For years, people told Omar Crowder he’d make a good principal. He resisted.
“I always said, ‘No way, I love being a teacher,’” said Crowder, who won accolades as a social studies teacher, swim coach, dean of students, and mentor.
But then he began to wonder: What if he made the leap, and became the kind of principal he wished he always had as a teacher, the kind who paved the way for extraordinary things to happen in schools?
“Sometimes you’ll find a disconnect between leadership and what actually happens in the classroom, but I wanted to be that person who could support teachers. That’s where our biggest bang for our buck is — strong classroom instruction,” said Crowder, 42, principal at Northeast High School for four years.
Crowder is one of the city’s best, chosen from among the Philadelphia School District’s 216 as a recipient of the 2022 Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Awards for Distinguished Principal Leadership. The other winners are: Meredith Foote, Overbrook Educational Center; Erica Green, Conwell Middle School; Michael Lowe, Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School; Tammy Thomas, Emlen Elementary School; Susan Rozanski, Richmond Elementary School; and Susan Thompson, George Washington High School.
Each winner receives $20,000 to fund a school project of their choice. Crowder aims to use his Lindback money to expand Northeast’s natural resource management program, creating more hands-on opportunities for students with disabilities, and chances for students to take monthly field trips.
Education lifted Crowder out of poverty. He grew up in difficult circumstances and he and his brothers became wards of Washington state when their mother died. Crowder was 7.
“Getting through life, getting through high school, and then to college was largely in part because of my teachers,” said Crowder. He had his sights set on law school, but in the post-college year he was supposed to be preparing for his LSATs, Crowder fell in love with education during his time as a school social worker. He turned down his law school admissions and went to graduate school for education instead.
Getting through life, getting through high school, and then to college was largely in part because of my teachers.
Teaching was “the best and hardest 12 years of my life,” Crowder said. After a life in Washington and California, Crowder had an opportunity to move to Philadelphia, and was accepted to PhillyPLUS, a local principal development program.
(How does the West Coast native find his adopted city? “I fell in love with Philly instantly,” he said. “There’s an authenticity about it that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”)
He landed at Northeast High School, the city’s largest school, with 3,300 diverse students, most of whom are economically disadvantaged, many of whom are new to the country or require special education services. Students hail from 60 countries and speak 50 languages. And it’s not a static place; as Philadelphia gentrifies, more families from other parts of the city are moving to the Northeast.
In a city where a robust system of charter and special admission high schools has weakened neighborhood high schools, the school is an anomaly: crammed with Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, extracurricular opportunities and internships.
Crowder insists he’s not the architect of Northeast’s success, but a steward of it, building on the work of years of strong leadership. But his leadership has been focused not just on maintaining the school’s reputation as perhaps the city’s strongest comprehensive high school; Crowder has pushed Northeast to expand opportunities for students of color and other marginalized students.
Mindful of the participation gaps in AP courses among Black and brown students, for instance, Crowder changed the school’s policy so any student interested in AP classes can take them, and makes sure AP opportunities are communicated to students of color.
Crowder’s staff say they feel prioritized, too. The committee that nominated him for a Lindback called him “a positive and supportive force during his tenure at Northeast. He focuses on the social and emotional needs of our staff members, ensuring that they have the time, support, and resources needed to serve our students in the best way possible. He truly has not forgotten the hard work and dedication it takes to be an effective teacher.”
Northeast is as large as a small city, occupying an entire city block on Cottman Avenue and employing 300 staff. Yet Crowder fosters an atmosphere that feels smaller in many ways.
“We are constantly working to make sure we have structures around personalization. We don’t ever want kids to not feel welcomed, known, accepted,” said Crowder. There are 10 small learning communities, clubs and activities, and career and technical education programs.
“We have a replicable model that has stood the test of time,” said Crowder. “We take whatever we’ve been given and we make it work.”
We take whatever we’ve been given and we make it work.
The job can be challenging sometimes — enormously so, especially in this third pandemic school year, where students’ needs and systemwide pressures are great — and yes, sometimes Crowder struggles with administrative burdens and policies often meant for smaller schools. But he’s got a safety valve, too.
“I get to walk into the classrooms, and I’m recharged, restored,” he said. “We have incredible teachers, incredible staff, and the best kids in the city. I’ve got over 3,000 blessings.”