Sheldon Pavel puffed on his pipe as he sat in his air-conditioned office, wearing shorts, sneakers and a burgundy Central High School T-shirt.
With students gone for the summer and just six weeks to go until his official retirement after 28 years at the helm of one of the nation's oldest and most venerated public high schools, Pavel could be forgiven for seeming a bit relaxed.
Yet as evidenced by the constant ringing of his phone to the parade of administrators in and out of his office, he's still juggling a lot. One time-consuming project has been preparing a 100-plus page document for his successor, Tim McKenna, on how to run the magnet school, with its 2,400 students and $13 million annual budget.
"Nobody fully understands how busy this place is," Pavel said in an interview last week, some seven days after presiding over his last graduating class of seniors.
In his late 60s, the educator from Elkins Park says he is handing over the reins in order to spend more time with his grandchildren in Kentucky and to travel more.
The impending departure of Central's 13th and longest-serving president — that's what the principal there is called, in a quirk of tradition — represents an end of an era for the 175-year-old institution: He was the first president to lead the institution after it became co-ed.
His retirement comes as the School District of Philadelphia is facing unprecedented financial problems and officials are seriously considering a proposal to radically restructure and decentralize the district.
The school system's image is reeling after the tumultuous departure of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman as well as a series of reports by the The Philadelphia Inquirer documenting an alarming rate of violence in Philly public schools.
The man who many have come to equate with Central is also leaving the scene as a national movement for education reform and school choice builds steam and the Pennsylvania General Assembly is debating various proposals to institute a voucher system or use tax breaks toward more scholarships to private schools.
The educational landscape that he is leaving behind worries him, though he's confident in the abilities of his successor and the school's faculty.
"I think there are an incredible number of challenges facing the school district and many of them stem from funding," Pavel said as he sat in his office, joined by the school's longtime alumni president, Harvey Steinberg.
"Public education as a whole is so crucial to the future of this country and the future of this democracy and the role that public education has played in the history of this country," he added. "That is being threatened by loss of funding."
He also doesn't think vouchers are the answer.
"On a personal level, I don't think tax money should go to support non-public school education," he said. "I think school choice exists phenomenally well within the public school system."
When asked how budget cuts have affected his school, he said that lack of funds has limited the number of teachers he can hire, thereby increasing class size, and has forced the slashing of electives.
"More funding means more opportunities for kids, whether it be in the curricular area or the extracurricular area," he said.
The advocate for public education is actually a 1963 graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private school he credits with shaping him as an educator and 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," said Pavel, who for a time served on the board of his alma mater.
He and his wife, Paula, are also two of the co-founders of Or Hadash in Fort Washington.
The Wynnefield native earned his undergraduate degree at Temple University and later completed 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.
Founded in 1836, the highly selective school counts among its graduates: artist Thomas Eakins, industrialist David Guggenheim, Larry Fine of the "Three Stooges," and architect Louis Kahn. From the 1920s through the 1970s, Central had a large, at times majority Jewish population, but those numbers began to drop as more Jewish families moved out of the city. (Pavel said he doesn't have statistics on the number of Jewish students today.)
Until 1984, the school did not admit girls. The change came about after a lengthy court battle sparked by several Jewish teens who wanted access to the prestigious institution.
"What I will take responsibility for is making the transition work and helping everybody in the school understand that what was most important in the school was the quality of the young people, regardless of gender," Pavel said, adding that the school is now evenly split between boys and girls.
Pavel said that under his stewardship, the school has become more ethnically diverse, with a growing Asian-American and Hispanic population. In highlighting his accomplishments, he also pointed to a growth in the number of advanced placement classes, the creation of a new program geared to helping students apply to foreign universities and the introduction of a community service initiative.
In recent years, he's also worked with Steinberg and the alumni association to raise funds for a $4 million library — complete with more than 100 Mac computers — and refurbish the auditorium.
"In the 28 years that he has served as president, he has brought many, many new things to the school," said Steinberg, a University of Pennsylvania Law School graduate who went on to start a moving and storage company.
The accolades are impressive: In 2011, Central was the only high school in Pennsylvania named a national Blue Ribbon School. According to Pavel, 99 percent of its students attend college. The most recent graduating class generated more than $23 million in college scholarships. And it was recently the only Philadelphia proper school included on Newsweek's list of the 1,000 best high schools in the country.
But isn't Central's success –conspicuous in a city with many troubled schools — simply a result of its selectivity as a magnet school? Of roughly 4,600 applicants, only about 1,000 will be accepted, and roughly 60 to 65 percent of those will decide to attend. Students need to maintain stellar grades to have a shot at getting in.
Pavel replies that even though administrators can pick who comes in the doors, getting students to achieve at the level they do is painstaking work that involves setting the highest standards and pushing students to meet and surpass expectations.
"We insist on kids learning the material as opposed to kids just being acquainted with the material," he said.
In a school with such a storied past, Pavel said he has felt a tremendous responsibility to maintain that sense of history and make sure Central's current students feel connected to the institution's past.
"Everything we do is viewed through the prism of tradition and of knowing there is a link to whatever went before us and whatever is going to come after us."