Philly schools trailblazer Constance Clayton has died

Dr. Clayton led Philly schools from 1982 until 1993. She was the city’s first Black superintendent and also the first woman in that role.

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Dr. Constance Clayton. (University of Pennsylvania)

Dr. Constance Clayton. (University of Pennsylvania)

The School District of Philadelphia has confirmed the death of former Superintendent Dr. Constance Clayton.

Clayton was a trailblazer in Philadelphia, the first Black Philadelphia schools superintendent and the first woman to lead the district.

“She embodied a true educator and humanitarian through her dedication to improving the lives of children in education,” said current Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington. He said Clayton became a friend and mentor during his brief time in Philadelphia. “Her legacy of service to Philadelphia’s children and the School District will be memorialized and I extend my heartfelt condolences to her family and friends.”

Clayton served as schools chief from 1982 to 1993, during a time when the district was always fighting to succeed despite budget issues and other problems associated with running a large urban district. She fought for the rights of all public school students and didn’t mind the tag that she was a take-charge leader.

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Born in North Philadelphia, Clayton attended Girls High, Temple University, and University of Pennsylvania.

During her tenure with the School District of Philadelphia, Clayton served in multiple roles, with a focus on curriculum development. Before leading the district, she designed the social studies curriculum and headed the district’s African American studies program.

A statement from the school district of Philadelphia said Clayton was especially proud of the African American History curriculum she introduced to classrooms across the district. Building on Clayton’s commitment to this subject matter, Philadelphia became the first district to make African American studies a requirement for graduation.

“She was a staunch advocate and champion of students, teachers, principals, and the surrounding community,” said Robin Cooper, Ed.D., president of CASA, the Philadelphia principals’ union in a statement. “She believed in mentoring principals to support their professional growth, and continued her mentorship well after retirement. CASA honors the loving, historic memory of one of its own members, one who rose through the ranks from a teacher, to principal, to becoming the first Black and first female superintendent in Philadelphia’s history.”

Clayton was also an avid art collector, something she started towards the end of her term as school superintendent along with her mother, Williabell Clayton. In 2020, she donated 76 sculptures and paintings to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

In a 2020 interview with WHYY News, Clayton said part of the reason for donating works to PAFA was because of their commitment to education.

“Not only do they show, there’s a teaching aspect to it, and I thought that would be important for children of all races and people of all races to see. So that people could gain an understanding of the ability of people who were like them, or people who were different than them,” Clayton said at the time.

Clayton continued to collect art after her mother died in 2004, amassing about 300 pieces, including landscapes, domestic scenes, portraits of Black families and children and abstract works.

Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson said Clayton’s legacy was inspiring.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Constance Clayton. Dr. Clayton was an inspiration to young girls everywhere. It was her commitment to education that in part inspired me to become a teacher upon graduating from college.”

“During her tenure as superintendent, she faced great challenges and was able to overcome them by putting our young people first. Our city and schools are better because of her service.”

No cause of death has been made public, nor funeral arrangements, at this time.

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