“They want to be in the building”: A High School Principal Fosters Student Success through Strong Relationships
Featured Leader: Dr. Noah Angeles, Principal, York Early College Academy, Queens, NY.
This story is part of the Follow the Leaders project, an ongoing series from Relay Graduate School of Education to share insights and inspiration on leading for equity, wellness, and achievement.
The Challenge: How do high school leaders build a culture of strong relationships and wellness to support college-level learning?
Noah Angeles knows the transformative power of a college education, especially for first-generation college-goers. After struggling in high school and believing college wasn’t an option for him, he enlisted in the Army, serving during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now a school principal with a doctorate and two master’s degrees, he’s committed to ensuring all students have the preparation, confidence, and support to succeed in college after they graduate from his early college public high school in New York City.
To ensure other staff members have the same level of commitment to ensuring that students’ needs are being met, Angeles focuses on fostering strong relationships and a culture of support, noting that for him, school “wasn’t a place where I experienced success as a kid.” He says:
“When I lead a school, I think about whether we are addressing our kids’ emotional needs. How are we adapting to what they’re going through, and do we have high expectations for all kids? When I think about what college provided for me, I want to give that back to everyone else. Not just my life has changed, but also my kids’ and grandkids’ lives. I tell my staff, ‘I’m not here just to change the lives of kids. I’m here to change the lives of their families for generations to come.’”
The Solution: Creating authentic connections with students that enable high expectations
In the principal’s theory of action, if he:
- Models genuine relationship building between staff and students,
- Strategically maximizes structures at the school, classroom, and leader level to provide students with the emotional and academic supports they need, and
- Consistently messages the commitment to see all students meet the school’s high expectations,
Then more students will be supported and more likely to succeed in meeting college-level expectations at the early college high school. And indeed, 99 percent of the school’s students graduate, earning college credits in high school, and 95 percent enroll in college or other postsecondary programs within six months of graduating.
The Strategy: Leading by example, messaging, and prioritizing
Building relationships and collective responsibility
York Early College Academy offers students in grades 6–12 the opportunity to earn up to 60 college credits by the time they graduate from high school. Angeles helps his staff become personally invested in these goals by emphasizing that their students are with the school for seven years. He says, “ I tell my staff all the time ‘If we have a 99 percent graduation rate, that’s not enough for me, because that means 1 percent of our kids didn’t make it. And that’s on us…. We see them through three major transitions of their lives — from elementary to middle school, middle school to high school, and then high school to college. That’s a big responsibility. There’s no shifting the blame.”
He further encourages them to take every opportunity to build strong relationships with students. Teachers open their classrooms at lunch to connect with students in informal, low-stakes ways; students can be found in classrooms during lunchtime playing games and talking with teachers about sports and other interests.
But Angeles also provides more formal structures to ensure that more systematic approaches to support happen on a consistent basis. “Kid Talk Tuesdays” are grade-level meetings in which teachers identify students who are struggling and plan solutions with the support of the dean, counselor, or social worker assigned to each grade. Says Angeles, “They’re problem solving to really support a child that may not be doing well or showing up as their best self.”
He gives this example: one grade-level team worked together to support a student who constantly struggled to stay calm in class. One intervention was to connect him with the band program while the social worker assigned to the team gave him piano lessons. Now when the student struggles to stay focused, his teachers allow him to reset by going to to the music room to play piano for a short period of time. Says Angeles, “It would calm him down, and he’d go back to class.”
Teachers also use the time to plan conversations with parents, but as Angeles says, not to say “Oh, your child didn’t do this,” but to find out “What’s going on? How can we help? How can we work together?” He adds: “The weekly structure is asking what’s going on, and how we can adapt or adjust things so we can give them the support they need.”
Reinforcing an “all-in” mindset
As at many early college schools and programs, York Early College offers extended learning time to give students additional opportunities to succeed in college-level work. This includes weekend and summer programming. But Angeles’ careful attention to relationships and support have made extended learning time an expectation for all students instead of an option for remediation. He says: “We’re open six days a week and in July. Everyone is in the mindset that they’re going to school for 11 months.”
During regularly scheduled “data days”, teachers use data to identify students who would benefit most from extended learning time. Yet all students are encouraged to attend. This is a critical point, says Angeles: “Otherwise, it feels like a punishment. Ninety percent of kids show up because of the relationships they have with teachers. When you have high expectations, they want to be in the building.”
Angeles further reinforces an “all-in” mindset with parents. He emphasizes his expectation that their children take every opportunity that the school provides to support them academically, while at the same time committing to do what it takes to make sure students can do so. He explains: “We’ll say to a parent, ‘I want to see them in that college class in 48 months. We need to get them here. What’s going on? What do you need? You need a Metro card? No problem. You’re having an issue at home, you need to send someone to pick them up? Let’s figure it out.’”
Angeles also recognizes that students will not achieve their ambitious goals without teachers being able to sustain the kinds of relationships that hold students to high expectations and provide the supports needed to reach them. Recognizing staff burnout following the pandemic, Angeles shifted weekend sessions to evening Zoom lessons, announced a “pause” on some staff activities, and encouraged staff to address their basic needs during the 2021–22 school year.
Notably, staff retention wasn’t an issue during 2021–22, and the focus on relationships has resulted in high levels of trust in the administration and each other, according to surveys. Angeles says: “Really connecting with my staff and aligning my needs to address that… trickles down to the classroom. The kids then experience that from the teachers. It’s modeling that culture and making sure what you say is consistent with your actions.”
Dr. Noah Angeles is the Principal of York Early College Academy in Queens, NY. He served on the NYC School Diversity Advisory Group, which advised the New York City Department of Education and the Mayor on how to best integrate schools. He also spent several years on faculty in the NYC DOE Office of Leadership, where he trained and supported assistant principals. Most recently, Dr. Angeles co-founded and serves as the Associate Director of the Gray Fellowship for Principal Excellence.
Taking it Back to Your School
- Who in your school(s) best models high support and high expectations? What does this look and sound like in practice?
- What groups of students are most likely to experience lower levels of support or expectations? What is the root cause?
- What structures, formal and informal, allow your staff to build relationships with students and strategize to support their needs?
- In what ways do you currently build student and family investment?