School turnaround relies on steady leaders

Transformation starts with a vision, and getting others to believe in its potential

Linda Cliatt-Wayman is the turnaround queen. As the principal who changed two low-performing and violent Philadelphia high schools into safe spaces focused on learning, Wayman developed a program of high expectations for students and staff, and intense professional development.

In 2013, after serving as an assistant superintendent for the School District of Philadelphia, she took on the turnaround challenge as principal at the notorious Strawberry Mansion High School, which she describes in her book Lead Fearlessly, Love Hard: Finding Your Purpose and Putting It to Work (Jossey-Bass, 2017).

As a result, test scores went up every year, and the school was removed from the federal Persistently Dangerous Schools list. Wayman left Strawberry Mansion in June to start a nonprofit for disadvantaged youth.

“I’m trying to make them understand they are important. They don’t see themselves as worthy” she says. “They never saw themselves outside of poverty. They never see themselves going to college. They never thought about advocating for themselves. We’re going to change that.”

Why did you leave a district administrative role to become principal of Strawberry Mansion High School?

I was assistant superintendent for all the high schools in Philadelphia. I had previously been principal of both FitzSimons High School and Rhodes High School. In 2013, both those schools were going to be merged with Strawberry Mansion—a three-way merger of high schools, the first of its kind in Philadelphia.

It was my charge to find a principal for this new combined school. Not one person applied. I went to my boss and said, “Listen. I can’t find a principal. I’ve looked everywhere.” I said, “I think the reason I can’t find a principal is because I’m supposed to go.”

I’m a spiritual person, and one day I was walking into the school, and I really believe I heard the voice of God say, “You go.”

You like to say, “If you’re going to lead, lead.” A leader needs a team of like-minded people to follow you. How did you do that?

I knew I could not do it alone—no one can—but I had worked with some really good people over the years in FitzSimons and Rhodes. I went back to many of them and said, “Listen. I have to go into this school. I can’t do it alone. I need your expertise.” Every single one of those people said yes.

We went in there with experience of working together, and we picked up some additional team members along the way, but the core group was people I had worked with in the past.

The teachers must have been very discouraged before you showed up.

Well, it’s difficult when you work in an inner-city school with inner-city staff. Everybody was just in a state of hopelessness. The kids were in a state of hopelessness. The staff was in a state of hopelessness.

They really didn’t believe the school could change. They were still angry about the merger. The community was angry about the merger, so everybody was just angry. It was just an angry, disruptive situation.

Many of the staff members had become used to doing absolutely nothing in that building. They were used to not setting expectations. They were used to not educating the kids to their full capacity.

There were three or four teachers who really were trying and working themselves to death. But there was also a large population of staff who, to be honest, contributed to the disaster in that building. Some people never came on board, and that’s when you have to use your pen to eliminate them from the school.

I lost a number of teachers in the first two or three weeks of school. They knew they couldn’t do it.

How did you get buy-in from students and parents?

The kids at Strawberry Mansion High School didn’t realize that a school is supposed to prepare you for life. To them, it had become a place to hang out and have fun. And, because of the neighborhood, there were many kids afraid to go to school at all, and that was another reason I chose to go.

I wanted them to know that if I’m going to send you in there, then I’m going to go with you. They were my kids. And many parents said, “You left your job to come here? Okay, Mrs. Wayman, if you’re here, I think things will be OK.”

I’ve seen photos of classrooms that were literally piled high with trash and broken desks and chairs. How long did the turnaround take?

It actually happened the first year. We did a lot of prep in the summer before going in. We worked around the clock to beautify the school. It was full of trash. No wonder when kids walked in, they didn’t see it as a school. That took the entire summer.

Then we revised the school budget to get more teachers and support staff. We rebuilt the entire school day schedule to add a variety of start and end times, remediation, honors courses, extracurricular activities and counseling.

Our best invention was to devise a schoolwide discipline program titled “Non-negotiables.” It was a behavior system designed to promote positive behavior at all times.

When people walked into the building in September, they already knew something was different. They said, “Wow, what happened to this place?” That’s how destructive it was prior to us getting in. With all these little changes, people automatically knew, “Something’s going to happen here, because this feels different.”

What advice do you have for district leaders and principals who face similar problems and just don’t know where to turn?

I would start with my original slogan: “If you’re going to lead, lead.” That’s the problem we have with many school leaders. They are not able to articulate what they want for their school. They are not mission-driven. If they have a solid mission they want to accomplish when they walk into a school, then very little should get them off course.

Many leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with really didn’t realize that it was their job to lead the school. They would always defer to the district, and I’d say, “Wait a minute. The district gave you mandates, but the day-to-day operation of this school falls on you and you must be prepared to do that.”

So, first, they have to own their mission. They have to figure out what needs to be done with that building, before articulating it to their team.

Before it became a shared vision, it was my vision. I had to work hard to get them to see it my way and then it became our vision. That’s when change happens.

This might be a delicate subject, but I’m curious how your legacy lives on since you left.

Well, it’s funny you say that, because I worry about that a lot, too. What I want people to remember is that the school would not exist if it was not for what we did, because they were going to close Strawberry Mansion, too.

I fought vigorously to keep that school open. I started a football team that hadn’t been there in 50 years. I got kids to understand and hope and believe in education again. That’s what I want people to remember about me.

So many things shouldn’t be left to a principal to change so drastically without bringing the kids along with them. I tell them that’s the problem they’re going to have with Strawberry Mansion very soon.

As a matter of fact, school has just started and they’re already having problems, because the kids have become used to certain systems, systems that the new leaders don’t care to follow.

And that’s OK if you bring the kids along with you and explain how the system is going to change from one to another. But to just change things to change, it’s throwing the kids into a tizzy. They’re very confused at this moment. It’s going to be interesting to watch.

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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