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Philly’s 7 best principals win Lindback award and $20,000 to improve their schools

“When you build relationships with kids, they’ll do 99% of what you ask them to do,” said Kareem Thomas, one of the city principals feted for outstanding leadership during this pandemic year.

Principal Kareem Thomas at Hamilton Disston Elementary School in Tacony.
Principal Kareem Thomas at Hamilton Disston Elementary School in Tacony.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The young man wasn’t the best student in the class, or the best listener.

But Kareem Thomas saw something in him, knew the boy needed someone to take an interest. He developed a rapport with the young man, and when Thomas received a master’s degree at Lincoln University, he invited the student to his graduation, to show him what life could hold for him.

The young man went on to thrive, and considers Thomas’ influence a key part of his success. Years later, a photo of the two hangs in Thomas’ office at Hamilton Disston Elementary, a reminder of why he became a teacher and later a principal.

“When you have an opportunity to plant that seed for kids, it makes a world of difference,” said Thomas.

Thomas is one of seven top Philadelphia School District school administrators chosen from a field of 200-plus to receive the 2021 Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Awards for Distinguished Principal Leadership. The group also includes Colleen Bowen of Barton Elementary, Pauline Cheung of Francis Scott Key Elementary, Luke Hostetter of Baldi Middle School, Brian Johnson of Bartram High School, Shavonne McMillan of Vaux High School, and Lisa Mesi of Philadelphia High School for Girls.

The award is given in recognition of principals’ leadership and humanitarian contributions and comes with a $20,000 prize for the school community. Principals are nominated by their school communities and chosen by a committee.

“The Lindback Foundation is committed to recognizing the leadership and excellence of principals in our public schools by providing financial assistance to critical projects identified by the award winners,” said David Loder, a trustee. “This is particularly critical in this year of the pandemic, where leadership is even more important.”

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Thomas didn’t take a straight-line path to the principal’s job.

He grew up in West Philadelphia, earned a diploma at West Catholic High School and an English degree at Lincoln University. He worked for a time at a radio station in Delaware. But Thomas didn’t love the industry, and eventually found his way to teaching at a parochial school. That led to teaching and administrative positions at charter schools. He came to the district and Disston, a K-8 of 800 students, three years ago.

It was a daunting assignment. Disston, on Cottage Street in the Tacony section of Northeast Philadelphia, had problems — too many kids out of classrooms, too many suspensions — and didn’t have a great reputation in its community or stellar family involvement. The Northeast can be insular, and some people gave Thomas a hard time.

“Initially, people thought that I was coming in to make Disston a charter school,” he said.

Thomas listened a great deal, worked on getting students back in classrooms, setting behavioral norms but also building strong relationships. If a student keeps getting in trouble for wearing a hoodie, for instance, are the adults in the building taking time to figure out why he won’t take his hoodie off? (This was a real-life example: The young man in question was embarrassed because he needed a haircut, the principal said.)

“When you build relationships with kids, they’ll do 99% of what you ask them to do,” said Thomas.

In a non-pandemic year, Thomas is an all-over-the-building principal. He loves spending time in the cafeteria, especially during middle school lunch — that’s when kids get most confidential, confessing issues they might not otherwise talk about. Thomas also got a kick out of reading the day’s lunch menu in the most appetizing way possible, making turkey tacos and fruit cup sound like haute cuisine.

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Low-key and humble, Thomas is most comfortable talking about the work his staff is doing, or about the ways his kids are rising to pandemic challenges, or the strides Disston has made since being named a community school in 2019. (Community schools, chosen by the city, come with extra resources and embedded social services as a way to remove barriers to learning.)

Ask Thomas about Disston’s theme for the year and he beams. It’s the “Year of Good Trouble,” with students and staffers alike encouraged to “make a difference, speak truth to power, never give up, treat everyone equally, and get involved,” a nod to the late John Lewis, the U.S. representative and civil rights icon.

Thomas chose the theme after the police killing of George Floyd sparked anguish and a racial reckoning. At his behest, Disston launched its own racial equity task force, which is leading an all-staff book club discussing White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. It’s led to conversations about things like implicit bias.

“Before we look at school practices, we really had to work within ourselves,” he said. “They’re difficult conversations, but my staff deserves all the credit in the world: They put themselves out there. Everyone is committed to doing what’s right for kids.”

Thomas plans to use part of the Lindback prize to further the work, hiring professionals to help lead trainings. He wants to scrutinize Disston’s code of conduct, looking, for instance, at whether the rules make sense or if they seem applied disproportionately to certain groups of kids.

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It’s been a year of upheaval for schools across the country, however, and Disston is no different.

From navigating fully online school for a year to pivoting to a mash-up of in-person and virtual instruction, this school year has been a challenge, Thomas said.

But “it’s also caused our teachers to be super creative, to learn so much,” he said. “The way things were traditionally done in a classroom, you just can’t do things that way anymore. Hopefully, many of the skills that we’ve acquired will transfer when we return to the building.”

Thomas also worries, given schools’ outsize role in many students lives. Learning loss is a fear, but there are more fundamental fears — are kids physically OK?

“I feel like there’s so many kids we lost touch with,” he said. “I hope everybody comes back to school. It’s going to take a really meaningful campaign to encourage families to come back.”

Principals are instructional leaders, but also budget chiefs, human resources honchos, climate specialists, and much more. Thomas walks out of the building some days feeling walloped by the volume and gravity of the work. But he wouldn’t change it for the world.

“You’re the mayor of your own city, and you can impact so many things that go on for your citizens,” Thomas said. “There has to be a level of urgency in this work. Kids’ lives are at stake, and that’s not an understatement.”