Honors for prize Philadelphia school principals

Christine Borelli-Connor has improved test scores and engaged parents and the community at the John Webster Elementary School in Kensington. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Christine Borelli-Connor has improved test scores and engaged parents and the community at the John Webster Elementary School in Kensington. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (Christine Borelli-Connor)
Posted: April 09, 2012

Before principal Christine Borelli-Connor arrived at James H. Webster Elementary School in Philadelphia's Kensington section in 2006, expectations for its students were not high.

Borelli-Connor, 35, said that few of the school's fifth graders were being admitted to the city's magnet middle schools and that scores on standardized tests were low.

The outlook for the school's 940 students has changed significantly since then.

"We received, this week alone, 37 acceptance letters from magnet schools," she said.

"When I got here, our test scores were 17 percent in reading and 22 percent in math," Borelli-Connor said, adding that most recently, Webster students were in the 52d percentile in reading and 65 percent in math.

"The scores are indicative of hard work," she said, "however, it's not to say we're there yet."

Borelli-Connor, who was raised within walking distance of the school, is among seven Philadelphia School District principals who will receive the Lindback Distinguished Principal Leadership Award.

The award, being presented for its second year, is funded by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation of Philadelphia, named for the former principal owner of Abbotts Dairies Inc. and his wife. The foundation supports a variety of charitable causes, including excellence in education.

The other recipients of the Lindback Awards for principals, which will be presented April 10 at the Prince Music Theater, are: Norris Eldridge, Francis Scott Key Elementary; Ralph A. Burnley, George Nebinger Elementary; Stephanie Mitchell, Morris E. Leeds Middle School; Yvonne Jones, Motivation High; Linda M. Carroll, Northeast High; and Christopher Lehmann, Science Leadership Academy High. Thirty-two principals were nominated for the honor.

The award honors Philadelphia School District principals "who are models of educational leadership for teachers, other school staff, parents, and students, and who also demonstrate a commendable level of public service to the benefit of their schools and their communities," district spokesman Evelyn Sample-Oates said.

"It's a humbling experience," said Borelli-Connor, a graduate of Girls High.

"When I was nominated, I thought, 'That's nice that they nominated me,' " said Borelli-Connor, who graduated from West Chester University and earned a master's degree from Towson University. "And when I found out that I won, I said, 'What an opportunity, especially being here at Webster.' . . . We're located in Kensington. We don't get a lot of positive publicity."

Each winner will receive $15,000 to be used to improve the quality of education in their schools.

Borelli-Connor said her grant would be used to buy a state-of-the-art audio system for the school cafeteria so the school can stage plays and other performances for students and parents.

District officials said Borelli-Connor had not only improved test scores, but had engaged parents and the community to become more active in a school in a neighborhood grappling with the challenges of drugs, violence, and poverty.

The student body is 51 percent Latino, 32 percent African American, and 11 percent white. Borelli-Connor said 18 percent of students enter Webster as non-English speakers.

"No excuses here," Borelli-Connor said. "It doesn't matter: race, gender, or language barrier. . . . The expectation doesn't change. We expect progress."

Asked what the school did to improve test scores, Borelli-Connor said, "We focused our instruction on the individual needs of the students."

She said teachers in each classroom post test scores on a wall and monitor each child's progress.

"Our slogan here is: 'Webster Elementary, where progress happens; No exceptions, no excuses,' " Borelli-Connor said. "If you don't believe that and that's not your philosophy as an educator, then you don't belong here."

Sample-Oates said Borelli-Connor was selected for the award because "a large part of her school population is at poverty level and their parents weren't engaged. Students were not making adequate yearly progress, but now they are."

Elisa Rodriguez, mother of a second grader at Webster, said Borelli-Connor, "finds a way to get parents more involved. She has done an awesome job."

Other 2012 Lindback Award Honorees

In addition to Christine Borelli-Connor, six principals in the Philadelphia School District have been selected to receive the Lindback Distinguished Principal Leadership Award. Each of the seven will receive $15,000 to go toward something in their schools that will help to improve the quality of education for students and the community.

The awards ceremony will take place at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Prince Music Theater on Chestnut Street.

The following information was drawn by the district from each winner's nominating letter:

Linda M. Carroll, Northeast High School

As principal of the largest high school in the city, with more than 3,000 students who speak more than 57 languages, Linda Carroll focuses on maintaining an inclusive and culturally diverse climate that respects and embraces human differences while simultaneously encouraging teachers to become more involved in planning and professional development. Her staff says, "Principal Carroll's first priority is literacy, which will undoubtedly help children become successful adults." She has focused on technology, parent support, and building community outreach.

Ralph A. Burnley, George W. Nebinger Elementary School

Ralph A. Burnley's experience in education has run the gamut as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant regional superintendent, and regional superintendent. He is focused on eliminating bullying in the schools and making sure his students are focused on succeeding in the classroom. As today's youth become increasingly disconnected from their physical and cultural environment, Burnley realizes that physical outdoor exercise is critical in a daily routine. Therefore, he is soliciting community partners to build a green schoolyard at Nebinger.

Yvonne Jones, Motivation High School

Yvonne Jones is a product of the School District of Philadelphia. As a graduate of Girls High School, she understands the importance of a good, solid education. She has served in multiple administrations, fulfilling many roles in the district. Her vision is clear at Motivation High School, and that is to give all students equal opportunity to learn and achieve. She has made Motivation a public-school setting with a private-school philosophy. Her strong leadership quality enhances academic achievement and also fosters positive relationships among staff, students, and the community.

Norris Eldridge, Francis Scott Key Elementary School

Norris Eldridge has been working in the School District of Philadelphia since 1971. Eldridge's colleagues describe him as a philanthropist, community activist, profound academic adviser, and caring mentor of students, families, staff, and the community. The Key School serves a diverse population of families from more than 12 countries. Upon his arrival, Eldridge embraced the diverse culture of the school, and since then has worked tirelessly to build strong community partnerships and pilot programs to meet the needs of the entire community.

Stephanie Mitchell, Leeds Middle School

Stephanie Mitchell is a product of the School District of Philadelphia. When Mitchell accepted the position at Leeds in September 2002, only 14.7 percent of students were reading on the proficient or advanced level, and 8.5 percent of students scored proficient or higher on the math portion of the state-mandated test. Under her leadership, the percentage of students reading on a proficient or advanced level has risen to 56.8 percent, and 63.7 percent of students now complete math tasks on a proficient or advanced level. Colleagues say Mitchell represents the ideal model of professionalism: dedication, conscientiousness, and a commitment to what is best for children.

Christopher Lehmann, Science Leadership Academy

As the founding principal, Christopher Lehmann has led the progressive science and technology school to be one of the pioneers of the School 2.0 movement nationally and internationally, and has received a number of honors personally as well. Lehmann was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for his work in education reform, named one of the "30 Most Influential People in EdTech" by Technology & Learning Magazine. A native of New York, Lehmann says his students are a part of his family and they all treat the school like a second home.

Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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