Remembering Constance Clayton, Philadelphia’s trailblazing former superintendent

Portrait of Constance Clayton in a beige suit
One educator said Clayton “was the school district.” (Courtesy image from School District of Philadelphia)

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Constance Clayton’s legacy as Philadelphia schools’ first Black and first female superintendent is deep and still being felt today. In an era when few Black women held positions of power, Clayton took a school district mired in patronage, labor strife, and division, and put the focus back on providing all students with a quality education.

Clayton, a Philadelphia native and the district’s last homegrown superintendent, died on Monday at the age of 89. She ran the district, then the nation’s fifth largest, from 1982 to 1993, during an era when the average tenure for urban school leaders was three years

Her career and achievements were an inspiration to many – women and Black women in particular. As news of her death spread, tributes came in from city and state leaders, educators, friends, and former adversaries.

“She is an icon,” said Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, which represents principals. 

City Council member Katherine Gilmore Richardson said in a statement that Clayton “was an inspiration to young girls everywhere. It was her commitment to education that in part inspired me to become a teacher.”  

Democratic mayoral nominee Cherelle Parker, poised to become the city’s first female mayor, said in a statement: “It was with Philly in her blood that she raised the expectations for Black and Brown students and students from low and moderate income communities. She set out to prove that race and socio-economic status would not define the chance of a students’ success. Her name is synonymous with leadership that is the model for the generations that came behind her.”

Former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell said Clayton literally led the city into a new era as “the first superintendent who challenged the rest of us in the city” to believe that the public school system could educate children as well as any private school. 

Superintendent Tony Watlington said he met with her frequently for advice and that she had called his office as recently as last Friday to set up a lunch so she could advise him on what to do in his second year leading the district.

“On the last Christmas holiday, she was the first person I talked to,” said Watlington. “And that says something about her and the extent to which she wanted to make sure she stayed engaged.” 

In her nearly 12 years as superintendent, Clayton brought labor peace after a decade of almost constant strikes, stabilized the district’s budget, and spearheaded a popular standardized curriculum, declaring that it would benefit the many city students who moved frequently from school to school. 

Regal in bearing and no-nonsense in her leadership style, Clayton did not suffer fools gladly and would shut out people she perceived as critical of her leadership. But while she alienated some, she left no doubt among anyone that her concern was for the city’s children. 

Veteran district educator Karen Kolsky remembers clearly that Clayton’s mantra was “Every school’s a good school,” a simple statement that set a tone for eager young teachers who could be intimidated by the district’s size and diversity. 

“I remember that like I know my name,” said Kolsky, who retired recently after 38 years in the district. “That spoke volumes to me as a new teacher. I remember it so vividly because she really meant it. 

“She has such presence. She was the School District of Philadelphia.”  

Hailed as “best” recent superintendent

Clayton also brought a desperately needed stability to a system often in turmoil. Before her tenure, district-union relations were toxic. Through the 1970s and early ‘80s, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers went on strike almost yearly, striking for 20 days in 1980 and 50 days in 1981. 

But during Clayton’s 11-year tenure, while union-district relations were hardly cordial, there were no strikes. 

Though they were on opposite sides of the negotiating table, Jerry Jordan, now the president of the PFT, described Clayton as a “mentor, a teacher, a friend” and, in his opinion, the best recent superintendent the district has had. 

“She gave me advice on a number of occasions,” he said. “She helped to teach me how to do my job working for the union.”

Jordan said teachers loved her standardized curriculum. “Long after Dr. Clayton left, I would visit schools and classrooms and teachers would show me they were still using [it]” because it told them “what they needed to teach, not the how. They liked having the freedom to be creative.”  

As to her manner and style of leadership, Jordan said with a chuckle, “She wasn’t a pushover, but she was respectful. She mentored so many people in the school district, and all she wanted to know was that you were concerned and cared about kids.”

Former mayor and City Council member Michael Nutter agrees with Jordan that Clayton “was the greatest Philadelphia school superintendent in modern history.

“She cared passionately about children,” Nutter said. “She always asked the question, ‘is this in the best interest of our children? You just had to appreciate that.” 

While “some people adored her and some had different feelings,” Nutter added, Clayton managed to avoid teacher strikes “and set a national standard” for school leadership.  

Board of Education president Reginald Streater, who graduated from Germantown High  in the early 2000s, said he “was a direct beneficiary” of the work Clayton did to improve the district, especially in helping to create smaller themed academies in the neighborhood high schools. The best way to honor her memory, he said, is to work toward “ensuring that all students are given access to the lifelong tools that we all know they need to navigate this world and toward their dreams.” 

Longtime education advocate, policy analyst, and frequent district critic Debra Weiner described Clayton’s superintendency “as a golden age. What preceded her was teacher strikes every two years, a gigantic exodus of kids from the district, constant deficits, and no standard curriculum.” 

But Clayton prioritized working with a less politicized Board of Education “to bring more transparency” to decision-making, said Weiner, who was one of the victims of Clayton’s legendary cold shoulder after she made one remark the superintendent didn’t like. 

“Sure, she had a thin skin,” Weiner said. “But you have to remember, she was a Black woman. Black women never got anywhere at that time. She went to an all-Black school (Dunbar elementary) herself. She came from a single parent family. When she went to Girls High, it was full of the white elite. I can talk about how she was thin-skinned, but also say, where were the Black women in power in the 80s? They didn’t exist. So it’s very easy to understand why she had those kinds of shortcomings.”

The record shows, Weiner said, that  “between what she inherited and what she bequeathed, there was a big change. It was key in giving the school district a lot of credibility that it had lacked as long as anyone could remember.“ 

Clayton “came in after a series of strikes and budget crises, and she appointed a very capable team,” said Christopher McGinley, a former Board of Education member who started as a teacher when Clayton was superintendent and went on to become a superintendent himself in two suburban districts. “They had a work ethic second to none.”

Most notably, Clayton did not play the political patronage game with local politicians, which inspired anger on the part of some, and admiration from others.

As far as hiring, “my position and questions became ‘what are their competencies, what are their qualifications, what are their experiences, what do they know about children,’” she told scholar Camika Royal in a 2011 interview for her dissertation. “Well, as I said to you before, it became Don’t ask Connie Clayton for anything, because she will not give it to you. I wanted it that way. I was very clear about why it should be that way. We were not a feeding trough for people. The School District is for children.”

Constance Elaine Clayton was born in 1933 (she would never confirm her age while in public life). Raised by her mother and maternal grandmother in Philadelphia, she attended Dunbar Elementary School and Girls High, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a doctorate in education. She subsequently was given many honorary degrees.

Clayton began her career as a fourth grade teacher at the Harrison Elementary School in North Philadelphia in 1955. She quickly rose through the ranks, and in the 1960s, wrote a social studies curriculum for elementary grades and also established an African American studies program for all age levels – efforts that eventually contributed to Philadelphia becoming the first school district in the nation to mandate, in 2006, that all students take an African American history course in order to graduate. 

Clayton was also a visionary in recognizing early on the importance of preschool to children’s brain development. As associate superintendent for Early Childhood Education, her last position before being named to lead the district, she expanded the district’s role in pre-K through a variety of programs that still exist. 

She championed the arts and promoted the teaching of culturally-relevant curriculum in general “that children could see themselves in,” said Howard Stevenson, who holds the Constance E. Clayton chair at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

“She was not afraid of new ideas,” he said. 

Superintendent took on mandate to desegregate city schools

On the day she was installed as school superintendent in October 1982 – hired by a less politically beholden school board appointed by former Mayor Bill Green in an effort to get past the patronage and divisions that dominated the district before then – Clayton made her intentions clear. At the time, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Black educators had distinct affinity groups that kept tabs on the distribution of leadership positions and school assignments. 

“I hope all of us will commit ourselves to the proposition that all children can learn, all children can achieve, and all children deserve to be educated to the maximum of their abilities,” Clayton said. 

At the time, the district was struggling to deal with an order from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, dating back to 1970, to desegregate its schools. There were many all-white schools, especially in the Northeast, reflecting neighborhood demographics but also district decisions regarding how school district catchment areas were drawn. The PHRC wanted mandatory busing but, mindful of the kind of violence and upheaval school desegregation caused in cities like Boston, Clayton – like her white predecessors – rejected that option. 

Unlike them, she and her chief of staff, law professor Ralph Smith, came up with a voluntary desegregation plan that resulted in the busing of thousands of children, more than 14,000 at its peak and mostly Black, to predominantly white schools, primarily in the Northeast. The program also provided incentives, such as free after-school programs, to schools in integrated communities where the school enrollment was predominantly Black, to attract more white students to them.

“I did not accept the job of superintendent to preside over a segregated school system. And I will not do so,” she wrote in a 1983 letter to the school board reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

While the voluntary plan did increase enrollment diversity at many schools, over time, the busing waned, and the focus shifted to providing more resources to schools that were predominantly low-income and Black. The PHRC case was settled in 2009.

Once in talks to become chancellor of the New York City school system, Clayton withdrew her name, writing in a 1987 telegram to the then-president of the New York Board of Education published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I have an unfinished agenda in Philadelphia … Now is not the time to leave.”

But the year 1988 for her had both triumph and missteps: The PFT signed a landmark contract, preserving labor peace and including some important reforms. But in a presentation to the school board in August – in the context of explaining her priorities in managing a budget crunch – she said: “There are those among us who will always choose in favor of the historically privileged. That is a luxury that the school district, this city and our society, can ill afford. When compelled to choose we should and we must choose in favor of those children most at risk and most in need even if they are not the loudest or the most well connected.” 

She also closed five day care centers in the Northeast to spare some in poorer neighborhoods. 

Soon, she faced calls for her resignation, mostly from residents and officeholders from the Northeast, a largely white but working-class community, where many were offended at the notion of who she considered “privileged.”

She persevered, although the last years of her tenure were marked by struggles to keep the district’s budget balanced, stubbornly flat achievement scores, the birth of the charter movement, and the increasingly volatile politics around education and power struggles on the school board. Her resignation in 1993 was unexpected and abrupt. 

She told Royal in 2010: “I’d been there 11 years. And I did, I took early retirement. You know, you get to a point where you question whether you’re still effective. It was time.” 

After her retirement she took an interest in artificial intelligence and its potential role in children’s education, said Stevenson of Penn GSE. She also became a patron of the arts. 

“She was one of the largest holders of Black art in the city,” and also challenged the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as a board member there, “to include folks of color as leaders,” he said. She founded the museum’s African American Collections Committee. 

She was also a philanthropist, he said, often giving money for scholarships and other purposes, but not wanting it publicized. 

In retirement, Clayton also opened an antiques and notions store in Chestnut Hill with one of her former district colleagues, Lee Scott. She lived for decades in a sprawling stone house in Mount Airy with her mother, who died in 2004.

“She didn’t achieve everything she wanted to achieve, but she began the first wave of people taking education seriously and understanding kids of all ages and backgrounds can learn,” said Rendell. “We were all lucky to have her in Philadelphia.” 

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. She was the Philadelphia Inquirer education writer during much of Constance Clayton’s superintendency. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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