West Philadelphia: Keith Newman Doing Right By Students At Paul Robeson High School
The Dean of Students at Paul Robeson High School for Human Services, Keith Newman, strives each day to connect with 312 students through restorative practices. Robeson offers citywide enrollment to students from all over Philadelphia and aims to teach social skills that will prepare the students for the real world. Newman and the rest of the teachers at Robeson are thinking outside of the box to encourage students to take on leadership roles and to become successful young adults.
What was your growth from being a teacher to a dean of students?
I started off as a math teacher. I had great guidance from previous leadership. I also worked for Mr. Gordon at two previous buildings and he guided and elevated my positions. When he asked me to join him at Paul Robeson, that was an opportunity that I could not pass up. I am considering Principalship at Lehigh University and Mr.Gordon has agreed to take me on as an intern principal.
Have you always wanted to be a teacher or a dean of students?
I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was in 11th grade. It involved me getting into trouble in class so my teacher made me come to the board to teach. The following year, I was asked to be a student teacher. During my senior year, I taught pre-algebra for one period and the freshman had to call me Mr. Newman in the hallways. I’ve loved interacting with students ever since.
How do you define student success?
Failure in the classroom is the only path to success. How else will I know what to help my students with? Getting them outside of their comfort zone is difficult. Once I am able to do that, my students are comfortable with asking questions and there is a trust factor. I want my students to feel positive about their growth at the end of the day.
What are the most important decisions that you have to make?
You always have to look like you’re making the right decision and that you’ve got it all together. When making decisions, I try to take it slowly. I try to listen to my students and to get all of the facts right. The question is was the student treated properly? In this building, we want all of the students to feel like their voices are heard.
What is the most joy that you receive from working with the students at Paul Robeson High School for Human Services?
I would say that planting seeds that pay off later is the most amazing part for me. Seeing the light bulbs go off day-to-day is great. We have alumni that randomly come back after college finals to say, “I remember that you tried to prepare me for college and you were right.” The most important thing for me is also seeing the growth of my students.
How does the school build community partnerships?
Because of where we are located, we are extremely fortunate. To properly do our jobs, we get involved here. We have a huge outreach program to a lot of the elementary schools to allow our students to do reading programs for senior projects. We also have major universities connections with Drexel, Penn, Temple, the University of Sciences and a dual enrollment program with the Community College of Philadelphia that counts for college credit for any school that the students chooses to go to.
How is creativity encouraged?
The principal, Mr. Gordon, encourages the students and teachers to have creative classroom collaborations. We have fishbowl activities that involve students sitting around in the classroom discussing other students writing. I’ve never heard of this before, but the kids get so involved in it. I’ve also seen in a lot of our classrooms that we have guest visitors come in to teach social sciences and to talk about social justice from another perspective.
Give an example of the students applying what they have learned from the social justice lessons.
The students are given the platform to role-play scenarios that may have occurred in the newspaper 40 years ago or as recently as yesterday. The students are asked how can we correct or better respond to this behavior. Things are always expanding or evolving because there are different facets. I’ve sat in on senior classes performing social justice skits to the class and I must say that they are amazing.
How does the school keep the parents involved?
It’s a family environment here. I spend at least 2 hours at home calling parents to talk about when students are doing bad and when they’re doing good in school. Those are the types of things that bring parents back. When I became the dean of students, I wanted it to be a positive thing and the parents are usually very grateful for it.
Do you try to understand the parents past to better connect with the students?
A lot of parents open up more once they feel comfortable. It’s a natural relationship and the parents are forthcoming with us. We get to know the students and the parents a lot more than acquaintances in passing. Parents ask, “Where are you from?” My response is it’s 38 years of Philly and I feel a natural connection to the city, the school district and the people.
What is your educational philosophy?
I see the kids that pass through this building and it reminds me of when I was a kid. I know that my parents believed in me, just like the parents that send their kids to our school. I want to do right by that and that is my true philosophy here.
-Text and images by Serenity Bishop and Naderah Brooks