Education

Award-winning Philadelphia principals talk pandemic, school leadership

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Philadelphia Principal Erica M. Green recalls the resilience of her students two years ago when the pandemic forced the city’s schools to go virtual.

“There were some barriers there. A lot of them were trying to take care of their own learning, and in some cases, they were rocking a baby on their lap, because we had parents that had to work,” said Green, who is the principal of Russell H. Conwell Middle School in Kensington.

For Susan Rozanski, the principal of Richmond Elementary School in Port Richmond, technical issues with Chromebooks and keeping students engaged were her biggest obstacles leading a school during the global health crisis.

“We were so used to having a classroom environment where students can interact with each other. We needed to make sure that social emotional learning was at the forefront of each day,” Rozanski said.

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Green and Rozanski are in this year’s class of seven recipients of the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Awards for Distinguished Principal Leadership, awarded by the Lindback Foundation to the best principals in the city. Other winners include: Omar Crowder, Northeast High School; Meredith Foote, Overbrook Educational Center; Michael Lowe, Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School; Tammy Thomas, Emlen Elementary School; and Susan Thompson, George Washington High School. The principals were honored during a virtual ceremony Tuesday.

Members of the community nominated principals from district schools. Seven principals were then chosen from the pool of nominees by the foundation’s Selection Committee based on their leadership and humanitarian contributions. Each recipient also receives a $20,000 award to be used in his or her school community.

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“I was absolutely thrilled, because we don’t do this work alone. We have a whole team that works with us. So for me, receiving the honor is really an honor for my school,” Green said.

The two principals talked to Chalkbeat about their journey becoming a principal and what they plan to do with the award money.

Tell us about your journey becoming a principal.

Green: I knew since I was 9, that I was supposed to be a teacher, I didn’t necessarily know that I was going to become an assistant principal and a principal. And I remember people saying to me, once you become an assistant principal, you’re gonna be so far removed from kids. And I was like, well, that’s the least thing that I want to happen, I want to be connected with it. So I found a way to keep that connection with young people as an assistant principal and as a principal.

Rozanski: I started my career also as a teacher. I taught for nine years as an eighth grade teacher in Philadelphia, and then moved on to become an assistant principal here at Richmond. And I served here as the assistant principal for 11 years. I’ve been the principal here for 10 years, so Richmond is my family. The students are amazing, they are so much fun. If you ever are having a bad day, the best place to be is in a classroom, because you’re going to see young people in action doing what they do best. And that’s learning.

There’s a character on the show “Abbott Elementary” named Principal Ava Coleman, who is seen as being detached from the struggles of her teachers. How do you connect with your teachers?

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Green: The principal’s interesting. She’s just a little distracted by other things that are going on. But we are different kinds of principals in that I’m very hands on. We’re in the classrooms, we’re in the school yard, the lunch room, wherever you need us to be, we are there. We can’t be kind of aloof or distracted or overly silly like she is. It is more of a serious matter. But we do have fun times with our kids.

Rozanski: We connect through our planning time meetings that we have weekly. It’s specialized with each grade level. It’s a chance to do some planning together to iron out some things that need to be worked out and really listen. The teachers are on the frontlines every single day and it’s a way that we can try to troubleshoot or make things even better here at school.

What do you plan to do with the $20,000?

Green: We have two new science classrooms that were completed right before the pandemic. We will have a STEM program, so science, technology, arts and music, all that kind of good stuff, which kids really need, so that they’ll be ready for whatever the future holds for them.

Rozanski: We have a diverse student body and would like to purchase some multicultural libraries. We want students to see themselves in the stories that they’re reading. We have what we call our “team for change.” It’s our race and equity work that we’ve been starting here at school. And we have a theme we call windows and mirrors. So when outsiders are looking into the windows, they’re seeing students who are happy, who are working in harmony, and when students look in a mirror, they feel good about themselves.

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The school district aims to support aspiring leaders. What would be your message to a teacher on the fence about becoming a principal?

Green: I tell everybody, if this is something that you have aspirations to do, then you should definitely do it. This is not a thing where it can be about your ego. It is hard work. It is not a nine to five [job] — our product is people. And so if you have a desire to serve, and if you have a desire to work with community members and partners, and the teachers and the students, then this is something that you can do,

Rozanski: I would say, being a principal here in Philadelphia is an extremely rewarding career. It does take a lot of commitment, dedication, and hard work, also compassion for the families that we serve. And another key component is to build a team within your school that has a similar vision or the same vision as yours, so that you’re all on the same page and all moving in the same direction, which is always for the success of our students.

Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at [email protected]

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