This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Dale Mezzacappa and Charlotte Pope
The seven principals honored Tuesday night with the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation’s Distinguished Principal Award had strikingly similar explanations for their success — and it had nothing to do with achieving high test scores, implementing the Common Core standards, or no-nonsense discipline.
In accepting their honors, most of them talked about love. Some described themselves as missionaries.
“Every day I pray and ask God to send angels to surround the building,” said Kensington CAPA principal Debora Carrera. “We are saving lives. … [Students] need to know there are adults in their lives who love them and accept them for who they are.”
Carrera was honored along with Stephen Brandt of Roxborough High, Johnny C. Whaley of CAPA, Rosalind Chivis of High School of the Future, Gina Hubbard of Greenberg Elementary, Lisa Ciaranca-Kaplan of Andrew Jackson Elementary, and Victoria Johnson-Pressley of McCloskey Elementary.
Mayor Nutter told the gathering, which included the honorees’ families, friends, students and colleagues, that being a public school principal is probably the most difficult job in the city.
“I’m the mayor of the fifth-largest city in the United States, but I’m not sure I could run a school,” Nutter said.
He said that after he spends an hour or two in a school, "I get to go back to a much easier job at City Hall," while the principal is left with dealing with the needs of "500, 800, 1,200 students, each with different challenges: Maybe they didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or a meal, or couldn’t shower that morning, or saw something the day before, and then they come to you, and with not the right amount of resources we expect you to work miracles with young people that maybe didn’t have all the things they need to be prepared for schoolwork that day. How you do it, I don’t know. But I know that you do it."
Chivis, who has also held several Central Office jobs in her long District career, agreed with Nutter — to a point.
“I’ve always said that high school principal is the hardest job in the District,” she said, “but it is also the most rewarding. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Chivis, who plans to retire, credited her teachers, who stay in school so long that the “custodians have asked me to remind them that they shouldn’t come before 7 a.m. and must leave by 8 p.m. … I tell my staff, the kids don’t care how much you make, they want to know how much you care.”
Ciaranca-Kaplan acknowledged that “this work is not for the weak of heart.” She said being a good principal takes diplomacy and humor, in addition to a solid, stable team.
A student rock band that she started at Jackson, she announced to the crowd, has been invited to perform in Washington, D.C., for the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers. “And it didn’t even exist two years ago."
“This work is not to be sacrificed for any type of political or personal gain,” she said. “I’m talking about kids, and what we do in these schools will make or break the city.”
Pressley’s school, McCloskey, was originally slated to close, but was spared the axe after community testimonials about its progress under Pressley’s leadership.
“I have spent my entire life in Philadelphia, my entire career in Philadelphia,” said Pressley. “I can remember my 3rd-grade teacher Mrs. Strickland, my 6th-grade teacher Mrs. Pace. I tell my teachers, they [students] will remember you…."
Whaley, who also plans to retire after 20 years at CAPA, said he was disappointed that TV media weren’t present to transmit some good news about dedicated, successful educators.
“We work hard. Too often it’s a job that has endless days and endless nights,’ Whaley said. “When I arrived at CAPA in 1993, I didn’t know what to expect. Then I was greeted by students passionate about what they do. … I knew I had arrived in the right place.”
Brandt, who attended Roxborough High as a student, limited his remarks to thanking his mentors, colleagues and family. But in an interview, he described what it means to be a good principal.
“You need to build strong relationships between faculty and students, faculty and the parents, and amongst those groups,” said Brandt. “We all need to have a clear vision. We all have to know what we’re working for, and what we’re working towards, and how we’re going to attain it.”
Brandt arrived at Roxborough in 2010, and immediately began working to establish a new culture based on college readiness. His accomplishments include drops in the rates of infractions and serious incidents, along with academic gains and 100 percent of the current graduating class being accepted to college.
The Lindback Award comes with a $15,000 stipend, which Brandt hopes to put to use in updating classroom technology, and building a weight room that can serve as a safe communal area for kids to congregate after school, while promoting physical fitness and healthy living habits.
“The award itself is an honor, and it has certainly been an effort of the entire school community,” said Brandt. “There are so many unsung heroes across this city that do this work day in and day out that at some point should be able to be recognized as well.”
Charlotte Pope is an intern at the Notebook.