Q&A: Linda Cliatt-Wayman on School Transformation and Her Career in Education

Shaped spoke with Linda Cliatt-Wayman, a passionate education advocate with an unwavering belief in the potential of all children. She grew up in North Philadelphia, where she experienced firsthand the injustice perpetrated against poor students in their education. She has since led numerous school turnaround efforts, most notably Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia. Her leadership there has been featured by TED, ABC World News Tonight, and Nightline, and her May 2015 TED Talk has been viewed over a million times. 

After 32 years in public schools, Cliatt-Wayman now uses her voice and skills to advocate full time for justice in education for children in poverty. She is the founder and Principal/CEO of CurrentlyTrending, a nonprofit that helps students escape poverty by providing them with direct coaching, resources, and support to graduate high school and lead a life of purpose. Cliatt-Wayman will be a speaker at this year's Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., from June 23–26, 2019.

We asked Cliatt-Wayman questions about how her life experiences influenced her career as an educator and about the changes she inspired at Strawberry Mansion High School, among other topics. Here's what she had to say.

Shaped: How did your childhood experiences impact your decision to pursue a career in education? Why did you decide to become an educator?

Linda Cliatt-Wayman: I grew up in poverty with my mother and two sisters in North Philadelphia. My mother believed wholeheartedly that the only way to escape poverty was through education. No one in my family had ever been to college, and my mother believed that the absence of a college degree was the missing piece that could lead our family out of poverty.

In the late 1960s, my mother and my neighbors were asked to take part in a desegregation program in which we would be bused away from our all African American neighborhood middle school to a more diverse school in another part of the city. The bus ride was nearly an hour each way. All of our neighbors declined to participate in the program because they were worried it was too dangerous to send their children out of their neighborhood to a desegregating school. But my mother accepted the offer and sent my two sisters and me out of North Philadelphia to attend school.

When I was younger, I did not realize that there was a difference in the education I would get depending upon where I went to school. I took the long bus ride every day and did my schoolwork. Then, when I was in ninth grade, I convinced my mother to let me go to high school with my friends in my North Philadelphia neighborhood. 

That’s when I discovered the huge discrepancy in educational options, but I could not understand why. I saw friends I had known for years who had stayed in our neighborhood schools and were completely unprepared for high school. After I attended my neighborhood high school, I fell significantly behind and was not prepared for college. Seeing what an inadequate education did to my friends, my family, and me, I decided to become an educator. I vowed to teach in the same area where I grew up, where many of my friends did not have the experience of attending a great school. I set out to prove that great schools could be created in every neighborhood as long as everyone in the school was dedicated to that mission. I am grateful that I got the opportunity to prove just that.

Shaped: What is a school to you? In your TED talk, you mention the student Ashley at Strawberry Mansion High School, who said, “This is not a school.” How would you define that word based on your experiences working at Strawberry Mansion HS and other places?

LCW: I believe a school is a place where you acquire knowledge and learn how to navigate the world in a safe, supportive, fun, and loving space. For too many students living in poverty, their schools are not really schools at all—but they can be with a clear vision, high expectations for the entire school community, accountability for everyone, and fun daily. 

Shaped: What specific steps did you take to bring about change at Strawberry Mansion High School? How did you turn around the school culture? How else did the school transform under your leadership?

LCW: I worked to bring about change at Strawberry Mansion the same way I had at other schools I had led—through clarity of expectations, rigorous monitoring, immediate accountability, and an unwavering belief in our students.

We focused on three key areas simultaneously: teaching and learning, school safety, and making school fun. For each of these areas, we developed crystal-clear expectations for students and adults alike, and then I held everyone to those expectations without exception. When turning around a low-performing, dangerous school, everyone has to understand the impact of their role in order for the school to be successful. 

In addition to those three focus areas, we put a lot of emphasis on listening and student VOICE. I held town halls in the auditorium with my students. I listened to their concerns and responded to them. That doesn’t mean I did everything they asked, but when I couldn’t do what they wanted, I stood in front of them and explained why. Having a voice in their school and being able to engage me in conversation about our community empowered students and invested them in what we were trying to do together.

Through a lot of hard work, we were removed from the "persistently dangerous" list for the first time in five years, test scores rose each year, and in my final year, we were among the schools with the highest improvements in the college-going rate and graduation rate in the city.

None of this could have been done by me alone. We accomplished the success we had by building a team of very hardworking, committed teachers and support staff. Our leadership team had a “so what, now what?” attitude, refused to give up or lower expectations, and fought every day to provide something many of our students had lost: HOPE. 

Shaped: How do you motivate and support your teaching staff in this kind of school environment? 

LCW: At first, I told them my story of growing up in poverty and receiving a less-than-stellar education. Then, I laid my life mission to help as many children as I can escape poverty through education. After they understood me as a person, I set out to form a shared vision. At every staff meeting, I reminded them why we were at the school and reminded them we were not only educators but also life-savers. Every chance I got, I tried to touch their hearts so they would stay focused on the mission.

Shaped: Why did you decide to volunteer to become the principal at Strawberry Mansion High School? Was there a particular inspiration that comes to mind? 

LCW: This was a defining moment in my career and is a unique story. I’m looking forward to telling it at the conference this summer!

Shaped: List your main slogans. Why do you use the same quotes repeatedly to your students and staff?

LCW: Some of my slogans are:

  • “If you are going to lead, LEAD.”
  • “So, what? Now what?”
  • “If nobody told you they loved you today, remember I do, and I always will.”

I take leadership very seriously. I believe that the leader must lead effectively if any organization is going to be successful. I always believed that if I took a position in leadership, it was a huge responsibility and that I could not ask my staff to meet any expectations I wasn’t willing to meet myself. Schools, more than any other institution, are a reflection of their leadership.

Excuses are counterproductive to everyone and everything in the school family. We can’t always control what happens to our students in and out of school, but we can control how we respond. We can make excuses, or we can ask ourselves what we’re going to do next to love our students while holding them to high expectations.

Using the same slogans over and over helps foster a shared culture of expectations. They become the mantras of our team and reflect our commitment to our students and to each other.

Shaped: What impact does this have on students and even staff?

LCW: It keeps everyone focused on the main thing: achieving the school’s vision. 

Shaped: What is your nonprofit CurrentlyTrending? How does this tie back to your overall mission?

It has always been my mission to help as many children as I could escape from poverty through education. My home city of Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among this nation’s 10 largest cities and abysmal graduation rates in its poorest areas. To address this reality, I founded CurrentlyTrending after I ended my full-time work as a principal. 

CurrentlyTrending partners directly with students and parents to successfully navigate high school from the beginning to graduation on a clear path to success and happiness. The program is premised on the belief that in order to succeed, students need a combination of coaching, leadership development, mentorship, and love. CurrentlyTrending meets those needs with committed coaches and effective programming.

Rising ninth-graders participate in a three-day youth leadership retreat over the summer. At the retreat, which is held on local college and high school campuses, we establish a supportive community, begin to develop the leadership traits we’ll focus on throughout the program, and build a concrete understanding of what it means to successfully navigate high school—from earning credits to developing a post-secondary strategy.

During the school year, students meet regularly with CurrentlyTrending coaches. These coaches—all retired educators—support students in whatever way they need, including connecting them with resources, tutoring them, helping them manage their time, and helping them navigate the increasingly complex web of life as a high school student. 

One Saturday a month, all participants and coaches come together in our supportive community to check in with each other, participate in student leadership development activities, and expand our horizons through guest speakers and field trips. All of our students track their grades and credits to make sure they are on track to graduate, and they plan the courses they’ll request in the coming years. And we’ve partnered with University Service Learning Students to provide our participants with in-school tutoring.

One thing that differentiates CurrentlyTrending from many other organizations is that we build our relationships directly with students and parents rather than with individual schools. So many community-school partnerships aimed at supporting students get disrupted when there is a change in school administration or the student switches schools. While we will certainly work with and in schools, our core partnership is with the student and parent themselves. We’ll help them no matter what school they’re in—no matter what changes arise in their lives.

By providing students and families with leadership development, responsive coaching, and love, and by demystifying the complex high school journey, we can ensure our participants graduate high school in four years on a path out of poverty to success and happiness.

***

Join Linda Cliatt-Wayman and more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 27th Annual Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., from June 23–26, 2019, where you can learn what steps to take to act for impact in your school or district.

Be the first to read the latest from Shaped.