This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After spending the better part of six months designing a brand new high school – meant to be a model for transforming the educational experience for ordinary students – Saliyah Cruz disclosed abruptly this week that she will be leaving to take a new job.
To put it mildly, everyone from Superintendent William Hite to students and staff who had made leaps of faith to join the new school were surprised and disappointed. The school, called the LINC (for Learning in New Contexts), shares a building with Roberto Clemente Middle School in Hunting Park.
But Cruz said yesterday that “an opportunity presented itself” and that moving on was “something that made the most sense for my needs and my family.”
Cruz, who lives in Delaware, is headed for Baltimore, where she will work with Gregory Thornton, a former Philadelphia chief academic officer who is now CEO of the school district there. She said that the final details of her position are still in flux.
She said leaving was “definitely not an easy decision.” But she expressed confidence that the LINC – built on the principle of collaboration with teachers, students, staff and community – would succeed without her, even though she plans to leave barely a month after it opened to students.
“I’m part of a team,” she said in a phone interview. “I am the design leader, but there are lots of people involved, and all of them are still here and committed to staying involved. The challenge is finding a new principal who understands the collaborative work and can step in.”
Some of the teachers have been on board for months and helped design the curriculum, she said.
Grace Cannon, head of the District’s Office of New School Design, though a little shell-shocked, seconded Cruz’s optimism.
The plan, she said, “is to put a strong interim in place who understands the model. And then our goal is to do a rigorous search.” She said an interim would be named “soon,” maybe by the end of the week. “The best we can do is plan and move forward for the kids and families and staff,” Cannon said.
Cruz plans to stay until the beginning of October.
She said the opportunity in Baltimore “came up unexpectedly,” adding, “I was not shopping for a job. There had been an ongoing general conversation, but it didn’t come up in specific terms until the past few days when it looked like an actual offer.”
Thornton was named in February and took over in Baltimore on July 1, well after Cruz started working on the LINC.
Cruz had previously been principal of West Philadelphia High School, but was relieved of the job after clashing with former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman over the school’s future direction. After a brief stint at Communications Tech High, where she concluded that the school’s high test scores had been the result of adult cheating, she left to run a middle school in Delaware.
She was lured back to Philadelphia by the chance to create a new school from scratch that would focus on the needs of students who, for one reason or another, were not candidates for selective high schools.
The LINC admits students through a lottery, and all are welcome — even students who have had disciplinary problems. The school is building its educational program around collaborative and interdisciplinary learning. Students will do projects in the community, including internships, and move at their own pace once they have mastered the material.
Cruz carefully selected the teachers for their willingness to take risks and reimagine their jobs and relationships with each other and the students.
“The school is definitely not going to fall apart,” Cruz said. “The purpose of the model is to be more organic and grow based on the needs of the people using it.”
With the foundation already set, she said, “I don’t think on any level the school will not do well.”