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This star Philadelphia principal urges graduates to ‘rebuild the world’ in their vision

This story originally appeared on Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As an African American male — a demographic underrepresented among educators — Richard Gordon learned quickly how much of an impact he could have on students and their families when he became a teacher in Baltimore.

“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the evidence that the educational environment and experience you provide your students, or the love and care you showed them, made an impact on how they see themselves or how they see the importance of school,” Gordon told Chalkbeat.

Last year Gordon, who is now the principal of Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in West Philadelphia, was named the National Principal of the Year. He was recognized for helping Robeson get off the state’s list of low-performing schools and onto the list of “high progress schools,” with a graduation rate of 95%.

But it was COVID that presented the greatest hurdle of his career. In addition to leading a school through more than a year of remote learning and difficult personal circumstances stemming from the pandemic, he also helped them navigate traumatic grief. One of his students, David Williams, was gunned down in Southwest Philadelphia in May of last year and was set to graduate this year.

At Thursday’s commencement, Gordon awarded Williams’ mother, Tawanda Robinson, with a spirit award named in her son’s honor.

“No loss that we’ve had was more devastating than losing our own beloved David Williams,” Gordon said before some 70 graduates who had gathered at the Dell Music Center. “Even though his body was stolen from us, his spirit will never go away.”

Despite the challenges the school community faced during remote learning, Gordon called this year’s class “amazing.”

“They completed high school, and they did it during a global pandemic,” he said. “And they did it during the social unrest that has been going on in this country. And they are going to be the next group of leaders to make sure to fix the things that our generation didn’t get a chance to address.”

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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