With a new superintendent taking the reins in October, along with the School District of Philadelphia’s renewed focus on streamlining operations, Chief Academic Advisor Penny Nixon believes the last step toward improving public schools is to attack any remaining deficiencies in the delivery and absorption of classroom tutelage.
Nixon met with the Tribune earlier this week, where she laid out the district’s successes and many challenges in academics.
“One of my greatest challenges is trying to build a cadre of excellent leaders to run schools,” said Nixon, herself a former teacher. “I believe that schools don’t improve, turn around or do well if you do not have an excellent principal at the helm.
“I am deeply committed to really trying to identify and recruit high quality principals to come and lead our schools.”
But Nixon said attracting those top-shelf principals and educators continue to pose a problem for an industry that experiences a high turnover rate, especially after the third year of teaching. Nixon – who has the authority to assign any principal to any school – says another issue in retaining excellent principals and teachers is the desire of many to transfer out of what they consider bad or low-performing schools.
“The job is very complex. Some days, as a principal, you have to deal with 12 teachers calling out because of the snow, and the nurse calls, saying you have an abuse case here. How do you juggle all of it?” Nixon theorized. “As a leader, you need an array of skills to be a principal, and I think sometimes, people discount what it takes to be an effective leader, because you are also managing kids, managing adults, managing a budget, and managing an instructional program and trying to create [a learning] climate.
“You have to embrace parents in the community as well, which I think requires a different skill set,” Nixon said. “And being able to find enough people willing to do that work” is difficult.
Nixon has spent her entire career in public education, first teaching at Gillespie Middle School for 12 years, before leaving to become principal at General Louis Wagner Middle School. After a few other stops, Nixon joined the School Reform Commission, and was appointed to Chief Academic Officer last November.
Since taking the job, Nixon has crafted a bold reorganization and transition plan, which goes in effect this coming school year. The plan outlines the new capabilities of the academic office, as well as providing methods in which principals can better delegate duties and run a smoother, tighter operation.
Nixon’s plans also detail new techniques for strategically planning whole school improvement, buttressing instructional leadership and increasing and promoting organizational leadership. But Nixon allowed that challenges remain in turning the district around.
“We’ve been real intentional and real serious about leadership,” Nixon said. “But the biggest issue is just being in transition, and we need to have a superintendent who is going to be there for a long period of time. Transition is rough,” Nixon said, noting that she is hopeful that incoming superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr. will excel, and after talking to him, feels confident in his abilities. “But the person who has the greatest impact on student achievement is the teacher. So, being able to not only recruit really good leaders, we have to recruit really good teachers who stay.
“It doesn’t matter how much money or how much resources you have, if you don’t have really good teachers and really good leaders.”