In 2013, Richard Gordon IV '07G became principal of Robeson High School for Human Services in Philadelphia, hoping to find the source of the problems he believed plagued the school, which was on the verge of shutting down.
Now, Gordon, who received his M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lehigh, has been named the 2021 National Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). That follows Gordon’s selection as Pennsylvania Principal of the Year.
Gordon’s work at Robeson High School led to truancy rates decreasing by 22%, graduation rates averaging 95%, school suspension rates falling below 5%, and student safety inside and outside the building has become a model for the City of Philadelphia.
“I am humbled by this honor, and I recognize that my Lehigh education has undoubtedly prepared me for this amazing journey,” said Gordon, who thanked the Lehigh community for supporting him as a graduate student and alum. “For that, I am truly honored and appreciative.”
He added, “It is my hope to make the Lehigh community proud for its confidence and belief in both me and in the Paul Robeson High School community."
Floyd Beachum, program director for educational leadership at Lehigh, says the program was thrilled to hear that Gordon had received the top national honor.
“Richard accepted the difficult task of turning around a high school facing serious challenges, including closure,” Beachum said. “He found success by creating a family-like school culture, setting high expectations, personalizing learning, investing in students’ futures, connecting to the community and prioritizing school safety. Richard's approach is the essence of effective leadership and the key to student success.”
When Gordon took over the helm at Paul Robeson High School, he found that staff and stakeholders questioned students’ abilities. At the same time, students felt unsafe academically, emotionally and physically, according to the NAASP.
He implemented the Robeson motto of “Build Your Own Brand," describing how students identify their post-secondary dreams and how Robeson finds a pathway to get all students there. It’s how Robeson personalizes and individualizes school for all students and makes it a place they want to be. Embedded in Robeson's program are its four core principles that changed the atmosphere of the school: positive, nurturing, and healthy relationships; a growth mindset; college and career readiness; and belief.
Gordon also added more than 30 community partnerships, including a community Safe Corridors Program provided extra supervision for students traveling to and from school every day.
Gordon, who grew up in Camden, N.J., had a challenging past himself, and he understood what his students had to deal with every day.
He told the Philadelphia Citizen in an article in August 2020, “I am my students. I know exactly what they experience.” He said, “I understand what it means to come into a house full of cocaine and marijuana and strange people all over the house doing drugs. I know what it means to be a child of divorce and to come from a broken home. My father went to jail when I was in seventh grade, and then I didn’t see him again until 10th grade, and then after 10th grade I didn’t see him again until my junior year of college. I totally get the experience.” However, he also uses his life experiences to remind students that obstacles cannot be accepted as excuses for not meeting with success, a lesson he learned from his mother who raised three boys on her own on a hairdresser's salary.
Every year, each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Department of State Office of Overseas Schools, and the Department of Defense Education Activity select one middle level or high school principal to represent their state. His selection as the Pennsylvania Principal of the Year put him in the running for National Principal of the Year.
According to the NASSP website, “The NASSP National Principal of the Year program recognizes outstanding middle level and high school principals who have succeeded in providing high-quality learning opportunities for students as well as demonstrating exemplary contributions to the profession.”
Gordon is currently enrolled at Northcentral University working towards his doctorate of education degree (Ed.D.) and expects to graduate in 2022.
Gordon also has a mental health background, having worked as the weekend director at a mental health hospital program in Howard County (Maryland). As part of his program to fix Robeson, he implemented mental health counseling, career mentorships, and partnered with Philadelphia institutions of higher education.
Recently, one of Gordon’s 2019 graduates, Allen Wilson, who joined the Marines, stood guard over John Lewis’s body during funeral proceedings in Montgomery. Gordon told the Philadelphia Citizen, "That’s a Robeson kid. He graduated from a school that wasn’t supposed to exist and he’s in the throes of history right now.’ Gordon says, getting choked up, ‘I’m so proud of this kid." It is clear that Gordon is so proud of all of his students and their families, who he believes has earned and truly deserves this national attention.
Story by Ally Wolloch