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Credit: Jennifer Wright

Tuesday was a typical school day at the Henry C. Lea Elementary School.

In the hallway, shouts and laughter from recess drifted in through the open window, a student visited the school nurse’s office and the school’s new principal, Graduate School of Education student Jennifer Duffy, was working during her lunch hour — this time meeting with the parents of a student.

“There is no lunchtime ,” she joked in her office a few minutes later.

As the parents with whom she was meeting were leaving the school office, one told their child, “Go back to class please — and behave!”

It was just a normal day for students beginning the school year at the Lea School, located at 47th and Locust streets, even in the midst of changes in leadership across the School District of Philadelphia, as well as a stormy financial situation for the school district.

Duffy is the personification of the changes sweeping the school district: She is among the 47 first-time principals hired this school year following the 37 first-time principals hired last year. Duffy is also the third principal that the Lea School has had in the last three years.

She is entering a school where one of the largest issues is academic achievement — every grade required to take a standardized state test at  the Lea School in the 2011-12 school year, except for seventh grade, scored below the district average in reading. Appointed about three weeks before the school year began, Duffy had only a short time to develop a plan for how to implement changes at the Lea School — she only met her entire staff a week before classes started.

On top of adjusting to her new duties as principal, Duffy is starting her second semester in Penn’s three-year GSE Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership.

Despite the challenges Duffy is facing, and the extra work she has as a GSE student, she is determined to make tangible changes at the Lea School. She plans to draw from her experiences, seeing how the district worked on a large scale when she was a multilingual manager at the school district headquarters. “A school setting is [where to make changes] and the person in charge and able to make the kinds of changes that need to happen is a principal,” she said.

One of Duffy’s goals is to change the tone at the Lea School. That new tone includes raising academic achievement standards, expanding support for teachers and encouraging input from faculty, parents and the community.

“We’re working really hard to get our students academically ready for the real world,” Duffy said. “Planning and preparation is really huge and so we’re investing time in the school day to do that.”

To increase academic achievement, Duffy and her faculty are devoting more time in their schedules for class planning this year and creating common meeting times for teachers of the same grade, something that is not the norm in every school, Duffy said.

“These are opportunities for teachers to grow themselves with this idea that we’re professional learners,” Duffy explained.

Duffy also plans to reduce the achievement gap at the Lea School by taking advantage of the established partnership between Penn and Lea. Lea is one of six University-Assisted Community Schools that partner with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, receiving funding and programming as a result of the collaboration.

In addition, Penn appointed Caroline Watts last year to serve as direct liaison between Penn and the Lea School, naming her director of the Lea School University Partnership through GSE. In that role, Watts sat on the school district committee to choose Duffy as the new principal.

While Penn’s influence at Lea is formidable, Watts explained how the intention is to create a partnership that is community-driven and university facilitated. “This isn’t about us telling Lea who to be,” she said, but rather using Penn’s resources to help the Lea School.

Since Lea receives some support from Penn, it’s better off than many other schools feeling the strain of the Philadelphia School District’s huge budget deficit — even though none of the budget cuts at the Lea School were restored this year, Watts said. “We have enough in terms of staff,” Duffy said. “At this point we have enough to meet our needs ... barely.”

Duffy also feels that while Penn’s resources can help Lea, it’s still up to the school leadership to turn things around in the midst of the district issues. “We’re doing the work. We’re going to save ourselves,” Duffy said.

In keeping with that spirit, she and her faculty spent the first week putting the big ideas they decided on into place. “We were, as a staff, pleasantly surprised that what we said actually happened.”

Take for example, the new expectation for all students to be quiet at the end of recess when they see their teacher or lunch aide’s hand raised.

The hand raising is a quiet signal introduced to address the collective concern that teachers had about noisiness at the end of recess. A week into school, students are still quieting themselves when they see a teacher’s hand raised.

“I think it speaks to the fact that we have a clear picture of where we want to go and we are prepared to do the work it takes to get there,” Duffy said. “It sounds so pie-in-the-sky kind of thing,” she said with a laugh. “But this is what we’re doing.”

As for how a first-time principal is handling the new responsibility while keeping up with her class readings at Penn, Duffy joked, calling the “Mid-Career” program more than just a name, since it’s a program intended for currently employed adults. She explained how the things she’s learning — about how to create a vision and a mission in a school — are being put into practice in her work.

“It fits in with the idea that I’m a perpetual learner,” she said. “If I’m telling the students they’re expected to be lifelong learners, that’s what this means, I’m showing them how to do it.”

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