Roxborough High principal will be honored as one of the city's best

Stephen Brandt drops in on Aaliyah Wynder on his rounds at Roxborough High. Brandt is winner of a Lindback Award for excellence among Philadelphia principals.
Stephen Brandt drops in on Aaliyah Wynder on his rounds at Roxborough High. Brandt is winner of a Lindback Award for excellence among Philadelphia principals. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff)
Posted: April 10, 2013

As a basketball player for Roxborough High in the mid-1990s, Stephen Brandt was a guy with "a high motor" - a tall, skinny guard who gave everything every minute he was on the floor, who liked to get things done on the court.

As the current principal of Roxborough, he's not much different, though his actions are more likely to lead to a more orderly, high-achieving school than an athletic victory.

Brandt is one of seven school leaders being honored Tuesday as some of the Philadelphia School District's best. He's a winner of the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation's Distinguished Principal Award, which comes not just with prestige but also with a $15,000 stipend.

"Brandt's a good one!" a district maintenance worker often at the school shouted as Brandt gave a visitor a tour recently.

"He really cares," senior Mina McCallum said. "He makes Roxborough a better school."

When Brandt arrived at Roxborough in March 2010, it had a reputation as a tough place and a spot on the state's "Persistently Dangerous" list.

Its hallways were "out of control," Brandt recalls. Staff left because they didn't feel safe. A student once tossed flaming pieces of paper into nurse Eileen DiFranco's office.

"There was no sense of urgency; people felt defeated" when he arrived, Brandt said. He was 33 years old, but not daunted to jump into the school where he had graduated in 1994.

It was a tough spot, but in some ways a good one, Brandt said.

"The staff was hungry for a change," he said. "They had a lot of talent, and they just needed some help."

First order of business: getting the climate under control by focusing on small victories. Rules were made, emphasized, and enforced by everyone. There were frequent hall sweeps, clear consequences for students who acted out. (The hall sweeps continue, though less frequent and now, pupils are so accustomed to them they walk themselves to administrators for processing if caught.)

Relationships - a strength of Brandt's - were emphasized. This was not a stretch in a school where many staff hail from or live in the neighborhood and often bump into their students outside of the building. Every student should have at least one adult he or she feels a connection with, Brandt said.

The strategy paid off. Roxborough came off the persistently dangerous list, and perceptions started to change. And once students' behavior was under control, the next goal was working on academics.

Brandt encouraged teachers to move away from the "sage on the stage," or lecture model of teaching, to make their lessons more interactive and engaging.

The brightly colored college banners that hang outside the administrative offices are a clue to another change - an emphasis on higher learning. Cue the urgency, Brandt said.

"We want every student to have the opportunity to go to college," Brandt said. "If you want to go in the military, fine, but I don't want you to do it because you feel like you have no other option."

The school has upped its number of Advanced Placement courses to eight and will add two more next year. This year, every senior has filled out at least one college application - staff made sure of that - and 75 percent have filled out financial aid forms, feats for one of the city's comprehensive high schools, where academics have long lagged.

Staff turnover has slowed considerably, with Roxborough a full site-selection school, meaning Brandt and a committee get to pick who fills vacancies, rather than seniority-based hiring.

Roxborough had already had fruitful partnerships with the Philadelphia Education Fund and Philadelphia Academies, but Brandt strengthened them and brought in others. Now, every freshman attends college for a day. There are parent workshops.

Brandt fell into education accidentally, teaching at a Catholic school in California to earn money for law school.

To his surprise, he fell in love with teaching and moved back home for a graduate degree in education and a career in the Philadelphia school system.

Now 36, Brandt brims with energy, walking the halls of Roxborough High with a palpable sense of purpose. (He needs it - in addition to his full-time job, Brandt is enrolled in a doctoral program at Temple University, is married, and has three small boys at home.)

"Your hat and hood, sir," he called down the hallway to one student, who smiled sheepishly and removed the offending items.

Brandt poked his head inside an Algebra I class, chatting quietly with students working on scatter plots. He paused in front of a softball player's desk; her team had just suffered a lopsided loss, and she looked down.

"You guys just play your game, OK? Stay focused," he told her.

There's no question that Brandt is the leader of the school, but he's not the only authority figure.

"This can't be a one-man show, and it's not," he said. This year, he is casting a wider net - not just relying on his inner circle of administrators, but identifying more leaders. "In the long run, that's going to be better for Roxborough High School," he said.

Shifts in education and population trends have brought changes since Brandt graduated from a school with 1,400 students in 1994. Roxborough is now down to 480 students. The mid-2000s depopulation of large neighborhood district schools, the rise of charter schools, plus more young, childless people in the neighborhood have all contributed.

But Roxborough will take in an estimated 100 students when Germantown High closes at the end of the year. At the same time, the district's perpetual budget squeeze means Roxborough has to do more with less.

Brandt lost an assistant principal and a number of support staff last year; one secretary now performs the job that four did when he arrived. ("I type my own letters," Brandt said.) So far, he has managed to hang on to three guidance counselors, though it is unclear what will happen next year, since the money for one's salary is paid for through a grant that is drying up.

Still, the school will find a way, he said: "We can't shy away from helping our kids."

Brandt was floored by the Lindback honor.

"But it really represents the growth and the progress that we've made as a unit, all of Roxborough High School," he said. "The students truly have bought in to what we want to accomplish, and that makes it special."

Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at

comments powered by Disqus