Paul Robeson HS principal says relationships key to impressive turnaround
Richard Gordon IV says initial sense of disconnectedness was coupled with a sense of purpose and urgency
Though Paul Robeson High School Principal Richard Gordon IV describes himself as a "reluctant leader" — at least during the early stages of his career — a walk through his school with him shows him to be anything but. The high-poverty school was slated for closure four years ago and has since seen an impressive turnaround under Gordon's leadership, with a 98% graduation rate and a college attendance rate over 50%.
And the students all seem more than happy to be there, bantering cheerfully with Gordon as he walks the halls.
During our visit, we sat down with Gordon to discuss his journey to leading a turnaround success story, what administrators can do to mitigate the impacts of student poverty, and the importance of building relationships with students and teachers alike.
EDUCATION DIVE: When you came to Paul Robeson, how confident were you that you could turn the school around? What was the situation like?
RICHARD GORDON: I was an assistant principal at George Washington High School in the northeast, under my mentor. And so, my mentor taught me a lot of things. We had 2,500 kids, and I was in charge of discipline for the whole school, so I had to know everybody's name. The superintendent at the time was Arlene Ackerman, who is pretty famous nationwide for multiple reasons. She visited the school, and from what she told my mentor, which my mentor told me at the time, she was very impressed with how large the school was and how it flowed. How there were no issues, no problems, no kids in the hallways. Kids went to class. It was just a nice environment.
After her visit, I got this cryptic phone call about a month later from the superintendent's office, basically saying, "You have a meeting with the superintendent who is in charge of high schools." And so she asked me to come in. I asked my mentor, my principal. I said, "Do you know anything? What's going on with this? Did they call you first before they called me?" She was like, "I have no idea what you're talking about." I was like, "OK, this is weirding me out."
I go to the meeting. We sit down, and we start talking. She says, "Listen, we want to offer you a school." I was like, "But, I didn't apply for one." [Laughs] "No, we're going to offer you a school. You have a good reputation, and we saw you work at Washington. We feel like you would be a good fit for one of the schools we have a need to fill."
I said, "Okay. Well, what school are you talking about?" They offered me one large high school. I turned them down initially, after thinking about it for a couple of days. But I turned them down mostly because my son was scheduled to be born at the beginning of the next school year. It just would have been difficult being in charge of a brand new, large high school, and then my son being born around the same time when I started that.
From there, I thought that was the end of it. Like, “Thank you, but no thank you. I'm going to stay as a vice principal, because I have family considerations.” Not even two weeks later, they called me again. [Laughs] And they were like, "We want to offer you a second school." I said, "What are you talking about?"
They wanted to offer me Vaux High School, so instead of having 1,500 kids, which I would have had initially, I had about 300 students. That was actually more reasonable. Although, with a principalship, it doesn't matter if it's 300 or 3,000. It's just a very challenging position that I quickly learned.
I did that for two years. That was my first principalship. Although we were making some strides, unfortunately the school district still made the decision to close it. So, I wound up leaving there and just waited until the school district made their assignments. And then, the next thing you know, Dr. Hite's office, who is our superintendent right now, contacted me and said, "We would like to assign you to Robeson High School."
Obviously, I knew the history, because you pay attention when you have 23 schools closing. It was supposed to be 25, and the two schools that were allowed to remain open, you kind of remember the names of those two schools.
They asked me to come over here, and what I walked into really was, honestly, a diamond in the rough. I met the students, and I met the staff, and what I found was it was just a lot of disconnectedness more than anything else. There were some questions about empowerment, student voice, staff voice.
I initially spent the first few months of the summer really meeting with groups of students and meeting with staff members one-on-one. I had access to Vaux, so I invited the staff here to be the first ones to come and actually take advantage of the supplies that had to be moved out of the building anyway. I said, "Listen, come into the building and have at it." That alone was an amazing thing because they got a bunch of free supplies, free science equipment, and all types of things. And it allowed me the opportunity to kind of sit down and talk with staff members one-on-one.
I walked into a lot of really disconnectedness, but also a sense of purpose and a sense of urgency. The question, to me, is "Why are we here?" Because when I initially was asked to take on a school, I initially said to Dr. Ackerman, really to her face, "Listen, I'm not coming to manage the school. I can't do that." I mean, that's just a paycheck. I really want to come and actually try and see what I can actually do to try and impact the lives of our students that are happening here. Because, at the end of the day, our students who we serve here in Philadelphia are, really — they're me.
They're exactly the kind of students who are growing up, in a lot of instances, the way that I did: having fathers and uncles that were not always on the right side of the law, having a mother who struggled with a blue-collar job as a hair-dresser, who didn't make a whole lot of money, who still had to make ends meet and raising three boys. Dealing with the circumstances of the dangers out there in the streets, in Philadelphia and also in Camden, NJ, as well. And being a minority, there's a higher propensity for those dangers to really affect you personally. I look at these students every day as me. And so, I made sure that was always my first thought in taking this job. And it's always been my continuing thought as I continue to push through.
Everybody understood and appreciated that. And they've given me a lot of leeway to really kind of make things happen. I never walk into a situation certain that I'm going to be able to turn things around. Vaux was a learning experience. I feel like I didn't have enough requisite experience to really make the impact that I really would have liked. But, I certainly learned from that experience and I carried that experience over to Robeson. And that learning experience has now really benefited the students here at Robeson High School.
What has been the most daunting challenge that you've faced since taking over Robeson?
GORDON: Probably the biggest challenge, honestly, is I try my best to instill a power of belief with our students. I want you to believe that you have greatness within you. I want you to believe that you are equal to everyone in the city. And I think our most daunting challenge was really, every day, challenging our students to believe that, and challenging our students that, if you do believe that, then you also believe that the hardest thing that you're ever going to do in life is the right thing.
We talk about how two wrongs don't make a right. We talk about how it's very important for you when something challenging happens to you that you take the high road. That's very hard for students who grow up in urban settings. We have environments that truly believe in eye for an eye, so getting students to buy into that power of belief, with respect to how they treat one another, with respect to their academic abilities — because they are so diverse — and understanding that it doesn't matter if you're the best of the best in the building or that you're struggling, that you can all do one thing, which is get better every day and show improvement. That's where your excellence really lies.
That's probably been the biggest challenge. But, I've been amazed at how much these students have really stepped up and really accepted that challenge and that belief as part of our core values in the building. I got here and you're talking about test scores that were 30th percentile in reading. Math, kind of, is hard across the city. Biology was in the single digits.
Now we've grown. Our biology is now in the 30th percentile, when it started in single digits when I got here. We were in the 30th percentiles in literature. We're now in the 50th percentiles. So, we clearly show that over half of our students not only are proficient, but look at the growth in terms of how much we've reduced the bottom segment of our student population. That's huge for our kids to be able to know that. "I did this. I grew over the years. I'm getting better every day."
And the number of kids who have successfully transitioned from here and have gone onto college when they thought that they really couldn't. I'll never forget a young lady who now goes to my alma mater. She literally, when I got here — I got here for her 11th grade year and her 12th grade year, and she truly bought into what we were trying to do. She's worked hard to make changes in her life. When she got to her senior year, she cried because she absolutely thought that her first two years were going to bottom her out with colleges. But we kept telling her, "Believe. Believe. Believe." And then she wound up turning around and getting into seven colleges, and she just cried because she couldn't believe that she could actually do that. And that's when I knew that everything that we were trying to push with our students was starting to take effect and having an impact on them.
I had read that your graduation rate is like 98.5% now.
GORDON: That's correct. Yes.
So, I read recently that the overall graduation rate for the nation can only rise so far without solving poverty. But poverty is a bigger issue, obviously, than school and district administrators can solve on their own. What are some of the steps administrators can take to address that in their student populations to the best of their ability?
GORDON: Our last graduation rate was recorded at 98.5%. We're projected to have about 97-98%. And so the state is still working those numbers out for us. In my first few years here, it was 95-96%, so I was very fortunate about that. I'll say, for me, what's worked tremendously has been establishing partnerships with universities [and] with community-based organizations. We have a community-based organization that does therapy for our students. We have a community-based organization that does college awareness activities for our students and does a lot of job-related activities with kids — how to find a job, how to do a resume, things of that nature. But also, taking all that and really steeping our practice in the use of data, because we have to be able to know every single individual student, where they are, where their weaknesses lie, where their struggles are, where their strengths are, and then figure out how to come up with an individual plan to advance them.
And that's the beauty and the benefit of being at a small school, because we get to talk about that every single day in this building. Kids are amazed when you know their grades, their test status, their attendance rate. "Hey, you were absent yesterday." And they're like, "How did you know?" I said, "We look at this every day."
That's how you kind of mirror the subjective with the objective. The subjective is what I think is going on with that individual based on our conversations, those anecdotals that you take a look at. The objective really is that data. "OK. This is where we are, and this is where the student needs to be. How can we make that happen?" And then taking both and really developing individual interventions around students to support them.
You level the playing field for a lot of the kids. For us, in a lot of instances, although poverty is always going to be a factor, we try to make it as less of a factor. When you walk in the door, you will be cared for. You will come to my office. You will get snacks so you're not hungry. OK? You can stay after school, you'll get individual one-on-one support. If you just want to talk, I have an open-door policy. You can come in and sit and have a conversation about whatever's on your mind. If it's a more serious situation, you can go up the street, or you can literally come to school at 8:00, have an appointment at 9:00, go up the street, get therapy, come back, and resume your day.
Really, we just try to remove a lot of obstacles that poverty, unfortunately, creates for a lot of our students. The question is, how can we mitigate that as much as we possibly can? And that's what's been helping with keeping our kids on track, keeping them motivated to be on track, and to try their very best. And at the same time, not let poverty be the huge obstacle that prevents these kids from being successful.
And that actually ties to another question I was going to ask: How important is it for every student to feel like they have a connection with at least one educator in the building beyond just name recognition?
GORDON: I know it's important for all of our students, but it's extremely important to me. And I make sure that it's a core value for our staff members. I grew up with very old-school parents. It was truly “Do as I say, not as I do.” That was definitely my father. My mother, it was strictly, “Do as I say.” [Laughs] We don't live in those times anymore.
Our reality is that we have to have a relationship with our students so that they can allow us to teach them. That doesn't mean that we're giving in to them, it doesn't mean that we're showing any kind of weakness. It's showing that we actually care about you, what's going on with you, about your future, [and] about what you're interested in, while at the same time holding you accountable to the obligations you have in this building.
Relationships are just essential. I like to think that I have such a great relationship with my students that it's very rare that I can ask a student for something, or to do something, and they tell me no. They just don't. It just doesn't really happen that way. And it's because of established relationships.
That has translated to success in the classrooms because now teachers get it, you know? It's not about whether or not we like each other, it is about whether or not we have a relationship and how we work in that relationship with one another. And guess what? Our students have a say in that. That's where student voice really comes into.
And earlier you had mentioned teacher empowerment, as well. How important is it for teachers to feel like there's the ability to influence decisions from the bottom up, and maybe experiment with new methods in the classroom and things like that?
GORDON: I find that they value that highly. But again, I go back to what I said before, which is I value that myself. Because as an administrator, one thing I've learned is that, if I tell you to do it and supervise you, you're doing it because I told you to, not necessarily because you believe in what I'm asking you to do. Does that makes sense?
GORDON: If we can establish, together as a team, that at the end of the day, regardless of what we believe, do we agree that this is the goal? Have we established the goal for the building that we need to accomplish? We come to that consensus, [and] now that we've established that goal, the question comes down to "How do we get there?" I may lay out some general parameters on things that I see as great practices in order to accomplish that goal. But you as the individual teacher have the authority and the ability to collaborate with one another and develop the path on how we get there.
So now you've just created something very organic, very genuine, very personal for the teacher. And they truly believe in what it is you're trying to accomplish. And that's where the empowerment comes in. And that is so important, because I think all too often, school districts and school administrators dictate to teachers rather than setting the table for them and then allowing them to organize the meal. If we do more of that, then they will feel more empowered and feel more involved to carry out the mission at hand. That has really contributed greatly to our success.
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