It Takes Two
Jamal Elliott '96 and Kristi Littell '94 traveled in different circles when they attended Haverford College, but both fondly remember sledding on cafeteria trays in the winter. They later made sure to buy similar trays so their students at the Wissahickon Charter School in Philadelphia could do the same.
Elliott and Littell could make such an executive decision because they are the Co-CEOs of the school. Elliott was a sociology major and former Haverford basketball player who taught kindergarten as a Philadelphia charter school he helped open before working in admissions at Ursinus College. Littell was an anthropology major who became Haverford’s first Student Activities Director upon graduation. Although both pursued careers in education, they were not in touch after graduation and their paths each led to Wissahickon by sheer coincidence.
When asked to serve as Co-CEOs three years ago, Elliott was Wissahickon’s Dean of Students and Littell designed and ran the school’s Discovery Program, a weekly class with a nature-related interdisciplinary curriculum. “We didn’t know each other that well when the arrangement was proposed,” says Littell, who is also the Dean of Administration. “We took a leap of faith.”
Wissahickon Charter School, which has 400 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, is one of two charter schools in Philadelphia with an environmental focus. Its mission is to expose children to nature in the city, says Littell, noting, “Nature is everywhere.”
Haverford’s Quaker tradition of consensus and community is evident in their management style. “From a leadership perspective, Kristi and I really value the input of our staff," says Elliott, the recipient of Haverford's 2008 Lawrence Forman ’60 Award. “It’s part of the fabric of the way we do business.”
Their unique partnership also capitalizes on their individual strengths and shared values. Elliott, who also remains Dean of Students, says of Littell, “Kristi is much more patient and inviting than I am.” She says: “Jamal is totally unflappable.”
In the three years they have worked together, Elliott and Littell say they have come to completely trust each other’s judgment. It’s good to have a real peer to talk to and share experiences, Littell explains. Neither is territorial about their respective duties, they agreed.
They also help affirm for each other the importance of making time for family and personal life. And family is all around – Elliott’s three sons attend Wissahickon and Littell’s son will start kindergarten in the fall, with her 10-month-old daughter eventually following.
Littell points out their collaboration is a good model for students, who are asked to work with others on a daily basis.
“I know I wouldn’t want to do the job alone,” Elliott adds.