'Incredible' Philly principal shines

Jeannine Payne, principal of Richard Wright Elementary, is a 2017 Lindback honoree.

Jeannine Payne has brought new life to Richard Wright Elementary School.

In two years, she’s connected with children, brought in parents, neighbors and volunteers, and endeared herself to teachers. 

“She’s incredible,” said Amanda Dorneman, who has taught at Richard Wright for 16 years. “She’s constantly asking us what we need to better do our job.”

Payne, 41, is one of seven Philadelphia School District leaders to be honored Tuesday with 2017 Lindback Awards for Distinguished Principal Leadership. She and the others — Joanne Beaver, Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts; Simon Hauger, the Workshop School; Christopher Johnson, Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber; Guy Lowery, Mayfair Elementary; Andrew Lukov, Southwark Elementary; and Crystle Roye-Gill, Thomas Holme Elementary — are among the school system’s best, chosen from among 47 nominees.

The awards are given annually by the Lindback Foundation to recognize strong principals. School communities nominate candidates, and a committee of district officials and a foundation representative choose the winners.

Payne didn’t dream of becoming a teacher, much less a principal.

She grew up in Philadelphia, the child of two city educators, graduated from Masterman and Central, then attended Xavier University in New Orleans, where she studied biology on a premed track. Eventually, she changed her mind about medicine.

“I thought, ‘I’ll teach for awhile. At least I’ll be working while I figure out what I want to do,’” she said.

In 1999, she took a job teaching biology at Strawberry Mansion High, where her father, Gerald Hendricks, was a phys ed teacher and the school’s storied basketball coach. Payne found she loved the work.

“Once I got in, it never occurred to me to do anything else,” she said.

She spent five years in the classroom and earned a master’s degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania. Then a mentor encouraged her to enter administration. Payne wasn’t sure she was ready, but she had vowed to take advantage of every opportunity that came her way. Payne worked as an assistant principal at Frankford High, then became principal of Gideon Elementary in North Philadelphia, where she worked for seven years.

Payne is in her second year at Wright, at 27th and Dauphin in Strawberry Mansion. She is candid about its challenges: it scores just 18 of 100 on the district’s School Performance Review scale. More than three-quarters of its students live below the poverty line.

Moving the needle academically is important, but getting Wright to where it needs to be will take time. Payne and her teachers are working hard on that, but to her, figuring out the puzzle of how to get there is a joy.

“I love the potential. I appreciate everything that we are right now — a well-functioning small school,” she said of Wright, which educates 376 children.

Part of the credit for the “well-functioning” part goes to Payne. She brought in a program to give students an outlet during recess that has paid dividends in a calmer climate. She moved the school’s breakfast program to the classroom to ensure that all students eat. She emphasized community outreach, bringing partners into Wright, and invited parents to school for family dinners, workshops, and giveaways for coats, books and board games.

She brought in a program where actors from the Arden Theatre present lessons to students, culminating in the children traveling to see an Arden performance themselves.

“That’s not test prep,” she said. “It’s not part of the typical curriculum framework. But it’s worth it.”

That speaks to Payne’s mission — she wants to build a “liberal-arts elementary education,” she said. “My vision is to create an elementary school that allows our kids to go to any high school in the city — I want our kids to be equipped to be able to choose.”

There are instructional changes, too — with Payne’s encouragement, teachers in the upper grades have shifted to teaching either science and math or English and social studies. Next year, teachers in the lower grades will “loop” with their students, following one class from kindergarten to second grade.

Dorneman, the Wright teacher, was unsure about the changes at first.

“She said, ‘Will you try this?’ and we did. And the benefits are awesome. She definitely knows what she’s doing. We really like it.” said Dorneman.

That’s how Payne operates: building consensus, using her staff’s collective wisdom to arrive at good decisions for kids’ benefit. Transparency is her byword. When she got information about the school’s budget from the central office, Payne made copies and handed it to parents and teachers, letting them know her priorities and asking for theirs before she made final decisions.

Payne is hands-on with her students, getting down on the floor with them, giving hugs, chatting on the playground or in the hallway. They respond to her calm, her clear delight in their presence.

But Payne also has clear rules and high expectations — if her students are going to attend Central and Masterman, they have to have educational stamina.

“You need to grow people who expect more, and who are willing to work harder to get it,” said Payne. 

Seeing that pay dividends — the kids who come back, thriving and happy — and the hugs from her elementary schoolers are the best part of the job, she says.

The toughest part, Payne said? The things she’s ultimately responsible for, but that she can’t control.

“Not being able to really take care of the social service piece,” she said. “I can’t get these kids out of foster care. I can’t get them therapy any faster. I can’t move back time and put them into a pre-K or a kindergarten program when they show up on the first day of first grade having never been in school. That makes me angry, and it makes me sad,” she said.

The Lindback prize comes with $20,000 for the winners to use at their schools, and Payne plans on refreshing the school’s lagging technology with more interactive smartboards. But she also wants to reward teachers with strong attendance in ways that impact Richard Wright — Payne is thinking of professional development opportunities she normally couldn’t pay for, like conferences.

“I feel like I work for them,” she said of students. “I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve here.”