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Philly's Robeson High, a school on the rise, now in national spotlight

"It's the best public school in Philadelphia!" Paul Robeson High School student Marquan Thomas called out to Mayor Kenney. The principal smiled. "Not bad for a school that wasn't supposed to be here."

Richard Gordon IV (right), principal of Paul Robeson High School, greets one of his students during a class change while Mayor Kenney visits on Tuesday.
Richard Gordon IV (right), principal of Paul Robeson High School, greets one of his students during a class change while Mayor Kenney visits on Tuesday.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Paul Robeson High School is having a moment.

Richard Gordon IV, the school's energetic principal, was just named the nation's top administrator by an online education journal, hailed for his innovation and hard work.

Mayor Kenney visited the school Tuesday, oohing and aahing over Robeson's myriad partnerships, its 95 percent graduation rate, and the general sense of well-being that permeates the hallways.

"You have a nice school," the mayor said. "People seem happy to be here."

Marquan Thomas, a senior, couldn't help himself. From the back of his science class, he called out to Kenney.

"It's the best public school in Philadelphia!" said Thomas, 17.

Gordon smiled.

"Not bad for a school that wasn't supposed to be here," the principal said.

In 2012, the school was designated for closure, but was spared at the last minute after a passionate group of students and teachers made a case so strong that the School Reform Commission couldn't help but keep it open.

Gordon arrived months later, in 2013. Since then, the stock of the school at 41st and Ludlow Streets in University City has soared. The school's enrollment, though still small, has risen considerably, from 250 to 313. Its climate has improved, and so have its academics – to the point where it was named the city's most improved high school this year. But it still educates mainly students from the neighborhood — kids with mental-health needs and complicated pasts, kids who are interested in poetry and business. Eighty-six percent live in poverty.

Five students apply for each of the 70 seats in its freshman class. Robeson is a citywide admissions school, meaning that children from across the city are eligible to attend. It has some admissions criteria — good grades, attendance, and behavior — but fewer than magnet schools, and Gordon is always willing to work with bright students whose grades don't reflect their ability for one reason or another.

The principal is quick to point to his staff, strong community partners, and most of all his students, as the reasons the school is attracting so much attention.

But it's hard to deny the role of Gordon himself, who knows the name and story of every student — each of whom has his cellphone number.

"My question is always, 'How do you get kids to love the idea of coming to school?'" said Gordon, a former central-office administrator, vice principal at George Washington High School, and principal at Vaux High School. "We're not back in the 1950s and '60s where students do things because you tell them to."

Kady Meite, president of the school's chapter of the National Honor Society, wasn't the strongest student in middle school, she admits — she got a lot of Cs and Ds. Her mom, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, wanted Meite to go to her neighborhood school, but a friend talked up Robeson, and Meite was intrigued.

Now she's a star there: a senior aiming for Drexel University — where she took a chemistry course last year thanks to a Robeson partnership — a three-sport athlete, and an active participant in other clubs.

"I call Robeson the school of opportunities," said Meite, 17. "And you really can ask anyone here questions — people care about you personally."

Gordon's own backstory informs his interactions. He grew up locally with a hardworking hairdresser mom and a father who was a drug dealer in and out of prison. So when he tells his students that he knows life can be hard, but that he believes in them and they can overcome anything, it carries weight.

The attention coming Gordon's way is welcome, he said, not because it reflects on him but because it lifts the efforts of his staff and students.

"We're an entire community," he said, "coming together for a singular purpose: to build kids for lives of purpose."