How a principal’s risk-taking and discipline gave urban students hope

"I had 550 kids who had no hopes and no dreams," former principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman says
By: | July 8, 2020
One of Linda Cliatt-Wayman‘s biggest challenges as a principal was starting a football team at her urban high school.One of Linda Cliatt-Wayman‘s biggest challenges as a principal was starting a football team at her urban high school.

Putting your own job on the line while making sure students know their actions have consequences fuel former principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman‘s approach to turning around low-performing schools.

When she took over an urban high school labeled as “persistently dangerous,” she was startled one day to discover the level of apathy students expressed toward the violence around them, Cliatt-Wayman tells District Administration.

“One young lady said, ‘We see the violence every night on the street where we live—we don’t hope, we don’t dream because nothing is going to change,'” Cliatt-Wayman says. “Right then and there,I thought ‘I have 550 kids who have no hopes and no dreams.'”

While a major K-12 trend has been to eliminate out-of-school suspensions, Cliatt-Wayman’s first action at the school was to create a discipline policy that included suspensions as a consequence for fighting and other serious infractions.

More from DA: Watch Linda Cliatt-Wayman’s interview with educational media platform Ever Widening Circles

At the same time, she created a system of field trips, field days and other rewards for students followed the rules. “They’d never had those things that normal kids had in high school,” she says.

She also held monthly meetings with students and teachers to gather students’ input on discipline policy and other issues.

“I told students, ‘I know you don’t like the rules, but there are rules are everywhere you go in life and there are going to be a lot of them you don’t like,'” she says.

Fighting for football

One of her biggest challenges was getting the school a football team. After unsuccessfully petitioning city government, Cliatt-Wayman went all the way to the U.S. Department of Justice to get the team, she says.

She said she saw systemic racism in her school’s battle to build a better athletic program.

“Once we got that football team, it proved to the children that the administration was serious about changing the school, and the community started to believe,” she says.

More from DA: What Indianapolis Public Schools’ racial equity policy accomplishes

After her first year, the school was removed from a federal “persistently dangerous” list.

“People ask me, ‘How did you curtail violence,” she says. “First I put rules in place. I expected teachers to teach, I expected kids to follow rules, and I expected the system to help me. When the system didn’t help me, I was brave enough to go outside the system.”

Education leaders, particularly in low-income or low-performing schools, should adopt an entrepreneurial mindset of taking risks to change policies, despite pressure from influences outside the school community, she says.

“You can’t stand there in front of teachers and students and say, ‘I can’t do that, they won’t let me,'” she says. “These children need people to fight for them even if it means putting your job on the line or getting ostracized as a troublemaker.”

Principals need a vision

In her consulting work, she urges principals to develop a unified vision for their schools by gathering input from administrators, educators, staff and students.

“I get them to think about why they got into education and their vision, and then to take that vision to their staff and have conversations about what they want to do,” she says.

For instance, a vision for education during coronavirus should seek to make changes to how schools operated before the outbreak.

More from DAWatch Linda Cliatt Wayman’s Ted Talk—”How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard”

“Something in that plan has to be different from what you were planning pre-pandemic,” she says. “You have to ask ‘How are we going to take on the role of innovators?”

She also encourages principals to be “the most optimistic person” in their school.

“You have to be a cheerleader every step of the way,” Cliatt-Wayman says. “And when you fail, you admit it, you come up with a new strategy and go back to cheering that on.”