New principal of Houston Elementary: ‘If we build it, they will come’

 LeRoy Hall, Houston Elementary's new principal, meets with community members on Thursday. (Daniel Pasquarello/for NewsWorks)

LeRoy Hall, Houston Elementary's new principal, meets with community members on Thursday. (Daniel Pasquarello/for NewsWorks)

Over 20 residents of West Mt. Airy gathered at a home on Nippon Street for a chance to meet with the new principal of Henry H. Houston Elementary School on Thursday evening.

LeRoy Hall comes to the Allens Lane school after over two years as the Assistant Principal at Khepera Charter School.

Houston’s outgoing Principal, Reginald Johnson, departed after only one year in the position. Despite the quick turnover, the mood at the town-watch meeting, as well as at a community ice cream social hosted at Houston’s playground two days later, was cautiously optimistic.

Commenting on the sudden departure of Johnson, Carla Pagan, President of the Houston Home and School Association, said, “We all had concerns. It’s unavoidable.”

However, as she further explained, “Our Assistant Superintendent responded immediately. Right away we set up a committee for interviews and we had the opportunity to choose Principal Hall. We’re very pleased with him so far. He has been very responsive to our concerns.”

Introducing Hall to the group gathered for the meeting on Thursday, town-watch leader Steven Stroiman summed up the neighborhood’s feeling: “We hope for Houston Elementary to become a neighborhood school as well as a viable option for all involved.”

Hall before Houston

Hall began his career as an educator in Pittsburgh, where he served as a teacher and administrator at Manchester Academic Charter School for eight years. After relocating to Philadelphia he served as the Assessment Coordinator for Wakisha Charter School before accepting the position at Khepera. 

Hall called for the aggressive pursuit of increases in student performance and for Houston to become competitive with other top schools in the city, including charters and private institutions, saying “I have the background to make this happen.”

While articulating his vision for the future of Houston, Hall offered at the same time a sobering assessment of the present situation there: “It’s never the students. In my experience, it’s either the staff or the system. At Houston, I believe it’s the system. It’s going to take faith, but ultimately if the kids are able to get an education then the rest will fall into place.”

Community members speak

At the close of the meeting Thursday, Stroiman’s introductory comment was echoed again by several attendees who agreed they wanted to see Houston emerge as a “neighborhood school.”

Marilyn Lambert, Vice President for Community Affairs for West Mt. Airy Neighbors, member of the Houston School Advisory Committee, and a next-door neighbor to the elementary school, called for “more open houses, more ways of getting the community involved with the daily affairs of the school.”

At Saturday’s ice cream social she explained, “I think that the community as a whole has little idea what’s going on inside the school. They base their judgments on the way the kids make their way through the neighborhood. There are plenty of opportunities for people to volunteer and get to know the kids directly.”

Molly Hylton, a high school English teacher and recent transplant to Philadelphia from Portland, Oregon, offered a newcomer’s perspective on the changes occurring at Houston.

“I know there is a lot being done in the community already, but I think Houston could do more. The enrollment numbers are low. But Principal Hall seems very passionate and is a past public educator, so I am very hopeful that the issues will be addressed. If the leadership of the community could be tapped, there is no reason Houston couldn’t be successful.”

Philadelphia Councilman Bill Greenlee, attending the ice cream social, recognized that while “Houston does have a reputation for parent involvement the Administration can’t be expected to do it all. Parents have to be a part of it.”

He also noted that under Hall’s leadership, “Houston is pointed in the right direction.”

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