NASSP is excited to announce that Richard Gordon, principal of Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in Philadelphia, is the 2021 National Principal of the Year! The NASSP National Principal of the Year program recognizes outstanding middle level and high school principals who have made amazing contributions to their profession and to students’ learning, and we are honored to recognize Principal Gordon with this award.
Gordon took the lead of his school in 2013 when it was on the brink of shutting down completely. Determined to turn their situation around, he found the root of Robeson’s toxicity—staff and stakeholders were questioning the ability of their students, while students felt academically, emotionally, and physically unsafe. He faced this unsettling discord head-on by creating four core values: 1) positive, nurturing, healthy relationships; 2) growth mindset; 3) college and career readiness; and 4) belief. These rebuilt the foundation of Robeson’s daily practice, allowing both teachers and students to embody an all-inclusive family atmosphere.
Between the implementation of the core values—plus the Safe Corridors Program that provided extra supervision for students traveling to and from school and more than 30 community partnerships—Robeson’s stats changed from worrisome to remarkable. Truancy rates lowered to near 10 percent (-22.6 percent), graduation rates averaged 95 percent, and school suspension rates fell below 5 percent. Student safety and well-being is no longer in question, and one senior agrees: “Principal Gordon goes above and beyond the call of duty. We have the safest school in Philadelphia, and with the violence in our city, that is saying a lot. We have absolutely no bullying issues because he personally makes sure we always talk out our problems. He reminds us daily we are a family; fights or acts of violence are just so rare because we treat one another like we are one family.”
Gordon’s focus goes far beyond the student population—he values the adults in his learning community, too. His leadership style empowers teachers and staff to use their voice to strengthen the vitality of his city. He also mentors through the PhillyPlus Principal Residency Program, a two-year, practice-based principal certification program that prepares teachers and aspiring school leaders to transform schools into high-performing learning environments. His teachers are even selected frequently by State and District officials to provide professional development to teachers and administrators across the southeastern Pennsylvania region. “Immediately, I knew Principal Gordon was someone I wanted to work with,” says a teacher at Robeson High. “He is so committed to fostering a learning environment that is both student-centered and focused on teachers’ personal and professional well-being. He is always transparent, seeks input, ever-present and highly visible, and celebrates everyone’s successes.”
And while every principal faced the challenges of COVID-19 this year, Gordon’s flexible leadership prepared Robeson to weather the storm. A tragic incident that kept a student out of school prompted Gordon to establish a “Homebound Remote Learning” experience, including a laptop for online assignments, long before the pandemic. “We used what we learned from [student]’s situation as a springboard for our emerging 1:1 laptop program whereby every student was processed for a laptop, and when the need arose to go fully remote, Robeson was ahead of the curve,” says Gordon. “Our team was already prepared with pedagogical models, instructional technology, and 1:1 daily support helping all students transition in a matter of days.”
Throughout the adjustment to remote learning, Gordon kept his staff and learning community focused on quick transitions via Google Classroom, face-to-face connections and confidence using digital platforms, and meaningful assignments to drive student engagement. Plus, he made sure that Robeson is still providing online preventative therapy for students with mental health concerns.
At the heart of Gordon’s success is the school motto “Build Your Own Brand,” which is realized by his meeting with each of the school’s 315 students to build an educational pathway around their interests. To help students reach their goals, Gordon established countless business, community, and dual-enrollment partnerships specific to student needs. In one illustrative case of a student who dreamed of working on the NASCAR circuit, Gordon leveraged partnerships to secure the student an internship with the nationally renowned all-female Philadelphia mechanic shop Girls Auto Clinic. They plugged him into the NASCAR circuit in the Pocono Mountains, and he drove in his first professional NASCAR-sponsored race this past summer. This case is the norm, as all students are connected to mentors and a business coach to define actionable steps for achieving their desired outcomes.
Once again, NASSP is honored to recognize Principal Richard Gordon as the 2021 National Principal of the Year. Please join us in celebrating his achievement!