Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Educational Leadership

Major Professor

Zorka Karanxha, Ed.D.

Committee Member

Vonzel Agosto, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Brenda Walker, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jennifer Jacobs, Ph.D.


Culturally Relevant Leadership, Educational Leadership, Academic Performance Gains, Systemic Improvement, Culturally Relevant Leadership, Education as a Great Equalizer


For decades, America’s K-12 public schools have struggled with closing the achievement gap between black and brown students and their white counterparts. High-poverty schools with high percentages of students of color are often low-performing schools. These marginalized populations of students lack equitable access to the rigorous academic curricula and instruction that is accessible to their white peers (Goings & Ford, 2018; Lewis et al., 2012; Nadelson et al., 2020).

The educational policy landscape has made numerous shifts between national reform models designed to increase opportunities and provide access to equitable education for underrepresented and disenfranchised groups of students. The national attempts to transform education for black and brown students have failed to close the pervasive achievement gap, and the hope that education can be the great equalized continues to diminish as the majority of high-poverty schools who are tasked with educating majority black and brown students are designated as low-performing.

The purpose of this intrinsic case study is to understand how an elementary school with high poverty levels and high percentages of students of color of color improved and sustained the academic achievement of students. The overarching research question that will guide the study is: How does an urban elementary school with high poverty, high percentage of students of color increase and sustain student academic achievement?

Achievement Elementary School has made its highest gains in academic performance in the school’s history closing gaps between poor black and brown students and their white counterparts. The school’s principal is an African American female, and the study found that she is the impetus for the school’s improvement. The principal uses a multifaceted leadership style including incorporating spirituality and religious practices to lead the school on an unprecedented journey to academic achievement. Seven significant themes emerged throughout the process of analyzing and coding the data. Every theme is meaningful, important, and necessary as it relates to the academic success at Achievement Elementary School. As noted by the principal, it was not one particular silver bullet but a combination of factors working in tandem with each other. The major themes identified were: Principal leadership as the catalyst for systemic improvement; shared leadership; shift in school culture; building teacher professional capacity; accountability; student-centered environment where students are loved; and spirituality.

This research supports the prevailing view that school leadership has an undeniable impact on student achievement; however, the school’s ultimate success has been shaped by a comprehensive model that simultaneously impact the academic achievement of the students. The study suggests that the school’s success is a result of an academic infrastructure that includes four core elements: School Leadership; School Culture Shift; Investment in Professional Capacity Building; and Supportive Practice. Within these four core elements are seven themes that emerged during the study.

This study provides compelling evidence that high-poverty schools with high percentages of students of color can become high-performing and we must continue to explore models that will close the achievement gap. The study suggests further research on African American school leaders, comparison study of schools with similar demographics, and spiritual school leadership. This study suggests that education can still become the great equalizer.