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  • 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 --