This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In a district roiled by budget cuts and layoffs, the new principal at Henry Lea Elementary is counting on a network of community supporters to help keep the West Philadelphia school on an even keel.
“The cuts are probably going to be the biggest challenge. How do you function, as a building, with less than we’ve ever had?” said Jennifer Duffy, a former District administrator hired just last week to run the 600-student school.
But, she said, “This school, more than any others I looked at, has a tremendous network.”
It’s that web of community support, she says, that will help her achieve her goal of bringing a high standard of academic excellence to a culturally and economically diverse student body.
Lea students come from a variety of economic backgrounds and speak a total of about 25 languages, she said. Duffy herself was born in South Africa, has lived on three continents, and, until recently, worked as a manager of multilingual services for the District.
That makes the school a good fit, said Duffy.
“This is a global population, and I am a global citizen,” she said. “I looked at the positions that were available, what the needs at Lea were specifically, and found a match with my abilities. This is the only position I applied for and the only one I wanted.”
Duffy arrives at Lea at a time when schools across the city face not only tight budgets, but the possible loss of still more staff, if more layoffs are announced.
“The biggest challenge is the lack of resources that everyone is facing,” said Molly McGlone, parent of a Lea kindergartner and a member of the West Philadelphia Coalition for Neighborhood Schools (WPCNS).
But despite the turmoil, Duffy doesn’t have to create a plan to improve Lea from scratch, McGlone said. “Even though there are all these deficits, we’ve had these longer-term projects that we’re trying to keep moving along,” she said.
For example, the WPCNS has been working for years to make a landscaped green space from the school’s asphalt parking lot. The school has won grants for computers, smartboards and other equipment. Its long list of partners and supporters includes the Settlement Music School, the Spark Philadelphia apprenticeship program, PECO, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the Spruce Hill Community Association.
And no partner looms larger than the University of Pennsylvania, which links Lea with mentors and student volunteers, professional development for staff, and books and other materials.
“I’m a Penn student, and I recognize the resources that come with all of that,” said Duffy, a doctoral candidate at the university.
Maurice Jones, parent of a Lea 6th grader and head of its Home and School Association, says the years of networking and organizing have helped Lea preserve what other schools have lost.
“This school has a full-time nurse. We have art, music, a second language, Spanish; we have a band and an orchestra. That was all because of push from the community,” he said.
Although the school’s staff could still shrink, Jones said he and the rest of the school’s partners will fight hard to stave off any further layoffs.
“Anything can happen,” he said. “But if someone said that, we would stand up and say, ‘No.’ We’d reach out to Penn, we’d reach out to all our resources.”
For now, Duffy is focused on getting to know her new school community. This week, she met her teachers for the first time and got right down to dealing with thorny issues like how to level class sizes.
“This is all very fresh,” she said. “The hope from my leadership team was that we were going to keep going in a direction they were already working toward.”
She says she hopes to maintain a simple tone throughout the building: “We’re all learning, and we all have to work together,” she said.
And although the school has seen plenty of leadership turnover – Duffy will be the third principal in as many years – she promises that she won’t be going anywhere soon.
“You can’t make the kind of impact I want to make in a short period of time,” she said. “This is a long-term commitment.”