Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
This book provides a first hand account of the life of an urban elementary school principal in the era of No Child Left Behind. On Monday and Wednesday, I post an installment of the current month’s chapter. The complete text for previous chapters can be found listed under Categories.
The names of all students and parents who are described in this story have been altered in order to protect their privacy.
Installment 1 of 8/The Final Approach
The director of the Temple Educational Management Organization has developed his own appraisal system for the principals of the Partnership Schools. There are nine broad leadership objectives and a host of sub-goals described in the appraisal rubric. Each of the participating principals has been asked to submit a portfolio of work samples and other evidence to document the ways that they’ve met these objectives.
The portfolio I constructed consists of two binders filled with documents and artifacts that present a picture of my activities throughout this past year. Each binder is many inches thick. Teacher evaluations, professional development plans, budgets, memos, policy and procedural directives, parent sign-in sheets, grant proposals, school improvement plans, were but some of the documents that constituted the reams of paper filling these binders. John DiPaolo arrived around nine a.m. to review my portfolio. He poured over it for more than two hours.
There wasn’t much of an opportunity to sit with him during this period. I had planned a full schedule of activities for the morning. A number of unexpected events kept me even busier than I had anticipated when I scheduled my evaluation conference with John. Ellen and I had arranged to co-host an open house for the parents of next year’s kindergarteners. Unfortunately, she had to start without me. Trouble besieged me before I was able to exit the office. Corey’s new aide needed immediate help. He once again had punched his teacher in her stomach. I suggested to John that he read through the material I had presented to him in an empty classroom close to my office. I told him that when I was free, I would join him there.
I called Corey’s mother and informed her that I was suspending him for the remainder of the day. She was not happy when she arrived.
“How can you suspend a first grader?” These were her first words as she entered my office.
“I can’t stay home with him. I’m going to sue you. You can’t do this.”
This was the first time I had suspended her child even though he has punched staff members on more than one occasion. Since his return from the in-patient psychiatric facility, his outbursts of violent behavior have steadily increased. It was time to send him home for a day, if only to maintain his teacher’s sanity. As I dealt with Corey’s mother, I was reminded of how Cindy acted when Arthur was in first grade. She too screamed and made threats whenever she didn’t agree with how I handled Arthur’s misbehavior.
It was a while before Corey’s mom finally departed. After she left I went to Ellen’s room, where a dozen parents and caregivers of future kindergarten students awaited me. I introduced myself and briefly described our instructional program. There were a few questions, which I answered before taking my leave. The kindergarten teachers then escorted the parents to their classrooms.
I headed for the auditorium where the eighth graders were preparing for their graduation ceremony. The two eighth grade teachers had requested my presence. I arrived just as the teachers had finished organizing the students for the processional march. Soon after, Ellen joined us. The four of us spent the next half hour working out the details of the ceremony. It was decided that Ellen would announce each child’s name just before they walked down the center aisle. I stood in the front of the stage, where I greeted each student with a handshake and word of congratulations. Then they turned, walked up the steps and took a seat on the stage. We practiced this entrance several times until the students became too restless.
Before we wrapped up this practice session, Ms. Odum wanted to do a run-through of a dance routine with the students. The whole class was involved in this performance. Through their movements they would interpret the lyrics of a love ballad. It was to be the final act of the ceremony. This number would be dedicated to their parents.
At first I was skeptical of the idea of including this dance. I doubted that the eighth graders would want to act out through dance, the words of song. I thought they would either be embarrassed or think that it was stupid. Was I ever wrong! After they ran through their performance, I had tears in my eyes. Every one of them had fully engaged in participating in the number. They were incredibly enthusiastic. I thought that their parents would love it. I felt parental pangs of my own. I have shared a lot of special moments with these children. I am already starting to miss them.
John DiPaolo left around noon. He had another appointment. “I’ve got to run. I really enjoyed looking through your appraisal book. You have some really interesting things in it. I will get a written response to you later.”
The day before, I had looked through the binder myself. I was impressed by how much had been accomplished this year. I, along with my leadership team, had given much effort to supporting our teachers. Through regular coaching, professional development and mentoring activities, we have helped them to do a better job in their classrooms. Collectively, these efforts helped to make the school year a successful experience for everyone.
The number of our students who are reading at or above grade level has significantly increased. This by itself is strong evidence that our instructional program is improving with each passing year. The minutes of a year’s worth of meetings: grade level, student support and leadership teams, all tell a story of a school team that has been focused and productive. As I reviewed the history of this school year, I was amazed by how much we have stayed on track with our instructional program. There was so much energy expended at times pushing back the assault of the Electric Slide, that I had doubted whether we would ever get our job done. We have. This year’s journey is almost finished and everyone’s attention has begun to focus on the much-anticipated arrival at the terminal. Like a plane making its final approach, our forward momentum has slowed almost to the point where it feels as if we might stall. But still we hang in there. The sounds and preparations in the school are those of the final approach.
Installment 2 of 8/Conversations
Corey and Luis both erupted before their teachers had a chance to take the daily attendance. Corey was the first to explode. When his newest Therapeutic Support Aide arrived, he didn’t want anything to do with her. He dashed out of the classroom and attempted to leave the building. She chased after him. One of our own aides helped her to block Corey from making his exit.
Hearing his screams I stepped out into the in the hallway. I saw him struggling with the adults. He kicked over a bookrack then tore down a bulletin board display. The area around the office was in chaos. The counselor came to the assistance of the aides and after several minutes was successful in helping to calm him. Our attempts to contact his mother were not as successful. Today she wasn’t answering the phone. The counselor took him down to her office.
Shortly after Corey left, Luis rumbled into the office. He wanted his memory book, graduation tickets and cap and gown. Luis demanded to go home. “I want to stay out of school until graduation day.” I could tell from the whine in his voice that there would be no reasoning with him. Whatever was bugging him had him acting like a six year old. His chest was heaving as he danced a spasmodic dance on twisting legs. His arms were swinging in every direction. Luis is a big boy, at least five foot ten and a good one hundred ninety pounds.
Some significant drama had unfolded in order to put him into this state. I told him to go sit outside in the hallway waiting area. His protests rolled off my back. I left him at the counter and headed into my office.
The inside of my office can be a hungry beast. It has a ferocious appetite that eats my time in big gulps. An hour or two gets swallowed there in a blink of my eye. I sifted through my e-mail, dealt with several phone calls and read my regular mail without a second thought to Luis’ tantrum.
I had just finished reading my mail when Nottingham popped his head through the door. “Murphy, I have Luis’ mother on the phone. I cannot talk to her anymore. You need to talk to her.”
“What does she want?”
“She wants us to send Luis to his grandmother’s house on Allegheny Avenue. He is staying there.”
“Why isn’t he with his father?” I asked.
“He fell off a ladder and got hurt. I’m not sure what is going on with them.”
“Why does Luis need to leave now?”
“His mother says some boys are going to jump him and it’s not safe here.”
“Who are the boys?”
“The same ones who were into it with him last week.”
“You mean those little boys. We already settled that with Luis and his father.”
“I know, but this lady doesn’t listen. I’ve explained it to her a dozen times.”
“Okay, transfer the call in to me.”
When I picked up the phone the woman on the other end started to scream at me.
“I want my son sent home. That school is not a safe place for him to be.”
I tried to explain to her that there was no threat to Luis’ safety.
“ I have dealt with that fight. The matter has been settled. I’ve met with all of the boys involved and their parents. It’s over.”
“My son has to take a bus at the end of the day to get back to his grandmother’s. How do I know he won’t be jumped on the way to the bus stop? Are you going to guarantee his safety?”
“Yes, I am. He will be okay. We will see to it that he gets home safely.”
“Are you going to walk him to the bus stop?”
We concluded our conversation with the understanding that Luis was going to stay in school for the remainder of the day. She asked to speak to him.
I put Luis on the phone. I listened to him as he talked to his mother. He didn’t say anything about the boys or the fight. “No, I don’t want to stay. No, I don’t want to… It’s too hot. There isn’t any air conditioning in the room. I want to go home. No! I want to go home. “All right…” “All right…” He hung up the phone.
His mood hadn’t changed. I could see that trying to talk to him would be impossible. I told him to go back to the hallway. There was much to do this day and I had already lost too much time trying to get started.
When I arrived at the office earlier, I had clearly mapped out my plans for the day. I intended to meet with several teachers during their preparation periods. Budget cuts and declining student enrollment has required me to make changes to the grade and room assignments of several teachers. I wanted to personally explain to each of the affected staff members why I was shifting their assignments. Grade assignments and room locations are very important matters to teachers. Changing them is a big deal. I had to talk to ten people. These were going to be difficult conversations. Starting off the day by dealing with the emotional meltdowns of Corey and Luis didn’t help me to get ready for the stressful day that lay ahead of me. In the momentary quiet of my office, I tried to clear my head so that I could focus on what I have to do.
Installment 3 of 8/ Student Stories
At last the plays, which our playwrights have written, have come alive on our school stage. The premier of their original works was the high light of the Meade School mini arts festival. This was a year-end celebration, which featured the efforts of our entire student artist community. There were art displays, poetry readings, student musicians, and plenty of tasty treats and refreshments. The grand finale of the day featured the performance of several of our students’ plays. Actors from the Temple theater department and our own eighth grade students performed them. Parents, teachers, and the students from the upper grades were invited to attend.
The first of these plays told a story of young love set in a rough world populated by criminal thugs. It explored the conflicting feelings of a girl who must choose between testifying against her murderous boyfriend or remaining silent. How could she snitch on her man she wondered? How could she love someone who is a murderer? By the final curtain she makes her decision and turns her boyfriend in to the police. The audience roared their approval.
In the next play a ninth grade girl is pregnant and afraid. She doesn’t know how to tell her mother about her condition. It was followed by another woeful tale of a father who is attempting to reunite with the son he abandoned as an infant. Both of these stories ended well. The mother of the pregnant girl embraces her daughter in the final scene. She tells her that she will love her forever. The teenage boy in the other play decides after much inner turmoil to accept his wayward father back into his life.
Though the writing wasn’t of the quality of Shakespeare and the acting was rather amateurish, I was fully engaged and entertained. Their stories were simple yet true. The glimpses they provided into their thinking I found to be quite insightful. I wondered, how much for the better or worst will the rough and tumble world they describe shape them? Who will they be as adults?
During the course of this past year, The Young Playwrights Organization has arranged for our eighth graders to see several compelling stage performances presented by local theater companies. These professional performances have provided windows through which our children have been able catch a glimpse of life beyond the eggshell existence of their neighborhood. Their plays in turn offer a view into their thoughts and wishes. They write about the ideas and desires which inspire them or with which they struggle. Their writings reveal them as being funny, sensitive, and deeply interesting people.
The children of Meade and for that matter all the children who live in the neglected and under served communities of our nation are like any other child in our society. They dream. They hope. They desire to achieve great things in life.
But the poverty that engulfs them creates many obstacles that thwart their efforts to live well. They often stumble on the less than level playing field to which they have been consigned. When they fall blame rather than empathy is showered upon them. They didn’t try hard enough or their parents didn’t care, or worse of all they are in some manner less moral than their more well to do peers. The humanity of poor children in general and disadvantaged African American males in particular is often objectified and diminished by the perceptions which the more well to do have of them. Viewing their plays provides an opportunity to push beyond the stereotypes that often serve to define them. The scripts they have written place their hearts clearly on their sleeves for all to see.
In creating their plays, many of our children have come to love the art of writing stories. They have gone from being reluctant writers to mighty warriors of the pen. We have encouraged them to write so that they could develop proficiency with an important communication skill. But we also wanted to introduce them to the use of a powerful tool for reflection and self-assessment. In these important developmental years of young adolescences it is important for them to learn how to seek their own direction rather than always being given directions on how to act. When they are able to resolve conflicts by using the power of their words rather than the might of their fist, we their teachers know we are doing our job well.
Several times during the performance, I choked up. I’ve been doing this teary-eyed thing on and off for the last few days. I am proud of my soon to depart eighth graders. They have grown so much. Watching your students become accomplished and confident young adults is one of the rewards of this profession. I hope they all do well in the years ahead.
As I watched these plays, I found myself reflecting on my own hopes and dreams for the future of Meade. Helping to make this humble little school a strong and decent place in which my children can safely live has long been my ambition. Helping to make this school a community where powerful thinkers can thrive is my passion. Though I am sadden by the impending departure of these students I’m simultaneously looking forward to next year. Our seventh graders are yet another interesting group of people. My head is starting to race with schemes and plans for their final year.
For too many months this year responding to the need to survive from day to day has dominated my thoughts. Now I am starting to look beyond the immediacy of the day in which I live. I am anticipating better times ahead. The stories, which my students tell me, inspire me to be a better person. For them I continue on with this work.
I sat through another graduation rehearsal today. The program has been worked out and everyone seems to have mastered his or her part. The excitement level of the kids has risen since the last rehearsal. They are so looking forward to walking down that aisle at the closing ceremony. After the practice was over, one of the teachers gave me a copy of the memory book the class had prepared. In it I was surprised to find two pages of thank you notes addressed to me from the children. I was deeply touched by their sentiments.
Next Monday is the big day. At ten a.m. the final bell will ring on the class of 2005. Preparing for the ceremony has kept the team busy. Flowers have been purchased, banners prepared, certificates signed and a multitude of other details have been resolved. At the same time we are readying the school for the close of another year. Much of the reorganization for next year has been done in the last few days. New class lists have been created, records have been completed and sorted, and new books and supplies have been ordered. The teachers are almost most done placing their materials in storage as they prepare their classrooms for a summer cleaning.
It has been extremely hot during the last week. The third floor is an oven. The high temperatures and humidity has sapped everyone’s strength. Getting our final work done has been a challenge. Student attendance has fallen off steeply during this first heat wave of the summer. June is on track to rank as the lowest monthly attendance average for the entire year. This last minute downturn has created the possibility that our yearly average may dip below ninety percent. If it does, we will fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress for the year. The thought of missing AYP due to the attendance criteria is causing me to suffer a panic attack.
As I tried to relax another problem hit me. Arthur and Tyson were horse playing in the hallway outside of the computer room. The two of them crashed into the window of the door. It shattered. Fortunately no one was injured. After I received the news of their misbehavior, I sent for these two boys.
My conversation with them was annoying. Each of them blamed the other for causing the problem. Neither of them took responsibility for their actions. I didn’t sense any remorse or regret from either of them. I have invested much energy and time in helping these boys to make it through eighth grade. If for no ones else’s benefit other than my own, I wanted to see them graduate. And they were going to graduate. I was going to make sure that they did.
I offered them a choice. They could either be excluded from graduation, or they could come back after school on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week and work off the cost of the window. Both of these days were half days for students. Reluctantly, they chose to come back and work. The graduation was on Monday and there wasn’t any guarantee that they would hold up their end of the deal.
Installment 4 of 8/ Vampires
Where is everyone? This first heat wave of early summer still holds us in its sweaty grip. There were barely any students in the schoolyard when it was time to enter the building this morning. We have many children who spend the summer in the South with their extended family. I figured these children had already begun to depart. Many more most likely have stayed home rather than bake in the oven which our school has become.
I could feel the apprehension gnawing at my stomach as I continued to worry about making our NCLB attendance goal for the year. Today the high rate of student absenteeism worked to our advantage for once. More than half of our teachers were able to attend the closing exercises. This included everyone who had been a teacher of the graduating students. With so few children present in the school, it was much easier to split them up among the teachers who remained behind.
The staff members who were attending the ceremony had gone directly to Mitten Hall at Temple. I had stopped at the school first in order to determine that all was well. When I arrived in the schoolyard, the usual morning activities were occupying the attention of the children. The girls were jumping rope. Some boys were tossing around a football. Others were engaged in an energetic wall ball game. Several sleepy eyed children were leaning against the fence under the shade of some trees. This was the group that I joined.
I struck up a conversation with Karl, who is one of our fifth graders.
“What’s up Karl? You look pretty tired.” He didn’t look at me when he responded. Sounding slightly defensive he said, “I didn’t go to bed till late.”
I caught myself before I took a verbal jab. I wrongfully assumed that he had been up late in order to watch television programs.
“What were you doing?” I said rather simply.
“I was reading. I read for most of the night. I got this vampire book. It is really good. Frankenstein is in the part I’m reading now.”
The look of excitement that transformed this sleepy boy’s face as he took on the role of an enthusiastic storyteller made me smile. I in turn shared with him my own love of a good vampire story. My response excited him even more.
“Do you want me to tell you what has happened so far?”
He didn’t wait for me to reply.
“Okay this is what happened. A female vampire bites this guy and he gets sick. The guy starts to change into someone else. Do you know who? Dracula!”
I enjoyed listening to him as he recounted the story he had read. In his voice I could hear how much he loved to read. Barely pausing for air, he went on for several minutes with the retelling of the story. It wasn’t until he finished his synopsis that he finally caught his breath.
“Karl, I love to stay up late too and read books. It is fun.”
“It’s what I’m going to do all summer, Mr. Murphy. I’m going to the library and get lots of books. Every night I’m going to read until I fall asleep.”
While we were talking, several seventh graders gathered around us. They told vampire stories of their own. It was a fun conversation.
Lately I have noticed that the seventh grade boys and girls have taken to striking up conversations with me. The end of the seventh grade “haze” seems to be at hand. I can see that next year will be another fun experience, watching these awakening eighth graders begin to emerge as confident young adults. I can hardly wait to see who Karl becomes during the next three years. Without a doubt he will be quite an interesting eighth grader.
The graduation ceremony started at ten o’clock. The ceremony took place in the Grand Court at Mitten Hall, one of Temple’s original buildings. It is an old and beautiful space. The unique antique features of the structure have been well maintained. However, the careful attention that had been paid to preserving this historical building has prevented the addition of air conditioning ductwork. On this scorcher of a day, the hall was stifling hot. Fans had been placed around the perimeter of the seating area, but they were just pushing the hot air from one side of the room to the other. I felt as though I was a soggy sponge. All of the windows in the hall had been opened in a vain attempt to create some cross ventilation. The noise of traffic coming the busy street outside filled the room. At regular intervals, the rumble of the Broad Street subway outside could be heard.
The acoustics in Mitten Hall were poor. During the ceremony, the music playing over the audio system sounded great, but the voices of the speakers sounded muffled and distorted. Unfortunately, the audience wasn’t able to understand much of what was said. Our carefully conceived and well-practiced closing exercise did not play out exactly as we had planned.
Not hearing so well didn’t matter that much to me. My memories of the day were mostly of the things I felt. The heat, the noise from outside and the excitement of the crowd blended together with the music and speeches into a sensuous brew that I will not easily forget. There were tears of joy and of the sadness of the final parting. The room was filled with the collective pride of the graduates, their families and their teachers.
I shook the hand of every one of my students as they reached the foot of the stage. Putting my arm around their shoulders, I turned them to face the audience. Ellen announced each student’s name to the applause and cheers of their family and friends.
In my farewell speech, I told my students how much they have taught me. I thanked them for helping me to make myself a better person. I wished them happiness, fame and good fortune. I have waited for this moment for a long time. The students performed the dance for their parents beautifully. For their finale act, they gave flowers to their parents. Then they marched back down the aisle and into the history of Meade. Our journey was finished.
The reception that followed the ceremony was brief. I had the opportunity to meet several mothers of my students for the first time. Luis, Gordon and Isaiah’s mom had come to see their sons’ graduation. The three boys each stood silently beside their mothers. When I approached, they introduced me to their moms. I offered my congratulations to each of these parents and complimented them on having such fine sons. All three of the mothers were curt in their responses to my praise. It was an awkward encounter. Across the room I caught a glimpse of Cindy. She was keeping a distance from Arthur.
The crowd rapidly dispersed. The heat didn’t encourage people to linger. The quickness of the whole affair reminded me of a Thanksgiving Day dinner. Many hours had been spent in preparation for this festive event. Then in what seemed like only a few minutes, it was done.
Afterwards, I took the Leadership Team out to lunch. I wanted to thank them for all of the help they have given me. I wouldn’t have made it through this year without their support.
Installment 5 of 8/Good Stories
“ Jordon’s speech was beautiful!” Ellen said.
The two of us were sharing our impressions concerning yesterday’s ceremony.
“You must have felt so proud. He thinks highly of you.”
Earlier, several other teachers had made similar comments to me. Not understanding what they were talking about, I just nodded my head. Jordon had presented me with a plaque on behalf of the eighth grade class during the closing exercises. He addressed the audience before he handed this memento to me. I wasn’t able to make out what he was saying during his presentation. When he started speaking, I was standing behind him on the stage. The distorted feedback from the sound system garbled his words. Whatever he said must be what my colleagues were referring to today. I made a call to Lori Odum, and asked her if she had a copy of his speech. She promptly sent me a copy. I reviewed it in the privacy of my office. Tears welled up in my eyes as I began to read his heartfelt sentiments.
“Mr. Murphy, on behalf of the Meade School Class of 2005, I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you for everything that you have done for us. We look at you in many different ways. Some of us see you as a principal. Some of us see you as a father figure. Some of us see you as a friend. Some of us see you as a storyteller. No matter how we look at you, you have been a good person to us from the beginning.
As a principal, you changed our school for the better… As a father figure, you have opened your door to us… As a friend, you put your trust in us… As a storyteller you love to read stories to us kids. You also like to tell personal stories about your life to the older kids. Thank you, Mr. Murphy”.
His message was personal and genuine. I was proud to be the recipient of his compliments. But I also was embarrassed by the public nature of this declaration of gratitude and appreciation. I have never been particularly comfortable standing in the limelight. Even here in this book I hesitate to share Jordan’s words of phrase. I didn’t write this journal in order to talk so much about me as I did to offer an insight into the life of a school principal. I’d much rather keep his remarks to myself. But in order to provide a balanced view of school leadership, the good as well as the bad should be included in the story of the principal. To know that you have a made a positive difference in a child’s life is the greatest reward that an educator can receive. To pass the scrutiny of your students’ evaluation is as good as it gets. It is important for all educators to keep this thought in mind as we suffer through the daze of school reform.
Meade School, like any other school, plays a large part in the lives of the children we serve. Our staff works hard to make Meade a good place for our children to be. The impact of poverty touches on every aspect of our school environment. Its effects can be observed through many different indicators. A large number of our students receive low scores on standardized tests. This has long been the case. A constantly changing cast of district leaders insist that our students’ scores must rapidly rise in order to prove the staff of the school is doing a good job. If this doesn’t occur, then heads will roll. We are constantly being told that rising student test scores are the only proof that will define us as effective educators. This we are told is real accountability.
Accountability is the mantra of No Child Left Behind. For schools like Meade, this is high stakes. If we don’t produce, we will be punished. The leadership and staff of our school will be changed. Our school might be converted to a charter school. In the worst case scenario we will be closed. The pressure resulting from the possibility of these sanctions is intense. In the face of these unattractive prospects, we can be tempted, as many schools have done, to focus our limited resources on working with just the children who we think can achieve proficient scores on the state test. If using our resources in this way helps us to make Adequate Yearly Progress, we will get the Deputy Slides of our world off our backs. But to do so is to forego the needs of our most challenged children such as Arthur and Gordon. Focusing only on the “almost proficient” would mean that schools would abandon too many children like Arthur and Gordon. To leave them behind in order to accomplish “so-called” Adequate Yearly Progress is reprehensible. I will not be a participant in any school reform strategy that doesn’t serve all of my students well.
At Meade, I along with my like-minded colleagues, stubbornly persist in doing what we believe is best for our children. This stand may cost me my job. And at times, I must confess, I wonder if my stubbornness concerning these issues defies common sense. I struggle with this thought. If I am removed as the principal of my school then I won’t be able to help any of my children. I would be less than honest if I said that this thought doesn’t worry me.
During such moments, I consider the prospect of compromising my beliefs in order to protect myself. But then I realize that I don’t want to be a person who forsakes doing what is right in order to obtain the “right results”.
These are hard days in which to be a principal. It is especially difficult to be the principal of a low scoring poor school. It is the leaders of the most challenged schools in our society who are taking the worst beating in the No Child Left Behind blame game. I persist with this work in order to help children like Jordon to succeed. I truly appreciate his gratitude. If only the reformers who claim that they are fighting for the civil rights of all children, could see what he sees.
I am not yet done. For my teachers, students and parents, I shall continue on with this work regardless of the ruthless nature of school reform. I’ll be back in September.
Installment 6 of 8/ Moving Ahead
Clearly neither Arthur nor Tyson have any intention of making restitution for the window they had broken. They didn’t come back to school on the two half days they had agreed to work. There isn’t a thing I can do to make them comply with the agreement they had made with me. I’ve kept my side of the bargain. They were able to participate in the graduation. Their failure to follow through on the deal illustrates that things don’t always work out the way you hope. Their lack of responsibility is a disappointment but hardly a surprise. It’s not that unusual for a child to try to avoid a distasteful chore. For these boys, owning up to their responsibilities doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t help their situation that there isn’t a steady and reliable adult in their lives who consistently corrects them when they get off track or pushes them to do the right thing.
My time to watch over these boys has come to an end. Still I continue to be concerned about the future that awaits them. Will they make it through high school? Or will they become just two more dropouts idling away the day on some street corner. I will continue to offer them help if they ask for it. But I doubt that they will.
I am also worried that Arthur will flounder in the foster care system. But there isn’t much more that I can do to help him now that he is moving on to high school. Arthur will have to take responsibility for helping himself. Although he is only fourteen years old, he is on his own. Life has not been fair to him. I fear that he is slowly sinking into the quagmire of the chaos that has long surrounded him.
Lately, I have been reading extensively about the perils that black boys face in our society. Much of the literature I have reviewed is sobering in nature. The suspension rate for African American boys in many of America’s schools is staggering. The percentage of black men who have been incarcerated in our country is an even more overwhelming statistic. The number of African Americans males who do not complete high school should be considered a national disgrace. Many of these student dropouts were enrolled in struggling schools located in our nation’s 100 largest cities. Each of these cities are ones whose local school districts enroll predominately poor African American and Latino children.
Arthur is showing all of the signs of being a future drop out. He has constantly struggled to be successful in school. He lives in a desperately poor community. There is little incentive for him to stay in school.
The multiple negative effects of poverty have disempowered successive generations of poor people in our country. Our nation’s poor reside in communities that are devastated by economic disinvestment. A lack of employment opportunities, quality health care, poor housing, access to reasonably priced, nutritional food and a general lack of public safety are some of the many barriers faced by economically disadvantaged citizens. The neglected communities where these people reside are the same ones where the so-called “dropout out factory” schools are located.
So what are we doing to help the children of these neighborhoods to succeed other than casting blame on the schools that serve them? The answer seems to be “not much”. It appears that our leaders are loathe to admit that the school dropout rate in our country isn’t simply an education problem. They emphatically refuse to recognize the impact that poverty can have on the academic achievement of students. Doing so, they say, is to “make excuses” for why children cannot achieve.
If our leaders were to acknowledge the negative effects poverty has on the well being of children, they would have to agree to develop a comprehensive and integrated social service plan of action for those schools that serve our most needy students. This would involve our society in a costly and long-term endeavor, one that we seemingly do not have the national will to undertake. So instead of engaging in meaningful actions that might break the cycle of poverty, our leaders attempt to distract us from the many inequalities that exist in our society. They offer us platitudes and slogans. It is much easier to say that no child will be left behind, then to take the actual steps to ensure that this will not happen. The “feeling” of school reform is what our elected leaders offer us rather than substantive change. This shallow and superficial substitute for purposeful action is what is actually leaving many of our children behind.
Pursuing real school reform solutions would mean taking steps to make sure that all children received the attention they need and deserve. It would involve hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes in every poor school, and placing experienced teachers in hard-to-staff schools. It would require building decent school facilities for all children. Most of all, it would insist that we stop making excuses for not properly funding many of our public schools.
For the economically-fortunate children in America, schools are strong and safe bridges to the future. This is a good thing. It is an opportunity that should be available to all children. But for too many children living in poverty, schools are flimsy bridges that lead to nowhere. Arthur should be looking forward to a promising future. But the baggage he carries is heavy. The weight of his problems slows his progress. Is there a bridge available to him that will help him to span the deep problems that pit the roadway of his reality?
Today Arthur isn’t the only child missing from school. Here on the last day, more than half of our students are absent without excuse. You can’t imagine my happiness when Ms. Sample ran the final attendance average for the year. It was 90.01%. Just barely, we have cleared this hurdle. We are still on track to make AYP. Now we will wait for the return of our test scores. The Terra Nova scores are due back after July 1st. The PSSA test results won’t be posted until late August.
At noon, I went to the yard in order to say goodbye to the children as they left for the summer. This final dismissal was quick and peaceful. The violence storm that has lingered in the dismissal rectangle for most of this year has finally passed.
After dismissal, our staff surprised Yonnie with a retirement luncheon. Her days as non-teaching assistant have come to an end. We bought a rocking chair for the hallway in her honor. On the back of the chair was placed a dedication plaque, which recognized her years of service to our school. We have been honoring our retiring staff for the last seven years by dedicating rocking chairs in their name. I’m happy for Yonnie. She has safely made it to her rocking chair. I wonder if I will make it to mine.
Earlier in the day, I had a conversation with one of my colleague principals. His school is also in the CAR Region. I had called him to check out what documents we were expected to forward to the new Regional Office. While talking to him, I was surprised to learn that he had been removed as the principal of his school. He informed me that other principals were about to be removed from their assignments. He wasn’t sure exactly who they were. “Could be me”, I thought.
In the evening, I attended a meeting of the Temple Partnership Advisory Board. I act as the principal representative for this group. John DiPaolo announced to the assembled group that the School Reform Commission and Temple University had reached an agreement that would extend the memorandum of understanding between the two parties. Meade and Ferguson were included in the new management contract. The agreement had to be voted on by School Reform Commission. John thought the vote had been scheduled for earlier in the day. He hadn’t yet received an official confirmation on whether this resolution had passed.
I am still not completely certain of my future as Meade’s principal. But doubt will not keep me from continuing to make plans for the future of my school. I will continue to move ahead. The span that I am crossing may soon collapse. Before it does, I will push forward as many of my children as I can.
Installment 7 of 8/ Goodbye, Arthur
The first thing this morning I scanned through the local papers. Both daily papers reported on the business of the School Reform Commission at yesterday’s meeting. Neither made any reference to the renewal of Temple’s school management contract. I gave John DiPaolo a call. He hadn’t yet heard any news on the matter.
After our brief conversation I was quickly distracted by the events around me. It was the last day for the staff. One by one, the teachers were turning in their completed records. Danielle, one of our eighth grade teachers, stopped by my office to say goodbye. She has decided that she needs to make a change and is taking a teaching position in another state. I am sorry to see her go. She is a good teacher who has served our children well. We talked for a while, then gave each other a hug. As she left, she handed me a sealed envelope. Shortly after her departure, I opened the letter. It was a lovely thank you note. One line in particular stood at out as I read her words: “I realize now that teachers must go through discomfort (a lot of times) in order to help their students to succeed.”
Her words reminded me that I am not the only one who struggles with this work. Many a time this year I have resisted the temptation to just simply give up when the going seemed to be too tough. But each time I faced this challenge, voices such as hers or Jordan’s or Hope’s have helped me to find the courage to keep on, even in the face of daunting circumstances.
In the afternoon I stopped by the Partnership Office to take care of some business. Their building is located along the business corridor of Cecil B. Moore Avenue. On my way out of the door, I ran into Arthur. He was coming from the direction of the subway station. He looked startled and a little embarrassed when he saw me. We engaged in a short and awkward conversation. I didn’t mention anything about his failure to return to school on either of the last two days. Instead, I asked him what he was up to on that day.
I’m just going to hang out in the neighborhood, you know. Nothing much.”
I suspected he was heading for his mother’s house. She was still prohibited by the Department of Human Services, from having unsupervised visits with him. Arthur apparently has decided that what his caseworker has to say doesn’t matter. He was going back to his mother’s home. This is where he wants to live.
We said goodbye then I watched Arthur for what seemed the longest while as he walked away down the avenue. I wanted to stop him and turn him around one last time. I didn’t. He was moving away quickly. He was almost out of sight before I turned towards my car. I had my chance to help him. It is over. Goodbye, Arthur.
Back in the school I walked through the end of the year litter that filled the hallways of Meade. Old assignments and castaway copybooks overflowed from trash bags. These last remains of another school year will soon be carted off to the trash dumpsters. Classroom bulletin boards are bare. Desks and chairs are stacked. The children have gone off for the summer. The staff has voiced their final goodbyes. And just like that the school year ended.
Installment 8 of 8/ Harbor
Principals in Philadelphia continue to work five more days after the last day of school for ten-month employees. Except for the custodial staff, I was alone in the school. For the first time in a long while I was able to leisurely go about my business. There wasn’t much for me to do. The preparations for the next school year are mainly done. In the last few weeks, I had worked out the roster for next year. The leadership team has taken care of preparing the student assignments to classrooms in their new grade levels. All of the supplies and textbook we will need in September have been ordered. Registration for summer school is well underway. Everything is in good order.
My plan for the day was to clean up and reorganize my office. It felt like a luxury to be able to concentrate solely on properly filing the various documents that have stacked up on my desktop during the month of June. But before I started, I sat at my desk and studied the latest reports on the state of the school district. I am finding it amusing that my best source of information concerning the events and happenings of my work site is the newspaper, rather than my supervisors.
Reading an article in this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer, I learned that Mr.Vallas had conducted a press conference the day before in order to announce continuing improvement in Philadelphia’s test scores. The results of the spring Terra Nova test have been made available to the District’s leadership team. The increase in the overall percentage of students who had scored above average was relatively small. Still Vallas was pleased. In some areas there had been significant improvements. The group of schools that showed the most test score growth were the Edison-managed schools. The results of the Temple schools were close to the Edison results, according to the newspaper article. The reporter who had written the article made a special note of how well the Temple schools had performed, in light of the fact that two of the Temple Schools had recently been taken back by the School Reform Commission. She apparently wasn’t aware of the latest SRC resolution, which left Meade and Ferguson under Temple management.
This news confirmed my suspicion that the Terra Nova test results had been sent to the District earlier in June. A few weeks prior I had noticed a series of reports on the District’s website. There were several data sets available for my review. One in particular caught my attention. It listed the names of all of the students who were eligible for summer school attendance. This report included student names, report card grades, and Terra Nova test results for the third and eighth grade. These are the two grade levels where students not meeting district benchmarks, must be retained in their current grade for the upcoming school year. According to the district’s current promotion policy, children who score below the twenty-fifth percentile on the Terra Nova in either of these two grades can be retained, unless they attend summer school. As I reviewed this information, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the number of Meade students in this low score range was significantly less than in the previous year. I suspected that this might be a harbinger of good news yet to come. Today’s newspaper story indicates that I was right.
I gave John DiPaolo a call. He hadn’t yet read the paper when we talked. I shared with him my excitement over the possibility that my students have shown significant test score improvements. I also vented my frustration with the continuing reference to Meade and Ferguson as having been removed from the Partnership. By the conclusion of our conversation, John agreed to call the office of the school district that has oversight of EMO schools. He was going to get a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding between Temple and the District and any test score data that was available.
In less than an hour he called back. “Frank, I got a copy of the board resolution regarding the MOU. It was passed at Wednesday’s SRC meeting. I have mailed a copy to you.”
The timing of this news was quite fitting, I thought. Word of the final decision comes on the last day of school. Finally, I can exhale. There is at least one more year for me at my school.
Undoubtedly the days ahead will continue to be difficult. My dogged determination over the past few months to remain principal of Meade has won me no friends in the District’s central office. By lobbying to remain part of the Temple partnership, instead of quietly accepting my fate as a CAR school, I have increased the likelihood of being scrutinized by my superiors downtown. I put it all on the line to obtain this result.
Though Meade remains a Temple-managed school, there is still an ill-defined relationship with the CAR Region that needs to be clarified. The potential complexity of this Meade-Temple-CAR relationship will surely create many more uncomfortable encounters with the “Electric Slide”. Balancing this relationship will be like walking a tight rope. Our school belongs to the School District of Philadelphia. Though for now Temple offers us safety, the SRC can claim us whenever it deems to do so.
I know that as long as No Child Left Behind remains the rule of the land, it will be a struggle to do the right thing for my children. The School District will continue to focus on test prep activities rather than supporting appropriate instructional programs. Desperate leaders will continue to demand unrealistic results. They will take increased test scores any way they can get them. They can make “no excuses” so they must continue to create the feeling of reform.
During my second conversation with John, I told him that I intended to contact the reporter who had filed the story in today’s paper. Now that I was sure that Meade was back under Temple Partnership management, I wanted to share this information with her. I was also interested in obtaining some detailed information regarding our test score results. I would see what information she could offer.
Quite conveniently for me, the e-mail address and phone number of the reporter was listed at the end of the story. I dialed the number expecting to leave a voice mail message. I was pleasantly surprised when she answered after the fourth ring. We talked for a long time. The reporter gladly shared with me the test sore statistics that she had for Meade and the other Temple Partnership Schools. I hurriedly copied down the percentage increases or decreases for each school as she read them to me. Overall, the percentage of students enrolled in the Temple Schools who scored above average exceeded the average for the District. The number of our students who scored in the lowest quartile was also significantly lower than the District average. We had done well. In addition, the scores of the Meade students had significantly boosted the Partnership’s overall performance. I would have to wait a few more weeks for a more detailed school-by-school report. But there was no doubt that our students had performed well on this test.
The reporter thanked me for bringing to her attention that Meade and Ferguson would continue to be managed by Temple. “I’m pretty busy following up on the rumors that Mr. Vallas may possibly be leaving the District”, she said. When I get some free time, I will do a story about Meade and Ferguson staying with Temple. I will give a call to my contacts at Twenty-First Street in order to get their reactions.”
I’d love to hear her conversation with Vallas. What explanation will he offer her in order to explain his change of heart?
Our continuation with the Partnership will provide us some additional breathing room. The improvement in our test scores will help even more. The threat posed by the CAR Region has grown smaller. Soon it will be no more than an ever-shrinking vision in the rear view mirror as we gain momentum in our own reform efforts.
Ahead is a long summer’s wait for the test results that will most matter. Our PSSA scores will determine whether our progress has been adequate according to NCLB requirements. Whatever the final judgment, this year’s story is finished for now. We have successfully traveled across a stormy and hazardous school year. We have reached the shelter of a harbor. In time we will know if it is safe one.