Cass Technical High School principal Lisa Phillips has a lot to be thankful for. She recently received the statewide Principal of the Year Award for Michigan from the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. She also made history as the first Detroit high school principal to receive the honor.
Rolling out talked with the highly decorated, award-winning principal, who has seven graduating seniors on their way to an Ivy League school (some with full scholarships), to find out what she thinks makes her Principal of the Year for the state of Michigan, check out the exclusive interview below.
Why do you think you were chosen Principal of the Year?
They’re [the students] the reason. I always tell people, number one, this is God’s work. That’s how I’m led. My alumni, the teachers, the parents, the community, my custodians, my security, the lunch lady, it’s a true village. We all work with our students. And number one, it’s my students. They come here ready to get this done. I tell them day one, at the end of four years, you should be walking across that stage with a scholarship. Nonnegotiable. If you follow the pathway and just stay committed, in the end, your parents should not have to pay for you to go to college. So, then I stepped it up even one more. I took it to another level: [I said] “if you take these college classes at Wayne County on a Saturday, for four years — that includes your Christmas break and summer, you’ll walk across the stage with your dual degree, your associate degree, and your high school diploma.” So, we’ll start off with a couple of hundred students, and this year we have a solid 25 that have completed the program. We have one student that’s going to graduate with her associate [degree] and her high school diploma. When she gets to Michigan State, she goes right into the business program, leaving two years at Michigan State. I’m up to about 100 students who would have walked across the stage this coming June, with their associate [degree]. And sometimes they’ll get [their degree] before even graduating from high school, depending on the dates for graduation. So, those are the things that I feel that gave me the award.
Do you have other types of special programs at your school that set you above the rest?
We have a wonderful relationship with the University of Michigan’s Medical School [prgram], Doctors of Tomorrow. And my ninth graders start forging a relationship with senior medical students. They go up to U of M once a month. And they have hands-on experience in the medical school. They shadow in all fields. It’s beautiful. Now, they’ve forged such a relationship, they’re coming down here to do a big Capstone project. When these kids become seniors, it’s an inroad to Michigan, into the medical school. So, last year, I don’t know how many students were accepted to Michigan, they have that relationship now, so all they’re doing is waiting to graduate and go right into medical school.
Our partnership with the Illitch family is big. They just interviewed our kids. They come over, they bring all of their top HR directors, from the Tigers, to the Red Wings, Little Caesars Pizza, Olympia Entertainment, and their food chains, and I requested executive jobs for the kids. I said if we’re training them here, then I’m going to see if they work when they work for you. I have something called the cycle of success. We educate, they intern with you, you provide a scholarship, they go away to college and they come right back. When they came over this time, all of the directors left saying ‘Can we have all your kids?’ Seventy-five interviewed. They only had 25 positions. They wanted them all. They were quality control, accounting, drafting, marketing, all top level positions.
Well, we definitely see why you won statewide Principal of the Year for Michigan. And you made history by being the first Detroit principal to receive the honor. What do you think of that?
What I said to my colleagues was this, I said, “guys, this is opening the doors for you. If I have it, then you’re next because you guys are all doing great things. If people don’t know you’re here, then you have to position yourself.” So, this is a plus for DPS [Detroit Public Schools] because all you hear is negative things, what we’re not doing. I know over here what we do, and I know my colleagues do great things as principals as well. So, I just told them that I’m here today, you’ll be here next year.
Now, this isn’t your first Principal of the Year Award, is it? You were awarded the National Association of Black School Educators Principal of the Year award for the nation back in 2014. That was a huge honor for you as well. How do you manage to keep getting such prestigious awards?
I think loving what you do is everything. I really love this. All night, every day, I’m thinking of what can I do that’s different for these kids to open up doors for them and opportunities that they wouldn’t even think about. I believe in making their dreams and their hopes to come true. These children are different, and they deserve so much more. I try to expose them early, like ninth grade exposure. And they’re really confident.
But it’s such a joy coming to work to do this. I stay grounded. I get it and then I’m like, what’s next? Like, I talked to someone yesterday. I want a credit union in the school. And she was like, “OK.” And I said oh, that’s all you have to do is ask? If it’s for young adults, and they’re doing something positive, it pretty much works out for me. But over here, I’m able to just think of things and be as creative as I want. And I have a great team that says, “Ok, let’s try it.” No boundaries for me because everything that we do, we have to make sure that they’re at the forefront. Can’t be about me, can’t be about our egos. It’s about them. And if it’s about them they’re happy, so I’m happy.
Photo gallery credit: Porsha Monique for Steed Media