Relationships shine at Mastbaum: Principal David Lon wins Shining Light Award

David Lon, Principal of Jules E. Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical School and 2022 Neubauer Fellow, received the Neubauer Fellowship for Educational Leadership’s Shining Light Award, awarded at the February Dinner with a Decision Maker event.

The award recognizes Fellows who are implementing innovative practices and demonstrating exemplary leadership to best serve the needs of students.

“I appreciate this acknowledgment of the efforts on behalf of kids in less-than-ideal external conditions,” said Lon.

Though not technically a neighborhood school—it’s a city-wide admissions career and technical education (CTE) school—Mastbaum essentially serves the area of Kensington, considered by many to be at the heart of the city’s opioid epidemic.

“I love the school, I love the school community, I love the kids and families. I love being in the building. But being outside the building—there’s open-air drug use, prostitution, human waste. Educators travel through these conditions to get here—many of our students live in these conditions. [The state of the neighborhood] hurts enrollment, but it’s imperative the neighborhood has a school like Mastbaum.”

A Philadelphia native who attended Philadelphia schools—he’s a graduate of Frankford High School—Lon’s instinct to stay in the Philadelphia area preceded his awareness of his “why.”

“I had an instinct to be in the city, although the intellectual understanding for what this actually meant would come later through experience,” said Lon. “Throughout my journey as an educator, I realized that I am educating kids in much the same way that I was educated, in that my parents trusted that the neighborhood school they sent all six Lon kids would be great for educating their children. Having a school that they could trust was of the utmost importance. I always keep that context.”

In his four-year tenure as principal, Lon has improved school safety, reducing the number of Mastbaum’s serious incidents by 7.2 points per 100 students and increasing the number of students with zero suspensions by 7.8%, and improved academic scores, bettering Keystone scores by 19.3 points and improving on-track rates for African-American males in grades 9 through 12 by 43.2 points. Of 33 School District of Philadelphia high schools identified for Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI), Mastbaum ranks third for Act 13 Building Level Scores (a quantitative score representing overall academic performance).

Lon attributes much of Mastbaum’s improvement to the school community’s strong culture, which he says was built through “treating people with decency, treating people with kindness, and taking time to learn about people.”

Relationships are the foundation for the school’s strong culture, says Lon. “I can speak to the operational aspects, the implementation,” said Lon, “but that desire to develop relationships with people, to care about people, to show them that you care, and to do it consistently, every single day—that comes first and foremost.”

Lon lives his relationships-based leadership, modeling it daily. “I would never ask a staff member to do something that I wouldn’t do myself,” said Lon. “I’m at every morning entry, every dismissal, every hall sweep. I’m out there, getting to know the kids, getting to know their families. I’m letting my staff see that that’s what I expect from all of them.”

A firm believer in the concept of the emotional bank account—introduced by author and motivational speaker Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—Lon builds trust and forges relationships by making “deposits” into others’ emotional bank accounts. For Lon, building people up in this way also helps him to operationalize the school’s mission and values.

“It’s important to be mindful of making deposits into people’s emotional bank accounts, and to be mindful of when people are depositing into yours,” said Lon. “If somebody needs something from a family perspective, if somebody needs something to help advance their career, if somebody needs an arm around their shoulder or, if somebody needs a favor, I am eager to do those things, because I am looking to deposit, deposit, deposit into people’s emotional bank accounts.”

Lon admits it takes time to build trust—some people require more time than others to trust the process—but school community members have responded positively. The number of Mastbaum staff that reported “Staff Morale is High at my School” was 18 points higher than the School District average, and the data shows that students are performing better academically and negative incidents are occurring less frequently.

“Because of the way that we advance expectations for how staff are to talk with kids, I see students taking on leadership, working together in classrooms,” said Lon. “When there is a problem, kids are able to advocate for themselves and for mediation. We have set up a mediation structure. The impact of that is shown in the data. A lot of different pieces go into relationships-oriented aspects of education, and the data has to bear that out—that what you’re doing matters from a statistical standpoint.”

In addition to establishing a mediation structure, Lon has integrated other operational aspects to ensure “people are supported and have an avenue to provide feedback,” he said, “and that these things are quite literally written into our mission statement and our values.”

Lon sends out a weekly news glance—a strategy gleaned from his experience in the Neubauer Fellowship—in which he identifies at least one example of an individual lifting up one of Mastbaum’s values. “I believe everyone has values that they uphold in the school community,” said Lon. “And when it is happening, you need to make that public and let people know that this is something to be celebrated.”

Lon also has weekly one-on-one meetings with staff—another strategy he implemented as a result of his participation in the Neubauer Fellowship. Those who check in directly with Lon have weekly check-ins with people they manage, and so on. “It’s ‘nesting dolls’ management, with built-in accountability and thought partnership,” said Lon.

“We have clear structures for people’s check-ins, for tracking next steps, and for being clear and transparent in what the expectations are,” said Lon. “I have operational check-ins, where we talk through obstacles people are facing and feedback that they have for me.”

Lon continues to identify “what’s next” for Mastbaum and its students and has identified lagging enrollment as an issue. “The opioid epidemic is devastating to our enrollment,” said Lon, “but to really further the improvements at Mastbaum, we need to stem that tide. If we are going to be a school that has a vital future from an enrollment standpoint, and we’re going to do so in an area that is troubled such as Kensington, we have to look at nontraditional enrollment offerings.”

To date, Lon has leveraged relationships and Mastbaum’s focus on student success to do exactly that. Through strong relationships throughout District offices, including those with the Office of Multilingual Curriculum & Programs and the Education for Children & Youth Experiencing Homelessness Office, Lon was able to establish a robust program for new English learners that enables Mastbaum to admit English learners at all levels of proficiency. Additionally, Mastbaum is the first city-wide admissions school in the district to become a McKinney-Vento school—as part of the 1986 Homelessness in Education Act, McKinney-Vento schools are equipped to serve homeless youth, migrant youth, and undocumented students.

“It’s Mastbaum’s way of being a more equitable school, offering our programs to all different types of learners,” said Lon. By building trust and implementing resources to support student success, Lon has been able to advance some fairly nontraditional admissions practices that help Mastbaum to better reflect the city’s diversity.

“I do not think it’s a difficult thing, to build community,” said Lon. “I don’t think that there’s alchemy involved. … That’s what people want, people want to have good relationships, that’s a fundamental underpinning of what it means to be human.”