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. (Applause)
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! 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. (Laughter) 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? (Laughter) (Applause)
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?" (Applause)
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. (Applause) 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. (Laughter) 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 unconditionally. 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. (Laughter) 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. (Laughter) I often ask them, "Why do you want me to sing when I cannot sing at all?" (Laughter) 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?" (Laughter) 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 — (Laughter) 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, Jesus.