Glowing from the light streaming through her office windows in Andrew Jackson Elementary School, Lisa Kaplan sat calmly during a hectic day, even with her radio buzzing about Jim Kenney, the newly elected mayor, visiting the school in an hour.
Kaplan, a College of Education alumna and principal of Andrew Jackson Elementary on 12th and Federal streets, was recently awarded the 2015 Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education by thebestschools.org, a school-ranking organization. The award recognizes principals who have succeeded in providing opportunities for students and excelled in their careers.
“I always say, ‘It can’t get any better,’ but then something like this happens,” Kaplan said. “To become a nationally recognized person … I am so overwhelmed by it. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.”
Kaplan never takes full credit for the award, rather she acknowledges the effort put forth by her staff and community members who volunteer their time.
“What’s really been incredible is that everybody takes pride in this award,” she said. “It’s not just about me—the city of Philadelphia is taking pride in it, the community is taking pride in it, the kids and the parents are taking pride in it. That’s really what made it happen.”
Her efforts came from a strong internal passion to see change and growth for Andrew Jackson when she arrived in 2010 to a struggling, dilapidated school.
“My sense of urgency coming into principal here was really, really high,” Kaplan said. “I was almost tenacious in what I envisioned the school to be, and I really rallied the community to change the perception of the school.”
“At the end of the day, if people walk by the building and it doesn’t look so great, and they don’t get a good feeling about it, they are not going to want to walk in the door and register their babies,” she added.
The school went from a dark, empty building to a school filled with art and inspirational quotes on the walls like, “To get what you never had, you have to do what you’ve never done,” and “This generation plants the trees for the next generation’s shade.”
Kaplan wanted the children to be in a school they could be proud of.
“We worked really hard for a visible change,” she said. “I love the arts, so we really tried to bring the arts into the school. I feel that they should not have any less than a kid going to a private school.”
Even with setbacks like budget cuts, the school facilitates children’s interests and needs with a play dome and basketball court to use outside. It also has a computer lab with Mac desktops and a library.
“I am really relentless in my ideas of what should happen with kids,” Kaplan said. “I am not willing to wait, nor do I feel that they should be responsible for what is happening in the political realm with school budgeting.”
The students and staff expressed their gratitude to Kaplan for the school’s recovery.
“She is a really good principal,” said Julia Yedra, an eighth grade student. “There would be no music program without her. Even outside of school, she is really easy to talk to and very compromising.”
“I have spent eight years here—our mission is to do more and provide more,” said Chris Argerakis, a music teacher. “I am incredibly proud of Lisa.”
For Kaplan, it is all about the students and improving their lives.
“The thing is, I never say ‘No,’” Kaplan said. “It is a lot of work for me, but at the end of the day, my question is, ‘Is it good for the kids?’ and if it is, we are going to find a way to do it.”
“She is an amazing person,” said Kelli Mantell, AmeriCorps VISTA program worker at Andrew Jackson. “She exudes this friendly presence, yet she maintains respect as a disciplinarian. She is a woman in all respects.”
Jacquelyn Fricke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.