10/24/2023 by Darryl J. Ford |

“The Children Come First”

Constance Cayton

The epitome of educational leadership. The preeminent educator in the country. Friend. 

“The Children Come First” was the guiding principle of Dr. Constance E. Clayton throughout her career of four decades in the Philadelphia School District as she rose from being an elementary classroom teacher in 1955 to becoming the first female and African American Superintendent of Schools in 1982 to her retirement from that post in 1993. “The Children Come First.” At 89 years old, Dr. Clayton recently passed away on September 18, 2023.

Dr. Clayton was the epitome of educational leadership. For 20 years, she was a teacher and instructional leader in Philadelphia Public Schools. An expert in social studies, Dr. Clayton was proud of the leadership she provided in this area. She authored the first African American History curriculum for the district and mandated its implementation for all students when she was superintendent.

She possessed an engaging smile, gregarious nature, memory like none other, and exacting standards. Each of the qualities served her well in leading what as at the time the fifth-largest school district in the country. As superintendent, she implemented a standardized curriculum so that when students transferred from one school to the next because of mobility issues, they could continue learning where they left off. Dr. Clayton never had a strike of any union under her tenure, excelled in budget management, and even retired leaving the district a surplus of funds. She relished in asking her driver to take her unannounced to a different school every morning before the first bell rang to see Philadelphia’s school children and to keep everyone on their toes.

Dr. Clayton attended Philadelphia Public Schools, graduated from the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls, and then attended Temple University where she earned both her bachelor’s and master's degrees in elementary education and educational administration. Dr. Clayton earned two doctorate degrees and was awarded 17 honorary doctorates over the course of her career. Yet, she might say her best preparation came from her grandmother and mother who raised her. Constance or Connie, as she was known to family and friends, was taught valuable lessons of respect, reliability, and planning, and she was exposed to the arts, cultural institutions, the church, and civic affairs. Connie adored her mother, Willabell, and often noted that she lacked for nothing when growing up.

Yet, even with such a robust preparation for life and career, Dr. Clayton faced challenges as a leader, a woman, and the first African American and female head of one of the largest public school districts in the country. One example stems from when a local politician called Dr. Clayton and directed her to deploy the school district’s school buses to transport adult participants for Philadelphia’s annual New Year’s Day parade. She asked, “Are the school children of Philadelphia participating in the parade and being transported?” and “Would anyone be paying the district for such services?” Of course, the answers were no, and so too was Dr. Clayton’s  answer. “No” put an end to years of patronage that took resources away from the school children of Philadelphia. With a little twinkle in her eye every time she relayed this story, Dr. Clayton noted that the politician who made these demands ended up in jail and that she, of course, had never had such an experience. While there were many other challenges to her leadership as superintendent, Dr. Clayton always held doing what was fair and right as her standard. Shortly after retirement as superintendent, when others took stock of her achievements, Dr. Clayton was proclaimed the “preeminent educator in the country” for her dedication to students and contributions to their academic success.

One look at Dr. Clayton’s personal library illustrates her commitment to the field of education (with books on Piaget, social studies education, games in the classroom, French, and early education, which she championed even before this was a focus in schools and educational programs) but also shows her commitment to her own personal growth and broad interests. African American history and literature. Presidents, world leaders, and even dictators. Civil rights leaders and political activists. Early childhood education in other countries. Antiques. Research methods. African American art and artists. Gardening. These and so many more were in her collection. Interestingly, one newer volume in her library — a harbinger of ChatGPT, explored “smart robots” and “conscious computers” and the effect of computers and artificial intelligence in the classroom — topics that caught her interest well into her eighties.

Dr. Clayton was a patron of the arts. She and her mother amassed their own private collection of African American artists, and she gifted more than 70 pieces to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She also made gifts to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Dr. Clayton served as a board member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and founded the African American Collections Committee there; was active and held leadership positions with the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated; was a founding members of the Penn Towne Chapter of the Links, Incorporated; and held positions in Public Health at the Medical College of Pennsylvania and served as interim Dean of the School of Public Health at Hahnemann University until her retirement from there in 2000. Dr. Clayton was honored by the University of Pennsylvania (where she earned a doctorate in Educational Leadership) by the establishment of the Constance E. Clayton Chair in Urban Education. She was the first African American woman in the country to have a chair named in her honor. In addition, for more than two decades the Constance E. Clayton Lecture at the Graduate School of Education at Penn features prominent researchers and scholars who address students and guests. Always in attendance, Dr. Clayton asked the most difficult and interesting questions which often illustrated the intersectionality of the topic with race, gender, class, and other social constructs.

Connie was my friend. She had an exceptional mind, a big heart, and stood for excellence for all children and those to whom they were entrusted.

Connie was capacious. She took in as much knowledge and life as should could, and then she gave it all away to the students, faculty, staff, and friends in her care and to the greater Philadelphia community at-large. Whatever talents Dr. Clayton possessed, she gave them away.

This is a lesson (among many) from Dr. Clayton that we as educational leaders — we as human beings — can learn and emulate. Whatever talents we possess, we should give them all away. I hope you might take a moment a learn just a bit more about Dr. Constance E. Clayton. The epitome of educational leadership. The preeminent educator in the country. My friend.


Read recent articles about Dr. Clayton:

Constance Clayton, Philadelphia’s first Black and female schools superintendent, has died at 89 – The Philadelphia Inquirer

Constance Clayton, first African American and woman to lead Philly school district, dies at 89 – The Philadelphia Tribune

Dr. Constance E. Clayton: Leaving a legacy in education – and art – Chestnut Hill Local

Philly schools trailblazer Constance Clayton has died – WHYY by PBS

Darryl J. Ford is Vice President, Education Leadership Services at CS&A. Darryl served as Head of School at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia from 2007-2023.

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1 Comment

Mike Mersky 10/25/2023 at 9:04am

Darryl: What a profound written piece for a special person whom we all knew as native Philadelphians growing up! CC was a powerful yet beautiful person, and the aspect of “giving it away” was so well stated in your piece. And at this stage of my life, giving it away, paying it forward, and serving so others may succeed is central to me now. Thanks so much for sharing with all of us. She was indeed one special leader, educator, and person, whom we all revered. Best. Mike