Principal's availability called into question

Kevin W. Parson , principal of Clymer Elementary.
Kevin W. Parson , principal of Clymer Elementary.
Posted: September 29, 2010

Kevin W. Parson runs a struggling elementary school in North Philadelphia. Until earlier this month, he was also running a campaign for statewide office - in Maryland.

A veteran political player in Baltimore, Parson commutes two hours daily to Clymer Elementary at 13th and Rush.

Two sources familiar with his schedule, including a former teacher, say that Parson, 47, who is paid $145,500 annually, is often late or missing.

The former teacher said the assistant principal often fills in for him during the school day.

On Tuesday, after The Inquirer asked the district about his political work, Parson arrived to work at 8:18 a.m., two minutes before teachers must be in the building and 12 minutes before school begins.

Parking was tight around Clymer, but Parson pulled into a spot saved for him by the school's custodial staff, removing a plastic "children crossing" sign that had been a placeholder for his black Mercedes with "Maryland Democrat" vanity plates.

There is no residency requirement for Philadelphia School District employees, and spokesman Fernando Gallard said there is no restriction on employees running for or holding public office "as long as they are able to fully complete their duties."

Until The Inquirer began asking questions about Parson's performance and political activity, officials had "no indication of him not doing his job," Gallard said.

But now, "given the circumstances where there are individuals coming forward saying the principal has been late and absent, we're definitely going to take a closer look to make sure that the needs of the school and the students are being met," Gallard said. "We will not wait for a formal complaint."

In an interview Tuesday, Parson denied being often late or absent.

"There is no evidence of that," he said. "I'm in compliance with all the policies my administrators set for me."

He said he usually leaves his home in Baltimore about 5:30 a.m. and leaves Clymer between 5 and 7 p.m.

Parson, who started working in Philadelphia in August 2009, also defended his political activity.

"At no point did it interfere with my work performance," he said of his campaign. "The election didn't really kick into high gear until the summer, and a lot of the things I did were in the evening or on the weekend."

Clymer held summer school, and Parson was the principal, but his campaign didn't interfere with that job, he said.

Parson campaigned all summer for a Sept. 14 race to represent Maryland's 45th District in the state's House of Delegates. He ultimately lost.

But he still holds another elected position, Democratic central committeeman, based in Baltimore.

His campaign was conducted primarily through multimedia, robo-calls, and mailings, Parson said, adding that he made the decision to run for office before he took the job in Philadelphia.

Had he won the House of Delegates race, he would have been obligated to attend sessions of the Maryland General Assembly, which meets in Annapolis every year for about 90 days, from January through April.

Parson said he would have resigned from his job had he won the election.

James "Torch" Lytle, a former district administrator who also ran Trenton Public Schools and is now a professor in the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, said he tells students that an important part of a principal's job is being visible to parents and students early in the morning and after school.

"People count on seeing you," Lytle said. "Teachers and parents and the kids expect you to be there most of the time."

Zack Stalberg, executive director of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy, is unconvinced that Parson could effectively run his school and a campaign two hours away.

"If he was running for office in Maryland and running a school in Philadelphia, he was cheating someone," Stalberg said.

Parson's candidacy, Stalberg said, "seems completely inappropriate, and I can't imagine how he could possibly be doing his job well in Philadelphia, if he was running anything like a serious campaign in another state. These days, even a race for a seat that is not statewide is extraordinarily time consuming, and raising money for such a race is more time consuming."

Parson said his political activity is separate from his work as an educator. "I love my job," he said. "I must love it to drive two hours a day each way," he said.

A source close to Clymer said that teachers often questioned Parson's whereabouts. "There were complaints that the principal wasn't around at times, and people wanted to know why he wasn't getting in trouble," the source said.

The former Clymer teacher concurs. "He is often late or missing," the former teacher said.

Lytle also pointed out that there is some precedent for district principals holding political office. Beatrice Chernock, former principal of the Henry School in Mount Airy, was a Republican city councilwoman in the 1970s and 1980s.

But "it was a different period in history," Lytle said. "Principals were somewhat more managers than instructional leaders."

Parson's campaign website lists a degree from Morgan State University and master's degrees from Shippensburg University, the University of Baltimore, and College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

In addition to his political activity, Parson is affiliated with several organizations, including the Baltimore NAACP, of which he is the education director.

His website lists him as the cofounder and an ex-officio board member of the Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy, a charter school in Baltimore. There is no mention of his work in Philadelphia.

Parson was removed as principal of Bluford Drew Jemison over the school's spring break in 2009. He said the ouster may have been engineered by political enemies.

The exact reasons for the removal were "never made clear to me," said Parson, who also worked in parochial and private schools in Baltimore, for a charter school in Washington, and for Edison Schools Inc.

He was hired by Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for the 2009-10 school year and was one of 16 principals who the district said lacked credentials to work as administrators in Philadelphia.

Parson is now certified as an administrator in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Education.

The former Clymer teacher said Parson came to that school highly touted. "He was supposed to come in and really inspire the students and be a strong male leader, but they rarely saw him and we rarely saw him," the teacher said.

Clymer's needs are great. A full 95 percent of students live in poverty, and average daily attendance is under 90 percent. Just 23 percent of students meet state standards in reading, and 36 percent meet them in math. The school has failed to meet the benchmarks set for it by Pennsylvania for eight years in a row.

Parson said that while the school's test scores are low, it has made progress in math. He's created a safe, stable learning environment where suspensions have dropped, he said. Students can relate to him because he grew up in the city, in the projects, he added.

"The parents like me here," he said. "I've made inroads here."


Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

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