb the ladder even less. In California where we are, there are associations for different racial affinity groups, but not for Asian American Pacific Islander leaders. So CAAPLE was born: the California Association of Asian Pacific Leaders in Education. It was just launched last fall. We are a statewide association and we look to advocate for API students, but also build and grow Asian American Pacific Islander leaders to aspire to higher levels of leadership within education. It’s very exciting. We’ve already tried to connect with other states who are looking to start their own, but now people feel a little more seen and heard when they have something like this out there.
BP: Tell me about the traction you’ve made so far with the association.
SH: So far it’s been a lot of just awareness that we’re creating out there. CALSA, the Latino Superintendents Association and CAAASA, African American, as well as ACSA, the State Administrator Association, all recognize CAAPLE. They all see a need and are very supportive of us. So we’ve had some private corporations that want to sponsor us and be part of the movement. We have people who have already joined as members, and we’re continuing to grow. We hope to have a one-day conference this summer. So it’s just really exciting. I know for me, to this day, I’ve never seen anyone who’s looked like me in a position higher than what I serve right now. I never saw anyone as a principal before. So for me, this is really important because representation does matter. And I think that’s important.
”I know for me, to this day, I've never seen anyone who's looked like me in a position higher than what I serve right now. I never saw anyone as a principal before. So for me, this is really important because representation does matter.
BP: Let’s talk about where you’re at today. Today we are at Katherine Johnson Middle School. How long have you been here, and what’s this journey of being a principal here today?
SH: So Katherine Johnson is in its first year of ever being a school. So it’s pretty exciting. I’ve been here for two years. Last year I was a planning principal, a pseudo 6 through 12 principal. And then this year we’ve taken the 6 through 8 and created our own school. It’s fascinating. I’m in year 17 of being a principal and never opened a new school. I think it’s really exciting to be on the front end. Usually we come in as school leaders into a school that’s very well established, and maybe we’re trying to undo some systems and create new ones, but now we have a blank slate and we get to think about what kids need and want, and really try to create that exceptional climate for everybody in the building and the community. It’s a lot of pressure. But I feel excited. It’s really exciting to do.
BP: So Katherine Johnson Middle School is named after an astronaut, right?
SH: A mathematician who helps the astronauts.
BP: So we have this female STEM leader who is a really early pioneer. How do you feel connected to Katherine Johnson as a character?
SH: Gosh, I never thought of it that way. But I feel connected in that she liked to dream really big. I feel like there were no limitations on what she thought was possible and that’s really kind of my mindset: anything is possible. It’s just about the right timing of doing things. So I feel connected to her in that way. And I think even within our district, it’s the first school–and we’re a pretty large district–it’s the first school to be named after a person of color. That is pretty inspiring considering the community we serve, the leader that’s here, and the people that are in this building. It matters. It’s important.
”It's the first school–and we're a pretty large district–it's the first school to be named after a person of color. That is pretty inspiring considering the community we serve, the leader that's here, and the people that are in this building. It matters. It's important.
BP: We talked a little bit about how social media has helped shape culture. How has that impacted a new school?
SH: Yeah, that’s a great question because this is a different kind of year. All last year, while we were planning, we were distance learning. We couldn’t do the connections with community like we had hoped to be able to do. So social media allowed us to put the person and the emotion behind the build of the school. Show the people and the work that we couldn’t if we were in person. So it started to tell our story from the very beginning, which is also exciting with a brand new school. We are in archival peace with all of our social media, starting from the very beginning. So I think it helps craft the story and helps parents come to the school without having to come to the school. We’re taking everything about our school to them, whether they’re on Facebook, Instagram, wherever, they can be part of our story with us.
BP: You’ve also had students participate in your social media program. How has that worked for you?
SH: That’s been amazing because you see the school through their lens. Students are creating content based on what they think is cool to share or things that they’re proud of–the values they want to highlight. It’s their voice represented without their actual voice. They’re putting these things together. So I think that’s pretty incredible. And teachers, too. Teachers too are sharing content, and that’s pretty exciting.
”Students are creating content based on what they think is cool to share or things that they're proud of–the values they want to highlight. It's their voice represented without their actual voice.
BP: Do you see yourself as a pioneer in education?
SH: Well, I’m going to say no. Because there are probably 10 other people doing it better than me. But I do think I try to keep it new and fresh and innovative wherever possible. I think we have something to learn from everybody.
BP: Anything else you’d like to share?
SH: I would just say it’s really important to tell your school story. I think it’s undervalued incredibly, and I think it is one of the most, if not the most powerful thing you can do as a school leader. I believe we have to control the narrative for our school to build trust, relationship, connections, and pride. Pride in your school to love where you are. And I also think how amazing would it have been to, when we were kids, have this archival thing that can live forever to go back and see the memories and the connections. We have such a powerful tool in our toolbox, and we should be using it as much as possible.
”...It's really important to tell your school story. I think it's undervalued incredibly, and I think it is one of the most, if not the most powerful thing you can do as a school leader. I believe we have to control the narrative for our school to build trust, relationship, connections, and pride.