Katharine Davis, director of Henry Elementary School at Mount Airy, was named the 15th president of Central High School, becoming the first woman and 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 the most prestigious and selective in Philadelphia, finds itself at a pivotal moment in its history as it ponders how to move forward from forward with an anti-racist agenda. As the percentage of black and Latino students in the school has fell precipitously Over the past decade, students have voiced their concerns about discriminatory practices more clearly and demanded change.
Davis, 34, a graduate of Center top in 2005, was chosen from a pool of at least 50 people who applied, said Deputy 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. Its mandate will start July 1.
“Kate came across as passionate and committed to social justice, strategic, thoughtful and poised,” Domers said.
Davis has been a school principal in Philadelphia for less than five years, first as co-principal at Harding Middle School in Frankford, where she was responsible for improving education, then at Henry Elementary – which she also attended as a child – since 2019. She has never led a high school before.
But when committee members compared his qualities and skills to what they expected of a new principal, and what 350 others said they wanted in a school principal survey, it didn’t matter. was not a contest, Domers said.
“The best person available was Kate. Hands down, it was Kate,” Domers said.
Detour of a planned veterinary career
Davis grew up in Mount Airy in a biracial family and graduated from Central in 2005 in the 264th class. Her father is retired U.S. District Court Judge Legrome Davis.
“When I think about what it means to me to be in this role, it seems surreal to me,” she said in an interview.
When she attended Central, she said, she didn’t feel out of place at all because of her racial background. “I was surrounded by a large and diverse population,” she said. “I felt accepted, I felt like I really belonged. It was a safe space for me. I remember the dynamism of the Black Student Union, the initiatives of cultural groups and the importance this has for young people.
Davis didn’t always want to be an educator. Growing up, she set her sights on becoming a veterinarian. After graduating from Central, she attended Cornell University to major in animal science.
But she had many other interests, including art, and she got an internship at the Johnson Art Museum in Ithaca, NY. There she worked with students from the local primary school and found she had an affinity for teaching. “It changed my life,” she said.
She enrolled in a course called The Art of Teaching and spent two days a week in a local freshman class, where the teacher was a woman with many years of experience.
“I watched her love of teaching, her genuine love of working with students, how she built hands-on learning for students,” Davis said. “There was a change in my own experience. I saw the joy of teaching.
She decided to minor in education, and after graduating in 2009, Davis traveled to New York for a year teaching at an elementary school in the Bronx as a member of AmeriCorps. She enrolled at Pace University in Manhattan to earn her teaching degrees, then spent several years teaching at a bilingual school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
In 2015, she became principal of a charter school in Brooklyn. Davis returned to Philadelphia in 2017 to compete in the PhillyMore main certification program.
Michele Whitecraft, the education professor who taught the art of teaching at Cornell, remembers hoping Davis would pursue a career in education.
“I never said she should give up 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. He’s just a natural, most genuine, closest person I’ve ever had. I met in my career. Teaching was the perfect choice for her.
Whitecraft added that Davis also had a strong sense of herself and her abilities. “She knows her power,” she said. “How beautiful for someone so young to see what she can bring and not be constrained by society. She is my hero.
Davis said she pursued her career as a school principal so early in her career because the opportunity presented itself. “I was a fourth-grade teacher and loved teaching and growing in the classroom, but what I discovered was that I loved working with adults and leading spaces in schools,” said- she declared.
“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 full change
His leadership skills will be tested at Central, which has more than 2,400 students. Founded in 1836 to educate boys, it was Pennsylvania’s first high school. He admitted the girls only in 1983, then did so by court order. Black boys were admitted from the 19th century – Alain Locke, philosopher and critic and author of ‘The New Negro’, graduated in 1902. By the end of the 20th century, the school had a student body that was often close to mirroring the city. global racial demographics.
But his recent history with the breed has been problematic, or at least visibly more difficult. Two years ago, following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, students formed a ‘Black at Central’ group that drew attention to microaggressions and what they saw as discrimination at school.
The students, backed by some faculty, released a list of demands that former principal Tim McKenna has agreed to meet, including implicit bias training for teachers and administrators, the hiring of a diversity, equity and inclusion (which has been done), and more. active recruitment from schools and neighborhoods that rarely send students to Central and Masterman, the city’s other most selective school.
Davis’ appointment comes after a concerted effort by a group of Central students, alumni and parents to have the district choose a black principal. Parent Joe Quinones, a leader in that group, said he believed “putting eyes on the process” led to a black president of Central High.
A black president, he said, “will leave nothing to chance compared to [improving] the school’s diversity profile.
A big problem 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%. Slightly more than half of the students in the Philadelphia district are black.
This year, the district overhauled its selective admissions system for all so-called “criteria-based” schools like Central, in an effort to improve access for students from marginalized groups. Students who meet basic criteria — in Central’s case, all A’s and B’s, 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 standardized state tests, but those tests have not been administered for two years due to Covid. Another request from 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 — hasn’t said whether it will reinstate the test as a requirement. in the future.
A report from the district’s office of research and assessment shows that more students of all races qualified to participate in the lottery this year for admission to central schools and other selective schools – although the report also showed that lower percentages of black and Latino students, compared to white and Asian students, met the stricter qualifications for Central and Masterman. Officials have yet to release data on whether the new system has affected the demographic makeup of Central’s incoming ninth year for 2022-23.
Davis is confident in her leadership skills to meet these challenges and many more.
“I know intentional decisions were made by the Philadelphia School District to maintain racial diversity in Central, and I look forward to being a leader in maintaining and continuing that work,” Davis said. “For many reasons now is the time… for a diverse person to lead the school. I am honored to be the first woman and the first African American to lead Central.
Dale Mezzacappa is a Senior Writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at [email protected]