Richard Gordon

Paul Robeson High School for Human Services
Philadelphia, PA

Grades: 9–12
Students: 315
Region: Urban

Richard Gordon became principal of Paul Robeson High School in 2013 when it was on the brink of shutting down. Determined to turn the school around, he found the root of Robeson’s toxicity—staff and stakeholders questioned 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, and 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, graduation rates averaged 95 percent, school suspension rates fell below 5 percent, and student safety and well-being were no longer in question.

Gordon’s focus goes beyond the student population—he also values the adults in his learning community. His leadership style empowers teachers and staff to use their voice to strengthen the vitality of his city. He 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 frequently selected by state and district officials to provide professional development to other teachers and administrators across the southeastern Pennsylvania region.

While every principal faced the challenges brought on by COVID-19 this year, Gordon’s out-of-the-box thinking, focus on equity, and flexible leadership prepared Robeson to weather the storm. 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. He made sure that Robeson is still providing online preventative therapy for students with mental health concerns.