Constance Elaine Clayton was born in North Philadelphia in 1933 to Levi and Willabell Clayton, The Inquirer reports. A graduate of Girls’ High, she went on to earn degrees from Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania before starting her career as an educator. Clayton credited her affinity for learning to her mother and grandmother, who she said instilled within her love, character, and discipline.
“In my house, you were expected to excel,” Dr. Clayton told reporters in a 1982 interview.
She began her career as a fourth grade teacher at William Henry Harrison public school in North Philly in 1955, working her way up through the ranks to become director of early childhood education in the city of Philadelphia by 1972. Just a decade later, Mayor Bill Green named her superintendent, with Clayton making history as the first Black person and first woman to ever hold the title.
As superintendent, Clayton was one of one, pushing for more resources and an overall better education for Philadelphia’s more than 200,000 students. Philly was the fifth-largest school system in the nation at the time. Clayton brought her expertise to the role of superintendent, as well as a wealth of cultural competency, pushing for the teaching of African American history and world culture before it was a hot button topic.
During her tenure as superintendent, from 1982 up until her retirement in 1993, the district had no labor strikes, no recorded deficits, and Dr. Clayton managed to standardize curriculum, grading, and promotion criteria. City test scores also continued to rise during her tenure.
“She was a giant. When you think about Philadelphians having a place in the history of this city, she has to be at the top of the list. We talk about Richardson Dilworth and Joe Clark, but what she did to promote public education and to prepare professionals for leadership has not been seen since,” said John White Jr., a former state representative and City Council member.
Dr. Clayton was respected by everyone, from business owners to bus drivers. And after her retirement, she continued to champion educators and students, mentoring principals even after leaving the district. In addition to her work in education, Clayton was also a major supporter of the arts, garnering a pretty sizable collection of Black art that she donated to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2019.
For years, Clayton and her mother ran an antiques consignment shop in Philly’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood. She was an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and served on the board of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she donated funds to support Black students interested in working at the museum to explore careers as curators or educators.
“I don’t think anyone else could measure up to what she did for kids. She is, in my opinion, the best advocate for children this city has ever seen at all,” said former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode.
Dr. Clayton passed away last week at the age of 89. But her legacy and her work will continue to serve as a blueprint for generations to come. Current Philadelphia superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. called it a “high honor” to know the revered superintendent, making it clear that the city already has plans in the works to memorialize her.
“She was the embodiment of a true educator and humanitarian due to her dedication to improving the lives of children in education,” said Watlington.
Photo by University of Pennsylvania