Paul Robeson High School was not Jahleel Johnson's first choice.
Four years ago, the school was on the brink of closure, spared at the last minute after a passionate group of students and supporters persuaded Philadelphia School District officials to give them another chance. Robeson was tiny, with barely 250 students, and hardly anyone knew where it was, tucked away at 41st and Ludlow Streets. Kyairra Mathies had hoped her son would get into schools that had better reputations, but Jahleel's eighth-grade year was rocky, so Robeson was it.
But then a few remarkable things happened. Robeson, which always had potential, began to make strides, important changes in climate and academics that would lead to its becoming a rising star in the district.
And the school that was once the last place Jahleel ever wanted to be turned out to be the best thing for him. Robeson's faculty encouraged him, and its principal was so devoted to Jahleel's success that he would sit the young man down in his office and tell him to do his homework, and call his mother on weekends to ask her what the school could do to help keep Jahleel on the right path. Now, Jahleel is about to graduate and is headed to Pennsylvania State University to study education, and Robeson has been named the most improved high school in the city.
It is a small school made up of predominantly neighborhood students, 88 percent of whom live in poverty, 17 percent of whom qualify for special-education services. And its students are thriving — 98.5 percent of the senior class graduated last year, and more than half went to college.
"Everyone here pushes you as hard as they know you can work," said Jahleel, 17. "They're not going to let you slack one bit, and they're never going to give up on you. If I would have gone to any other school, I wouldn't have made it this far."
Richard Gordon IV became Robeson's principal in 2013, shortly after the School Reform Commission gave the school an eleventh-hour reprieve from the chopping block. Gordon was a former central-office staffer who had been principal of Vaux High, which did close that year. He had heard that Robeson needed work, but that it had good things going for it — teachers who cared, students who wanted to be there.
But things felt "disconnected" back then, Gordon said. The school climate needed improvement, and students needed more opportunities. He asked students and teachers what they wanted Robeson to be.
Then Gordon and the faculty went about building it. They re-established a National Honor Society and student government. They expanded existing partnerships and built new ones, using the school's University City location to its best advantage. Robeson does not have a functional science lab, but some students take science classes at Drexel University. There are partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania and others; some students work at the Mütter Museum.
The school has a human services focus and a three-year health-related technology program. It has peer mediation and mentoring programs. And it is a tight-knit place; staff outfitted four students who had too little money to dress for and attend the prom and made sure they got there. The city is taking notice; Robeson's enrollment has climbed to 300.
"At Robeson, it's OK to try hard and be yourself," said Jahleel, who is also a standout athlete from South Philadelphia.
That's a point of pride for Gordon, and a reason the school has five applications for each of the 75 seats in his freshman class.
"My kids are academic in this building, and we're nice to each other every single day," he said.
Robeson is a citywide admissions school, which means it has some selection criteria — students can have no D's on their report cards and must have good attendance to qualify for entrance — but the school often works with students on the cusp who have compelling personal stories and display a willingness to work hard, Gordon said. Once they're in, it's his job to remove barriers for them.
Gordon knows each of his students. He can tell you who likes NASCAR, who's a good singer, and who has a real interest in aerospace engineering. Students take his open-door policy so seriously that a steady stream of them come in during class breaks or lunches, drawn partly by the snacks he keeps stocked and partly by the way he seems to have a personal message for everyone.
"You came up on my list for attendance," he told one girl recently who stopped in for a handful of animal crackers. "I need you to be consistent and take care of things."
He keenly understands the challenges that many of his students face. Gordon's father, Richard III, was a drug dealer who was often incarcerated, but after one arrest, his mother, living in Philadelphia, drove her son to New Jersey every day so he could continue going to school at Pennsauken High School.
"I can look my students straight in the face and say, 'There are no excuses. I've been there,'" Gordon said.
Gordon will receive the Marcus Foster Award this week, a prize given to one excellent district high school principal annually.
Mathies will never forget that Gordon and his teachers took Jahleel under their wing, gave him their phone numbers, and encouraged him to reach out when he was having a tough time buckling down in his freshman year.
"They helped mold him into a nice young man," Mathies said. "I have nothing but positive things to say about the school."
Yvette Johnson, a sophomore, lives in the Northeast and travels 45 minutes each way to get to Robeson. She doesn't regret the decision.
"Mr. Gordon said there were a lot of opportunities here, and there are," said Yvette, who participates in the Drexel program that allowed her to take a science class on a college campus at age 15.
The school is not Masterman or Central, Gordon underscores. While its literacy and biology scores on state tests have improved, it still has a long way to go in math, with only 8 percent of students meeting Pennsylvania standards. Overall, it scored a 49 of 100 on the state's school performance report metric.
But it has heart, rarely suspends students, and needs no security cameras. And even on a sweltering school day cut short by excessive heat, English teacher Andrew Saltz finally had to shoo students out of his class long after the bell rang. As usual, they didn't want to leave.
"You can't slip through the cracks here because there aren't any cracks," said Saltz, a driving force behind the effort to save the school in 2013.
"It's a redemption story," the principal said. "Students have bought into this school, and they succeed here."