Principals, Processes, and 12 Monkeys

For my money, the best time travel movie ever is “12 Monkeys”, which takes place in a pre-and-post apocalyptic Philadelphia. Halfway through, Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe are assaulted by roving gangs in a amid a background of insane vagabonds, burning trashcans, and abandoned homes. And that’s before the apocalypse.1

The perception of 1990s Philly was bad. Bissenger’s “Prayer of the City” documented Philly’s painful lurch from industrial-belt to rust-belt. We were less than 20 years away from MOVE and the Frank Rizzo “I’ll make Atilla the Hun look like a fag” era of policing. Between all this and mismanagement of the 1993 World Series team, the city was feeling low.

In all this, the University of Pennsylvania had a problem: The decaying city was beginning to kill their vibe. In the retrospective “West Philly Initiatives: A Case Study in Urban Revitalization”, stakeholders call an emergency meeting with Mayor Ed Rendell following the murder of a graduate student.

From the report:

The parents did not want to hear us talk about what we planned to do. They wanted to see immediate results, or else they would pull their children out of Penn. And to make sure we got the point they booed us off the stage. The time for further study was over. Penn’s future was at stake. We needed to act.

Penn decided to embark on a plan of either massive urban renewal or purposeful cultural whitewashing, depending on your political leanings. They established the University City District, multiple business partnerships, a quasi-police force, and their own K-8 School.

This was not charity. Penn’s acted because their core constituency was at stake – well-off white people who were scared to death at their child living in what was, in their perception, an urban war zone.

Penn’s plan worked. The Spruce Hill area is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city, by some estimates potential homebuyers pay a 33% premium to live in the catchment. Crime is down, farmer’s markets are in, and the Penn Alexander School, established as part of the West Philadelphia Initiatives, is packed to the gills and thriving.

Fast-forward to 2016. The Penn Alexander School is searching for a new principal2 . This search is “national”. The school has employed an outside search agency and will conduct special community meetings make sure the cream of the crop apply for the position.

Before we continue, 3 things that are true:
1). Penn Alexander is an awesome school, with terrific kids and teachers.

2). The community at Penn Alexander deserves a community-drive search for a wonderful school leader.

3). So does every other school.

The principal search at most other Philadelphia schools looks very different. I’ve been through one, and was told not to talk about it, so the reader will have to excuse my lack of details. Principal candidates are interviewed by a group of parents, teachers, students, and community leaders – assuming they can make the meetings, held during work hours at 440 N. Broad Street.  The questions are pre-screened3. The candidates are scored without follow ups. And the superintendent is allowed to make a decision without considering any of this. In our case, the principal we were assigned has not among the four we interviewed. Sometimes, the job will be given to candidate whom the teachers, students, and parents scored “unacceptable”.

Frustrating, right? But consider: Principals, like teachers, will gravitate to jobs in schools with a demographically stable student body – one with more money and stability. Magnet schools and high-profile schools offer more resources and a chance to gain notoriety. The reverse is true for schools in the toughest neighborhoods. In order to get principals into the latter, they have to believe in a chance at the former. Put your time in, build your resume, and get a plum job once it comes up.

The principal is the most important single person in the building. Maybe they relish the tough job, maybe they’re pining for the next one. Who cares? The system, as currently built, is undemocratic, unhelpful, and a reminder at the historical inequity that eats away at our core.

Whiter and wealthier schools, Magnet or otherwise, have far more control over the principal selection process. They have this control because the brain-trust of the city knows what Penn knew, that alienating the wealthier and whiter people of the city is bad for one’s long-term prospects.

My school was assigned a principal4, and is located just outside Penn’s official reach. University City has spread, not in terms of official buildings, but in terms of boutique coffee, white renters, and UCD police. Sometimes it’s a boon – many of my kids work at Fresh Grocer, a direct product of the West Philadelphia Initiatives.

My kids, 95% African American, hear a very clear message from University City. Their neighborhoods are ravaged by poverty and civic disinvestment. But that’s where the comparison ends. My kids don’t get the private meeting with the mayor when someone is shot, or when the District closed their neighborhood school. There’s no national search for a principal. The kids who walk to my school come the north, from Mantua and Haddington. They walk past The Youth Studies Center. They know.

The message?Government is something which is not controlled by people, but inflicted upon them. If Penn’s people wanted Haverford Avenue cleaned up, it would happen. Tough luck.

I’m in my feelings; changing something as small as principal selection process wouldn’t revive these neighborhoods. But it’s a really good idea – not just as education policy, but as social policy. Schools would be closer to what they were intended: The democratic equalizer. Could Hite have the final say? Sure, he’s the boss. But he should at least have to address the community.

Here’s hoping the kids at Penn-Alexander, and every other school, get a say in their school leader.


  1. the actual filming takes place in the Met Theater, an area that is being devoured by development from the North and South. I 

  2. of note: The University of Pennsylvania built a $19 million campus and subsidized $1,000 extra per student to the 100% PFT school. Or, the smartest people looked at schools and said “let’s throw more money at it”. 

  3. Principals have unions too, you know 

  4. who is terrific, even though he doesn’t read this