As schools continue to face intense uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, high-quality and equitable education has never been more critical. Adventist leaders and educators have been receiving support through ACE Academy to help navigate these challenges and to drive necessary change.
Advancing Christian Education (ACE) Academy was developed by the foundation’s Seventh-day Adventist Initiative in 2015. With focus areas in leadership, instruction and operations, ACE Academy works to co-design, deliver and support training and development opportunities for Adventist education professionals, particularly school leaders — ultimately working to ensure all students have equitable opportunities to learn and succeed in school and life.
“If we want students to have an inclusive and equitable learning experience, equity needs to become part of the school’s culture,” says Melanie Litchfield, Senior Manager, Seventh-day Adventist Initiative for the foundation. “And that starts with leadership.”
Ginger Slaughter, Senior Manager, Instructional Development for the foundation, witnessed school leaders leaning on one another in a powerful new way to proactively create more equitable learning environments and to navigate new challenges. And this past fiscal year, she worked to help foster that collaboration.
In March 2021, a principal from a local Adventist school reached out to Slaughter, looking for professional development for her teachers with a focus on student engagement. “After a year of teaching virtually due to COVID-19, teachers were feeling burned out,” Slaughter says. “Students weren’t turning their cameras on; it was challenging to know what they were understanding from the lessons, and engagement was at an all-time low. Teachers realized reaching all their students in an effective and equitable way just wasn’t happening in the way they wanted it to.”
“Children experience school and life in different ways based on their race, background, language and culture. It behooves us to honor what each of us brings to the table. Leaders shouldn’t be blinded to differences…we need to embrace them. And ACE Academy is challenging all of us to do just that.”
With her background in special education in addition to the research she had done during the pandemic, Slaughter led a one-hour training for the principal’s team (“Engaging and Assessing All Learners in a Virtual World”). “This helped teachers create opportunities for students to express what they’ve learned in a variety of ways,” she explains.
Slaughter says she shared several tricks to encourage students to turn their cameras back on as well. Beyond that workshop, Slaughter connected this principal with another seasoned principal who was leading her newly hybrid/virtual school in an exceptional way.
“Moving forward, we’re working to be a convener and connector in the education space,” says Slaughter. “Knowing the needs of principals across the Adventist school system allows us to connect them with peers and experts in the moment — when they’re in the trenches and need support immediately.”
Participants from our ACE Academy Leadership Coaching Program — all administrators and principals — have also demonstrated their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. The Leadership Coaching Program is a two-year intensive that trains experienced principals to be leadership coaches to newer principals. Throughout the program, leadership coaches and the newer principals (“coachees”) work to strengthen several core leadership competencies including trust and rapport, deep listening, powerful questioning, courage and candor, and most important, elevating equity and identity — with a particularly strong emphasis placed on racial equity.
“Our coaches help principals navigate the intense complexities of being a school principal while also developing their personal leadership capacity,” says Litchfield. “And principals absolutely deserve to have coaches now more than ever. Our coaches are trained to help the principals practice surfacing and exploring equity as they make decisions, develop strategy and lead teams. Much more than a mentor, a coach serves as both the principal’s challenger and their champion — and they ultimately help the principal develop new ways of thinking and being in the face of real-life situations.”
The ACE Academy team aims to empower leaders with both the skills and the lens to identify where inequities are occurring in their school environments, how they were constructed, why/how they have been perpetuated and how to address them.
Rose Thomas, a leadership coach in the program and Associate Director of the Southern Union of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, says her participation in the program has been helpful in accelerating her personal growth as well as creating momentum in the Adventist system. “The Leadership Coaching Program highlights the importance of placing race and equity in the middle of every conversation and embedding it in every action as well,” she says. “While we can and should believe that we are all God’s children, we are all different. Children experience school and life in different ways based on their race, background, language and culture. It behooves us to honor what each of us brings to the table. Leaders shouldn’t be blinded to differences … we need to embrace them. And ACE Academy is challenging all of us to do just that.”
She continues, “ACE Academy has provided the tools for me to actively assess and evaluate my programs and policies in light of the differences among my students and colleagues. ACE Academy has helped all of us to talk about the right work and how to lead and be present in difficult conversations — and they’ve provided the framework where we can lead with honesty and integrity.”
Another participant in the program — Toakase Vunileva — went on to join the Bainum Family Foundation and the ACE Academy team as Senior Manager, Leadership Excellence. In partnership with Litchfield, she now spearheads the program.
“A personal passion of mine is creating a pipeline of leadership for Adventist education, and ACE Academy is bringing this to life in a real, tangible way,” says Vunileva. “We believe that an exceptional, outstanding leader sees the world and every aspect of their work through a lens of equity and that they use that lens so frequently that they don’t even realize they’re using it. Our team is asking ourselves how we can keep making this program better all the time, and we’re excited to see where we go from here.”