Philly’s historic Central High gets its first woman, Black president
Katharine Davis, 34, is named to lead Central, Philadelphia’s oldest high school, which was all male from 1836 to 1983.
This story originally appeared on Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Katharine Davis, the principal of Henry Elementary School in Mount Airy, has been named the 15th president of Central High School, becoming the first woman and the first person of color to lead the 186-year-old institution.
The historic appointment comes at a time when Central, the second-oldest high school in the United States and one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious and selective, is at a pivotal moment in its history as it is grappling with how to move forward with an anti-racist agenda. As the percentage of Black and Latinx students at the school has dropped precipitously over the past decade, students have grown more vocal in expressing concerns about discriminatory practices, and have made demands for change.
Davis, 34, who graduated from Central High in 2005, was chosen from among a pool of about 20 people who applied, said Assistant Superintendent Ted Domers, who led the search process. Superintendent William Hite made the final decision based on recommendations from a search committee made up of parents, students, and school staff. Her tenure will begin July 1.
“Kate came across as someone passionate and committed to social justice, as strategic, thoughtful, and poised,” Domers said.
Davis has been a school leader in Philadelphia for less than five years, first as co-principal at Harding Middle School in Frankford, where she was in charge of improving instruction, and then at Henry Elementary – which she also attended as a child – since 2019. She has never led a high school before.
But when the committee members compared her qualities and skill set to what they wanted in a new principal, and what 350 others said they wanted in a school leadership survey, it was no contest, Domers said.
“The best person available, that was Kate. Hands down, it was Kate,” said Domers.
Detour from a planned veterinary career
Davis grew up in Mount Airy in a biracial family, and graduated from Central in 2005 as part of the 264th class. Her father is retired U.S. District Court Judge Legrome Davis.
“When I think about what it means for me to be in this role, it feels surreal,” she said in an interview.
When she attended Central, she said, she didn’t feel at all out of place due to her racial background. “I was surrounded by a large, diverse population,” she said. “I felt accepted, I felt I truly belonged there. It was a safe space for me. I remember the vibrancy of the Black Student Union, and the initiatives of the cultural groups, and how important that is for young people.”
Davis didn’t always want to be an educator. Growing up, she set her sights on being a veterinarian. After graduating from Central, she attended Cornell University to major in animal sciences.
But she had a lot of other interests, including art, and she got an internship at the Johnson Art Museum in Ithaca, NY. There, she worked with local elementary school students and discovered that she had an affinity for teaching. “It changed my life,” she said.
She signed up for a course called The Art of Teaching, and spent two days a week in a local first grade classroom, where the teacher was a woman with many years of experience.
“I observed her love of teaching, her genuine love of working with students, how she constructed hands-on learning for the students,” Davis said. “There was a shift in my own experience. I saw the joy in teaching.”
She decided to minor in education, and on graduating in 2009 Davis headed to New York City for a year of teaching in a Bronx elementary school as a member of AmeriCorps. She enrolled at Pace University in Manhattan to get her teaching credentials, and then spent several years teaching in a bilingual school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
In 2015, she became the principal of a charter school in Brooklyn. Davis returned to Philadelphia in 2017 to participate in the PhillyPlus principal certification program.
Michele Whitecraft, the professor of education who taught The Art of Teaching at Cornell, remembers hoping Davis would pursue education as a career.
“I never said she should abandon her career in veterinary medicine,” said Whitecraft, who now teaches at Mansfield University, part of the Pennsylvania state system. “I know they say we shouldn’t say ‘teachers are born, not made,’ but this kid was amazing from day one. She’s just a natural, the most authentic, relatable person I have met in my career. Teaching was the perfect choice for her.”
Whitecraft added that Davis also has a strong sense of herself and her abilities. “She knows her power,” she said. “How beautiful for someone that young to see what she can contribute and not be constrained by society. She’s my hero.”
Davis said that she pursued being a school principal so early in her career because the opportunity arose. “I was a fourth grade teacher, and I absolutely loved teaching and thrived in the classroom, but what I found is I enjoyed working with adults and leading in spaces in schools,” she said.
“A leader works through a strong instructional lens, and believes in the diversity of the school community,” Davis added. “A leader works to honor student voices and unite the community.”
Central in the throes of change
Her leadership skills will be tested at Central, which has more than 2,400 students. Founded in 1836 to educate boys, it was the first high school in Pennsylvania. It did not admit girls until 1983, and then did so under court order. Black boys were admitted starting in the 19th century — Alain Locke, the philosopher and critic and author of “The New Negro,” graduated in 1902. By the late 20th century, the school had a student body that often came close to mirroring the city’s overall racial demographics.
But its recent history with race has been problematic, or at least more visibly difficult. Two years ago, in the wake of 2020 police killing of George Floyd, students formed a “Black at Central” group that brought attention to microaggressions and what they felt was discrimination at the school.
The students, backed by some faculty, issued a list of demands that former principal Tim McKenna agreed to meet, including implicit bias training for teachers and administrators, the hiring of a diversity, equity and inclusion officer (which has been done), and more active recruitment in schools and neighborhoods that rarely send students to Central and Masterman, the city’s other most highly selective school.
Davis’ appointment comes after a concerted effort by a group of Central students, alumni, and parents for the district to choose a Black principal. Parent Joe Quinones, a leader of this group, said he believes that “putting eyes on the process” led to a Black president of Central High.
A Black president, he said, will “leave no stone unturned relative to [improving] the diversity profile of the school.”
A big issue Davis will face is a steadily declining share and total population of Black students in recent years. In 2011, Central was 32% Black; today that figure is 18%. Just over half the Philadelphia district’s students are Black.
This year, the district revised its selective admissions system for all so-called “criteria-based” schools like Central, in an effort to improve access to students from marginalized groups. Students who meet basic criteria – in Central’s case, all As and Bs, 95% attendance, and a certain score on a controversial writing test – are placed in an admissions lottery. In an effort to eliminate bias, the system removes principals and school teams from the decision-making process that determines which students are admitted.
Until now, students had to score at least in the 88th percentile on the state standardized tests, but those tests have not been administered for the last two years due to Covid. Another demand of the Black at Central group has been to eliminate test scores from the admissions process, but the district – which will get a new superintendent later this year – has not said whether it will reinstate the test as a requirement going forward.
A report from the district’s Office of Research and Evaluation shows that more students of all races qualified to enter the lottery this year for admission to Central and other selective schools – although the report also showed that smaller percentages of Black and Latinx students, compared to white and Asian students, met the more stringent qualifications for Central and Masterman. Officials have yet to release data showing whether the new system has affected the demographic makeup of Central’s incoming ninth grade for 2022-23.
Davis is confident in her leadership skills to tackle these and other challenges.
“I know intentional decisions have been made by the School District of Philadelphia to maintain racial diversity at Central, and I look forward to being a leader to uphold and continue that work,” Davis said. “For many reasons, the time has come … for a diverse individual to lead the school. I am honored to be the first female and the first African American to lead Central.”
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