Nimet Eren never thought she’d love a job as much as she loved teaching English at Olney High School.

Eren came to Philadelphia and Olney via Harvard and the Teach for America program, which required a two-year commitment to the school. She stayed for eight years, throwing herself into both the instructional piece and things outside the classroom: clubs, activities, celebrations.

These days, Eren has a new passion: serving as principal of Kensington Health Sciences Academy, where she has won plaudits for building community, and lifting up students and staff. She is a winner of the 2019 Lindback Distinguished Principal Award, one of seven Philadelphia School District leaders singled out for their leadership.

The awards are given annually by the Lindback Foundation, named for philanthropist and Abbotts Dairies founder Christian Lindback and his wife, Mary, to recognize top principals. School communities nominate candidates, and district officials and foundation representatives select the winners, who each receive a $20,000 prize for their school.

The other winners are April Brown, Laura W. Waring Elementary; Shakae Dupree-Campbell, Middle Years Alternative; Rebecca Julien, Eliza B. Kirkbride Elementary; Todd Kimmel, Horatio B. Hackett Elementary; John Spencer, John F. McCloskey Elementary; and Kiana Thompson, Academy at Palumbo.

Eren expects a great deal from students and staff, said Jim Hardy, a veteran KHSA Spanish teacher. But in return, she offers her own hard work, reliance on staffers’ views, and appreciation for the Kensington community.

“She is not only compassionate and understanding and supportive, but she’s the most detail-oriented person I’ve ever met,” said Hardy, who has taught at the school for 12 years. “You find yourself lucky in a lot of ways as a teacher if you have one of those characteristics from a principal. She has them all.”

Nimet Eren, the principal of Kensington Health Sciences Academy, right, works with Thalia Ortiz, 15, left, on her reading assignment.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Nimet Eren, the principal of Kensington Health Sciences Academy, right, works with Thalia Ortiz, 15, left, on her reading assignment.

Although it offers career and technical programs such as dental assisting and health-related technology, KHSA is a neighborhood high school, without admissions criteria. Some of its students have mental health needs. Others lag behind in math and reading, or enroll months into the school year. English is not the first language of a majority of students; 28 percent require special education services.

“Our school is a safety net for the entire city,” said Eren.

Her work, then, is by nature challenging, but Eren relishes it. And part of her mission at KHSA is to celebrate everything. Eren’s aim is to hold special events as often as she can — she jokes that she keeps local dollar stores in business with all the balloons she buys for student parties, cultural events, and everything in between.

“I love organizing events,” Eren said. “Principals don’t necessarily put ‘party planner’ in their job description, but I do.”

Many Philadelphia schools struggle to provide after-school activities for students, but KHSA has dozens of things for students to do after school and even on weekends. All of that leads to students feeling invested in school, said Eren. (The school also benefits from its designation as one of Mayor Jim Kenney’s community schools, which gives KHSA a city-paid employee to manage partnerships.)

“Three years ago, after-school was not a space here, weekends weren’t a space here,” Eren said. “I always tell people that some of the best moments in school don’t happen between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m."

Eren was just a few months into being an assistant principal at KHSA in 2016 when the school was designated for turnaround because of its academic struggles. At first, she wondered if leaving Olney and becoming an administrator was a mistake. But Eren stayed, and was appointed principal in 2017. On her watch, the school has improved in attendance, climate and academics.

And there’s a new feel in the building, staffers say. Eren cleared out most of the furniture in the principal’s office and had a table and chairs moved in; if she steps into the room midday, she might find students on a lunch break sitting there. They don’t want to leave the building after classes are over.

Every young person is important to Eren. Take Milly Reyes, who enrolled in KHSA a few months ago after “being kicked out of a lot of schools," she said. Reyes, 17, has had a rough road in her academic career, but feels like she’s turning things around at KHSA. She’ll sometimes stop in Eren’s office for breaks, just to check in.

“We want to make her feel really welcome — Milly is really special,” Eren said.

Students like Reyes, who might slip through the cracks elsewhere, are especially dear to the principal. Reyes has blossomed because of that.

“This is the best school I’ve been in,” Reyes said.

KHSA has always had a good vibe, said Ryan Smith, the school’s police officer for the past 14 years. But under Eren, it’s going places, Smith said.

“Ms. Eren has this vision and talent,” he said. “She takes us to a new level.”

Fast Facts

Name: Nimet Eren

Age: 34

School: Kensington Health Sciences Academy, a neighborhood high school at 2463 Emerald St., with 457 students in grades 9 through 12.

Philly credentials: Eren taught at Olney High School for eight years, both when it was a Philadelphia School District school and then after it became a charter. In 2016, she became assistant principal at Kensington Health Sciences Academy. In 2017, she was named principal.

Hobbies: Eren used to be a runner, but since becoming a principal, “the school has become my life,” she said. “I always wanted to have a job that was my passion.” She’s also pursuing a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.

You’re welcome: Eren has worked to make KHSA a welcoming place for all students. English is not the first language of most KHSA students, and the school has emphasized celebrating Spanish language and culture. Support for the LGBTQ community is also underscored, as is including special education students in school-wide activities. “We want to let kids be who they are,” Eren said.