The wide range of skills ShaVon Savage (GSE ‘02) mastered during her previous professional lives have prepared her for her new post as the principal of the Henry C. Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia, a partnership school with Penn GSE.
Savage hopes to inspire in her students the same sense of intellectual curiosity that kept her learning and exploring. “What skills do kids need for a future we can’t imagine?” Savage asks. “We need to ask them what they think they need for the jobs they think they might want!”
Her first plan was to be an investment banker. But a respected professor suggested she spend time in the classroom. After teaching for a year in the School District of Philadelphia, she enrolled in Penn GSE’s Teacher Education Program. After graduating, she then spent a year at High Tech High and another at the Penn Alexander School. Working with policy mandates and regulatory guidelines raised new questions for Savage that ultimately led her out of the classroom and into Penn Law.
After a stint with a Philadelphia law firm handling public finance deals and learning corporate litigation, Savage established herself as an attorney in Blue Bell, representing school districts and other educational institutions in a wide range of tribunals and education/school law matters.
“I learned a lot about the practice of law,” Savage recounted, “but I also learned a lot about how to run a school effectively.” What she saw, time and again, was how important it was for the adults in a school to be kept up to speed on changes in laws, regulations, policies and procedures. “Education is not as nimble as it should be. It takes time for changes to take effect. And it’s important for leaders to help foster that nimbleness,” she said.
Savage eventually landed in a school district in the Philadelphia suburbs, overseeing its special education programs. Savage was rethinking how she could best use everything she had learned. “I saw my career shift away from law,” she recalled, “so I decided to pursue a principal certification. I wanted to focus on how to run a school myself.”
And she wanted to commit herself to the children of Philadelphia.
“I was looking for a place to call home,” she said, “and Lea had unique characteristics and opportunities, especially with the university and community partnerships, that really appealed to me. It’s a rich environment with great potential.” In five to ten years, the dynamic leader hopes the Lea School could push new modalities and be at the forefront of innovation in learning.
“I lived near the Lea School as a graduate student,” she said. “As I return to the neighborhood as principal, I’m excited about the support that’s available to create an environment that will foster and develop expert teachers in service of the kids.”
The school serves approximately 540 students in grades K-8, has about 100 students with individualized educational plans (IEPs) for special needs, and is roughly 16% English-language learners, many of whom speak African dialects and Bengali at home. The school also has a full continuum for autism supports in grades K-8. To get to know her school community, Savage spent the summer taking what she calls “culture walks” through the neighborhood, sometimes with parents, talking with students, and meeting with stakeholders.
“Being introduced to all the stores, shops and community centers you don’t notice when you’re just driving through are what helped me learn about the diversity in this neighborhood,” she said. “It’s an extremely welcoming community, and by the middle of the summer, I felt like much of the neighborhood already knew me by name.”
It’s this neighborhood cultural competence, as she calls it, that she believes will help her establish a school climate where parents feel she is available to them, where Lea is viewed as a safe and suitable place for their children, and where the community actively participates as stakeholders. “I feel strongly about consistency and communication, and that it’s a two-way process, both internally and externally,” she said.
Savage is excited about the possibilities. How children think and learn is fundamentally different than it was before the information age, she explains, and it’s critical to know how to engage them in learning. She’s particularly interested in providing opportunities for children she knows are intelligent and capable but often haven’t had much exposure to the world beyond their neighborhood. “How do we bring our students to museums, help them navigate the city beyond West Philadelphia, and become citizens of the world?” she asks, “And, more practically, how do we help them find the right high school?”
Penn began collaborating with West Philadelphia’s Henry C. Lea School in the 1960s. Although Penn GSE has a presence in every catchment in the School District of Philadelphia, it maintains a special relationship with both the Lea and Penn Alexander Schools in West Philadelphia.
In 2013, Penn GSE deepened its commitment to Lea with an expanded partnership that includes a liaison. It’s a distinctly different model than the Penn Alexander partnership. The Lea partnership model is focused upon integrating University resources along with community and parent efforts, to move the school towards what Savage envisions as being a true community school that supports excellence for all. With a Penn GSE-based liaison on site serving as a partnership coordinator, groups across Penn – including Penn GSE, the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, Penn Libraries and Penn Science Across the Ages – operate a wide variety of different school day and after-school programs at Lea.