Women Shaping History:
Jill Levy, CSA President:
From Behind the Scenes to Center Stage
When Jill Levy was in high school, her drama teacher taught her that she didn’t want to be on stage. “My best work was behind the scenes,” recalls Levy. But since 2001, Levy has returned to center stage as President of the New York City Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA), a 5700 member affiliate of the AFL-CIO, where she’ll be the first to tell you that public schools are more than just teachers in the classroom. “They are communities of people linked by strong principals and assistant principals and supported by administrators and supervisors,” explains Levy.
Levy’s road to union leadership was far from direct. As a student at the Bronx High School of Science in the early fifties, she mingled with bright, articulate students. “We learned the art of questioning; debate was encouraged,” recalls Levy. Although she was a precocious and verbal child, her parents thought that girls didn’t go to college. “They thought that you took a job as a secretary or nurse or in a bank…the options were very limited.” Yet ultimately she did matriculate and quickly entered the teaching profession, where, prior to the UFT getting the official nod as the representative union for teachers, she agreed to help disseminate pro-union literature in her building. Later on, she became a special education supervisor and then a mentor, helping to design the supervisory support program that provides mentoring to supervisors who feel they need help. Levy attributes her visceral need to champion the rights of others to her years of work in the special education arena. “Seeing children who were not accepted into public schools,” says Levy, “who were rejected and had to be separated from their parents and their community, gave me the challenge to do more for these people. I decided that I was not going to quit until every child had access to a quality public education.”
While Levy learned to fight her professional crusades with courage and compassion, spurred on by her first special education supervisor, Dennis White, who “taught me to have heart and faith and how to laugh”, she was facing her own personal battle with cancer. “At that time [in the late eighties] we didn’t have the chemotherapy that we have today, or the drugs that would help you get through chemo.” But true to form, Levy turned her private struggle into a campaign to help all breast cancer survivors, founding a Florida-based not-for-profit organization called the Women’s Health Education Network in 1989 whose mission was to inform women about self-examinations and stress-related issues. (She has since disbanded that organization when “other organizations took up the cudgel and breast cancer became something that people spoke openly about.”) “When something happens that’s not good,” reflects Levy, “I think about how to turn it around and make it into something meaningful, not just for yourself but for other people.”
While Levy is quick to admit that, personally and professionally, life is easier in 2006 for a woman, she believes that the glass ceiling still impedes upward mobility for females. Even in a female-dominated field like education, “the fact that we don’t have a female chancellor and we’ve never had a female chancellor is still an issue,” she notes.
One of Levy’s primary issues as CSA President is to get out the message that “the principals are not the CEO’s of the schools. They are the instructional leaders of the schools and they have to be freed up to do that and not be saddled with chores that take them away from their primary tasks.” And if there was ever a doubt that Jill Levy would not get what she wanted, she offers the following advice to young people starting out in their careers: “Follow your dreams. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t achieve what you want.”#