Richard Gordon IV

Richard Gordon IV ’07G has won multiple state and national awards as principal of Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in Philadelphia.

Preparing Effective School Leaders in a Diverse Society

Lehigh’s College of Education focuses on innovative teaching, experiential learning and interdisciplinarity. Its graduates have won accolades for their school leadership.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Richard Gordon IV grew up in poverty in Camden, New Jersey. The male figures in his family were “sometimes on the wrong side of the law,” involved in drugs or other criminal activity, he says. His parents divorced when he was 8 years old, and he was shipped from home to home. In high school, he spent several hours each day traveling beyond his neighborhood to a safer, better school.

Today, Gordon ’07G leads Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in Philadelphia, where his work as principal earned him recognition as the 2021 National Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. That followed his selection as 2020 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year.

Gordon is among a growing list of award-winning leaders to emerge from Lehigh’s Educational Leadership Program. And as a Black man, his role in a leadership position is important, educators say, especially in schools where the student population does not always reflect the makeup of teachers, staff and administrators.

“When you have more teachers of color, you do have a greater chance of some shared experiences, historical experiences, current experiences, so teachers can make meaningful connections,” says Floyd Beachum, professor of educational leadership at Lehigh and co-author of School Leadership in a Diverse Society: Helping Schools Prepare all Students for Success. “That's a huge benefit.”

Richard Gordon and students

Principal Richard Gordon IV with students at Paul Robeson High School in Philadelphia.

Many of Gordon’s students are growing up in circumstances that mirror his past.

“When I walk through the halls here at Robeson High School, and I see my students, I see me,” Gordon says.

He credits Lehigh’s educational leadership program for many of the successes he has had in leading a high school that has become a model for the City of Philadelphia, but he says it’s also his early experiences that have aided him in his career.

“I see myself having grown up with the same challenges and the same obstacles that a lot of our students experience every day,” Gordon says. “And I'm hoping that my personal story, my personal experiences, provides the opportunity to teach students how to overcome, how to adapt, how to adjust so that you can be the best version of yourself.”

When I walk through the halls here at Robeson High School, and I see my students, I see me.

Richard Gordon IV

He says he understands he’s likely the first male educator many students entering his high school have seen, and he’s proud to be a role model. 

“I've had my brushes with the criminal justice system, like some kids have, and unfortunately, sometimes it can be unforgiving for a lot of our students,” Gordon says. “I share all these experiences with my students, let them know, ‘I'm just like [them].’ 

“But at the same time, the way that society is currently set up and the way that we've grown up, we have to also understand it and embrace the idea and accept the fact that we can't allow excuses to get in the way of being successful. And so I think that being a Black male educator holds a special place with my students, with my families, and knowing that, they see something that they don't get a chance to see every single day.”

Harrison Bailey III

Harrison Bailey III ’99G, principal at Bethlehem's Liberty High School, says he learned about patience and empathy while pursuing his master’s of education in special education at Lehigh(Erin Schaff/The New York Times​)

Connecting With Communities of Color

Harrison Bailey III ’99G, principal at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, also works to connect with students. Its student population is diverse: 43.5% are Hispanic and 11.5% are Black. His work helped him earn Pennsylvania’s 2021 Secondary Principal of the Year award.

Bailey, who received his master’s of education in special education in 1999 and his principal certification in 2000 from Lehigh, says he’s most proud of two things in his work at Liberty: understanding the challenges his students face inside and outside the school building, specifically the trauma they deal with on a daily basis, and then from that work, creating a Wellness Center in the school.

As a school and staff, Bailey says, Liberty decided that it needed to figure out the trauma their students were facing, whether it be at home, in the community or at school. “We knew that trauma was getting in the way of a lot of our students being successful,” Bailey says. “As a result, we knew that we needed to know more about it, we needed to understand how toxic stress affects the brains and bodies of students and adults for that matter.”

Harrison Bailey ’99G, was chosen as the 2021 Pennsylvania Secondary Principal of the Year by The Pennsylvania Principals Association.

To help remedy the issue, a committee that included administrators, teachers and secretaries was formed. Bailey says they made decisions about how to go about the process of learning about the trauma and toxic stress. It helped the staff understand what the students were dealing with and how to be more empathetic toward the challenges they face.

We knew that trauma was getting in the way of a lot of our students being successful. As a result, we knew that we needed to know more about it, we needed to understand how toxic stress affects the brains and bodies of students and adults for that matter.

Harrison Bailey III

Bailey says one of the more interesting developments was that most schools across the district have progressed in being more trauma informed by following the lead of Liberty and Broughal Middle School. Out of the trauma work, the Wellness Center, a space off Liberty’s library made up of numerous offices and “a peace room,” was born. The offices are for four social workers, who work as therapists with Liberty’s students and their families, and there is space for yoga, meditation and occupational therapy.

“This really is a space that is dedicated to our students and helping them navigate so many of the challenges that have gotten in the way of them succeeding.”

Under Gordon at Robeson High School, the Safe Corridors Program was started, focusing on ensuring the safety of students arriving and leaving the 42nd Street school since 80% of them travel through the city during their commute. The school connected with the Philadelphia Police Department, University of Pennsylvania Police Department, SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) Transit Police, local businesses and local residents to coordinate patrols and conduct school arrival and dismissals.

Paul Robeson High School

Principal Richard Gordon IV ’07G greets students outside of Paul Robeson High School in Philadelphia.

Gordon also implemented the Robeson motto of “Build Your Own Brand," describing how students identify their post-secondary dreams and how Robeson develops their individualized college and career pathways to get all students there. 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.

His work at Robeson High School led to truancy rates decreasing by 22%, graduation rates averaging 95% and school suspension rates falling below 5%. He also received the National Association of Black School Educators National Principal of the Year award in 2019 and was named Education Dive Magazine National School Administrator of the Year in 2017.

For the 2021-22 school year, Gordon has also been appointed to the Pennsylvania Principals Association’s Board of Directors as the Diversity At-Large Representative. As part of his selection, he’ll be addressing supports needed by principals across the state regarding diversity, equity and inclusion issues and concerns.

Diversity in the Classroom

Floyd Beachum

Floyd Beachum, professor of educational leadership at Lehigh.

Beachum says the key to successful leadership is not the color of educators’ skin, but their ability to connect with communities of color, as Gordon, Bailey and others are doing. However, more representation that matches, or at least more closely resembles, the student body is needed, he says.

“The representation has been skewed in the past and we should know better,” Beachum says. “What we want is a true diverse representation in the teaching ranks and in the leadership ranks. And if you're looking at the data, and the data is skewed, you know what you need to do. The question becomes, do we have a real sort of moral and political will to make those changes and do the right thing?”

Beachum explained that for white students, seeing white educators and administrators makes that the standard practice. “Innately, [white students] may have the belief that ‘Yeah, I can pretty much do what I want to do. I can be a teacher, I can be an administrator. It's in the realm of possibility because I see it every day.’” But he asks, for students of color, do they feel the same? Can they feel the same way if they’re not seeing staff, teachers and administrators who look like them and possibly become role models?

The representation has been skewed in the past and we should know better.

Floyd Beachum

Curtis Buie, who is pursuing his master’s in educational leadership at Lehigh, experienced the impact a Black teacher can have on students of color and their parents. His first teaching experience came in a Title One community school in the Allentown School District in Pennsylvania.

“Most of the students are living in low-income households and neighborhoods that were plagued with violence and other traumatic experiences that these students brought to school with them each day,” Buie, a fifth grade teacher at Paxinosa Elementary School in the Easton Area School District in Pennsylvania, says. “And many of them, unfortunately, knew a relative who was in prison or who had trouble with the law.”

At the time, he says, the district’s teachers were 92% white and at his first open house, the parents were surprised to see a Black male teaching their children. Parents told him their child never before had a male teacher or Black teacher. Buie says he used that as a way to make a connection with the students.

Curtis Buie

Curtis Buie, a fifth grade teacher at Paxinosa Elementary School in the Easton Area School District in Pennsylvania and a student pursuing his master's degree in educational leadership at Lehigh. (Contributed Photo)

“Something has to be said about a child in a challenging situation in a marginalized community, seeing someone like them come out of that and be in a position of authority, maybe a teacher or something else that they can look up to,” Buie says. “So that connection helped me establish a relationship with the parents and the students that was based on trust, and that trust opened the door to other learning opportunities and learning outcomes that may not have happened without that one experience.”

A guest speaker at the virtual discussion on “Black Excellence: Teaching the Next Generation,’ which was hosted by Lehigh’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee as part of the MLK Day of Celebration, Buie noted how little diversity remains among teachers.

Buie says, citing a 2017 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, American University and the University of California Davis, that Black males comprise just 2% of the teaching population, while that same demographic makes up 34% of the prison population.

“This is what our children see,” Buie says. “Right now what's happening is there's a growing disparity between the diversity of the student population, which is growing increasingly diverse, and the diversity of the teaching population, which really is not that diverse and has been overwhelmingly white. And this matters because what we're seeing in this mismatch is a trend where students of color, especially those in marginalized communities, are falling behind academically and in their social and emotional development.”

Buie stressed how important having a role model in the classroom is, especially for Black, male students. Dropout rates for those students decline by 39%, says Buie, according to the 2017 study, if they have at least one Black teacher in elementary school. And marginalized students of both genders, who have a Black teacher early on in school, see their college aspirations rise by 19%, he says, compared with those who don’t have a Black teacher.

Something has to be said about a child in a challenging situation in a marginalized community, seeing someone like them come out of that and be in a position of authority, maybe a teacher or something else that they can look up to.

Curtis Buie

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for white leaders in diverse classrooms, Beachum says. For them to be successful, he says, they first need to acknowledge diversity exists.

“If I look different, I get treated differently, which flies in the face of the philosophy of 'Oh, we're all the same,'” Beachum says. “Yeah, we may all be human but guess what? We don't treat everybody the same. We treat people differently according to their histories, their language, their appearance and a whole host of things. So one of the first lessons for leaders is the recognition of the differences.”

Beachum says the other message white leaders need to remember is “differences are not deficits.” The issue isn’t that people have differences, but leaders need to ask themselves how they can respect those differences, including languages, religions and cultural experiences.

“What ends up happening is if the differences become deficits, then those things that make you, you, are problematic,” Beachum says. “And we see in the literature where it talks about this problem, because now if you have a problem, leaders try to fix the problem. How do you fix the problem of diverse kids? … Kids are denigrated because of where they come from, what they say, what they do, how they act. It happens all the time.”

What Beachum says school leaders would benefit from is culturally relevant leadership where they have critical consciousness, pluralistic insights and reflexive practice. Essentially, how does one gain new knowledge, how does their attitude change based on that knowledge and then how is it reflected in everyday practice in a way that benefits all students?

“If I can change my individual behavior, then I have a greater chance of changing group behavior because now I'm a living model of this,” Beachum says. “Once I know how to do it. I've done it in my classroom, I've done in my building. I can show others how to do it.”

Bridget O'Connell

Bridget O’Connell ’95, ’97G, ’07 Ph.D., superintendent of the Palisades School District in Bucks County, was named Pennsylvania’s Superintendent of the Year in 2022. (Contributed Photo)

The Lehigh Factor

In addition to Gordon and Bailey, other COE graduates have received accolades for their leadership. Joseph Roy ’09G, Bethlehem Area School District’s superintendent, leads one of the most diverse districts in Pennsylvania and was named Pennsylvania’s Superintendent of the Year in 2017. Another Lehigh College of Education graduate, Bridget O’Connell ’95, ’97G, ’07 Ph.D., who is currently superintendent of the Palisades School District in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, received the same honor in 2022.

Joseph Roy

Joseph Roy ’09G, superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District, was named Pennsylvania’s Superintendent of the Year in 2017. (Contributed Photo)

College of Education Dean William Gaudelli says there are a number of reasons why Lehigh’s program has produced so many successful educational leaders.

Urban Principals Academy (U*PAL) and its Founding Director Jon Drescher, professor of practice in the educational leadership program, has helped to better prepare leaders by focusing on how school leaders can be effective in an urban context and all its challenges.

“Bringing that to the curriculum makes a big difference in terms of how people think about the work and don't see diversity, equity, inclusion as something that another person in the school is responsible for—that it's the work of the principal, the work of the district leader to do it,” Gaudelli says.

The program’s curriculum features vital lessons on innovative and effective leadership through experiential learning and creative classes. In addition to U*PAL, Gaudelli says Lehigh’s historical focus in its educational leadership program has been on urban education and educational leadership for urban education.

William Gaudelli

William Gaudelli, dean of Lehigh's College of Education.

While the logistics of running a school, such as the management of budgets and faculty, was an emphasis, more focus has been put on what it means to serve BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students in urban situations where students often face significant trauma.

The work that the counseling psychology faculty, such as Christopher Liang, associate professor of counseling psychology, are doing on trauma-informed pedagogy, Gaudelli says, is something else that sets Lehigh apart and adds to the ability of educators to lead. In fact, Gaudelli says Bailey collaborated with Liang on much of his trauma-informed work at Liberty.

“I think it's that interdisciplinarity, coupled with front lining these issues, that makes us distinct,” he says.

Lehigh’s Centennial School, which educates students ages 6 to 21 with challenging behaviors while also preparing special education teachers, is a place for visitation and study. The faculty members in the program, he says, and the work they’re doing, make a difference too.

What makes us distinct as an institution … is having a lot of people interested across the faculty in what the most vulnerable kids in our schools face, and studying how to best address their needs. That’s not the case in many colleges of education.

William Gaudelli

In addition to Beachum and Drescher, other faculty working on diversity-related issues include Kaitlin Anderson, an assistant professor of educational leadership, and Brian Osborne, professor of practice in Lehigh’s Educational Leadership Program.

Anderson’s focus is on the disproportionate impact of school-level policies and district-wide policies on children of color, while Osborne was a sitting superintendent in two very diverse school districts—New Rochelle in New York and South Orange Maplewood in New Jersey—and brought those experiences to the classroom.

“What makes us distinct as an institution … is having a lot of people interested across the faculty in what the most vulnerable kids in our schools face, and studying how to best address their needs,” Gaudelli says. “That's not the case in many colleges of education.”

Gordon says Lehigh’s Educational Leadership Program helped him in several major ways: in teaching him to be empathetic, helping him to understand the challenges that happens with leadership, particularly in an urban environment, and teaching him about authenticity and the importance of bringing yourself to the table through coursework and working with professors.

He says he had not aspired to be a school administrator, fearing it was “a dead-end job” that he wouldn’t enjoy. But he credits the Lehigh program with changing his mind.

Richard Gordon IV '07G became principal of Robeson High School for Human Services in Philadelphia hoping to find solutions for a school on the verge of shutting down.

“Lehigh really teaches the idea around service—that we're here to serve children, in a sense, serve others,” Gordon says. “We're here to protect our communities and really, to be creative and innovative in advancing our communities as well. We want to be able to leave our communities better than the way we found them. Those are the conversations that we always had. And we always had resources and symposiums and workshops that we attended that always reinforced that, and so the message was always very clear that educational leadership is not about you, it is about others and how you empower them and how you show empathy.”

Part of Gordon’s “ah-ha” moment at Lehigh, as he describes it, came during his internship at Germantown High School in Philadelphia. His mentor, Kathy Murphy, who was the school’s principal at the time, told him she understood he was an intern but as far as she was concerned, he was an assistant principal and handed him a walkie-talkie and a set of keys for a “trial by fire” experience.

I think my training at Lehigh, in that particular program, really helped me understand people, and particularly people in crisis.

Harrison Bailey III

“It took me about a few weeks to find my footing, but it was probably one of the best learning experiences I had,” Gordon says.

Bailey says he learned about patience and empathy while pursuing his master’s of education in special education. He also learned about how to assess students in crisis and approach them without escalating the situation.

“I think that's something as a leader that you have to do, not just with students, but with your staff and with community members, with parents,” Bailey says. “I think my training at Lehigh, in that particular program, really helped me understand people, and particularly people in crisis.”

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

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