When the word got out that Jeannine Hendricks Payne had been named the new principal of Masterman, the city’s most prestigious school, her phone lit up. All the messages were a variation of, “You are the perfect person for this job.”
Payne, 45, found this both flattering and humbling.
At first glance, “people would think Masterman doesn’t need anything,” she said. “It has high-performing students, a dedicated staff, influential families. For individuals to know all that, and know me, to say you’re what they needed, means a lot to me.”
The Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School at 17th and Spring Garden streets, with grades five through 12, is the most selective in Philadelphia. It accepts only the highest performing students based on test scores, grades, attendance and discipline records, and has been cited as the best school in Pennsylvania.
But lately it has been roiled with conflict. The school has been rocked by the national reckoning over race that followed George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis more than a year ago, with students and alumni demanding action about the school’s declining percentage of Black students and ongoing problems with discrimination and microaggressions against students of color. Before the start of this school year, teachers protested over how the district informed the school community about asbestos cleanup in the 1930’s-era building.
It is the new principal’s job to lead Masterman through those issues. As a veteran principal, former Masterman student, and its first Black leader, Payne is well suited to the task.
Her signature style is based on openness, transparency and communication, something the school community craves right now.
For the last 13 years she has led two elementary schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods beset by poverty, trying with minimal success to help more of their students qualify for and be accepted to the elite magnet, which has both a middle and a high school. In a district that is 80% Black, Latino and multiracial, just 31% of Masterman students fall into those categories. Just 15% are Black, a sharp drop from 33% about a decade ago.
“The progression of being able to lead in the place where I have tried to prepare students to go for the past 13 yrs, is really important to me,” she said.
And as the mother of a 7-year-old Black boy, she wants to create a school steeped in excellence and equity, one that he will want to attend in a few years — not only because he wants to be academically challenged, but because he can feel comfortable as a Black male in a community that is doing its best to acknowledge and root out racism.
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A sense of “responsibility”
A lifelong Philadelphian, Payne grew up and still lives in Mount Airy, the city’s most integrated and progressive neighborhood. Her father Gerald Hendricks, who retired in 2009 after more than four decades in the district, was a physical education teacher and a legendary basketball coach for 24 years at Strawberry Mansion High School. Her mother also taught, but left the district during the constant labor strife of the 1970s to work at the University of Pennsylvania.
The oldest of three, Payne started her school career at Ivy Leaf, a Black-run private school in Germantown, which led to Masterman from fifth to ninth grade. After ninth grade, she transferred to Central High for athletics. “I was a competitive swimmer and I wanted a bigger school.”
She thrived at both Masterman and Central, also highly selective; her experience does not include memories of racial animus. She honestly can’t remember the racial composition of the student body at either school from her time there.
“I also don’t remember feeling very isolated,” she said. “Not belonging was not an issue I felt in either of those school communities.”
Watching how Masterman’s reputation curdled from a beacon of excellence to a bastion of privilege is painful for her. “To see and hear how it is primarily an issue now, really hurts,” she said.
After high school graduation, Payne was determined to be a physician. She enrolled in Xavier University in New Orleans, the country’s only historically Black Catholic college — founded by St. Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia’s Drexel family — which was known for its pre-med program. There, she discovered that she liked the idea of being a doctor more than she actually wanted to be one.
She came back to Philadelphia with her bachelor’s degree in biology, and enrolled in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. For five years she taught high school science at Strawberry Mansion before being pushed toward the administrative track. She was assistant principal at Frankford High before being tapped to lead Edward Gideon Elementary. Six years later, she became principal at Richard R. Wright Elementary.
She spent 13 years at those two schools, and planned to stay at Wright, where her son is a second grader. André will stay there, even as she moves on. “There are people there who have known him since preschool,” she said. “They know he loves dinosaurs and animals.”
At first, Payne didn’t apply for the Masterman job. “I was telling people that Wright was the last school I would be principal,” she said, “and I meant it.”
But she came to believe that she had a “responsibility” to influence the special admissions system from the other side, as someone who understands how much the process is stacked against low-income families.
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Not only is she taking on one of the district’s most high-profile positions, but she is doing so as the pandemic persists and amid distrust over the building’s safety.
Parents, teachers, district officials and students interviewed her during the lengthy application process, which she called “refreshingly authentic.” Over and over, they asked why she wanted to be principal of Masterman and what success would look like.
She told them, in part: “I cherish the opportunity to come back and lead a school that I attended.”
Saterria Kersey, president of the Masterman Home and School Association, who was on the selection committee, said she likes that Payne is a scientist and a graduate of an historically Black college. She described her as strong, with a “commitment to her students.”
“As a Black woman, she’ll bring a different perspective,” Kersey said. Her openness “will allow the community to embrace the diversity aspect...I believe she will increase the diversity [of the student body] to what it used to be.”
In short, “she is a good fit” to lead the school to its next chapter.
The selection committee sent two names to Superintendent William Hite, who made the final choice, Kersey said. She officially takes over at Masterman on Sept. 27.
“Many parents had never heard of Masterman”
When Payne was among the seven principals who won the coveted Lindback Award for distinguished principal leadership in 2017, she talked about building a “liberal arts” elementary education that prepared students to go anywhere, including the city’s most selective schools.
At Wright, she had worked hard to create a culture of collaboration, maintaining high standards and making sure the school was welcoming to families.
Wright showed improvements, but it nagged at her that despite outreach to parents, keeping art and music and other specialty classes, and building a strong staff, in six years only two Wright students were accepted to Masterman, with a “handful” placed on the waitlist.
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In a high-poverty neighborhood, where many caregivers work low-wage jobs and families move often, “it was hard convincing students and their families to even apply or to want to go,” she said. “Many parents never heard of Masterman.”
As Wright’s principal, Payne saw how Masterman’s admission standards all but lock out a whole segment of the city’s population.
Wright offered the right classes, “but you still have to come every day, almost never be late, never have a behavioral incident.” Plus, get all As with maybe one B, “and be advanced or proficient on standardized tests.”
Pulling off that combination was not easy for most Wright families, no matter how hard parents tried or how smart kids were.
This year, test scores won’t be part of the mix, as most students have not taken the PSSA for two years because of the pandemic. From her experience as a principal in North Philadelphia and a parent, Payne said she understands that who a child is and what they can do “can’t only be wrapped up in test scores.”
But whether this year’s admissions cycle ends up being a one-year experiment or a catalyst for transformation is still up in the air.
For Payne, it is at least an opportunity to “rethink the process,” she said, “if it can be done.”