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Founding principal at innovative Philly school leaves two weeks into year

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 LINC principal Saliyah Cruz on the first day of school, 2014 (Kevin McCorry/WHYY).

LINC principal Saliyah Cruz on the first day of school, 2014 (Kevin McCorry/WHYY).

On the first day of classes principal Saliyah Cruz addressed the inaugural freshman class at one of the Philadelphia School District’s three new innovative high schools, The LINC, or Learning in New Contexts.

Cruz was hired in January to start the school from scratch and build a model to re-imagine the high school experience and create more options for kids in North Philly lacking the grades for magnet schools.

 

Standing in the auditorium before the freshman class, the staff she hired, as well as Superintendent Hite and Mayor Nutter, she explained the school’s “behaviors of success.”

“You have to deal with people in an honest way. You have to deal with people in integrity. People have to believe in you,” she said. “People have to rely on when you say you’re going to do something, that you’re going to actually follow through and do it.”

Less than two weeks later, in a shock to all involved, Cruz informed students and staff that she’d be leaving the school for position outside the district.

In an interview at the school Wednesday, she wouldn’t confirm the details, but other reports indicate a leadership position in the Baltimore public school system.

“The kids and families have been amazing. The teachers have been amazing,” she said. “So walking away from that was really really hard.”

Cruz, who lives in Delaware, said she decided to take the offer, which came unsolicited, over the past weekend.

“Going back and forth with it, wrestling with it, talking about it with my family, ultimately, I decided, [to leave] you know for, for lots of reasons,” she said. “As much as I have enjoyed being back in Philadelphia and as much as I know my departure is a challenge for people, I made a decision to pursue another opportunity.”

After a stint teaching at Lincoln High school in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cruz served the district as principal of West Philadelphia High School and Communications Technical High School.

She then left Philadelphia for a principalship at a middle school in Delaware. Coming back to Philly this year to be founding principal of LINC, she took a pay cut. Although she’ll get an increase in her next position, she said pay wasn’t the key factor in her decision to leave.

“In terms of money, it’s not that much difference,” she said.

As we talked, Grace Cannon, the school district’s executive director of the office of new school models, sat across the table. She admits Cruz’s departure is frustrating, but recognized that “adults do leave.”

“It’s really unfortunate when it happens,” said Cannon. “I think my goal, and we said this to staff, is how you model this and how we all kind of work through this. This is a school and we are serving young people and families and we need to do this well.”

Turnover in the Philadelphia school district is, of course, nothing new.

If anything, Cruz’s flight can be seen as a sobering reminder of just how transient urban education can be.  Many teachers angle for the greener pastures and higher pay of suburban districts. And administrators often leapfrog from one post to another, striving for a better title and higher pay either inside the district, or like Cruz, to another urban enclave.

“It just causes enormous upheaval,” said Helen Gym, founder of Parents United for Public Education. To her, the transience is an indictment of education reformers who stress innovation and imbue education with a corporate mindset.

“They tend to overlook stability as a major factor of importance,” said Gym. “It’s not about innovation. It’s not about exceptionalism. It’s really largely about stability, equity, providing adequate resources.”

The pinnacle of the district’s leadership pyramid has seen its share of churn as well. Superintendent William Hite, who brings with him his own vision and executive staff, is the seventh district leader in the past 15 years.

This can be frustrating for the personnel who do remain, as each new principal, new superintendent, brings a philosophy and personality that staff must relearn and reacclimate to.

At LINC, the outgoing Cruz is confident that the teachers who helped her develop the school will carry on in a way that won’t harm students.

“What I would like parents to understand is that The LINC and what we said we’d be doing with young people, will all still be happening,” she said. “My personality doesn’t play into whether we’ve developed a quality program.”

Cruz wouldn’t say when her last day will be, but when she leaves, the district will first replace her with an interim principal who will later be traded for a permanent leader.

Both, district leaders hope, will seamlessly institute the groundwork laid by Cruz.

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