LEADERSHIP STORY

Lessons from a Leader’s Journey

A turnaround principal returns to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston to lift up the community that raised her.

“I was out the door. My bags were packed.” After several years of declining student performance, low morale, and an uninspired campus culture, science teacher Cortney Johnson was ready to leave Key Middle School and teach elsewhere. Key is located in Kashmere Gardens, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston, with a high population of at-risk students. 

Then Erika Carter arrived. As the new school principal, Carter took swift action to re-engage the teachers and staff to implement a fresh vision for turning Key around. The change was immediate and palpable. And Carter’s confidence was contagious, even for those making other plans.

“I put my bags down,” Johnson said. 

It was clear to the teachers, staff, and community that Carter’s passion went deeper than her leadership vision. For Carter, this work is personal. This neighborhood is personal. 

After all, Erika Carter grew up here too.

WATCH VIDEO: Principal Erika Carter shares lessons from her leadership journey. 

Carter reminisces on her high school home. Her dream at the time was central air. “I used to think if you had central air that meant you had made it,” says Carter.

School as sanctuary

Erika Carter and Donyelle Robinson met at the age of five, as kindergarten mat mates. The two became inseparable friends. 

Throughout school, they competed and alternated among the top spots in student rankings. 

“She was valedictorian. I was salutatorian, literally in middle school and in high school,” Carter recalls with a chuckle and tone that reveals her competitive spirit, and still unresolved feelings about coming in second place to her best friend. 

Carter and Robinson both faced the stressors of poverty at home, and found their refuge at school. 

“They weren’t the best home environments, especially mine,” says Robinson. “When you went to school, it was like you don’t have to worry about things that are going on in your neighborhood, things that are going on on your street. You just get to go to school, you get to be a kid.” 

Both girls loved and excelled at school. They signed up for as many extra-curricular activities as they could, and shined in their academic studies. Starting out as crossing guards and members of clubs and tutoring programs, by high school they held leadership roles in the honor society and student council. 

“Our parents and families didn’t necessarily do everything well, but this, they did do well,” says Carter. “They completely encouraged and supported us participating in everything. That’s one thing they got really, really right.” 

After high school, Carter and Robinson left for college, and then careers, beyond the bounds of the neighborhood. Many of their peers didn’t. Some never even completed middle school.

Donyelle Robinson, Carter’s best childhood friend, is a sixth-grade counselor at Lawson Middle School in Houston ISD.

According to the 2014-2018 American Community Survey, among Kashmere Garden residents aged 25 years and older, only 7.9 percent have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher; 56.9 percent have received up to a high school diploma; and 35.2 do not have a high school diploma. This same educational attainment distribution for the state of Texas is 29.3 percent, 53.9, and 16.8 percent respectively. 

Carter and Robinson broke the cycle for their families, and they attribute their success to educational opportunities. 

“Our family knew education is the way,” says Robinson. “They had high expectations for us to finish school and do our best. They recognized our greatness and they pushed that. We were able to make it.” 

“I know what it’s like to be the one in the family that gets to break the level of poverty and illiteracy,” Carter says, her voice quivering. “I know what that means to be the first person in your family to graduate from college. I know what that means to be the first person in your family to buy a house. My mother and father both cried when I showed them the first house that my husband and I bought. Cried, because they were just so proud, so proud.”

The Students are Key

Carter prioritizes being visible and accessible on her campus. Every morning she makes certain she’s the first person her students see when they enter the building. 

“I’m out there checking for them. My teachers are checking for them.”

Many Key Middle School students have faced extreme adversity. In 2017, the median household income in Kashmere Gardens was only $26,313, nearly half of the median household income for the entire city ($49,399).

“Many of my children don’t have parents,” Carter says. “There are 10 residential facilities that are zoned to Key and these kids have been either taken into CPS custody and shipped around because their family relinquished them or they have mental health issues and their parents neglected them. They don’t have anyone that they feel loves them enough to keep them.”

Key’s special education students represent 18 percent of the school’s population, eight percent higher than the state average. 

Carter and her staff work tirelessly to ensure every student feels seen and valued. She wants Key Middle School to not just be a place where they come to learn, but a sanctuary from the hardships at home. 

“My kids are so resilient, so brilliant in so many ways that people don’t often get an opportunity to see that,” she says. “That’s my job, to make sure that they not only learn what their gift is but to grow and develop that gift. I know I have a gift of leadership, but if I didn’t have opportunities to grow that little gift of leadership, I may or may not be here now.”

Principal Carter ensures she’s the first person her students see every morning. 

Tough Leadership and Early Signs of Success

Key’s state accountability ratings fluctuated between “Improvement Required” and “Meets Standard” before the new A-F accountability ratings were implemented. Under the latest report card from the Texas Education Agency (2018-19), Key Middle School received an “F” rating. Houston ISD recruited Carter – who demonstrated success in turning around her previous campus, Betsey Ross Elementary – to coach and improve student learning at Key.

Carter had to make some serious changes to the campus culture. “I came in January of 2018. I helped and supported about 10 to 12 people to move on [to other work] because they weren’t what was best for this community and these kids. That is part of the work that had to happen in order for my vision for Key to come to fruition. Then spending some time coaching up those who were in place and overcoming obstacles.”

Now a year into her new leadership role, Carter is seeing some leading indicators of success. 

“The culture has changed significantly on our campus in the past year, significantly,” Carter says. “At this time last year, I believe we had, I want to say 33 fights. This year, we’ve had three. I think that speaks to the work we’ve put in, and the support that we put in place for our kids.”

Other numbers reflect positive momentum. Compared with the previous year, in-school suspensions (ISS) are down 80 percent. Out-of-school suspensions are down by 70 percent. 

There are consistent and clear expectations for everyone on campus – leadership team, teachers, support staff, and students.

Carter describes her vision for turning Key around: “It’s perfectly clear in my head. I have no doubt whatsoever that we won’t be in F school next year. This level of clarity allows me to be much more specific in my coaching and feedback with my Tier Two leadership, with my teachers, and with my students. Every single person is understanding of what’s expected of them, including the students.” 

Carter’s staff members are now believers in her work as well. Though she still has a long road ahead, she is leading a team – and they are following. 

“As long as she’s here, I’m here,” says Cortney Jonhson, who was about to leave Key before Carter arrived. “Wherever she goes I will follow. If she ends up at Barnes and Noble, I’ll be there with her.” 

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