Richard M. Gordon IV: Award-Winning Educator Takes School From Near-Extinction to Excellence - Black Enterprise
Black Enterprise magazine Fall 2019 issue

BE Modern Man: Richard M. Gordon IV

Award-winning Educator; 46; Principal, Paul Robeson High School for Human Services, Philadelphia

Twitter: @probesonhs; Instagram: @robesonhs

As an award-winning educator, I have had the privilege and honor to serve as principal of the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in West Philadelphia for approximately six years. In 2013, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission slated Paul Robeson High School for permanent school closure. Spared at the 11th hour, I was assigned as the new principal and asked to bring change to a school on the brink of permanent extinction. With the support of our great families, amazing students, and the best teaching staff in our district, in four years we went from a school on the brink of closure to a school recognized as the “2017 Most Improved High School” in the City of Philadelphia. Although Paul Robeson High School is noted as a school with a 100% minority student population and a 90% school poverty rate, it is credited with developing a model program for college and career readiness, and for achieving a 95% annual graduation rate (the city average graduation rate is 69%). In 2019, the State of Pennsylvania removed our school from its “high needs” academic intervention list of schools in response to our continued improvement in our academic results. Besides extensive coverage in a variety of media news outlets, Paul Robeson High School has received several prestigious local, state, and national accolades for our work, including features in the Education Dive, a national online magazine, and honorable mentions in U.S. News & World Report in 2017 and 2019.

With personal endorsements from the Honorable Jim Kenney, the Mayor of Philadelphia, and the City Council of Philadelphia, our school believes understanding how education significantly impacts poverty and how that impact can reverberate throughout future generations. Our mission must be to ensure Robeson High School students are academically sound, deeply integrated into participating in community service-based learning, committed to civic responsibility, and fully engaged in initiatives that not only provide for new learning opportunities for our students and families, but also opportunities that cater to the needs of every student in our program and to the communities we serve.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN LIFE?

A few years ago, I was speaking with my mother, discussing my grandparents, her parents, who passed away prior to my birth. My mother spoke of my grandfather and the challenges and indignities he faced as a black man growing up in the early part of the 20th century. She stated how she wished that her father, my grandfather, was alive to see me chase my goals thanks to the sacrifices made in my family. Then my mom began to cry, praying that my grandfather from heaven was able to see me as an award-winning educator and high school principal because he would be overjoyed. I cried with her because I never knew my mom felt this way.

What I am most proud of is knowing that I have become a source of pride for my family and that I have had the honor and privilege to be seen as a positive example in the black community. Growing up in Camden, New Jersey, one of the most impoverished cities in America, I did not believe that I would one day have the opportunity to have my personal and professional experiences give me hope for our communities, to perhaps provide hope to others, and to allow me to be the hope my ancestors dreamed of. Being included in the BE Modern Man 100 Men of Distinction honors the hopes and dreams of my family and I am so grateful for this amazing acknowledgment.

HOW HAVE YOU TURNED STRUGGLE INTO SUCCESS?

Several years ago, I worked for a suburban school district in New Jersey as an assistant principal. At the end of the 2007–2008 school year, I was informed that my contract was not going to be renewed by the district. I wasn’t fired per se, but I was forced into a negotiation to mutually part ways. To me, this was an epic failure and a very hurtful blow to my self-esteem. I rarely failed professionally and it made me question my abilities to be a school leader. Looking back, I realized and had to accept the fact that I did not do a very good job because I was truly distracted by personal circumstances that caused a lot of stress and personal trauma in my life at the time.

So, rather than looking back on that situation as an epic failure, which was my initial feeling, I eventually realized that situation was one of the best learning experiences that I could have ever wished for. It taught two major life lessons from that experience: First, I learned that in order to be a great leader, I have to learn how to make sure I am a great employee and colleague to others. Second, I learned that the world will throw you curves. So, not only do you have to be ready for them, but also you have to maintain your dignity, learn how to get up after falling down, dust yourself off, and continue on your path despite obstacles. You don’t stop being the person you are.

I learned to take this very shocking and humbling experience, and use it as a source of inspiration and confidence to work as hard as I can to be the best for the students and families I am serving. Today, I am entering my 23rd year as an award-winning educator and administrator, and I feel like I am an integral part of the commitment in Philadelphia Schools to advance student achievement for socio-economically challenged neighborhoods filled with “at-risk” minority populations. I have experienced successes beyond my own expectations, having been the recipient of numerous awards, honors, accolades and citations for my work as an educator. My struggle of failing as an administrator in one respect, inspired me to be the best educator I can possibly be, supporting and caring for the children of Philadelphia.

WHO WAS YOUR GREATEST MALE ROLE MODEL AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM HIM?

My greatest male role model was definitely my father. My father was an imperfect man, to say the least. Even he will admit to many of the setbacks he endured in his life due to poor decisions and life in the streets. My father was a man who spent time incarcerated at the state and federal levels, he has engaged in numerous acts of criminal behavior (some he was caught for, so much more he got away with), he had vices with drugs, an affinity for women who adored him, and was never considered “Father-of-the-Year”. We spent much of my formative years estranged, and he is still estranged from my brothers till this day—a tale all too familiar to many young black males today.

However, my dad is one of the smartest men I know; very savvy, strong-willed, caring, resourceful, and doesn’t take crap from anyone. He is what we call in the community, a real “O.G.”. So, what I learned most from my dad is what NOT to do with my life, and how to channel all of the positive attributes I inherited from him into positive pursuits.

As you get older, you accept that everyone, including me, is less than perfect individuals. So, I have forgiven my dad for mistakes made along the way to my adulthood. It has helped us to strengthen our relationship over time. As I stated, he was an imperfect man. But, I give him credit where credit is due. My dad insisted on a “Do as I say, not as I do” flawed mentality. He did, however, do his best to toughen us and to protect us from the harshness of growing up in an urban environment. And he has influenced me to embrace my mother’s teachings and to strive to be better, personally and professionally. Yes, my mother was the single greatest inspiration in my life growing up. But, my dad has definitely been the most influential male role model in my life.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE MANHOOD?

As a black man, I want our children, our families, and our community to see black manhood as I do: a formidable force whose genesis derives from exuding a positive self-image in appearance and in speech; respect for our elders and for our history as a people in this society; an undying love for our strong black women who have taken on too heavy a burden to be the anchor of our families; an enduring chivalrous respect for our black woman and families; and an acceptance of our pain we can openly express without repercussion. Black manhood is about setting our own cultural patterns by being heads of our households, opening doors for our women, raising our children, embracing education and lifelong learning, and being the true leaders in our communities in order to bring ourselves out of this identity crisis plaguing black masculinity. Black manhood is ensuring that we do not cede our obligations to our women, as opposed to partnering with them. Black manhood has to be strong, educated, empowering, and thoughtfully dynamic in order to liberate our communities from the dire circumstances of ineffective and paralyzing representations of who we are as men. If we do, black manhood has the potential to become the most powerful force on the planet.

WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?

I often seek and solicit advice from colleagues and leaders I truly admire and those with whom I work on a routine basis. Today, I get to work with some of the most knowledgeable and successful school leaders in Pennsylvania. Much of my success as an award-winning educator has come under my last two supervisors, who have always offered amazing leadership advice to help support my efforts in my school community. (Thank you Rahshene Davis and Dr. Debora Carerra.)

However, the best advice I was given was shared by a former high school principal, Edward Monastra, during my second year as a school administrator, who reminded me that our work is all about our young people. His exact words were, “Take care of your students, your school, and your community, do what is right by them first, because they are your first priority professionally, and let the chips fall where they may with everything else. And if that is not good enough for anyone supervising you, then they can come get my keys to the school building.”

HOW ARE YOU PAYING IT FORWARD TO SUPPORT OTHER BLACK MALES?

In 2017, I had the privilege of becoming a member of the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders’ Neubauer Fellowship in Educational Leadership. The Neubauer Fellowship is a training program for high-performing principals who are seen as uniquely positioned to improve the quality of education outcomes in Philadelphia’s schools. The Neubauer Fellowship provides quality professional development that refines my leadership skills in order to lead my schools to higher levels of learning. Through the leadership of founders Joe and Jeannette Neubauer, in conjunction with the leadership of the program, I learned the importance of servant and entrepreneurial leadership. I learned that in order to be an effective service leader, I not only need to model that in my daily actions for staff and students each day, but also I need to ensure that I am garnering resources to support students in a way that develops everyone’s personal growth so that they develop into service leaders themselves. As an entrepreneurial leader, the Neubauer Fellowship supported my expansion of addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences (A.C.E.S.) and trauma in minority children and encouraging our males to challenge the stigma of mental health in our communities.

Now, I have many male students receiving much-needed therapeutic services in school on a daily basis. Additionally, the Neubauer Fellowship encouraged my partnership with the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office on Black Male Engagement to increase mentoring of young black males in our school, which has improved our students’ academic, social-emotional well-being, mental health, while addressing unhealthy, risky behaviors. We have increased the percentage of male students on-track for graduation and our male students significantly contribute to our 95% annual graduation rate.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT BEING A BLACK MAN?

Undoubtedly, I am proud to be a black man, even though at times in this country we appear to be an endangered species for a number of reasons. However, I am most proud of the amazing contributions to society we make every day and I am inspired by our ability to reach a variety of professions and industries. However, we are severely underrepresented in those professions and industries. So, for me, it is imperative that we have to lead and inspire one another to be in positions of leadership because we are uniquely positioned to address the obstacles in facing limiting pathways to success. I always believe that when we become examples of leadership, we are the envy of the world. I believe as a black man, I am well-versed in the problems we face, but I love having the opportunity each day to show other black males that black men also have never had more opportunities for success today if we are willing to work hard and band together in support of one another. I love making the effort of being aspirational, rather than being bogged down in pessimism. Inspiring one another to action and leadership can truly make us a formidable force in transforming our communities.

WHAT PRACTICES, TOOLS, BOOKS, ETC. DO YOU RELY ON FOR YOUR SUCCESS?

To lead a successful school, I believe it is imperative that I engage in practices that help me to be a better principal for the amazing students, families, and staff members I have the privilege of serving. Each day, I try to ensure that: I am easily accessible to my school community; I attend numerous student/ family events (school-related or personal) from sporting events to barbecues and birthday parties; remain positive and aspirational, which contributes to a healthy, positive work environment; consistently getting community input into the vision and mission of school and how we serve our students/families; I try to always be as transparent with our school community (even to a fault); continue my own learning as I pursue my Doctorate Degree in Education; I attempt to provide leadership opportunities for teachers and students in order to help improve our work; I like to work on my communication, especially improving my efforts to be a good listener; and I spend a lot of time meeting with individuals who are community partners with our school and I often like to meet with individuals interested in becoming potential partners to help support our mission of providing students with the best education possible.

I believe all leaders are readers. So, I try to ensure that I spend some of my downtime reading books and fostering my love of studying history. I find myself reading numerous publications analyzing the life, times, and political positions of Malcolm X, James Baldwin, as well as analysis on the historic presidency of Barack Obama.

BE Modern Man is an online and social media campaign designed to celebrate black men making valuable contributions in every profession, industry, community, and area of endeavor. Each year, we solicit nominations in order to select men of color for inclusion in the 100 Black Enterprise Modern Men of Distinction. Our goal is to recognize men who epitomize the BEMM credo “Extraordinary is our normal” in their day-to-day lives, presenting authentic examples of the typical black man rarely seen in mainstream media. The BE Modern Men of Distinction are celebrated annually at Black Men XCEL (www.blackenterprise.com/blackmenxcel/). Click this link to submit a nomination for BE Modern Man: https://www.blackenterprise.com/nominate/. Follow BE Modern Man on Twitter: @bemodernman and Instagram: @be_modernman.