Administrator returns to working with the students

Darlene Davis greets students at the door of Widener Partnership Charter School in Chester. "My favorite job as an administrator was as an elementary school principal," she said.
Darlene Davis greets students at the door of Widener Partnership Charter School in Chester. "My favorite job as an administrator was as an elementary school principal," she said. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 16, 2013

The light snowfall Tuesday reminded Darlene Davis of one of the minor, if inescapable, annoyances of her former job as a school superintendent.

Every time it snowed, she would have to make the call: school or no school. And no matter which she choose, people would complain about it.

"Some people say, 'I can't believe you closed'; others say, 'I can't believe you opened.' You can't make everyone happy," said Davis, 56, who spent three years as chief of the Cheltenham School District in Montgomery County, a diverse community of high achievers whose two most notable alumni are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.

So Davis decided to make herself happy. After rising to the top of her profession, she retired last year to go back to the thing she loved most about education - working with children - as principal of Widener Partnership Charter School.

Widener, the first university-based charter school, is in one of the state's most troubled school districts, Chester Upland. The low-performing district was placed under state control last year, as auditors blasted the district for "disarray" and later criticized deficiencies in its largest charter school, Chester Community Charter.

By comparison, the Widener school - which flunked its state progress report last year and earned a caution flag this year - is considered something of a success story.

"We are not satisfied with that and know our children can perform better," said Paula Silver, dean of Widener University's School of Human Service Professions and chair of the board of trustees of the charter school.

Davis started in August at a salary of $120,000 - a $50,000 cut from her job in Cheltenham, a district with seven schools and 4,300 students.

She's the third principal, hired to improve academic achievement for a school that has grown from kindergarten and first grade when it started in 2006 to 410 students up to eighth grade this year.

"My favorite job as an administrator was as an elementary school principal," said Davis, who lives in Upper Dublin, Montgomery County. "You have the opportunity to impact children, you encourage them, get to know their families. I love doing that."

Last November, shortly after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to Cheltenham's seven public schools for a week, she surprised parents, staff, and board members by announcing her retirement.

The idea had been percolating for about a year, with her frustration with the long hours and absences from her family, Davis said. She was out two or three nights a week watching Cheltenham students play basketball or soccer while missing her own son's wrestling matches.

Many retired superintendents teach in colleges or supervise student teachers, but few go back to the trenches, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

At Widener, Davis said, the challenges were obvious from Day One. Many of the students did not know a fundamental of kindergarten - how to walk in a straight line. That's because so few in the poor district had attended preschool.

"We have pretty much 98 percent African Americans, over 80 percent free and reduced lunch. We're an urban environment. It is a different population. But for me, it's about providing a great education for the students that you're serving and making sure they're achieving," she said.

Under the Pennsylvania Department of Education's new school rating system, Widener scored 63.5 out of 100 and earned a yellow rating, meaning it was at risk. Yet it was one of the top-scoring public elementary schools in Chester.

"It certainly is a very sad, sad situation that we are not educating our children more effectively," Silver said. "The onus is on us and on parents to make sure children perform better."

Widener was started as charters gained traction in low-performing districts and colleges sought laboratories for their education and social services students. The school is transitioning from a family-like community of 5- and 6-year-olds to working with preteens and teenagers.

"It's a huge growth curve," she said.

For Davis, the daughter of a pastor who always knew she wanted to be a teacher, that job starts at 8:15 a.m. at Widener's front door, where she cradles a mug of hot coffee as she welcomes students.

"Sometimes something is going on with them and I can tell," she said as one unsmiling boy walked past. "Just saying hi, how are you, they know someone notices and that can set the tone for their whole day."

Being superintendent was never her goal. "Not at all, never. I just kept hearing, oh, you should, you should, and you keep moving along," said Davis, who has been a teacher, guidance counselor, elementary school principal, director of pupil services, and assistant superintendent.

At Cheltenham, her proudest accomplishments were overseeing construction of two new schools and closing the achievement gap for minority students.

Asked about Davis' tenure, Cheltenham school board member Jim Butt said "she carried forward goals and strategies of the district effectively" - not exactly heaping praise.

He added, "She learned how to communicate with our community."

"They would prefer you to overcommunicate," said Davis with a roll of her eyes. "I believe there's a balance between communicating and everything else that needs to be done."

Sherry Hazelwood, the former president of the United Parents Group in Cheltenham, called Davis "a very good friend for the parents. She worked to have our views heard and she was completely student-centered."

After welcoming students to Widener one day this week, Davis and assistant principal Katrina Daniels started their daily "walk throughs," checking up on at least six classes a day. Then there were interviews for new teachers, and myriad other duties to perform.

But compared to the demands of her old job, she said, "it's like night and day."


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @kathyboccella

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