Strawberry Mansion Turnaround Management: How Courage And Caring Win The Day by [email protected]
Fixing a Broken School
Located in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, Strawberry Mansion High School once was regarded as one of the most dangerous high schools in America. Violence and drug use were rampant, test scores were abysmal and the school was a fixture on Pennsylvania’s “Persistently Dangerous Schools” list.
In 2002, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, an educator who had grown up in a similar neighborhood in the same city, took over as the school’s principal. Over the years, through a combination of tough love and a willingness to lead with courage, she and her team have transformed the school. Test scores have improved year after year, and the school is off the most dangerous schools list. Cliatt-Wayman’s 2015 TED talk on how to fix a broken school has been viewed nearly 1.3 million times.
During a recent visit to campus, Cliatt-Wayman spoke with [email protected] about the role leaders can play in transforming schools in rough neighborhoods and helping students escape from poverty. She refuels her energy, she notes, through the realization that doing her job right could save her students’ lives.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below:
[email protected]: Principal Wayman, what inspired you to become a teacher? Was it a person or a situation?
Linda Cliatt-Wayman: It was a situation. I went to a high school here in Philadelphia that was not very good. When I was there, I would always run home to my mother and say, “Mom, I’m not learning anything. They’re not teaching me anything.” And she said, “Well, I don’t understand that. You had always gone to great schools up to grade eight, and you decided to go to the school in your neighborhood. Why is this school so terrible?” I said, “Mom, you have to come and see it. We’re not learning anything.”
So I went to college thinking that first I was going to go into criminal justice. When I was in college, I realized that I was unprepared for it. It was so hard for me there. A lot of my friends who were also from Philadelphia actually failed out of school. That’s when I decided I wanted to go back to be a teacher because I never wanted anyone else to go to college the way I did. So I became a teacher.
[email protected]: How did you end up at Strawberry Mansion?
Cliatt-Wayman: I was assistant superintendent for high schools, and it was my job to find the principal who would take over Strawberry Mansion after the merger of three schools. Strawberry Mansion sits in a very dangerous neighborhood. After two national searches I could not find a principal, so I looked at all 52 of my other principals and said, “Well, I’ll just move someone out of their school to Strawberry Mansion.” That yielded one candidate. I brought her into the office and said, “I have to move you to Strawberry Mansion.” She lifted up her shirt and displayed a small device. I asked, “What is that?” She said, “It’s a heart monitor.” She said, “I will go, but it may kill me.” So I was back where I started.
“I think I just cared enough…. And I was a person that probably was prepared for it the most of anybody I could find.”
One day I was walking into the school district building, and I was depressed because I could not find a principal. I was very scared; I was frightened for the kids and for the community. Then I heard a voice. It said, “You go.” And I stopped, and I asked, “Me go?” I said it out loud because the voice was that clear. I went back to the office and thought about it. I said, “Oh my goodness, this is why I can’t find a principal; I am the principal.” The next day I resigned. That’s how I got to Strawberry Mansion.
[email protected]: So it sounded like you were actually quite terrified of how rough some of these neighborhoods had become. What gave you the courage, the resolve to make a positive difference?
Cliatt-Wayman: I think I just cared enough. Everyone did think I was crazy. They’d say, “Why would you go in there? There’s nothing you can do with that. Why would you leave your job to go there?” And I realized that I had been through some of these experiences before. It was not my first time being a principal. I realized I knew the community. I realized I always did have courage to address difficult situations. And I was a person that probably was prepared for it the most of anybody I could find.
So I just took a deep breath and went in there. When I got there, what I saw was so unbelievably terrible that it would take someone — I’m not saying I was special — but it least someone who cared enough to try and fix it. I did not go there thinking I could do it. I went there thinking I had to do it. I just had to do it.
[email protected]: You described it as a difficult situation. What was the situation and how did you deal with it?
Cliatt-Wayman: That’s a big question. It was so many things. Like from the beginning just the school, right on down to the school’s schedule, wasn’t correct. The classes they were rostering the kids to was not correct. The students refused to go in the classroom at all. They just wouldn’t go into the room at all.
I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t go in the room. It was because the teachers didn’t want them in the room. The only reason I would say that is because they told me the story. I said, “You have to go to class to get your work done. You cannot walk the halls.” And they said, “Well, there’s no need to do that.” And I said, “Well, why?” They said, “Well, they gave me my packet.” And I said, “What packet?” They said, “Miss Wayman, you go on Monday and you pick up your packet of work and you bring it back on Friday and then you get your grade. So there’s no need to go [to class].” I couldn’t believe it.
The students had low expectations. The staff had low expectations. And when I finally figured out what it was — it was that everybody in the building had no hope. Everybody expected it to be that way. Nobody expected anything different. So the students just went along with what they expected.
The biggest [problem] was the level of violence in the school. The fights, threats against the teachers, threats against the support staff, the drug issues, bringing drugs into the building … there were just a lot [of problems]. Everything you could imagine was happening at one time. But it was because they did not expect anything else. No one did, so the kids just went along with their expectations.
[email protected]: You walked into an environment of hostility and, unfortunately, resigned hope. How did you go about trying to spark hope within the teachers and the students? And did you start to see patterns of influence