“I didn’t know anything about Southwest – I’d never been through here. I’d spent most of my career in the Kensington and Frankfurt neighborhoods. Then I went to work at 440 – downtown we call it 440. I was working in the office of effectiveness – my job was to go out and give professional development advice to schools.
“The former principal here at Mitchell reached out and asked me to come and giving a training on classroom climate because they were having a lot of climate and cultural issues – behavior and things of that nature. The school was really completely falling apart. I didn’t know anything about the neighborhood – got lost three times coming here.
“I came in through the library, where the training session was being held, and if you go to our library you’ll see it’s beautiful.It’s an annex at the end of the building. Five years ago the school got a grant, Target came in and redid the whole library. That’s the first thing I saw and I thought ‘wow! what a beautiful school. Tons of teachers were there and they were interested and having discussions – I didn’t know at the time these teachers were barely being paid – and I thought wow, what a school this is!’
“But then I walked into the main building of the school. I was shocked. As you go down the hallway everything changed. It was astounding how badly the rest of the school needed to be renovated. I couldn’t believe it. After the hope and joy I felt in the library I could not believe this is where the students were meant to be learning.
“Eventually the principal told me that she was retiring – she told me the history of the school. That the past four years had been a perfect storm of internal struggles and shifts in administration that meant the school couldn’t stabilize, coupled with the shifting of the districts in Philadelphia which meant that suddenly this school went from a K-4 school to a K-8 school. It had been hell.
“Schools had to close because of budgets and this school doubled just at the wrong time.
“Now, I don’t know anything about the politics involved in government funding in Philadelphia. I don’t know anything about it – I stay away from it. It frustrates me. You won’t get anything done if you try to go through the bureaucracy.
“All I care about is what happens in the four walls of my school and if you, government, won’t give me the money for it I’ll go out and get it myself. You don’t give me a social worker, I’ll get one; you don’t give me computers, I’ll find the donations. I can’t care about the complicated politics. I have a school to run.
“I got my administrative certificate fifteen years ago. For the past fifteen years people kept telling me I should be a principal over and over. I didn’t know when I would know it was time but I knew some day I would.
“When I walked into this building I knew – I knew I didn’t want to be a principal at some school, I wanted to be a principal at this school. I’ve worked with over 150 schools – not until this one did I feel that way.
“For that library to look the way it did and for all those teachers who are so committed and excited to be in that library while they’re barely getting paid – for all of them to have to walk into those mice infested, reeking hallways – I had to help them. The only reason they were there that day, as they are every day, is because of their deep love for the kids they teach and the place they live.
“Those teachers needed this school to start functioning as a school. They need it to stop being in crisis mode every day: I could do that for them.
“I know what my strengths and weaknesses are. My weakness is that I’m impatient and I can’t deal with politics. My strength is that I am relentless. I can champion for these students, these teachers and these parents.
“When I came here the only technology they had in the classrooms were those old enormous bubble macs (google them if you can’t remember what they look like; no one’s used them in years). Now, in less than a year and a half, every classroom has a flat screen mac and every classroom has a Smartboard.
“We spent the past year applying for grants and writing to everyone, knocking on doors. We had an article written which generated a lot of support. That’s how things get done. You have to push it and push it till things start moving.”