Leadership Team


Abigail Gray, PhD
Deputy Chief of School Climate and Culture

Abby leads the Office of School Climate and Culture as Deputy Chief. In this role, she is responsible for all climate programming, including the development of a strategic vision for school climate for the district, the identification of evidence-based approaches in alignment with that vision, and the design of implementation supports for schools. Prior to assuming her current role in 2019, Abby was a Senior Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, and led multiple federally funded research studies on school climate and restorative alternatives to punitive discipline. She holds a PhD in Education Policy from the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences Fellow, and where she continues to teach mixed-methods and other research methods courses. She is a certified reviewer of group design studies for the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse. Abby is a former SDP teacher, mother to two SDP students, a runner, and a chicken farmer.

Gina Upshaw, M.Ed
Director of School Climate and Culture

Gina supports, coaches, trains, and supervises SDP’s team of Climate & Culture Coaches. Her team works closely with Assistant Superintendents and Principals to provide training and implementation support for evidence-based climate programs. She oversees training and support for school-based Climate Managers and other climate staff and specialized programming in areas like MTSS, prosocial recess and lunch, staff deployment, and race and equity. She also oversees grants to provide resources for schools and creates district-wide systems and frameworks for improving school climate. She is a B.A. graduate of Delaware State University, M.Ed. graduate of Temple University, and is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Educational Leadership at Arcadia University. Gina has been as an educator for over 20 years in Philadelphia, serving in the capacity of teacher, Dean of Students and Head of Middle School. Gina is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated and a proud HBCU Grad! She enjoys research, spending time with loved ones, hanging out at the beach, fresh flowers and shopping for home décor.


Steven Rufe, M.Ed
Director of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)

Steven supports and oversees SDP’s team of PBIS coaches and all PBIS initiatives throughout the district.  His interests in the field of PBIS include culturally responsive and equitable application of PBIS, and the translation of PBIS principles into classroom-level practices.  The goal of PBIS-related work in the district is to both broaden and deepen implementation.  More specifically and aligned to his professional passion, Steven is currently working to explore the impacts of Classroom PBIS Coaching on teachers’ praise-to-correction ratios, use of behavior-specific praise, and effectiveness with facilitating student transitions throughout the school day. Steven earned his undergraduate B.S. in Elementary and Special Education from Gwynedd-Mercy University, is an M.A. graduate of Columbia University’s Teachers College, and holds an M.Ed in Educational Leadership from American College of Education. Prior to his roles in Philadelphia, he worked on the San Carlos Apache Native American Reservation in Arizona as a Middle School Teacher, Special Education Teacher, and Dean of Students. Steven enjoys the beach, getting away to the mountains and being in nature, reading, writing, music, and movies.

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Deauntra Thompson-Smith
Lead Relationships First Coach

Prior to joining this team, Deauntra spent two years teaching in Philadelphia. From there, he was fortunate to teach in Chester for a year. The two following years he had the opportunity to teach in Delaware. During those years, he was able to start programs, implement restorative justice and lead equality programs.
He is the Relationships First Specialist. His goal is to help educators develop positive and authentic human connections. Connecting both academic success and social-emotional learning will help develop students into loving and caring students.
When not working, Deauntra trains mixed martial arts and coaches football.


Tynara Blount, M.S.
Assistant Director of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Coach

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Daniel Merin
Lead Climate and Culture Coach

Daniel, currently, occupies the position of Climate and Culture Coach in the Office of School Climate and Culture within the School District of Philadelphia. Daniel supports SDP schools with developing frameworks to implement strategies that promote safe, equitable, restorative, and non punitive disciplinary approaches. Daniel has a long standing interest in restorative practices, youth development, workforce development, youth entreprenurialism, and social policy.

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Paul Robinson
Lead Relationships First Coach

Paul Robinson
Paul is a 17 year employee of The School District of Philadelphia, in the capacity of School Police Officer and now a Lead Relationships First (Restorative Justice) Coach. He is a passionate advocate for equity and racial equality. He is on the path to be a Restorative Justice Coach/Facilitator in law enforcement.


Josh Staub M.Ed,
Director of Restorative Programming

Josh directs SDP’s restorative justice-practices program, Relationships First. In this capacity he designs differentiated training and support for school staff members focused on community-building circles; restorative conversations; restorative mediation; restorative re-entry; and restorative student support planning. He also trains Office of School Climate and Culture coaches to integrate restorative approaches in all schools and directly support the implementation of Relationships First. Josh started teaching as a sub in South-Central PA and has since taught in Frederick County, MD, Baltimore County, and Oakland Unified, CA. Most of Josh’s teaching background is in SPED, particularly emotional support, but he also taught gen ed language arts and history on both the high school and middle school level. Additionally, Josh was a director of SPED and a Restorative Justice Facilitator at a middle school in Oakland for several years. In SDP, Josh was first an MTSS specialist in the Kensington learning network then transitioned into a restorative justice specialist role. He is punk rock guitarist and fiction writer.


Shannon Ellis, M.Ed
Director of Climate Implementation and Innovation

Shannon is the Director of Climate Implementation & Innovation where she leads the Climate Implementation Team in using implementation science principles to establish systems that support adoption and sustain improvements in social-emotional learning and overall school climate district-wide. Shannon leads the Foundations of MTSS Leadership Series , a series of professional development opportunities designed for MTSS Tier 1 Team members in SDP. Shannon also oversees the ongoing development and administration of the district-wide Student Well-Being Survey, a formative tool used to assess how students feel about their relationships and experiences at school.
Shannon has worked in public education in historically oppressed communities for over ten years. Her special interest areas include social-emotional learning, supporting children and families impacted by parental incarceration and equity in education. Shannon is the author of two children’s books, Victoria’s Glow Stick and Almost Like Visiting. These books are diverse in topic and representation with Black children as the main characters. Shannon earned her Master of Education in School Psychology from Howard University, where she focused on social-emotional development in early childhood education.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela

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Jaimie L. Piotrowicz M.Ed/MBA
Director of Social Emotional Learning

Jaimie oversees social-emotional learning programming for SDP. In this capacity, she provides direct training and coaching to schools, and trains and collaborates with Office of School Climate and Culture coaches to support social-emotional learning programming in schools. She also oversees the district’s new daily Community Meeting program. Jaimie collaborates regularly with teachers, counselors, and leaders in SDP’s Offices of Academics and Teaching and Learning to ensure that social-emotional principles are integrated smoothly with instructional content, and in ways that work for classroom teachers. Jaimie holds a B.A. from Rutgers University’s and an M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania. As a classroom teacher in SDP, Jaimie focused on improving academic and social-emotional outcomes for her students through service learning and strategic social and emotional development. Jaimie’s self-care practices include scoring goals in a competitive field hockey league and training her bunnies, Adrian and Poppins, to retrieve hidden treats.

Kara Helzner, M.Ed
Project Manager, Office of School Climate and Culture

Kara Helzner is a project manager in the Office of School Climate and Culture. In this role, she manages various projects within the office including onboarding, grant compliance, budget and procurement, contract management, professional development logistics, inter-office organizational development, and special projects such as leading various affinity groups and collaborating and strategizing with the implementation team on key climate programming, initiatives, and data analysis. She also serves as a liaison with local, state, and federal stakeholders and grant funders. Kara holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary English Education from Millersville University, a Master’s Degree in Language and Literacy from West Chester University, and a Master’s Degree in Education Policy from University of Pennsylvania. Prior to her role with the School District of Philadelphia, Kara taught middle and high school English and reading in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Texas. When not working, Kara enjoys traveling, reading, writing, improv acting, competitive Scrabble (highest score 450), and making up songs about her 12 year old cat, Lena.