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Clarence P. Penn Jr.

Changing the Complexion of a Community's Racial Relations by Jay Goldman


With his ample girth, trademark Panama hat and two-tone saddle shoes, Clarence "C.P." Penn has been a noticeable fixture around the southeastern Virginia community of Surry for the past two decades. In fact, when he's behind the wheel of his restored 1967 banana-colored Buick convertible, he's downright hard to ignore.

Penn's influence on the 1,500-student Surry County Public Schools, which he served as superintendent from 1977 through the end of June, has been pervasive. His mark is certain to extend far beyond his time in office.

"He's about as individual as an individual can get," says one close observer, Brian Rafferty, editor of the Sussex-Surry Dispatch. "He's been an incredible asset for Surry County."

A native of Pulaski in the southwest corner of Virginia, Penn has been the epitome of a community leader, delving deep into the hearts and minds of the citizenry to effect profound change in racial relationships and school quality. When he was appointed superintendent, the district had a virtually all-black student population while white students flocked to a private academy in nearby Tidewater. Today, more than 92 percent of the county's white students have returned to the public schools, whose racial makeup now closely resembles the larger community.

Penn orchestrated such change through actions both real and symbolic. One of his first acts to address the low morale that he found throughout the school district was to overhaul the interscholastic athletics program, ordering modern equipment and new uniforms for varsity athletes and marching band members. He authorized and promoted a bonfire to get rid of the old. "You do whatever you can to get (the students') interest in academics," he reasoned. "You do some things to get the community behind you."

The results were immediate. The district's high school, which had not won a football game in its three-year existence, went 7-2 in Penn's first year in Surry County. The upgraded extracurriculars also brought together once-isolated groups of students and parents and raised spirits inside the classrooms.

The superintendent also started conducting business meetings at the Surrey House, considered the best local eatery, though it was a spot never frequented by blacks. He says he received some flak for trying to erase the community's racial boundaries. ("Some blacks wouldn't come in and meet with me.") Penn told the local newspaper that he learned to deal with racial issues tactfully. "If I know you're a racist but you're also a good Methodist, I'll talk to you about the church. Eventually, we'll get around to the racism."

Improvement on the learning front came more slowly but no less dramatically. By 1994 student scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills at some elementary grades had climbed to the 75th percentile nationally and scores among some classes at the secondary level reached the 60th percentile.

The academic improvement was due in part, says Penn, to his insistence that teachers address the "difference in the learning style and motivation of black children and white children." Asked to explain what some would see as a racially insensitive position, he says, "I have found that white children are task oriented and black children are people oriented, and our instruction has to be presented with that in mind."

Though forced at times to defend his stance, Penn insists he hasn't altered it. "I think I may be right on this. In my experience, it hasn't failed," he says.

Penn served as president of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents in 1997--the first African American to fill that role. He hopes to handle some consulting work for VASS in his retirement, while teaching one course each semester at Virginia State University.

When Penn announced last fall his intention to retire, county residents expressed shock and anger at the school board for its failure to support the superintendent's initiatives, including his proposals to start several vocational programs. Ultimately, the conservative board's tendency to micromanage convinced him it was time to leave.

Penn could take some satisfaction from the board's subsequent survey of community residents about what they wanted in a new superintendent. Editor Rafferty summarized it this way: "They wanted the same qualities he had."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

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