A superintendent who is steering Philadelphia schools on new course

''Hi. I'm Connie,'' says the handsome woman standing in the doorway, extending her arm for a firm handshake. Constance E. Clayton, superintendent of the Philadelphia public school system , is not one to stand on ceremony. In almost every aspect of her life, this educator is no-nonsense, proud, confident, and optimistic.

She presides over the schooling of 202,000 Philadelphia youngsters, a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar budget, and some 300 school sites.

And though she is realistic, Dr. Clayton is also enjoying herself.

''I'm having a marvelous time,'' says Dr. Clayton, who began her career in the Philadelphia schools as a teacher 27 years ago. ''I look forward each day to the challenges before me. The system is not operating at its full potential.''

Dr. Clayton has a tough public image to battle. The public's confidence in the ability of Philadelphia schools to educate children has been very low. The district has had six strikes since 1970 and has lost some 86,000 students since then. Dr. Clayton, the first black to serve as superintendent here, inherited a large deficit, many old school buildings, and a bloated bureaucracy.

But she has wowed Philadelphia parents and community leaders in her year-and-a-half tenure. She has instituted a homework policy, launched a voluntary desegregation program, and brought in a business executive on loan to help shape up the district's management team. This fall she hopes to have in place a standardized curriculum, a new testing program, and a tougher promotion policy.

Some say her management approach is too slow and deliberate and that she overreacts to criticism. But others say Dr. Clayton is firmly in charge and has instituted changes that no one else could have made.

''I think that most parents have some hope that there are going to be changes ,'' says Yolanda Middleton, president of the Home and School Association.

''She has marvelous ideas, and her initiatives are very exciting,'' says Lynn Roberts of the Citizens Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia, a watchdog group. ''We all have the same objectives and want to see (the ideas) implemented.''

It is yet to be seen how successful Dr. Clayton will be in instituting her ideas. Observers point out that absenteeism is down, that there has been a reawakening among some principals and teachers to their responsibilities in the schools, and that management reform is indeed on the way.

Dr. Clayton is said to be a tireless worker who spends ''amazing amounts of energy'' to run the troubled district. And she has done thorough research - with input from committees, staff, and the public - on the problems the district faces. Her plan to standardize curriculum came from such examination.

''We had an abundance of curricula,'' says Dr. Clayton. ''But it meant that teachers were doing what they wanted. I said that was absurd. Do teachers have the right to delete certain disciplines? We want a standardization of curriculum.'' Dr. Clayton says the teachers will receive a draft of such a proposal soon.

Dr. Clayton also has been successful in bringing in the support of the Philadelphia business community. The Sun Company's loan of Frederick B. Wookey Jr. to manage the business affairs of the system is one example. Financial support has been promised through donations and groups such as the Committee to Support Philadelphia Public Schools.

Dr. Clayton says she sees this type of partnership as essential. ''The success of the city depends on the excellence of the school district,'' she says.

One of the superintendent's biggest challenges has been the desegregation of the district. Dr. Clayton persuaded the Pennsylvania Human Resources Commission, along with the Commonwealth Court, to give her a chance to work out a program. She had decided that trying to integrate every single school in the district would be impossible, because of the geography and demographics of Philadelphia. She came up with a plan that includes magnet schools, balanced staff, improvement programs for racially isolated schools, and a curriculum unit emphasizing intercultural and interpersonal understanding.

Education in this city has been marred by labor strikes, and the next teacher's contract is up in the summer of 1985.

Her first round of negotiations promises to be ''interesting and challenging, '' says Dr. Clayton.

''I have to respect the rights of the staff and I also have to respect the rights of children and parents,'' she says carefully. ''I'll be assiduously working on what is fair and right, but not abdicating my prerogative. Nothing will interfere with the providing of education for children.

''It is absolutely critical that the administration and its employees come through with a settlement. For far too many years, there have been far too many strikes.''

She points out that a generation of students has, in effect, lost a year of school through strikes.

''The children come first,'' Dr. Clayton said when she was appointed superintendent in 1982. ''They have been the centerpiece of my life and will be the centerpiece of my administration. Their right to learn, their expectations for success, and their obligation to achieve will be continually nurtured in this administration.''

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