Masterman’s first Black principal departs to take over North Philadelphia high school

A mother and son pose for a portrait together in a local park on a sunny day.
Jeannine Payne, the principal of Masterman (pictured with her son Andre), is leaving the school after three years to take over Strawberry Mansion High School in North Philadelphia. Payne became the magnet school's first Black principal in 2021. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

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Jeannine Hendricks Payne, who three years ago became the first Black principal of Masterman, Philadelphia’s most prestigious magnet school, is leaving this summer to take over Strawberry Mansion High in North Philadelphia next year.

Her surprise departure comes after a time  of controversy at Masterman. Last month, some parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights over the district’s response to antisemitic incidents at the school following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and the subsequent war. There’s also ongoing dissent about how the district’s new lottery admissions system has affected the school.

Payne said the move is her own decision. She noted that both she and her father, Gerald Hendricks, a legendary physical education teacher and basketball coach, taught at Mansion.

“I want to be clear, I’m not leaving Masterman out of frustration,” Payne said in an

interview Monday. “If Strawberry Mansion never had a vacancy, I would not have applied anywhere else. They had a vacancy and I love that school.”

Payne’s next job will be quite different from her role at Masterman. Mansion, as the school is universally known, is in one of the poorest parts of the city and struggles with enrollment, achievement and climate. Built to hold 1,700 students, it now has just 250, making it one of the smallest high schools in Philadelphia.

It was slated for closure in 2013 and again in 2018, only to be saved following community protests and the intervention of then-City Council President Darrell Clarke, a Mansion alumnus.

Antisemitism, admissions controversy test Masterman’s leader

Two controversies in particular made Payne’s recent tenure especially challenging.

The federal complaint from parents about antisemitism in Philly schools since Oct. 7 cited incidents at Masterman, including a swastika scrawled on an outside door and a bake sale by the Islamic Student Association that allegedly included the distribution of anti-Israel literature.

Payne said she had the swastika removed within 12 hours, but some parents wanted an in-depth probe. She said she screened the fliers for the bake sale and disallowed some of them.

But well before the Oct. 7 attack, a group of Masterman parents were unhappy with the school’s direction.

Payne took the reins at the school just as the district inaugurated a lottery admission system in 2021 for its most selective schools, which guaranteed admission to all qualifying students from certain ZIP codes. Officials hoped the redesigned system would offer more opportunities to historically underrepresented populations.

But in February 2023, a group of parents released a report arguing that the new system had lowered the school’s admission standards for fifth graders, with some students unprepared for its rigor.

It also argued that Masterman’s leadership “continues to make curricular and staff changes that are causing exasperation and despair in the classroom and the community” and that “[s]tudent, teacher and community morale is at a low point. … Increasingly parents and administration feel at odds with one another.”

The report complained about schedule changes that reduced access to art, music, and gym, and that other decisions led to the “decimation of language studies.”

In sum, the report said that instead of enhancing Masterman’s curriculum and electives that were prized by parents, the school’s administration “appears to view the middle school as no different from other neighborhood schools.”

Mitchell Orenstein was president of Masterman’s Home and School Association board when the parents released their 2023 report. While confirming some of the controversies that roiled the school, he said in response to her leaving: “Dr. Payne has a passion for education and a passion for addressing the needs of underserved students in this district.”

In response to widespread complaints, the district overhauled the 2021 lottery admissions process in 2023. So far the system, meant to be antiracist, hasn’t made a big dent in the representation of Black and Latino students at Masterman and Central High, the district’s other top magnet.

Recently, Masterman’s student demographics have not reflected the district’s. Proportionally, it has far fewer Black and Hispanic students than citywide.

Masterman has students in grades 5-12. Before the lottery, admission to the smaller high school was in effect restricted to Masterman middle schoolers. The lottery opened it up to all students who met the criteria.

This year, as part of the lottery overhaul, the district decided all of Masterman’s graduating eighth graders automatically have a spot in the high school if they want it.

Saterria Kersey, another former president of Masterman’s Home and School Association, said in an interview that she felt racial issues played a part in Payne’s departure.

Kersey, who is Black, cited pushback from some parents for decisions that for the most part were beyond Payne’s control, including lottery-based admissions.  She also said she feels some parents were uncomfortable with having three Black women — Payne and two assistant principals — running the school.

Kersey said her daughter has chosen to leave Masterman after eighth grade; she will attend Parkway Center City Middle College next. “My daughter could have stayed but didn’t, and many other Black students made the same choice,” Kersey said.

“This is a loss for Masterman, and a gain for Mansion,” Kersey added. “They are lucky to have her.”

Before taking the job at Masterman, Payne was principal of Richard R. Wright Elementary in North Philadelphia.

She said she would like to restore middle school grades to Mansion and make it a coveted destination for North Philadelphia students. The school started out in 1966 as a junior high and added senior high grades in 1977.

In its heyday, Mansion had a top basketball program. Hendricks, Payne’s father, led its team to state championships in 2000 and 2003 and to the state finals in 2008 and 2010.

“I am returning to the school where I taught for five years and my father taught  for over 20 years, the school that was the feeder location for elementary schools I led for 13 years,” Payne said, referring to Wright and Gideon, a K-8 school in North Philadelphia. “I’m taking advantage of an opening in a school community that I find meaningful.”

The district is starting a process to look for a new Masterman principal that will involve parent and community input.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.


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