This South Philadelphia principal is leading her community through an asbestos closure

A sign that says “Danger. Asbestos Removal In Progress.”
Asbestos will keep Universal Vare Charter School closed through the 2023-24 school year. (Heatherfaye/Getty Images)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Philadelphia school days have been upended by the ongoing discovery of damaged asbestos in buildings across the city. And school district leaders have warned that more asbestos-related closures may be coming.

Principal Karen Howell-Toomer is tasked with making sure students are ready for in-person learning at a temporary location. (Courtesy of Karen Howell-Toomer)

Universal Vare Charter School Principal Karen Howell-Toomer is guiding her community through one of the longest closures. Their building shut its doors in April when damaged asbestos was first discovered, and Howell-Toomer gave notice earlier this month that their district-owned building would remain closed through the 2023-24 school year as well.

Howell-Toomer is now tasked with making sure her 173 students, in grades five through eight, who learned virtually from April to June are ready for in-person learning at the nearby McDaniel Annex building at 1901 South 23rd Street.

Despite the daunting task in front of her, Howell-Toomer said she’s excited for the new school year. She’s already planned open-house visits for parents and a school-wide kickoff event on Aug. 25, when they are planning to give away backpacks, uniforms, hot dogs, and water ice.

“I’m calling our new school a boutique because it’s smaller, more intimate. It’s gonna be fun,” Howell-Toomer said. “I think the teachers and staff members will like it.”

Howell-Toomer didn’t always envision herself in this position. She began her career with degrees in social work and nursing and started substitute teaching to pay her tuition bills.

During her first weeks she taught at close to five different schools in Philadelphia, she said, before ending up at the Walter George Smith School in South Philly, which has since closed.  At that school, the principal at the time told her, “you are a natural-born teacher,” and steered her in the direction of getting her master’s degree in education.

That conversation led her to spend 28 years in the Philadelphia school district, first as a classroom teacher, then in the district’s office of teaching and learning, where she supported early-career teachers, and eventually as a principal.

Howell-Toomer said she thinks those people who saw a spark in her when she was first starting out observed her interactions with her students, the way she commanded the classroom, and her relatability. 

“A lot of times when people come as a sub, they treat it as ‘I’m a sub.’ I came in and actually treated it like these are my kids, these are my students,” she said. 

Howell-Toomer spoke with Chalkbeat about her career and how she is leading her students, parents, and staff members through their asbestos closure.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What have you admired about leaders in your life? Who has inspired you on your educational journey?

The first principal that I served under, Sandra Ruffin Pearson. She was very steady, very calm. I’m the hyper one. I’m the quick, quick, quick, Type A personality and she was more subtle. She had excellent people skills, writing skills, and she just engaged with everyone. We have that in common. She was a good leader because she developed leadership in other people. She would see what their skills were and then she would hone in on those skills and help develop them further. 

My second great leader is who I work under now, Penny Nixon, CEO and Superintendent of Universal Schools. She has a monumental task each day, and she makes it look like this is really easy. But I know that she’s working hard and just keeping us all together. She makes our job fun; she doesn’t micromanage. She allows each principal to use their own creativity in our buildings. She is extremely smart — serious when she needs to be but funny and engaging. She also does a good job of treating everyone individually. She meets you where you are and helps to develop you further.

What has it been like to navigate your school’s building closure due to asbestos?

It came as a shock. But [most of] the schools in Philadelphia have asbestos, if we want to be honest about it. Because they are all very old. We didn’t have ample time to get in, get our things, do what we needed to do. They came in and the next day, it was like, ‘OK, you guys can’t return to the building.’

The parents have been great. The scholars have been great. I’ve been communicating with the parents by email, ClassDojo, letters to the homes, calling them on the phone. They all have my cell number. So when they call, I answer. I’m able to give answers right on the spot. That’s why no one is disgruntled. 

Parents have said they want more communication during asbestos closures. How have you helped parents through this process?

I’ve been keeping [parents] in the loop. I’ve been sending weekly messages. I don’t live too far, I live in the community, so parents see me. They have more accessibility to me. It was short notice. But for us, we were a little bit luckier — if you can find any luck in this — because it happened towards the end of the year. So it’s different from the other schools that were shut down earlier. Everybody was disappointed, of course, I don’t want you to think it was all roses. But they went along with it. And they were like, ‘OK, we know you got this, Principal Toomer, you’ll tell us what’s going on.’ All they cared about was A) Are we closed for the year? Then if so, B) What’s your plan? C) Where’s the new location? As long as you answer the ABC, they were good.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten?

Treat every child like they’re your own, and treat people with respect and you’ll get respect in return. Be human when you’re engaging with your family members, kids, and your staff. Don’t fly off the handle if kids are chronically late. Dig deeper, ask, ‘Why are you late every day, sweetie? Come in here. Let me talk to you for a minute; what’s going on?’ 

Sometimes kids are just being kids, and their parents work early, and the parents aren’t there to wake them up so they oversleep, but some of them have deep-seated situations going on: I couldn’t find a clean pair of pants, I couldn’t find underwear. I didn’t have toothpaste, I didn’t want to go to school. I’m in middle school, and middle school kids can be mean. Even as an adult, if your breath is not minty fresh, they will remind you of that. 

What do you do to take care of yourself outside of the classroom?

Right now, that’s a little bit of a challenge for me. Even though I’m working full-time, I am [my husband’s] primary caregiver. We always traveled everywhere. We’ve been to almost every continent. But we’re unable to do that now. Everybody keeps saying ‘self-care, self-care,’ but self-care is not always easy. I’ll figure it out. I just keep going. I stay on ten.

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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