By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Before Linda Cliatt-Wayman changed the game in 2012, Strawberry Mansion High School had spent six consecutive years on the “most dangerous schools” list.
With a population of poor, predominantly African-American students, the school received a lot of bad press and had a revolving door of principals.
At the time, Wayman was assistant superintendent of high schools for the Philadelphia School District. For many educators, a job in administration means years of hard work has paid off and now you get to set policy.
“I used to tell my principals, if you’re going to lead, lead,” says Wayman.
She took her own advice. And in spite of the prestige of the title and an office at 440 North Broad Street, when Wayman was unable to find a candidate qualified to lead Strawberry Mansion High to success, she made the difficult decision to do the job herself.
“It was something I believe God wanted me to do,” says Wayman on the decision to demote herself to principal, “but I knew the kids, I knew the neighborhood, and I knew some of the families, so I really didn’t think it would be anything different from what I was used to.”
Wayman grew up in North Philadelphia. The wife and mother of two daughter had been a principal at Thomas Fitzsimons Junior High School and then at Rhodes High School. Both of those schools eventually closed down, and many of the children ended up at Strawberry Mansion, or “Mansion,” as Wayman affectionately calls it.
“I loved them, I adored them and I figured, if they have to go to Strawberry Mansion, I guess I have to go with them,” she says.
After taking over in 2012, Wayman says she knew there would be challenges. There had been 49 violent incidents the previous year. The culture and climate of the school left many teachers feeling intimidated by students who, Wayman says, did not view Strawberry Mansion as a school but as a place to hang out.
Those facts did not deter her.
“The first thing I knew I had to do was to come up with a plan of action to get them off the ‘persistently dangerous’ list,” says Wayman.
She and her leadership team laid out non-negotiable rules. Doors to the outside had to stay closed. Students could not wear coats or hoodies in class. No foul language and no drugs were allowed in the schools. No more lingering in the halls between classes. Above all, there were no execuses for breaking the rules.
“I gave [the rules] to them in writing, I gave it to their parents in writing, I had town hall meetings two weeks in a row,” says Wayman, who personally made the announcement the day the rules went into effect.
But it wasn’t all tough love. Wayman says 97 percent of the students are from families whose income qualifies them for reduced-price or free school lunches. And they have multiple other challenges, such as homelessness, sick parents, or children to take care of.
So she worked to show the youngsters that their lives could be better.
“These kids actually believed that what has happened to them in their lives, they deserved it and they didn’t deserve any better,” she says.
So Wayman showed them she cared. She became the students’ motivational speaker, counselor, conflict resolution specialist, and surrogate parent.
Wayman says she ate lunch with the students and celebrated their successes. She was able to get the school a football team, helping the school build school spirit.
“I worked to build trust with them so they know if they have a problem, they have someone to go to,” says Wayman. “I tell them everyone has a God-given talent and can be successful, and I (now) see kids believing that life could be better.”
Now that she has convinced the children that they can be successful, she wants to convince everyone else.
“I want to change the image of this school,” she says. “I want this city to know that Strawberry Mansion can be a high-performing school if we get the support and resources we need.”
Wayman says there’s a long way to go and a lot of work to do. But looking back on her decision two years ago, she says she knows she is headed in the right direction.
“I may not be able to get them to Harvard, may not — there are too many challenges,” notes Wayman, “but I can give them hope and I can give them the desire to make life better for them.”
Hear the extended interview with Linda Cliatt-Wayman in this CBS Philly podcast (runs 22:57)…