The 2015 Best in Education Prize Winner

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We are delighted to announce the winner of the 2015 Escalante–Gradillas $20,000 Prize for Best in Education, Lisa Kaplan: principal at Andrew Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania!

The 2015 finalists were all primary and secondary school administrators, each nominated by a peer or coworker, each demonstrating a wide range of gifts, experiences, and accomplishments. Every one of these leaders proved their ability to overcome odds, rally their team, and cultivate educational success where weaker wills could not.

Lisa Kaplan has won a $10,000 cash prize for herself, and another $10,000 for her school.

As Leonardo da Vinci, noted, “People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” That is certainly true of each of the following winners.

While the worthy 2nd and 3rd place honorees don't win a cash award, they are inspiring school administrators in their own right. Please see both Charlene Mendozas and Athony Majewski brief bios below. We'll be featuring their stories later on as well, so be sure to subscribe to our newsletter for updates.

WinnerLisa Kaplan, South Philly’s Turnaround Artist

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Congratulations to @PrincipalKaplan, $20,000 #BestInEducation prize winner!
Five years ago, the nondescript brown-brick elementary school squeezed between a cemetery and South 12th on Federal had a well-worn record as a failing Philadelphia school. Andrew Jackson Elementary consistently underperformed in standardized tests, with reports of student violence, and charges of racism levied against a former, disgraced administrator. One neighborhood parent described the institution as “dark, yucky, prison-looking.” The school needed resuscitation and rehabilitation. It needed paint, it needed new drywall, it needed to be cleaned up.

It needed a champion.

Enter Lisa

Lisa Kaplan, Principal at Andrew Jackson School, Philadelphia, PA
Lisa Kaplan, Principal
Andrew Jackson School, Philadelphia, PA
Follow Lisa: @PrincipalKaplan

After nearly thirty years of work as an educator with deep classroom teaching experience and education development, Lisa Kaplan has taught both students, fellow teachers, and school administrators with a focus on effective teaching methods, special education, School-to-Career Readiness, ESL, and how to promote community volunteerism. Yet, despite seeming to be a natural “super principal,” the role of her lifetime seems to have snuck up on her and caught her by surprise.

While working as a high school small learning community coordinator/leader, Kaplan was recruited by a district superintendent to work from her office as a School-to-Career Readiness team member. Kaplan’s high energy and skill quickly brought her even wider attention, and in the chaos following the Philadelphia school takeover by the state in 2001, Kaplan’s background in special education made her an ideal candidate to help develop the school reform model for the troubled district. Thus, Kaplan came to directly supervise the special education programs in 24 Philadelphia schools. After three years of that, and another couple years writing school curriculum, Kaplan longed to returned to working directly with children, so she took advantage of her administration certification and came on as assistant principal at Edison High, one of the city’s most challenging schools — but Kaplan loved it! She called the school her “principal bootcamp,” and in her third year, Kaplan was offered the helm of her own school: Andrew Jackson Elementary.

Though this is Kaplan’s first foray as a principal, because of her experience supervising underperforming schools in special education — a daunting task in itself — she came to the job with definite, clear ideas about what works and doesn't work with her hometown public schools.

First, Kaplan saw that the dilapidated, enervating state of the school had to be repaired as soon as possible. However, there was no budget. There wasn't even enough money to paint the front door.

Money Woes

Though it is the eighth largest school district in the nation, the Philadelphia also ranks as one of the top six most-segregated school districts in the country. In 1998, the city sued the state government claiming racial discrimination was at play, and the battle over money for public education began a slow boil — erupting in 2001 with the state takeover of the city’s public schools. Since then, budget shortfalls have become even more brutal and heavily politicized — with Philly’s children serving as the frequent hostages and pawns between the major players.

But in 2010, the big tsunamis of budget cuts wouldn't come for another two to three years. Back then, the $216.7 million deficit was simple enough to understand: Pennsylvania’s funding of public education, like many places throughout America, is tied to property values and associated taxes. And the property values in the South Philly neighborhood surrounding Jackson were dismal. In 2000, “the Philadelphia school district spent $6,969 a year per student.… This contrasts with expenditures per student in wealthier suburban school districts: Jenkintown, $12,076; Radnor, $13,288; and Upper Merion, $13,139.” (Note: 70% of Philadelphia’s students were at or near the poverty line when those numbers were compiled.)

By 2010 the situation hadn't much improved for Jackson school and, in many ways, was worse: Parents were taking their children elsewhere. By the time Kaplan entered Jackson’s doors as principal, the Philadelphia charter school movement had grown to a network of 67 schools, garnering more than 36,000 of the city’s students — or 32% (compare this with New York City, where 70,000 students attend charter schools, representing only 6% of the overall student population). Further, a proposed property tax hike in the city was making the expense of living in suburban Philadelphia look much more attractive.

Families were fleeing the city. And when a student leaves Jackson — whether for a nearby charter school or the allure of the tonier suburbs, their tax-based educational funds go with them.

But Lisa Kaplan doesn't worry about that.

Which is not to say she doesn't do everything she can to squeeze the last penny from every dollar of funds the district can release for her school. Instead, she knows that getting things done requires resources found far beyond the bottom line and taxpayer funds. She looks for hearts and minds, passion and purpose.

She gives away her power.

Involvement

“I really believe the reason why this school works is the relationship piece,” Kaplan told TheBestSchools.org in a phone call earlier this week. “I'm a connector, I'm a relationship builder.… I open the door. You have to open the door.”

Even — especially — when the doors are moldy.

“When I got here six years ago, it was horrible. I mean, there were gaping holes with mold!” First she had junk thrown out that had been lurking in the school for years, filling dumpster after dumpster of useless educational fossils. She began to solicit partnerships from local organizations and enlisted local power-moms as volunteers. The roof had been leaking, leading to a potential mold problem: that got fixed. Flaking plaster was ripped out and replaced. Kaplan arranged for multiple service days for painting and building upgrades, and welcomed high-profile civic leaders to get their hands dirty and help out, inspiring more volunteerism. With community help, they created a rooftop garden. Working with another organization, Jackson is in a five-year process of wrapping the 90-year-old building in mural art. A state of the art playground was donated, and families pitched in to install it. Flags representing every student’s country of heritage were hung in the halls and the front doors were finally painted a bright, cheery red.

“To me,” Kaplan says, “School has to be the safe place and a happy place. So, we worked very, very hard for a visual change — knowing that people are very judgmental and that they're going to look at you visually and judge you from the outside before they see the inside. And people would never send their children here.”

While Kaplan is unusually successful at forging beneficial partnerships with private organizations, she’s also highly adept at earning parental trust. From the beginning, Kaplan has tirelessly sought to involve parents, inviting moms and dads into her office for coffee, meeting with parents at volunteer-led potlucks, sometimes requiring an interpreter to assist.

She also inspires teacher involvement. Since Kaplan arrived at Jackson, teacher absenteeism is down, and teachers are taking on projects of their own with deep, passionate enthusiasm.

Take, for example, Chris Agerakis — he’s a huge fan of rock-and-roll, and he wanted to teach it to his students, but he had a problem. Traditionally, schools teach orchestra. That meant strings, horns, and flutes. But he had visions of guitars, amps, and drums. So, he went to Kaplan with a suggestion, and she told him to go for it. “Well, if that’s what you want to do,” she said, “let’s do a rock band!”

Looking back, Kaplan said, “Now we have this famous little rock band that has played in Washington, D.C., and has played with some big people. And really, it’s because I capitalized on Chris’s passion for rock music, which he loved and wanted to play. Now the kids love it and we have a junior band, and a senior band, and it’s evolved into something more than just his passion —  because it’s something he loves. So he’s devoting countless unapid hours to it.”

The trick, Kaplan says, is to realize that “Everyone is skilled.  I believe if you have a skill and that is your strength, then you should be the leader in that area.  I think a lot of people have problems pushing power to other people, and I don't. I'm more than happy —  if you're strong in something, I'll give it to you and trust that you're going to do it.”

Power to the people of South Philly.

Accomplished

The trust Kaplan extends to others returns to her credit as results for her school. In Kaplan’s first year at the helm of Jackson, the school made Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time in seven years, while annual Pennsylvania System School Assessment scores ranked above the district average in all but one category. One year later, Jackson students scored in the top 25% of the Philadelpha district schools. In the most recently published scores, Jackson’s PSSA scores are still higher than district average, and Jackson continues to make Adequate Yearly Progress.

When Kaplan arrived at Jackson, apart from immediately addressing the physical appearances of the building, she also implemented a behavior management system for the students called PAWS — an initialisim for “Positive Attitude Wins Success.” The primary behavioral expections for the students are that they be respectful, responsible, and reliable.

But, as Kaplan noted in our conversation, “Students are supposed to make mistakes.” In Kaplan’s view, schools need to be a safe place to make mistakes but also to learn from them, and teachers need to be there to help them learn from those mistakes. Kaplan’s PAWS program doesn't focus on the aftermath of disciplinary actions as much as focus on prevention and intervention. Her program anticipated the district’s move toward prevention and intervention by three years and has resulted in a dramatic reduction in suspensions and serious incidents at the school.

In a school where 80% of thee students are economically disadvantaged and represent 24 national heritages speaking 14 different languages, getting everybody to move the ship in the same direction requires distributed leadership. No single person can possibly communicate vision and intention effectively to such a diverse student body: but as Kaplan notes, “It doesn't have to be all about me.”

All about Lisa

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» Special thanks to Bill Chenevert with the South Philly News,who provided some background quotes for this story.


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But, for this prize, for a few minutes, hours or days, at least, we do want it to be all about Lisa Kaplan. Because we need more principals and school administrators like Kaplan, cut from the cloth of Henry Gradillas and Jaime Escalante. We need more principals and administrators who are deeply skilled at education, but who are also energetic, inspired, and inspiring leaders in their own right, skilled at delegating, effective at building partnerships, and utterly absent pride and ego.

As Dare Henry-Moss, a mother to a Jackson-bound child, notes, “Principal Kaplan has been a shining example of how strong leadership, resourcefulness, and community engagement can help her school not only weather the storm, but keep improving.”

TheBestSchools.org is proud to award the Escalante–Gradillas Prize for the Best in Education to Lisa Kaplan. We hope this small prize can help her weather fresh storms and inspire her to keep improving as well.

2nd PlaceCharlene Mendoza of Arizona College Prep Academy

Charlene Mendoza, Arizona College Prep Academy
Charlene Mendoza, Chief Education Officer
Arizona College Prep Academy
Tucson, AZ | @az_collegeprep

The first charter school was established in 1992 and the phenomenon has since blossomed. Not a lot of educators could be considered “veterans” in this educational movement. But Charlene Mendoza is a genuine veteran of the Charter school movement. In the past 19 years, she has helped establish three charter schools, and is currently the chief education officer of yet another — the Arizona College Prep Academy in Tucson AZ. The school serves an ethnically blended community, with a high ratio of Hispanic-Latino students (28% of families report a primary language other than English), and 70% poverty rate in the student body. She has utilized the innovative liberties of Charter schools to implement project-based learning, and forged numerous partnerships in the community.

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Congratulations to Principal Charlene Mendoza, 2nd place finalist in the #BestInEducation prize!
These innovative approaches spring from a courageous approach to education. In her application video, she states candidly, “We didn't know how to build a school, but we know how to build a family” — and that is what they did. Mendoza and the faculty faced cultural and circumstantial problems with creativity and resolve and — like a family — found ways to make it work by serving and adapting to each other’s changing needs. It turns out that schools can do pretty well when modeling the love and commitment of family. Under her leadership, the school rose two levels to an “A” rating — an excelling school. She secured numerous grants including a 5-year grant partnership with the National Park service for generating service learning opportunities, community outreach, and field science opportunities. In 2008, Arizona College Prep Academy was recognized as the Arizona Charter school of the year.

Principal Mendoza’s accomplishments are even more impressive in light of her impoverished childhood and cross-cultural upbringing. She had no “silver spoon in her mouth,” but through it all she learned how to fight for opportunities and funding. Through a combination of working, negotiating and petitioning for the money, Mendoza graduated from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University where she earned a BA in Latin American Studies and Women’s Studies. From there, she attended grad school at the University of Arizona where she earned an master’s in Language, Reading and Culture, and is a currently in the throes of her PhD, also at University of Arizona.

She actively promotes a passion for learning by collaborating in state and national workshops, speaking at conferences, and serving in committees to innovate strategic educational answers. She researches and publishes on educational strategies and even hosts a monthly collaborative meeting for area Charter School. With every ounce of education she has received, she truly pays it forward.

3rd PlaceAnthony Majewski of Hill-Freedman World Academy

Anthony Majewski Hill-Freeman World Academy
Anthony Majewski, Principal
Hill-Freeman World Academy
Philadelphia, PA

Principal Anthony Majewski has presided over some unusual circumstances at Hill-Freedom World Academy. This unique school is a merger of two separate schools — Joseph E. Hill School (a magnate school), and Sampson Freedman School (a special needs school). Majewski has fostered hard-fought unity by modeling total commitment to every student. Students with special needs are deeply integrated into the rest of the student body, and all students participate together in service based learning, civic responsibility, and global awareness initiatives. Like other Philadelphia area schools, Hill-Freedman World Academy has endured state budget cuts. However, these cuts sink particularly deep since three-fourths of the students are impoverished, and a third are in the special education program (for leaning differences). Throw in the complications of inner city life, and this school is uniquely challenged.

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Congratulations to Principal Anthony Majewski, 3rd place finalist in the #BestInEducation prize!
Majewski has faced these adversities like a hero. He has secured over $2.6 million dollars in grant and prize funding for the school. He’s introduced a prestigious international baccalaureate "middle years and diploma program.” In addition, the school has consistently surpassed state averages in math and language arts. Majewksi’s “Global awareness” model of education has proven so effective that parents approached him when he was a middle school principal and persuaded him to expand the school into a 6th-12th program. If his middle school was so successful, why not make that a high school model too? And so began the Hill-Freedman World Academy. In 2006, despite being a new school at the time, the school was the first “blue ribbon” commendation in the state. Majewski’s academic laurels only hint at the wider accomplishments of Hill-Freedman. Majewski has degrees from Cheyney University (Masters in Education; Cheyney, PA), Vermont Law School (Masters of Environmental Law and Policy; South Royalton, VT), Eastern University (Biology Certification; St. Davids, PA), and Millersville University (Bachelors in Biology; Millersville, PA). Currently he’s pursuing a Doctorate of Education at Arcadia University (Glenside, PA).

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