Voices from the Field: Leaders of Color in Independent Schools

Four business officers offer initial insights into diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and their experiences at their schools.

Mar 21, 2022

From the March/April 2022 Net Assets Magazine.


According to NBOA’s “Demographics of the Independent School Business Office: Key Research Findings 2020," 16% of business office staff at independent schools are people of color. That compares to 38% percent of adult Americans, as recorded in the 2020 U.S. Census. According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) survey data from 2018, accountants of color made up 29% of accounting firm staff, though only 9% of partners were from an underrepresented racial group. These numbers suggest there is room for improvement in terms of hiring as well as creating inclusive environments for leaders of color in the independent school business office, as there is in the sector more broadly.

Many independent schools today embrace a mission of diversity and inclusion, guided by a vision of equity for communities of color. At NBOA, we understand that the amplification of diverse perspectives is essential for driving innovation and encouraging solutions for the success of independent schools. In this spirit, we asked leaders of color to share their perspectives. We also understand this is the beginning of a larger conversation and will explore related topics in greater depth in the months ahead. We welcome feedback on any article in Net Assets, and as we are forging new ground for the magazine, welcome it here in particular. Write us at netassets@nboa.org.

Cultivating Conversations

Hazel Estrella,
Soundview School

A high point for me has been growing Soundview in recent years with our current leadership team. It has been rewarding to move our school forward and to represent both my school and myself beyond our walls. I've extended my own learning and experiences in both regional and national associations for business officers. It has been so fun getting to talk about Soundview and learning about other schools and business officers around the Northwest and the U.S.

An opportunity I see is for students of color to see teachers and administrators that look like them. Maybe students will see themselves working at schools or going on to do other awesome things that make a positive impact on others' lives.

I hope we in schools continue to have open conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. There are so many layers to each person — students, families, colleagues, ourselves — beyond color that may overlap and that may be different. Cultivating an environment where we can have conversations about these areas is important to all schools' cultures and sense of inclusion.

Hazel Estrella
Director of Finance and Operations, Soundview School, Lynnwood, Washington

Meaningful Change

Stefanie Corlew,
Saint Paul’s School

To affect meaningful change in an independent school, I believe it has to be top-down. The board of trustees, the head of school and the leadership team have to be in alignment on all initiatives, including advancing diversity and equity initiatives. We have all experienced a policy change that doesn’t take root because it does not address the cultural and mindset changes that need to take place. When all constituents are passionate about the initiatives, everyone can work in concert to address the inevitable resistance to change and pushback.

One of the keys to making real change isn’t simply to increase the number of diverse faculty and staff in a school. Real change must promote changes in mindset so the culture continues to progress. School leaders need to strive to give an authentic voice at the table and recognize faculty and staff of color as individuals rather than a monolithic group. It is important for leaders to use empathy when dealing with members of a minority and understand they will have different and equally important perspectives. Take the time to listen to every perspective and be consistent in your approach. As leaders model these behaviors openly, the entire school culture will adapt to this approach.

Stefanie Corlew
Director of Finance and Operations, Saint Paul’s School, Clearwater, Florida

Upholding a Standard

Vipada Musick,
Evergreen School

I am fortunate to have been working at Evergreen School in Maryland for over eight years. Evergreen’s leadership, including the head of school, board of trustees, administrators and teachers embrace the values of diversity, inclusion and equity. This is reflected in decision-making regarding hiring practices, board composition, community engagement and in everyday practices. Our budget always incorporates professional development for staff and other expenses, such as expanding our library collection to be more inclusive, board training and parents’ education. Our DEI committee includes diverse members of the Evergreen community, including a member of the business office. The demographics of the school’s location significantly influence diversity within the school, which includes racial diversity.

Organizations, especially independent schools, for the most part have diversity statements, stating that they have non-discriminatory hiring and admission practices. A diversity statement is only meaningful if there is tangible evidence that the organization upholds their standards. Evergreen practices what we preach. For us, DEI is not a PR statement, but a value that we hold dear. The demographics of our staff reflects the diversity of our local community.

Without question, I have witnessed and experienced overt and much more subtle forms of discrimination. It happens. Biases exist. Even well-meaning human beings sometimes consciously or unconsciously categorize people based on their heritage, color, first language, accent or religion. For example, as an Asian American, some people assume that I am great with numbers and am very quantitative. As it happens, I am, but I am much more than that. My interpersonal skills, empathy and ability to work with all types of people and personalities is what makes me successful as a school leader. Of course, I have the technical skills required for my position and I am very much a continuous learner. I enroll in seminars, read journals and perhaps most importantly listen and learn from others and from my mistakes. Recognizing and improving from our own mistakes is critical in overcoming discrimination.

The reality is that discrimination exists. I can’t make discrimination go away. What I can do, as an Asian woman leader, is to be my best. That means I am prompt at work, am prepared, maintain a positive attitude, do not shirk or avoid responsibility, recognize others' biases and my own, as I am human too and not perfect.

Vipada Musick
CFO/Business Manager, Evergreen School , Silver Spring, Maryland

Seeing Leadership

Donna Scott,
Community School

As I complete my first year as the director of finance and operations within an independent school, I have appreciated how welcoming and accepting the faculty and staff have been to me and the many positive changes I have made to the operations. I have received many unexpected compliments and thank yous.

In terms of opportunities, I think it’s good for faculty, staff, parents and students to see people of color in leadership positions. In my position, I can be such an example. Some people have the impression that this is a unique situation, but it should be considered normal in a country that is about 40% people of color.

In terms of what I wish people knew more about, in the majority of cases, a person of color is applying for and being hired for leadership positions because they are qualified. They have the education and experience. Even if an organization is making a commitment to diversity in leadership, it does not mean they are hiring less qualified individuals. I came to my position with the relevant education and over 25 years’ experience. We should assume that individuals of color are qualified for the positions they hold.

I hope our schools continue to be committed to honoring diversity in the faculty, staff and student community, and that our schools represent the world we live in.

Donna Scott
Director of Finance and Operations, Community School, St. Louis, Missouri



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