Clayton, Constance 1937(?)—
Constance Clayton 1937(?)—
Superintendent of the Philadelphia Public School System
The tasks confronting Constance Clayton are enormous. As superintendent of Philadelphia’s public schools, Clayton presides over the sixth-largest school system in the nation—a massive enterprise employing some 24,526 teachers, administrators, and support staff at more than 250 locations citywide. The energetic Clayton faces many challenges in her far-flung district, from budget setbacks to a poverty-stricken student body; but since her tenure began in 1983 she has set out to improve Philadelphia’s educational system with the zeal of a crusader.
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Claude Lewis attested: “It’s no secret that Philadelphia public schools have problems trying to upgrade the level of education offered by a system that must cater to a large population of students who are among the poorest of the poor. School Superintendent Constance E. Clayton has done a highly respectable job under circumstances that might cause a lesser educational leader to throw up her hands in frustration.” Lewis added: “Has Clayton solved most of the system’s ills? Not by a long shot. But she has made meaningful improvement and provided a measure of hope for students and teachers alike who live with despair.”
Under Clayton’s leadership, student math and reading scores in Philadelphia’s elementary schools have improved substantially. Parents express more confidence in the city’s public education, and, through special efforts on Clayton’s part, private businesses have pumped millions of dollars in grant money into the beleaguered urban schools. Under Clayton’s management huge budget deficits have been erased and most of her tenure in office has seen balanced school budgets with some surplus. Clayton is best known, however, as an administrator, with her priorities fixed firmly on the most important link in the school system’s chain—the students themselves. “Somebody had better step forward and be the advocate for kids,” she told the New York Times. “We have a moral responsibility to these youngsters.”
Constance Elaine Clayton was born and raised in the city she now serves. Her father was a plumber and her mother a counselor for the Opportunities Industrialization Center. Clayton’s parents divorced when she was two and she grew up with her mother and grandmother in a middle-class black neighborhood. To this day she
Full name, Constance Elaine Clayton; born c. 1937 in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Levi (a plumber) and Willabell (a social worker; maiden name Harris) Clayton. Education: Temple University, B.A. and M.A., 1955; Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D., c. 1974.
Philadelphia Public School System, Philadelphia, PA, fourth grade teacher at William H. Harrison School, 1955-64, social studies curricula designer, 1964-69, head of African and Afro-American studies program, 1969-71, director of Early Childhood Program, 1973-83, superintendent, 1983—. United States Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., director of Women’s Bureau for Middle Atlantic States, 1971-c. 1972
Awards: Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, c. 1974.
Member: NAACP, Delta Sigma Theta.
Addresses: Home —Mount Airy, Philadelphia, PA.
still lives with her mother, now in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia.
Those who knew her as a child describe Clayton as an obedient, highly motivated youngster who would have rather read books than do just about anything else. “It was as though she was on a straight line just headed from the classroom to where she is now,” her fourth grade teacher told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I’m not gilding the lily,” the teacher added. “She was a wonderful little girl…. Every teacher should have one Constance Clayton in their classroom.” In addition to her studies Clayton was active at the St. Paul’s Baptist Church, took piano lessons, and regularly attended concerts and museums in the city. Clayton told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “I think, as a kid, I had everything I needed and most of the things I wanted. I really was very fortunate in that regard. People might interpret that as being materialistic, but I had a lot of love, and [my family] did a lot of things together.”
Clayton attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she played the cello and earned top grades. After high school she entered Temple University. She had planned originally to become a physician, but after spending summers as a camp counselor discovered that she loved working with children. “I had plenty of friends who were interested in teaching,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “And then also at that time—which was more than 30 years ago—there weren’t a lot of avenues open for women and minorities. And generally, success could come if you went into that particular endeavor. I think there were multiple factors in the decision. I have no regrets whatsoever.”
Clayton earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Temple, specializing in elementary school administration. She began her career as a fourth grade teacher in 1955 at the William H. Harrison School in North Philadelphia. Clayton taught at Harrison until 1964, when she was given the task of designing social studies curricula for the city school system’s elementary grades. She quickly earned a reputation as a hardworking and dedicated administrator and in 1969 was put in charge of the fledgling African and Afro-American Studies program. In that position she designed curricula on black issues for students of all ages.
For the only time in her career, Clayton left Philadelphia in 1971 to serve in the United States Department of Labor. She directed the Women’s Bureau for the region covering Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, organizing seminars on women’s employment status and pay equity. Clayton only held the position for a year, however, as she found herself at odds with the Nixon administration over its educational policies. To this day she is an advocate of federal aid to schools and has called President Bush’s stand on national education “empty rhetoric.” She told the New York Times: “The President has come forward with a lot of lofty goals, but where are the fiscal and human resources to back that up and make those goals a reality?”
Clayton returned to The City of Brotherly Love in 1972 as director of the Philadelphia school system’s Early Childhood Program. Eventually she became associate superintendent for Early Childhood Education in the city, while at the same time earning her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Inquirer contributor Martha Woodall noted that Clayton turned Philadelphia’s Early Childhood Education program “into a national model and cemented her professional reputation…. Within the school district, Clayton became known for her organizational skills and her professionalism. She submitted balanced budgets and operated her programs within them. She kept meticulous records and produced studies demonstrating that children who participated in the district’s preschool programs performed better in school. She also was seen as a talented, outspoken, independent official who was never identified with any single superintendent.”
Her independence may have helped Clayton survive the administration of Michael P. Marcase, superintendent from 1975 until 1982. Woodall wrote of the Marcase years: “The district was in turmoil. Test scores were low, and absenteeism among pupils and staff was high. Year after year, students were promoted to the next grade, not because they had learned the material but because they were a year older. The district was bloated with patronage positions, and jobs were parceled out according to an informal ethnic quota system…. The school district faced perennial budget deficits.” In 1983 the Philadelphia Board of Education ousted Marcase and interviewed eighty-four applicants for the superintendent position. Clayton got the job. Woodall concluded that, as Philadelphia’s first black woman superintendent, Clayton “emerged as the closest thing to a miracle worker the board was likely to find.”
Three days after she was hired Clayton submitted a ten-page, 58-point statement of her administration’s goals for the city’s schools. She planned to balance the budget without cutting student services, standardize curriculum, and attract help of every sort from the private sector. To Clayton’s credit, these goals have been largely accomplished. More than 170 businesses have “adopted” a local school and helped equip it with better resources. “Even Clayton’s detractors concede that she has been masterful in improving public confidence by fostering a belief that educational change in Philadelphia is possible,” Woodall wrote. “As Clayton sees it, her mission is nothing less than transforming the city’s school system into the best in the country. She approaches the task with a messianic zeal. Many say her fervor is her greatest strength. They also say it could turn out to be her most troubling weakness: She expects everyone to share her devotion to The Cause and has little tolerance for those she believes are not advancing it.”
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Acel Moore noted that Clayton has not advanced her cause without alienating people along the way. “The rap on Clayton throughout her … tenure has been that she is autocratic and abrasive and that she can’t take criticism—no matter how constructive—from anyone, particularly subordinates,” Moore reported. The columnist conceded, however, that the tough decisions Clayton has had to make have called for a forceful personality and a no-nonsense approach. Moore ventured: “I doubt that a male superintendent whose … style matched Clayton’s would have been faced with the same criticism. And I would bet that he would have been paid as much as Clayton—or more—by now.” Clayton herself told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she has always encouraged candor and creativity on the part of her subordinates, but she does become impatient with shoddy preparation and illogical or poorly-presented arguments. “This administration is asking people to do what they should have been doing all along,” she said. “This administration is asking people to do what is right and fair for kids.”
In 1991 Clayton’s contract was extended for four years. Her salary was raised from $100,000 to $115,000 in the first year and to $140,000 by the end of the third year of the contract. Clayton drew some criticism for accepting such a generous increase in light of Philadelphia’s precarious fiscal outlook, but her supporters have pointed out that the raises only keep her on par with superintendents of other major city school districts.
A conscientious worker who often puts in fourteen-hour days, Clayton feels that her work in Philadelphia is far from finished. While test scores have improved, the city still ranks low in statewide measures of student achievement. Clayton’s biggest problem is the nature of her student body—some 42 percent of Philadelphia’s 197,000 public school students are below the poverty level. Their “schooling” must also include nutritious meals, counseling, and even child care for teenage parents. These extra services must be provided at a time when federal and state aid are being decreased, and when Philadelphia itself stands on the brink of bankruptcy.
Superintendent Clayton has faced these challenges with a credo she inherited from her mother: ’There’s no such word as can’t.” She told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “There are many people who have come from economically poor circumstances who have succeeded. We have to search out those models. We have always to give the children hope in the expectation that they will break out of the cycle and the chains of poverty…. We really can t play catchup…. We have to do the job right the first time.” Clayton remains optimistic about the school district’s future because she has seen how many of its students are striving for an education. “We have splendid children in our system,” she concluded. “We have enormously talented kids who have a great deal of potential, children who are aspiring.”
New York Times, February 20, 1991.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1984; September 13, 1987; March 8, 1991; May 1, 1991.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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