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Linda Cliatt-Wayman

Linda Cliatt-Wayman

by William H. Benson

August 13, 2015

     “Miss! Miss! Why do you keep calling this a school?” asked Ashley. “This is not a school!”

     It was an awkward moment, at an assembly, in November of 2002. Because a fight had broken out that morning, the school’s new principal, an angry Linda Cliatt-Wayman, called all the students and staff to the auditorium where she hoped to present her expectations for the students’ behavior and for their achievement. Ashley, a student, interrupted her with the chilling words, “This is not a school!”

     Fast forward to the fall of 2013, when Cliatt-Wayman walked into another north Philadelphia high school, her first day as principal at Strawberry Mansion High School.

     Officials rated the school as “persistently dangerous.” Chains slung over the front doors. Fights were rampant. Math and reading levels stood in the bottom decile. Classrooms were in disarray. The neighborhood was locked in poverty. The students felt scared. The teachers felt defeated. The school district had slated the school for possible closure. Hopelessness pervaded the atmosphere.

     Four principals in four years had tried and failed to turn the school around when Philadelphia’s Assistant Superintendent of schools at that time, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, decided to give up looking, “because,” she said, “I could not find a principal who was suitable for the job. So I volunteered.”

     Last May, she spoke on TED talk. The first thing you notice is her voice. It booms out loud, determined, confident, and earnest, the kind of voice that demands to be heard, that would cause a high school girl or boy to jump, wake up, pay attention, listen, and act.

     How does anyone turn around a school, or any institution, especially one trapped in a deteriorating cycle of apathy and desperate poverty?

     Linda Cliatt-Wayman started with slogans. Her first: “If you’re going to lead, lead.” With her staff’s help, she reset the combinations on all the lockers. She created a deployment plan, so that she knew where each staff member was every moment of the day. She changed the burned-out lightbulbs. She filled two dumpsters per day for weeks with all the junk and trash that had accumulated in the classrooms. She found funding for more teachers. She established a “non-negotiable discipline policy.”

     Above all else, she tried to make the school a safe environment. Students now pass their backpacks through metal scanners before they are brought into the school. Pockets are emptied. Ninety-four cameras peer into the school’s every corner. Signs everywhere announce, “Weapons are prohibited.”

     Security guards roam the hallways and lunch rooms, ready to bust up the fights. No boots, and no hoodies. The boots stomp on heads, and the hoodies hide students’ faces from the cameras.

     Her second slogan: “So what? Now what?” She would listen to no excuses from students or staff. “Now what?” meant “let’s solve the problem now,” rather than list the excuses.

     Her third slogan: “If nobody told you they love you today, remember I love you.” She manages the lunchroom, where, she says, “they often outman me, and I don’t know if I have the manpower to bring it back.” But it is in the lunchroom where she learns the students’ names. She sings “Happy birthday!” to them. Then, one day a month she holds a town hall meeting and fields students’ questions. “Why do we have a dress code? Why do we have so many rules?” She meets the questions head on.  

     This fearless warrior in north Philadelphia has attracted national attention. Diane Sawyer took her camera crew into Strawberry Mansion High School one day and found herself in the middle of a girls’ fight. Another girl draped an arm around Diane’s shoulder and announced, “Nobody hurts Diane!”

     Linda Cliatt-Wayman grew up in poverty in north Philadelphia. She beat a lot of odds. “She experienced firsthand the injustices perpetrated against poor students in education.” She graduated from high school, college, and earned a master’s degree. She attributes her success to, what she says is, “my amazing mother.” With Linda beside her, her mother would ride a city bus into Philadelphia’s better neighborhoods, point at the clean and prosperous homes, and dared Linda to dream.

     By tough love, rigorous rules, and consequences, Cliatt-Wayman’s efforts at Strawberry Mansion High School produced results. After one year, the literature and algebra scores more than doubled.

     She delivers a needed message to her students, straightforward, no hesitation. She loves the students, and she believes in their potential to succeed if given the chance. Over the intercom at the end of the day, she delivers her message. “I want you to be careful going home today young people,” she says. “You all have to remember that education is the only way. It is your only ticket, and remember that if nobody told you they loved you today, remember I do.”

     “This is not a school!” Ashley said, and Linda Cliatt-Wayman answered, “So what? Now what?”