10 Outstanding Principals: Meet the 2015 Best in Education Prize Finalists

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We here at TheBestSchools.org have been combing through the candidates for the Escalante–Gradillas $20,000 Prize for Best in Education and we are pleased to announce our 2015 top 10 finalists. The 2015 finalists are primary and secondary school administrators who demonstrate a wide range of gifts, experiences, and accomplishments. Every one of these leaders has proven his or her ability to overcome odds, rally the team, and cultivate educational success where weaker wills could not.

The finalists are listed here in alphabetic order.

The 2015 Best in Education Finalists

Daniel GeorgeCreative Technologies Academy

Daniel George Creative Technology AcademySuperintendent and School Leader
(Cedar Springs, MI)

Daniel George is a servant leader at Creative Technologies Academy (CTA), a charter school in Cedar Springs Michigan with about 300 students. Dan's experience in the business world (25 years) and as a basketball coach at a local college have molded his leadership style for teamwork, efficiency, and the work ethic to “keep getting better.” Yet, make no mistake, Mr. George's first love is not business, or basketball, it's education. His educational credentials include a BA in History and Teacher Certification from Hartwick College (Oneonta, NY) and an MA in Curriculum and Instruction from the College of Education at Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI). When Mr. George first arrived at Creative Technologies Academy, the school was facing a 50% student poverty rate (whose household income was at or below the poverty line), and the school was struggling in probationary status, barely maintaining accreditation. But before long, the school's state grades rose 31% and now CTA “exceeds expectations.” This was a marginal school that's now an academic leader.

Mr. George's methods emphasize leadership training and community engagement programs. For example, he has worked with his teachers and staff to develop leadership curriculum, emphasizing character, service learning, and college readiness. Effectively, this model empowers students to take responsibility for their community, actively apply their learning, and contribute to the overall health of their school. One spotlight for community engagement is “Coffee with Mr. George,” a monthly 7am open door gathering to chat about the school, its direction, and its role in the community. Dan's peers describe him as a man of strong moral fiber and integrity. In applying for this award, Dan couldn't help but commend his fellow administrators and educators as his team of sacrificial servants. Who wouldn't want to work hard with that kind of encouraging support?

Stacy R. Gill-PhillipsWest Philadelphia Charter Elementary School

Founder and Principal
(Philadelphia, PA)

Dr. Stacy R. Gill-Phillipps is no stranger to adversity. As principal at the West Philadelphia Charter Elementary School, she works in an urban setting, with a 98% African-American student body and a poverty rate of 95%. Combine these factors with statewide budget cuts, and newly intensified academic standards and you've get a recipe for failure – except it didn't fail. Through Dr. Gill-Phillipps's leadership, the school has maintained poise, dignity, and resilience—just like Gill-Phillipps herself. She has secured grants to help offset budget cuts, establish a community learning center, advance school improvement projects, and facilitate professional development (for teachers). She's also fostered community partnerships and introduced service learning activities with local charities. Dr. Gill-Phillips certainly knows how to “make more from less.”

Dr. Gill-Phillipps is good at what she does, and not just because she exudes persistence. She is an accomplished academic herself with several publishings, along with earned degrees in Business Administration Management (BA; Penn State), Elementary Education and Curriculum Instruction (MA; Temple University), and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2012 she received the AIM Educator award.

These accomplishments are all the more impressive in light of her tumultuous background. Dr. Gill-Phillipps was born and raised by a single mother. Dr. Gill-Phillipps was born and raised by a single mother and later had 4 children of her own with her husband. A family that size is a handful. However, after the untimely death of her sister, McGill-Phillips and her husband stepped in and adopted the seven children her sister had left behind. At one point, they were caring for all eleven children in a two-bedroom apartment. It's no wonder she is so skilled at mentoring the over 650 students at her charter school! Gill-Phillipps commitment to charitable service did not go unnoticed and she was given the 2004 Papa Philippians award. Only a person as sacrificial and resilient as she is could do what she's done at home and at school. That can-do attitude has proved inspirational to students and teachers alike. She doesn't just teach her students to transform adversity into accomplishment. She has paved the way.

William “Woodland” JohnsonMort Elementary

William Woodland Johnson Mort Elementary Tampa FloridaPrincipal
(Tampa, FL)

William “Woodland” Johnson, the Principal at Mort Elementary School in Tampa Florida, is best described as an inspirational leader. He has a way of motivating teachers and students alike to work hard, keep a good attitude, and be socially responsible. Mr. Johnson utilizes a community school model of education where “We're all in this together.” And by “all,” he means more than just the student body, faculty and staff. To Mr. Johnson, “all” includes partnerships with local businesses, charity work off site, and various forms of community involvement. There are even plans for a community medical clinic, dentist, and subsidized housing. With a poverty rate of almost 100%, this school has to fill in gaps where the families and community struggle. The community school model has done just that. The effect has been improved parent involvement, stronger community awareness, fewer medical problems, greater social responsibility -- and of course -- measurable gains in grades and attendance. Add to that success, additional funding from 18+ different grants he's secured for the school.

With success like this, this school is more than a school. Under Mr. Johnson's influence, Mort Elementary school has become a community center, a professional development academy for teachers, a food/clothing pantry, and a family support clinic. As a result it has earned at least 15 different commendations including the 5-Star School award four years in a row. It shouldn't be surprising that this school rose over 180 positions---from the 195th position among the state's 300 lowest-performing schools to the top 10---quite an accomplishment to say the least!

Mr. Johnson loves his teachers, but he's not selfish with them. Several peer recommendations point out how he encourages all within his sphere of influence to get the best education they can and to keep testing out their wings. Mr. Johnson academic credentials testify to this philosophy: BA in Music Education (University of South Florida), MA in Educational Leadership (Nova Southeastern university). And he's currently enrolled in an Education Specialist Degree Program at the University of South Florida.

Lisa KaplanAndrew Jackson School

Lisa Kaplan, Andrew Jackson School, Philadelphia, PAPrincipal
(Philadelphia, PA)

Lisa Kaplan is the problem-solving principal at the helm of Andrew Jackson School, a Kindergarten through 8th grade school located in downtown Philadelphia. A 20 year veteran of education, she has served at Jackson for 6 years running. In just those short years, she has withstood a bevy of state educational standard changes, adjusted accordingly, and come out on top. The Philadelphia school district is one of the largest in the country, and it has adopted new common core standards, and radically revised school accreditation criteria, all while issuing drastic budget cuts. While other schools were tightening their belt for drastic cut backs, Principal Kaplan was forging a whopping 40 new grant assistance awards and community partnerships to help offset costs. Partnerships include community projects, volunteer assistants, and -- one of the brightest lights in the school -- a new mentoring program. Under her leadership, the school has become a “neighborhood arts and music jewel,” through both their innovative performing arts programs and the Kindergarten building's rooftop garden.

“That's not my job” is not a phrase you will hear coming from Principal Kaplan. To meet the needs of her faculty and students, she has had to wear many hats during her time as principal -- including nurse, operations manager, counselor and secretary. No task is “beneath her pay grade.”

The student body has a poverty rate of 90%, and for 20% of students, English is their second language. The school's urban location in Philadelphia provides its own set of challenges as well. Yet, in spite of these obstacles, Principal Kaplan has elevated Jackson School, from “underperforming,” to “exceeding state standards” in both reading and math. The school now ranks as a “model school” for achievement and climate. Her peers note her dedication and passion. Despite her many tasks, she always keeps her door open; never losing sight of the individuals in the crowd. With all this to her credit, it's not hard to see why she was awarded the 2014 Distinguished Principal Award from the Lindback Foundation.

Anthony MajewskiHill-Freedman World Academy

Anthony Majewski Hill-Freeman World AcademyPrincipal
(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.

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).

Charlene MendozaArizona College Prep Academy

Chief Education Officer
(Tucson, AZ)

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.

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.

Jacob PerlmutterJerry Zucker Middle School of Science

Jacob Perlmutter Jerry Zucker Middle School of SciencePrincipal
(Charleston, SC)

As a graduate of the Citadel – a military college in Charleston, SC – one might expect Principal Perlmutter to be a domineering drill sergeant, but that is hardly the case. Instead, his peers describe him as “inspiring” and “lovable.” Schools like Jerry Zucker Middle School of Science can use all the love and inspiration they can get. Based in North Charleston not far from the beach Zucker School of Science serves a predominately African-American student body where 84% fall below the poverty line.

Mr. Perlmutter has had his work cut out for him. Undaunted though, he implemented various programs and policies to stretch learning beyond the classroom. Science fairs and competitions help keep education exciting. Special education students are interwoven within the general population to foster social learning across the campus. Classes also venture into the gardens outside, to learn botany and horticulture through gardening. Students pickle their own vegetables and compete to see whose veggies are the tastiest. Perlmutter has opened other doors for the school by securing tens of thousands of dollars in grants along with a smattering of awards to boot.

Mr. Perlmutter's formal experience in education dates back about seven years, but his studied preparation goes back much further. He has earned a permanent teaching license in English (grades 7-12), and he has degrees from the Citadel (MA in Administration and Supervision; Charleston, SC), from Fordham University (MS in Teaching; Bronx and Manhattan, NY), and from the College of Charleston (BA in English; Charleston, SC).

Lena PiresGlobal Learning Charter Public School

Lena Pires Global Learning Charter Public School New Bedford MAPrincipal
(New Bedford, MA)

Principal Lena Pires has served at Global Learning Charter Public School (GLCPS) in New Bedford, Massachusetts for 12 years – 4 years as a teacher, and 8 years in administration. This school is diverse both economically and ethnically. About 55% of the student body is underprivileged. 5.6% are English Language learners (having a primary language other than English), and 15% have other learning disabilities. To help meet these needs, the school has hired a Learning Differences educator, and brought on an additional ELL (English Language Learner) teacher and is working with a consulting firm to make sure that new students, English Language Learners, and other struggling students can get the support they need to meet the rigorous standards for Charter School's testing.

In Principal Pires's time at GLCPS, she has regularly improved the school ranking – even earning a spot for the school as one of the top high schools in the 2014-2015 US News and World Report. During Pire's time there, the school has been able to boast a virtually non-existent 1.9% dropout rate, an attendance rate of 95-96% and a graduation consistently at 95-100%

Principal Pires has gathered hundreds of thousands of dollars in school grants and even introduced an innovative Martial Arts Program (Tang Soo Do) – making it free to students. Recently, the school received a $9,300 state grant for new math software. Principal Pires brings several academic accomplishments to the table including degrees from Bristol Community College, a Bachelor of Science in Electric Engineering and a Master of Science in Teaching and Mathematics, both from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

Timothy SchavelMalcolm C. Hursey Elementary School

Timothy Schavel Malcolm C. Hursey ElementaryPrincipal
(Charleston, SC)

Dr. Timothy Schavel has set Malcolm C. Hursey Elementary School (MCHES) on a course to develop “World Class Kids.” This unusual school in the North Charleston area of South Carolina is both a title 1 and a mixed-Montessori school. That means they offer traditional classes for 1-4th grades, and 14 Montessori model classrooms from 3K to 8th grade. Yet they serve an underprivileged community. How does Dr. Schavel manage this unusual hybrid?

According to his staff, Dr. Schavel leads with meekness, love, and encouragement. He understands that each child learns and grows in their own unique way, and he serves his staff and students with the grace and patience they need to flourish. MCHES is, in many ways, a disadvantaged school, with a high poverty rate—80% of students—and 86% of students receiving free or discount meals. The area is largely African American (60%) but otherwise ethnically diverse. To foster multicultural appreciation, Dr. Schavel has initiated global-awareness activities and cross-cultural appreciation, such as intercultural art and music projects, and even a yoga class. Through his efforts, the school has increased not only in productivity, but has gained enthusiasm for diversity.

It wasn't always this way though. MCHES was once rated “F” by the state, and struggled with morale, grades, and procuring resources. Under Dr. Schavel's leadership however, the school has risen from an “F” to a “B” rating. His leadership is gentle but effective, earning him several awards regionally and beyond including “Rookie Principal of the Year,” “Administrator of the Year,” and the “Outstanding Principal” award. No longer unknown in the educational community, he uses his reputation to secure funding through dozens of different grants and prizes.

One particular grant stands out among the rest. Hursey Elementary receives a sizable endowment from Jerry and Anita Zucker, called the “Zucker Family Endowment Fund.” This holistic grant facilitates student gardening, harvesting, preparing crops, creating menus, meal preparation, and dining with family members in the schools “Garden Classroom.” These family meals provide the setting for planned dinner table talks about family topics like child-rearing, financial literacy, healthy food preparation, nutritional and health habits, and—of critical need in that area—how to break the cycle of poverty in low-income neighborhood. With programs like this, the school has proven to be one of the most innovative educational experiences of it's kind.

Dr. Schavel's has both a Masters and a Doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University (Fort Lauderdale, FL). He has another Masters in Education from the Citadel (Charleston, SC). He collected his Montessori credentials from the Houston Montessori School (Houston, TX), and he earned his BA in Elementary Education from Limestone College (Gaffney, SC).

Mark SullivanToms River High School South

Mark Sullivan Toms River High School South9th grade Vice Principal
(Toms River, NJ)

Mark Sullivan brings a background in Education and History to the monumental task of leading 9th graders at Toms River High School. However, his greatest contributions so far have been outside a formal teaching environment. His most prized accomplishment has little to do with teaching history or managing a classroom—though he is excellent at both. Rather, his greatest accomplishment is in how he gets his students to value themselves and the contributions they can make to the world. No one would ever accuse Mark Sullivan of treating kids like they are just a number. He is a gifted mentor and has established a profoundly successful mentoring program.

Students participate in charitable giving and adventure activities – all designed to engage disadvantaged youth who need that extra support. “At risk” students can sometimes view themselves as mere charity cases. Through Mr. Sullivan's mentoring program, these same students come to discover the immense value they can bring to the world through friendships, sacrifice, and serving their fellow man.

Mark is currently the 9th Grade Vice-Principal at Toms River High School South. He earned his BA in history from the University of Delaware, and an MA in Educational Leadership at Jersey City University. He's been teaching and administrating for 9 years and has procured at least 9 different grants and monetary prizes for the school. He performs his job with purpose, and utilizes his position outside the classroom to cater to the social and emotional health of his students. It is not uncommon to find him chatting in the halls with students, playing four-square with special education students, organizing leadership and mentoring activities, or organizing trips and partnerships with area charities and parks. Kids will go where they feel wanted and they will work hard for someone they care about, and who cares about them. It is no coincidence that under Mr. Sullivan's leadership, the school has made significant gains in retention rates, grades, and student involvement.