Shawna Codrington: A Servant-Leader

For Black History Month, AFSA is proudly spotlighting a few of the women and men who lead our nation's public schools. Please join us in celebrating our colleagues during this important month.

Last year, when Dr. Shawna Codrington first received an email telling her she’d been nominated for a Women’s History Month award, she deleted the message as spam. It took a while to convince her that a parent at Parkview Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, where Shawna was principal, had nominated her for this honor in the 79th State Assembly District.

The Women’s History Month commendation credited her with going out of her way to check in with every student who is experiencing hardship and to help their families directly for the sake of their children. Above all, she strived to help her staff feel happy about coming to work, and her students to feel safe in a world where feelings of security have become rather elusive.

“I see myself as a servant-leader,” she says.

This is a vision she has carried over to Fahari L. Jeffers Elementary School, where she recently began as founding principal. When her name surfaced for the top leadership position at the new school, there were, as she puts it, “a lot of naysayers, who said I was getting the job just because I was a Black woman.” In fact, she was a seasoned leader who had been an associate principal or principal for nine years, a support provider before that, and a lead teacher or master teacher even earlier. She had served the district for 11 years and won the Principal of the Year Leadership Award in 2020.

Fahari L. Jeffers was herself a woman of color, part of the 1970s labor movement led by César Chávez, who is celebrated for organizing farm workers. A few years later, Fahari and her husband founded the United Domestic Workers of America, the third union in the United States to be founded by people of color.

Although Fahari Jeffers is a new school, Shawna and her staff are feeling the effects of pandemic upheaval just as they would anywhere. They are striving mightily to reorient students to an in-person classroom experience. After the fulltime return to school, there are still COVID-19 outbreaks, and she herself has been hit with the illness three times. “We’re bound to get it at least once a year,” she says calmly.

Shawna loves the new school. The student population is 69% Latino, 11% Asian, 10% White and 3% Black. Many of the students come from military families.

“That’s a full 40% of our kiddos,” Shawna says, pointing out that this is a highly mobile population, which adds to the stability challenges already wrought by COVID-19. “As a result, we make sure to have a lot of military staff, including counselors.”

From personal experience, she knows very well how important stability is. “As a child, we sometimes struggled financially and were always moving,” she says, “but I had this very cool teacher, Mr. Madigan, who saw something in me and met with my mom and encouraged her not to move again, for the sake of my achievement.”

After that, her family stayed put for a while and she went on to earn her B.A. at California State University, Northridge, and her M.A. and literacy specialist credential, as well as her Ed.D in educational leadership, at San Diego State University. She went straight to work, and her first job was destined to shape her entire career.

It was “at an all-Black inner city San Diego school, Nubia Leadership Academy, and the whole staff and student body was Black. I saw that the mission should be to teach Black culture, but we didn’t have the money to support that.  We did the best we could, anyway.”

As a Maya Angelou admirer, she lives by the axiom, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” To this day, Angelou’s quotation is the tagline at the bottom of every email Shawna sends.

Now, some 20 years after that first teaching job, she says, “I’m still close to many of those students and families and know I served as a role model.”

“Overall, I’ve had great mentors, so I try to do the same for people,” she adds. “When I’d been a teacher for seven years, I had a principal, Francisco Velasco, who literally pushed me into a VP position. Now, I try to put myself in my teachers’ shoes.”

Reverberations from the pandemic years are persistent. The challenges were vast during those years, from equipping everyone with internet access to making sure everyone was fed.  “Some days were so hard, I had to pray and meditate before going to work.  I was raised a Baptist and I’m grateful that my mom taught me to put God first.”

As if school principals did not already play multiple roles—including that of instructional leader, administrative leader and budget director—they now regularly deal with emotional crisis and suicide prevention. Apart from the fallout of the pandemic, students are severely challenged by factors that did not exist a generation ago. Shawna sees social media as the greatest challenge to student mental health and overall safety.  It results in rampant bullying as well as intrusions from deceptive people who are not who they say they are.

School leaders now have to practice a degree of vigilance that simply wasn’t required in the relatively recent past. This is one of the reasons Shawna is hypervigilant about her own very young daughter, a first grader. With all her professional demands, including teaching leadership courses at university at least one night a week, she is grateful to her mother for filling in the child-rearing gaps.

On weekends, Shawna makes sure she is totally immersed in her daughter’s life. The two of them practically live at the nearby beach. “Remember, this is the San Diego area. Our version of cold is 60 degrees.”

To unwind, Shawna also reads novels—and she has been fascinated by a new app she regularly uses called “Read the Bible in One Year.” She is amused by how “Eve is blamed for everything.” 

But the beach dominates her rare free time. She says, “More than anything, it makes me calm, relaxed and at peace.” Shawna Codrington has certainly earned that respite.