Sheldon Pavel, who presided over Central High School for nearly three decades, died Feb. 7 at his Elkins Park home. He was 74.
Pavel was the longest-serving president — that term is used at Central instead of the more common principal — in the school’s 185-year history, serving from 1984 until his retirement in 2012. He was the first president to lead Central after it became co-ed.
“He was a man who loved his students and school and family,” his wife, Paula, said,
Pavel’s love for the school was deep-seated within him, daughter Shani Bardach said.
“He read every kid’s application. All he wore was Central gear,” she said, adding that the family once ran into a Central graduate at the Great Wall of China. “That was his entire world.”
Pavel’s death prompted an outpouring of recognition from the school’s community.
“Dr. Pavel’s contributions to Central are countless — he was a consistent positive voice of support for our community,” the Associated Alumni of Central High School wrote. “He was an advocate for inclusivity, maintaining that all students and faculty — including women who attended and taught at our beloved school — were respected. He was devoted to making a difference at Central and cared deeply for each student — and he made every encounter feel uniquely personal.”
A native of Wynnefield, the Akiba Hebrew Academy (now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy) graduate earned an undergraduate degree at Temple University and a doctorate in education administration at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught English and math and later served as an assistant principal at several Philadelphia high schools before being elected by an alumni committee to head Central.
In a 2012 Jewish Exponent article marking his retirement, Pavel credited Akiba with shaping him as an educator and a human being.
“How to treat people is what is important, how to look at issues and make decisions from a moral framework, tradition — I sound like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ — intellectual inquiry,” he said.
Pavel presided over a school that won numerous accolades during his tenure.
In 2011, Central, which counts about 2,400 students each year, was the only high school in Pennsylvania named a national Blue Ribbon School; Pavel said then that 99% of its students attended college, with his last graduating class generating more than $23 million in college scholarships. Around that time, it was the only Philadelphia proper school included on Newsweek’s list of the 1,000 best high schools in the country.
Bardach said her father deftly managed the challenges of school administration, which oftentimes took on auxiliary roles, such as counseling and social work and general problem solving.
“He drove people home on snowy days when they couldn’t get a ride,” she cited as an example, laughing that her father encouraged her to not go into education.
Outside of school, Pavel enjoyed reading, following the local sports teams, playing poker and travel, Bardach said. The family’s last pre-COVID-19 trip, in December 2019, was to Israel.
Judaism played a key role in his life, both in applying the religion’s principles to teaching and also spiritually. The Pavels were founding members of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.
That Reconstructionist background stressed the value of questioning, Bardach said.
“He did a great job of questioning, both to help other people learn and grow and also to enable the school and students to try new things, if there was no reason they couldn’t,” she said.
Pavel is survived by his wife Paula (née Blackman), daughter Shani (David) Bardach, stepson Ariel (Afshana) Broido and two grandchildren.