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Guiding Principal

Phillip Woods in the halls of Woodland Hills Junior Senior High.

Phillip Woods in the halls of Woodland Hills Junior Senior High. Photo: Keith Boyer

Woods Applies Lessons Learned at IUP

Last spring, Phillip Woods was in search of his next challenge as he became a candidate for principal of Woodland Hills Junior Senior High, an East Pittsburgh school with a history of academic and disciplinary struggles.

Woods had climbed the ranks from special education teacher to elementary school principal in the Penn Hills School District and, for the last six years, had served as principal of West Mifflin High School.

In 2017, he earned his doctorate in education from IUP with the hope of one day becoming a district-level administrator or a college professor, sharing his knowledge with future teachers and administrators the way his IUP mentors did with him.

But as Woods went through the interview process at Woodland Hills in June, the school encountered tragedy. Seventeen-year-old Antwon Rose II, a senior who planned to attend IUP, that month became the school’s sixth student to die through gun violence in the past two years. Rose, who was African American, was shot by a white East Pittsburgh police officer after he fled from a traffic stop. (A jury acquitted the former officer of criminal homicide in March.)

Rose’s shooting touched off protests across Pittsburgh. It also caused people—including Woods’s mother—to question his desire to work at Woodland Hills.

“I think [the Rose shooting] energized me even more to want to come here—to be a part of making a difference,” Woods said. “You are talking about teenage students, and they have a right to an education, to fulfill their dreams, just like we did. To me, it was a natural fit. I never gave it a second thought.”

Woods began his tenure as principal of Woodland Hills in July. He said his determination to confront problems and to find resolutions stems from his upbringing in Aliquippa, which has long grappled with job loss and poverty.

He was raised by a single mother, and his family struggled financially. A big part of his youth was football, first at Aliquippa High School and then in the late 1990s at IUP, where he was an inside linebacker. He received his bachelor’s degree in education in 2000, earning academic honors and athletic recognition along the way.

Woods said his IUP coaches—Frank Cignetti ’60, M’65, Paul Tortorella, and Theo Turner ’95, M’98—were like family and encouraged the players to be good people and good students, in addition to excelling on the field.

Athletics was so central to Woods that he considered a career in coaching but eventually decided it would require too much time away from his family. Today he has four children at home, ranging in age from 12 to 18.

He also had found his niche in education. From his own past, he recognized the importance of teachers as mentors. He credits Bob Millward, Joe Marcoline ’70, D’90, and Roger Briscoe—the IUP professors who shepherded his dissertation process—for guiding his career.

Woods, second from right, after defending his doctoral dissertation in 2017. With him, from left, are his committee members, Joe Marcoline, Bob Millward, and Roger Briscoe.

Woods, second from right, after defending his doctoral dissertation in 2017. With him, from left, are his committee members, Joe Marcoline, Bob Millward, and Roger Briscoe. Photo Courtesy of Phillip Woods

“I’ve never felt more supported or more encouraged,” he said. “I don’t know if I could have done it without those guys.”

At IUP, Woods also helped Millward with an initiative to recruit more African American men into teaching. He remembers encouraging some of his high-performing West Mifflin students to attend information sessions about the profession.

“We asked those young men to think about their education and how they had different minority male role models and if, moving forward, they would be interested in being that same type of mentor to someone else,” he said.

Relatively few students consider teaching, he noted, and that concerns him. “We just wanted them to come down and give education a chance.”

When Woods arrived last summer at Woodland Hills, he was well aware of some of its problems.

The school’s nearly 1,400 students come from 12 different communities that have stark differences in household income and family life. Sometimes those differences played out in student behavior that teachers had to address, Woods said.

“I am just going to speak frankly,” he said. “There have been a few years of neglect for certain areas of the school. Basic things: getting to class on time, coming to class prepared, being respectful.”

In 2017, five former students, all African American, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the district had fostered a “culture of violence” in which officials were using excessive force on students, according to Pittsburgh media reports. Last October, the district settled the lawsuit with a $530,000 award to the plaintiffs.

“The reality is the man is a leader in the building. He is all present. It is very empowering to everybody.”

In the fall, Woodland Hills began three programs aimed at improving school culture and encouraging a better learning environment, Woods said.

The first focuses on restorative justice, a concept in which students, led by a teacher, meet in small groups within the classroom to discuss issues of concern to them.

In another program, the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Education helped train staff members on the concept of implicit bias based on race, gender, or other characteristics. The training helps them recognize what they think, why they think it, and how that could impact their relationship with students.

The school initiated the third, a diversion program, this school year with help from the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Under this program, less serious disciplinary infractions that the school had previously referred to the magistrate’s office can now be handled by school administrators themselves. The program holds students accountable for their infractions without sending them through the criminal justice system.

Woods thinks it is important for young people to know they can make a mistake, face the consequences, and move on.

“Even when you fail, it doesn’t mean it’s the end,” he said. Looking back on his youth, Woods said he made mistakes, but he learned from them. When students get into trouble, he tells parents to remember a bad situation they were in and what it took to get through. “I try to be a voice of reason; I try to be a support.”

Woods credits the three new programs for the school’s 70 percent drop in reported disciplinary infractions.

But Woodland Hills School District Superintendent James Harris cites another reason—Woods himself.

“He was 100 percent responsible for that change,” Harris said. “The reality is the man is a leader in the building. He is all present. It is very empowering to everybody.”

Looking to the next school year, Woods hopes to improve attendance rates and academic offerings at Woodland Hills. He also wants to help students who have fallen behind to get caught up well before their senior year.

“Whether these students go to college, into the military, or straight into the workforce, we want to make sure we’re giving them a well-rounded education and access to different avenues and careers, so they can make those decisions and be productive members of society,” he said.

“From my first couple weeks here, I’ve seen some students change dramatically as far as where they are now as students and as citizens in the community. It’s a very rewarding feeling when you help students realize their potential. That is the true reward of being an educator.”