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West Philadelphia principal gets ‘National Principal of the Year’ honor

Richard Gordon is the principal of Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in West Philadelphia.
Courtesy of the School District of Philadelphia

Richard Gordon, the principal of Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in West Philadelphia, was named Tuesday as the 2021 National Principal of the Year.

Tuesday’s announcement of the award from the National Association of Secondary School Principals was part of the 2020 celebration of National Principals Month. The announcement took place during a virtual meeting of Philadelphia principals. NASSP had previously cited Gordon as the best principal in Pennsylvania.

Last year, Gordon led Robeson off the state’s list of low-performing schools and onto the list of “high progress schools,” with a graduation rate of 95%. The school motto is “build your own brand.”

In accepting the award, he gave credit to his teachers, students, and families for creating a successful, caring community.

“One thing I’ve made clear to my leadership team is that this may be my name, but this is us, this is all of us,” he said at a press conference announcing the award.

Gordon took over Robeson when it was a small school of 250 students shedding enrollment and staff. In his wildest dreams back then, he said, he never imagined the depth of the school’s turnaround that has occurred. It is now on the state’s “high progress” list.

“I didn’t think this was remotely possible,” he said.

Gordon grew up in Camden, N.J., then and now one of the poorest cities in the country. His parents divorced when he was eight, he said, and his father was often incarcerated.

His mother was determined that he would have a better life and moved to a small apartment in East Oak Lane in Philadelphia. But she got up at 5 a.m. and drove him to high school back in Pennsauken, NJ, which is a suburb outside Camden.

“Yes, I broke the rules, I’m sorry, but she sacrificed so much for the sake of my education,” he said. “This motivated me to be the best educator and the best principal I could possibly be. And I always remind myself, ‘I am the students that I serve.’ Everything we do is so important because it is so impactful on the lives of students we deal with every single day.”

His mother cried, he said, when she heard he had won the award: “We both did.”

Gordon took over Robeson in early 2013, after the school district announced that it would be among more than 30 schools it intended to close in an effort to save money. During that period, the state had slashed aid to school districts; Philadelphia lost $250 million in one year.

He had previously been principal at Vaux High School, which was also on the closure list. “I totally understood the emotions behind the closure process and the job we had to do to move the school forward,” he said.

Robeson was spared following impassioned pleas from Gordon, the school’s teachers and families — and after the media noticed that the school had a graduation rate of 90% and that its displaced students would be sent to a nearby school where just over half the students graduated.

Gordon and Robeson received recognition as early as 2017 for dramatic improvements.

Still, the challenges have never gone away. In December, one of his students was shot and almost killed. The school rallied around him, and had to improvise remote learning while it worked to make sure he could keep up academically while in recovery.

When the pandemic hit, neither Gordon nor the school changed its focus, just its methods of maintaining contact with families and students.

Parents have always had his cell phone number, and during the pandemic he has been known to make socially-distanced home visits. “Our kids are struggling with lots of issues, and we’re trying to keep as much connection with students and families as possible,” he said. “Our families are struggling with so many concerns right now, school may be four, five or six on the list if we’re fortunate.”

He is worried about his students keeping up academically in addition to his concerns about staying in touch.

“My fear is making sure they don’t lose academically as far as their learning goes,” he said. “We often find that a large percentage of our students are below basic [in math and English language arts] when they get to us...so we’re always focusing on accelerating learning.”

At Robeson, he has established business, community, and dual-enrollment partnerships specific to student needs. In one case, a student dreamed of working on the NASCAR circuit, and Gordon helped the student get an internship with Girls Auto Clinic, a nationally renowned all-female Philadelphia mechanic shop. The student has since driven in a professional NASCAR-sponsored race.

Gordon also contacted two Black men arrested in a West Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a colleague in a widely publicized incident. After they received financial settlement from both Starbucks and the city, they established an Action Not Words Foundation. Gordon convinced them to dedicate $200,000 for seed money to launch Project Elevate — a program designed to teach financial literacy and other skills to break generational poverty — at Robeson.

In giving the award to Gordon, NASSP president Robert Motley said that school turnaround requires special leadership. “Any school turnaround is hard... but Mr. Gordon led Robeson High School’s turnaround under extraordinary political and social pressures, and at no point did he lose focus on the students,” Motley said.

Gordon holds a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University, and master’s degrees from both Coppin State University and Lehigh University.

Philadelphia superintendent William Hite praised Gordon’s commitment to students and families.

“From the moment he arrived at the district, principal Gordon’s enthusiasm for creating a positive learning and instructional environment has yielded wonderful results,” Hite said.

In a normal year, the announcement would have been made at a big in-person celebration. Yesterday, however, it was all virtual, and Gordon didn’t find out about it until the last minute. When the news got out, his colleagues were texting him: did you forget to tell us something?

“I only found out about it five minutes ago,” he told them.

As for a celebration, that is another thing that will have to adjust to the circumstances.

“We haven’t made plans yet how to celebrate,” he said. But since his school has now garnered national attention, “We want to celebrate as soon as possible.”

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