Linda Cliatt-Wayman: How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard

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It was November 1, 2002,

my first day as a principal,

but hardly my first day in the school district of Philadelphia.

I graduated from Philadelphia public schools,

and I went on to teach special education for 20 years

in a low-income, low-performing school

in North Philadelphia,

where crime is rampant

and deep poverty is among the highest in the nation.

Shortly after I walked into my new school,

a huge fight broke out among the girls.

After things were quickly under control,

I immediately called a meeting

in the school's auditorium

to introduce myself as the school's new principal.


I walked in angry,

a little nervous --

(Laughter) --

but I was determined

to set the tone for my new students.

I started listing as forcefully as I could

my expectations for their behavior

and my expectations for what they would learn in school.

When, all of a sudden,

a girl way in the back of the auditorium,

she stood up

and she said, "Miss!


When our eyes locked, she said,

"Why do you keep calling this a school?

This is not a school."

In one outburst,

Ashley had expressed what I felt

and never quite was able to articulate

about my own experience when I attended a low-performing school

in the same neighborhood, many, many, many years earlier.

That school was definitely not a school.

Fast forwarding a decade later to 2012,

I was entering my third low-performing school as principal.

I was to be Strawberry Mansion's fourth principal in four years.

It was labeled "low-performing and persistently dangerous"

due to its low test scores

and high number of weapons,

drugs, assaults and arrests.

Shortly as I approached the door of my new school

and attempted to enter,

and found the door locked with chains,

I could hear Ashley's voice in my ears

going, "Miss! Miss!

This is not a school."

The halls were dim and dark from poor lighting.

There were tons of piles of broken old furniture

and desks in the classrooms,

and there were thousands of unused materials and resources.

This was not a school.

As the year progressed,

I noticed that the classrooms were nearly empty.

The students were just scared:

scared to sit in rows in fear that something would happen;

scared because they were often teased in the cafeteria for eating free food.

They were scared from all the fighting and all the bullying.

This was not a school.

And then, there were the teachers,

who were incredibly afraid for their own safety,

so they had low expectations for the students and themselves,

and they were totally unaware of their role

in the destruction of the school's culture.

This was the most troubling of all.

You see, Ashley was right,

and not just about her school.

For far too many schools,

for kids who live in poverty,

their schools are really not schools at all.

But this can change.

Let me tell you how it's being done at Strawberry Mansion High School.

Anybody who's ever worked with me will tell you

I am known for my slogans.


So today, I am going to use three

that have been paramount in our quest for change.

My first slogan is:

if you're going to lead, lead.

I always believed

that what happens in a school and what does not happen in a school

is up to the principal.

I am the principal,

and having that title required me to lead.

I was not going to stay in my office,

I was not going to delegate my work,

and I was not going to be afraid to address anything

that was not good for children,

whether that made me liked or not.

I am a leader,

so I know I cannot do anything alone.

So, I assembled a top-notch leadership team

who believed in the possibility of all the children,

and together, we tackled the small things,

like resetting every single locker combination by hand

so that every student could have a secure locker.

We decorated every bulletin board in that building

with bright, colorful, and positive messages.

We took the chains off the front doors of the school.

We got the lightbulbs replaced,

and we cleaned every classroom to its core,

recycling every, every textbook that was not needed,

and discarded thousands of old materials and furniture.

We used two dumpsters per day.

And, of course, of course,

we tackled the big stuff,

like rehauling the entire school budget

so that we can reallocate funds to have more teachers and support staff.

We rebuilt the entire school day schedule from scratch

to add a variety of start and end times,

remediation, honors courses,

extracurricular activities, and counseling,

all during the school day.

All during the school day.

We created a deployment plan

that specified where every single support person and police officer would be

every minute of the day,

and we monitored at every second of the day,

and, our best invention ever,

we devised a schoolwide discipline program

titled "Non-negotiables."

It was a behavior system --

designed to promote positive behavior at all times.

The results?

Strawberry Mansion was removed from the Persistently Dangerous List

our first year after being --

(Applause) --

after being on the Persistently Dangerous List for five consecutive years.

Leaders make the impossible possible.

That brings me to my second slogan:

So what? Now what?



When we looked at the data,

and we met with the staff,

there were many excuses

for why Strawberry Mansion was low-performing and persistently dangerous.

They said that only 68 percent of the kids come to school on a regular basis,

100 percent of them live in poverty,

only one percent of the parents participate,

many of the children

come from incarceration and single-parent homes,

39 percent of the students have special needs,

and the state data revealed

that six percent of the students were proficient in algebra,

and 10 were proficient in literature.

After they got through telling us all the stories

of how awful the conditions and the children were,

I looked at them,

and I said, "So what. Now what?

What are we gonna do about it?"


Eliminating excuses at every turn became my primary responsibility.

We addressed every one of those excuses

through a mandatory professional development,

paving the way for intense focus on teaching and learning.

After many observations,

what we determined was that teachers knew what to teach

but they did not know how to teach

so many children with so many vast abilities.

So, we developed a lesson delivery model for instruction

that focused on small group instruction,

making it possible for all the students to get their individual needs met

in the classroom.

The results?

After one year, state data revealed

that our scores have grown by 171 percent in Algebra

and 107 percent in literature.


We have a very long way to go,

a very long way to go,

but we now approach every obstacle with a "So What. Now What?" attitude.

And that brings me to my third and final slogan.


If nobody told you they loved you today,

you remember I do, and I always will.

My students have problems:

social, emotional and economic problems

you could never imagine.

Some of them are parents themselves,

and some are completely alone.

If someone asked me my real secret

for how I truly keep Strawberry Mansion moving forward,

I would have to say that I love my students

and I believe in their possibilities


When I look at them,

I can only see what they can become,

and that is because I am one of them.

I grew up poor in North Philadelphia too.

I know what it feels like to go to a school that's not a school.

I know what it feels like to wonder

if there's ever going to be any way out of poverty.

But because of my amazing mother,

I got the ability to dream

despite the poverty that surrounded me.

So --

(Applause) --

if I'm going to push my students

toward their dream and their purpose in life,

I've got to get to know who they are.

So I have to spend time with them,

so I manage the lunchroom every day.


And while I'm there,

I talk to them about deeply personal things,

and when it's their birthday,

I sing "Happy Birthday"

even though I cannot sing at all.


I often ask them,

"Why do you want me to sing when I cannot sing at all?"


And they respond by saying,

"Because we like feeling special."

We hold monthly town hall meetings

to listen to their concerns,

to find out what is on their minds.

They ask us questions like, "Why do we have to follow rules?"

"Why are there so many consequences?"

"Why can't we just do what we want to do?"


They ask, and I answer each question honestly,

and this exchange in listening helps to clear up any misconceptions.

Every moment is a teachable moment.

My reward,

my reward

for being non-negotiable in my rules and consequences

is their earned respect.

I insist on it,

and because of this, we can accomplish things together.

They are clear about my expectations for them,

and I repeat those expectations every day over the P.A. system.

I remind them --


I remind them of those core values

of focus, tradition, excellence,

integrity and perseverance,

and I remind them every day

how education can truly change their lives.

And I end every announcement the same:

"If nobody told you they loved you today,

you remember I do,

and I always will."

Ashley's words

of "Miss, Miss,

this is not a school,"

is forever etched in my mind.

If we are truly going to make real progress

in addressing poverty,

then we have to make sure

that every school that serves children in poverty

is a real school,

a school, a school --

(Applause) --

a school that provides them with knowledge

and mental training to navigate the world around them.

I do not know all the answers,

but what I do know is for those of us who are privileged

and have the responsibility of leading a school that serves children in poverty,

we must truly lead,

and when we are faced with unbelievable challenges,

we must stop and ask ourselves, "So what. Now what?

What are we going to do about it?"

And as we lead,

we must never forget

that every single one of our students

is just a child,

often scared by what the world tells them they should be,

and no matter what the rest of the world tells them they should be,

we should always provide them with hope,

our undivided attention,

unwavering belief in their potential,

consistent expectations,

and we must tell them often,

if nobody told them they loved them today,

remember we do, and we always will.

Thank you.


Thank you, Jesus.