A Philadelphia principal who turned around a struggling high school that narrowly escaped closure—and grew it into one where 95 percent of students now graduate—is the 2021 National Association of Secondary School Principals National Principal of the Year.
Richard Gordon has led Paul Robeson High School for Human Services, a 315-student school housed in a former garage in West Philadelphia, since 2013.
Gordon has received state and national accolades in recent years for his work at Robeson High School. The education publication Education Dive named him administrator of the year in 2017, and this year he was selected as Pennsylvania’s principal of the year for the secondary level, which put him in contention for this current award.
“Any school turnaround is hard, and it takes a special leader to sustain it,” Robert Motley, the NASSP president, said in a press release announcing the award on Tuesday.
“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. Under Mr. Gordon’s leadership, Robeson High School models what personalization was always meant to be. Personalization begins not at the data or at test targets, but at the person—with all their interests, needs, traumas, and dreams. His leadership makes that happen.”
Gordon, who has served as assistant principal as well as central office administrator, took over Robeson High School just months after a group of students and teachers convinced the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, the appointed body that ran the district from 2001 to 2018, to keep the school open, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Under Gordon’s leadership, enrollment has increased, and college-going rates have also improved. Truancy and suspensions are down, and bullying has plummeted. (The NASSP said there have been no reports of bullying at the school in the last five years.)
A key part of Gordon’s leadership has been the many partnerships—and expanded opportunities—he’s created with businesses, nonprofits, mental health experts, law enforcement, and the education sectors in the city.
He’s also built deep relationships with students. In a 2017 story, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Gordon knows each student’s name and story and that all of the students have his cell phone number.
The school’s motto is “Build Your Own Brand.” And Gordon meets with each student to help them chart their own education path based on their interests, according to the NASSP. He taps into the network of partnerships he’s nurtured to help students on their educational and career journeys.
“From the moment he arrived at the district, Principal Gordon’s enthusiasm for creating a positive learning and instructional environment has yielded wonderful results,” Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said. “We are thrilled to see him receive this recognition and look forward to even greater success for his students and the entire school community.”
And, according to the NASSP, Gordon is always looking for avenues to help his students thrive.
In one example cited by the NASSP, Gordon was able to team up with two men who had received a settlement from Starbucks after being racially profiled and arrested at one of the company’s Philadelphia’s coffee shops to develop a pilot program at the school to help students learn to develop and hone business plans as well as to start their own business. The men received a $200,000 settlement and an apology from the company stemming from the 2018 incident.
Kerensa Wing, last year’s Principal of the Year, who was part of the selection committee, praised Gordon for seeing, “only opportunities,” not obstacles in his students.
“His passion for working with kids and helping them succeed is impressive,” Wing said.
The other finalists for the national award were Adam Clemons, the principal of Piedmont High School in Piedmont, Ala.; and Michelle Kefford, the former principal of Charles Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, Fla., who now leads Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Photo: Richard Gordon, principal of Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in Philadelphia, Pa. Photo courtesy the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.