Philadelphia lost an amazing educator today. Dr. Shelly Pavel was the President of Central High School for over twenty-eight years. He was the longest-serving leader in the over 180 year history of the school. He was the President of Central when my college friends went to high school there, and he was still there during the early years of Science Leadership Academy.
Shelly was unique. He believed deeply in his school and his students. He saw himself as the keeper of the mission of Central High School, and he followed his profound moral code when it came to the ways in which he ran Central. He saw the school through the many changes in the School District of Philadelphia over his twenty eight and a half years as its president – including coming on-board as President to oversee Central’s change from an all-boys school to a co-education school in the mid-80s. By the time he retired, he was the institutional memory of the School District for all of the younger principals with whom he shared his wisdom.
One thing that I loved about Shelly was that you didn’t have to agree with him for him to respect you. Shelly and I had some very different ideas about education. He was much more traditional in his pedagogy than we are at SLA, but he respected what we were doing and believed deeply that Philadelphia was better for having both schools, and he never hesitated to let folks know that. People would often try to get each of us to say something bad about the other’s school, but we both respected the differences and strengths of each other’s schools, and looking back now, I am struck by his generosity, and the space he made for a young principal and a brand-new school.
Where we did come together was in our belief in kids. Shelly was as student-centered a principal as any I have ever met. He believed in Central kids’ ability to do amazing things in the world, and the kids felt that from him all the time. He knew every student at the 2,500 student school, and when you walked through the halls with him, you just felt the love and care he had for his students and that school.
And the impact he had on his students lasted long after they graduated. Shelly came to visit us one time at SLA, and he and I decided to go for a walk to get some lunch. You couldn’t even try to have a conversation with Shelly if you were on a walk in Philadelphia, because you were just going to get interrupted every ten yards by a Central alum who just wanted to say hello or thank you to him. It was amazing.
And I will never forget when I called a friend of mine who was a Central alum and mentioned that I played poker in Shelly’s home game, “You played in DR. PAVEL’S GAME?” Turns out, the game was the stuff of legend, and the fact that I got to play in was a greater honor that I realized. I was the youngest player at the table that night, and it is just one more way Shelly created space for others.
But others will write about his tenure at Central and the incredible impact he had on that school far better than I can. That’s really not for me to write about. What I – and many principals of my era – lost was a mentor and friend.
When I got to Philly in 2005, the principals’ community wasn’t the easiest of places to break into, especially for a thirty-four year old who was opening a brand new school without ever having been a principal. But Shelly saw something in me, and he cleared the path for me to be accepted in that room, and that made such a difference in those early years. Chris Johnson and I were talking today about the education we got in our early years listening to Shelly and others who took the time to share their wisdom with us.
And, to be clear, Shelly was incredibly giving with his time. He made time for you when you called him, asking him for ideas and advice. Everyone who ever sat to talk to him – in person or just on the phone – can hear him say, “Listen… this is what you’re going to do…” and you knew that whatever was coming next was going to be incredibly thoughtful. He didn’t expect you to agree – in fact, some of my favorite memories of Shelly were the times we debated various ideas. Some things, I still disagree with him about, but there are other conversations that I look back on now, and I think about just how patient Shelly really was with a young principal.
And if that conversation was in person, and if it was a serious conversation, he’d probably invite you to step outside so he could smoke his pipe while you talked. And there was something just right about that. There are few people in the world who can pull off smoking a pipe as part of the overall image of the wise leader, but Shelly did, and he always made it feel a little transgressive too. I remember sitting in his office one day when he decided it was time for a break. We went down one of the stairwells of Central to an outer doorway that – conveniently – had a door stop stashed nearby, and we continued the conversation as he smoked his pipe outside the side of the school. He did it all with the Dr. Pavel smile that told you he knew exactly what he was doing.
In all, what I remember most was how thoughtful and kind and wise he was. When he spoke in Principal meetings, you listened. When he called you, you listened. And when he retired, the principal’s room in Philly was a little emptier because he wasn’t in it anymore. Today, as we face challenge after challenge in our schools and our district, I miss my friend’s wisdom. I miss his perspective. I miss his counsel.
I miss my friend.
Rest in Peace, Shelly.
Thank you for everything.
Thank you Chris for your reflections which I can echo (except for the poker game). He truly was one of a kind and will be sorely missed.