Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Baruti Kafele: The Principal 50

April 4, 2016

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Baruti Kafele won his New Jersey Milken Educator Award in 2009 as the principal of Newark Tech High School, which he took from an under-performer to one of the top high schools in the country. Since then he's authored seven books and travels the country leading workshops and speaking at conferences about achieving excellence in education. His latest book, The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, was published in March 2015 by the Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ACSD). Principal Kafele talked with us about the book, the importance of school culture, and his writing process.

Milken Family Foundation: Why did you decide to focus this book on current and aspiring principals?

Baruti Kafele: In any organization, whether it's a business, religious group, or school, leadership matters. In education, a lot of leaders, particularly younger ones, have good intentions but lack information and strategies. This book provides practical information for self-reflection and self-assessment. It's something I think principals and other administrators will refer back to daily. 

principal50 cover 200x300The Principal 50 doesn't talk specifically about urban versus suburban schools, but depending on the district, the realities, challenges, needs, and kids are different. In my seminars I have radically different conversations with urban principals. They really have to understand the needs and issues that exist within the walls of that school. For example, recently I was at a district in the deep south. The principal had been on the job two weeks. She told me she had explored her new school's neighborhood before her first day and discovered a family living in her district who had no front door on their Section 8 apartment. It literally did not exist. She said the family seemed content, but the bottom line is that this principal has students who have no front door. Urban schools present an entirely different reality — one that a suburban kid, and possibly a suburban principal, couldn't fathom.

MFF: What's the key message in this book?

Baruti: That leadership matters. In what way does your practice inspire excellence? How does it get kids and staff excited, energized, feeling passionate about what they do every day? How does it raise the bar? Principals don't operate in isolation — so how do you distribute your values, your passion, and power others around you? Do you bring a heightened sense of energy and enthusiasm into the building? What is it about your leadership that makes a difference?

MFF: What do you see as the principal's primary role?

Baruti: The principal is the rudder of the ship, steering, providing direction, leadership, guidance. The principal needs to allow people to be creative and grow. Teachers need leadership that lets them explore — if the leadership is too restrictive, teachers can't grow and evolve.

MFF: What are some of the common challenges principals face?

Baruti: One big challenge is that the leader comes in with a mission, a vision, a set of objectives, but is often faced with reality pretty quickly: I have to raise test scores, adhere to certain policies and directives from the district. You can have the most phenomenal programs in the country, but if your test scores are low, no one cares about your programs. So the principal has to strike a balance between creating a culture where learning is valued and teachers can explore and experiment, and raising test scores. This book gets principals to think bigger than the immediate challenge that's right in front of them. The thing is, these big-picture strategies in the book facilitate raising test scores anyway. The mood of the school and the classroom, a good school culture, these are things that make kids willing to put in the work so they can soar. All seven of my books have a common thread: They're about creating a culture that enables excellence. When a school has the right culture, other things fall into place.

MFF: What is your writing process like?

Baruti: I wrote Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life in a hotel room. I blocked off days where I would eat, sleep, write, and that's it. I wrote the entire book in 10 days, writing a minimum of 5,000 words per day. I wrote the first 25,000 words of Closing the Attitude Gap the same way, in a hotel room, and then finished the rest on airplanes. This last book was short: I wrote the entire thing on airplanes as I traveled from workshop to workshop. 

MFF: You use social media often, especially Twitter and YouTube. How do those channels help you sell books and spread your message?

Baruti: A lot of us out here on the speaking circuit have figured out social media. Twenty years ago, if you were selling a product or service or yourself, you did all you could to get on TV and radio. Today, walk out on the street and 100 percent of the people you see are on their phones. I figure if everyone's on their phones and on social media, that's where I need to be. Right now what I'm doing is working for me. Social media lets me connect with the people I want to see my material: the ones who can make a decision to buy my books and bring me in for workshops.

Connect with Baruti Kafele on his website and on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. His books are available on his website and on


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