When Stacy R. Gill-Phillips, GRD’10, started a preschool in 1990, she thought she was just taking a brief hiatus from her corporate career as a business analyst to ensure a high-quality early education for her children and others. Twenty-five years later, she is one of ten primary and secondary school administrators across the country named as finalists for the 2015 the Escalante-Gradillas Best in Education Prize offered this fall by TheBestSchools.org.
“I fell in love with education and joined the fight for high-quality education in the urban setting. That’s been my mission since I got into the field,” said Gill-Phillips, a graduate of Penn GSE’s Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership.
Finalists for the Best in Education Prize were chosen based on a proven ability to “overcome odds, rally the team, and cultivate educational success where weaker wills could not.” As founder and CEO of the K-5 West Philadelphia Achievement Charter Elementary School (WPACES) for the past fourteen years, Gill-Phillips has risen to the challenge of building a successful school in the face of budget cuts and changing academic standards.
Gill-Phillips credits her time at Penn GSE with building her knowledge of the education landscape and providing a lasting professional network. “I knew that with a Penn GSE education, I would always be on the ‘best practices’ page with regard to my school,” she said. “That proved to be true, and I got so much more.”
As a student in Penn GSE’s Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership, Gill-Phillips was part of a cohort of education leaders from a wide range of organizations. The program’s executive-style format allows students to enroll while continuing to work full-time.
“The best benefit was the way my classmates and I were able to support each other as practitioners in the middle of our careers,” said Gill-Phillips. We still support each other—I’m always getting calls from my Penn GSE colleagues.”
“Across a wide range of missions and contexts, Penn Mid-Career students share the drive Stacy brings to her work, a tireless effort to enrich the lives of those they have the privilege to serve," noted Mike Johanek, senior fellow at Penn GSE and director of the program.
To cultivate a positive learning environment at WPACES, Gill-Phillips has combined her business background with her passion for educating children. “I do look at the school as a business that has to produce a good product, and our product is educated kids,” she said. “So what can we do to improve our product? Develop our teachers.”
With the help of approximately $2 million in grants that Gill-Phillips has secured over the past ten years, WPACES has invested heavily in teachers’ professional development. In addition to weekly two-hour, in-house professional development for all teachers, the school offers new teachers a year of mentoring and a year of coaching.
“We’re doing a lot with a little bit,” Gill-Phillips said, referring not just to the school’s support of teachers. The curriculum at WPACES incorporates technology instruction across all four major subject areas (literacy, math, social studies, and science) and also includes three programs in visual and performing arts. Grants have allowed the school to add a community learning center and instructional assistants. A corporate fundraiser resulted in new playground equipment.
TheBestSchools.org lauded her for her persistence and resourcefulness. “Through Gill-Phillips’ leadership, the school has maintained poise, dignity, and resilience—just like Gill-Phillips herself,” the organization noted in her finalist biography.
Those qualities have enabled Gill-Phillips to promote a “glass half full” outlook at WPACES. “We choose to celebrate the accomplishments and the joyful things in our school. Most of our kids are living at or below poverty level, and we want to build them up. I want them to read about successes and the things they’ve been able to overcome,” she said. “One of the things we’re really proud of is providing an environment where students feel safe, where they have a voice, and where they’re learning.”