Archive for the ‘Confessions of an Urban Principal’ Category

Chapter Ten-Complete (Installments 1 to 8)

29 Jun

Chapter Ten-June

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.










Chapter Ten: June

27 Jun

Confessions of an Urban Principal/Harbor

by Frank Murphy

Installment 8 of 8


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. Read the rest of this entry »


Chapter Ten: June

22 Jun

Confessions of an Urban Principal/Goodbye, Arthur

by Frank Murphy

Installment 7 of 8


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. Read the rest of this entry »


Chapter Ten: June

20 Jun

Confessions of an Urban Principal/Moving Ahead

by Frank Murphy

Installment 6 of 8


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. Read the rest of this entry »


Chapter Ten: June

15 Jun

Confessions of an Urban Principal/Good Stories

by Frank Murphy

Installment 5 of 8


“ 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.” Read the rest of this entry »


Chapter Ten: June

13 Jun

Confessions of an Urban Principal/Vampires

by Frank Murphy

Installment 4 of 8


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. Read the rest of this entry »


Chapter Ten: June

08 Jun

Confessions of an Urban Principal/Student Stories

by Frank Murphy

Installment 3 of 8

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Chapter Ten: June

06 Jun

Confessions of an Urban Principal/ Conversations

by Frank Murphy

Installment 2 of 8


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. Read the rest of this entry »


Chapter Ten: June

01 Jun

Confessions of an Urban Principal/ The Final Approach

by Frank Murphy

Installment 1 of 8

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. Read the rest of this entry »


Chapter Nine-Complete (Installments 1 to 9)

31 May

Chapter Nine—May

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 9/ Well, We Sure Have  a Lot of Feelings

Monday mornings aren’t as frantic now that spring is here. The fast and furious waves of transient children entering and exiting the school have begun to ebb. At last the tide has turned.  Though problems still confound me, at least I don’t feel as overwhelmed by them.

Paul Vallas has endured his own storm of stressful events in the last week. A fourth grade child in one of our city’s schools attempted to hang himself on a hook in the coat closet.  In a different neighborhood, some children were pricked by a syringe they found on the way to school. In yet another part of the city, a child was shot outside of his school.


It has been almost two weeks since the Saturday parent meeting took place with Vallas and his top aide.  I wait for news from him or his staff regarding the status of our school.

The rumors are flying.   Nearly every person who comes into the school claims to know for sure what is going to happen.  They all start their stories in the same way.  “I heard from a very reliable source at 21st Street that…”. In some of these tales, the Deputy Slide wants me out.   In other accounts, I’m being promoted to Regional Superintendent.  Some of the rumormongers are certain that we are in the CAR region.   Other storytellers say that Temple will continue as our manager. I wonder,  how many reliable sources can there be?

I talked to John DiPaolo on Wednesday.  He said that the talks between Temple’s president and Mr. Vallas are going well.  “There isn’t anything official yet but I’m confident that all four schools are going to stay in the Partnership.”

Yesterday I was notified that I must attend a meeting on Friday for the principals of the CAR schools. The waiting gets more nerve-racking with each passing day.

In the school, life has been calm.  The Terra Nova testing has been proceeding well.  There have been very few disciplinary referrals and only one bizarre incident has occurred this week.  The fourth grade brother of Saundra Thompson had been involved in a verbal confrontation with several boys on Wednesday in art class.   Afterwards he worked himself into an angry state.  When he returned to his classroom, he attempted to hang himself by his shirt collar on a hook in the coat closet.  The teacher took him off the hook immediately and called for the counselor.

The counselor tried to contact Mrs. Thompson.  The person who answered said she was sleeping and didn’t want to be disturbed.   An aunt came up to school in her place.  The counselor recommended that the boy be taken to the emergency psychiatric clinic for an evaluation.  The boy said he was only joking.  He claimed that he was imitating the boy he heard about in the news who hung himself on the coat hook last week.

Today I saw Mrs. Thompson at Saundra’s disciplinary hearing.  She didn’t mention the incident concerning her son.  The meeting was held at the district’s law office.  Pat had come along with me.  She had witnessed Saundra and her aunts’ attack on me. The girl who had pulled the knife was seated next to Mrs. Thompson.  Her presences made me feel uncomfortable.

I presented my testimony.  Mrs. Thompson and her daughter each made short statements.  The aunt was the last person to speak.  She stated that she was the one who had attacked me, not Saundra.  It was true that she had assaulted me.   But this didn’t mean her niece was innocent.  Saundra had participated in the assault.  After the aunt completed her confession, she offered me an apology.  “Mr. Murphy, I am sorry for causing you harm.”

It was a bizarre scene.


I arrived at 8:15 a. m. for the meeting of the CAR principals.  When the Regional Superintendent saw me, she invited me into her office.  There she informed me that I was welcome to attend the CAR meetings but my presence wasn’t mandatory.  “Temple will continue to manage your school as well as Ferguson.  You will also be part of the CAR region.”

“Well what exactly does that mean?” I asked.

“I’m not quite sure what the whole answer to your question is, Frank.  John DiPaolo will continue as your supervisor.  Temple will still manage Meade and I will oversee how Temple manages your school.  There are still things to be worked out regarding how this will operate.”

I could see that Meade’s new status as a Temple School and as a member of the CAR region is going to be complicated.  We are going to be caught in the middle of a tug of war between two managers.

The principals’ meeting started at nine o’clock. We went without break until 1:30 p.m.  For most of that time we sat in a circle and engaged in activities intended to help us to get in touch with our emotional selves.  We were instructed to make nametags.  On them, we were asked to draw symbols that represented our hopes and fears concerning the CAR region.  When we were finished, the superintendent asked each of us to explain why we had chosen our respective symbols.

A large chunk of time was spent on this sharing of our emotional responses to learning that our schools had been included in the CAR region.  The superintendent initiated this dialogue by saying,  “I want you to share with everyone how you felt when you learned your school was selected for CAR.  I’m going to list your responses on the board.  We are all going to process our feelings together”.  Several times during the course of the morning she reiterated to us, “Effective leaders are in touch with their emotions.”

I found the responses of the principals to be amazingly candid.  Shock, depression, and fear were the top three feelings identified.   The board was quickly filled with comments.  The superintendent concluded by stating, “Well, we sure have a lot of feelings.  I’m glad we are able to get them in the open.”

When someone asked how the region would operate, the given answer was brief.  “ We will be having many more meetings where your questions will be answered.   The people from Johns Hopkins University will soon start to study your schools.  Except for you, Frank.  Temple will have to decide what they want to do about the Johns Hopkins study.”

The other principals looked puzzled.  The superintendent explained to them how Meade and Ferguson would continue to be managed by Temple, but still be a part of the CAR region.  They looked as confused by this pronouncement as I felt.

Installment 2 of 9/ My Reality Is Nonfiction


The final days of another school year have begun to play out.  The last few weeks have been peaceful.  Tense moments with disruptive students and angry papers have been few and far between. The flow of new admits has slowed to a trickle.  Lately, I’ve been able to spend most of my time visiting classrooms. There I am consistently observing students who are engaged in interesting and instructionally appropriate activities.   I am pleased.

In this calmer time, I have found many opportunities for extended conversations with children as well as teachers.  I’ve been so busy with these interactions that there hasn’t been time to engage in idle thoughts about the murky future.  It is good to enjoy the normal life of a principal.

John DiPaolo had his own meeting with the CAR regional superintendent.  She informed him that a team from Johns Hopkins University will be visiting Meade.   Afterward they will submit a report. We should receive a copy of it by the end of next November.  It is the expectation that Temple will address the recommendations that this team suggests.  John is confident that the management agreement between Temple and the school district will remain as it is for the next school year.


Today John updated all of the Temple Partnership principals on the status of negotiations between Temple and the District. He informed us that a verbal agreement had been reached with the District.  All four schools will continue as Temple Partnership Schools.  Meade and Ferguson will receive district support through the CAR Region.  Duckery and Dunbar will stay connected to the District through the newly formed region that will support just EMO schools.

After the meeting ended, several of the principals became involved in a lively discussion concerning the future of Paul Vallas.   The day before, The Inquirer had reported on numerous rumors circulating around the city concerning Vallas.  In July he will be awarded a three hundred thousand dollar bonus for having remained as the CEO for three years.  There is speculation that once he receives this money, Vallas will leave town.  Many people believe that he will soon declare himself as a candidate in the Illinois gubernatorial race.

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook reported that an Internet website has begun to advertise the services of consultants who will help districts to implement a “Vallas-like” reform effort.  Vallas denied having any involvement with this endeavor and shortly after the publication of this report, the website was taken down.  In today’s paper there was an account of Vallas’ brother and his efforts to organize a petition drive in order to change the Illinois residency requirement for those who seek the governor’s office in that state.  Vallas says he has nothing to do with his brother’s activities.  He claims he is not running for anything and that he is going to finish the job he started here in Philadelphia.

I wondered about the future of the CAR region should he choose to leave. How long would it last under another leader’s regimen?  It is starting to look as though Vallas is in his final laps of Philadelphia school reform.


Last night I met with the members of the Home and School Association.  I gave them an update on the progress we have made in maintaining our status as a Temple managed school.   They were pleased.


This school year and thus this story are nearing an end.  When I decided to write this book I had no idea of the challenges that would face me.  My initial plan was simple.  I would describe the day-to-day life of a principal.  As this project evolved, I found myself in the center of events that were far from routine.   Many of my experiences during this year have been disturbing in nature and have left me in a confused state of mind.   I am not quite as sure of my purpose as a schoolman as I was when I started this year.  For the first time in my career, I am questioning whether I want to continue with this work.   I still do want to change the world.  But in these current days of school reform, I am disheartened.  I fear that I will not be as successful in making the kind of difference that I long to create.

If the accounts I have offered here were a fiction, then the characters, settings, and plot of my narrative would all be within my control.  As the author, I would determine the outcome of the Meade story. All of the problems I introduced would be resolved to my satisfaction, and I could leave the reader with an inspirational and happy ending.

But I am not an all-knowing first-person narrator.   I have no idea as to how this story will end.  My reality is nonfiction.  My school’s fate and ultimately my own fate will slowly unfold over the course of the next year or two.  I am sure that there will be no neat ending to this tale.

Installment 3 of 9/ “Merchants of Hope”

On Thursday, I stopped in the auditorium in order to observe the eighth grade graduation rehearsal.  The teachers were organizing the students’ processional march.  In a little more than three weeks, our first group of eighth graders will take their final bow on the elementary stage of their lives.  In September they will start high school. For many years I have watched over them.   Now it’s time to write our goodbyes in the memory book of the Class of 2005.  I am at the same time, excited, proud and sad.

In the schoolyard during dismissal, I had an impromptu meeting with Isaiah’s dad.  Isaiah hasn’t been acting like his usual self.  He has been in a few fights with other students and has been disrespecting his teachers.  Isaiah’s father explained to me the cause of the boy’s misbehavior.  He received a rejection letter from the New England prep school to which he had applied. The news has devastated him.  I felt bad for Isaiah.  We have had several conversations about this school. He was so looking forward to going there. His recent poor behavior made sense now.  Shattered hopes can often lead to angry and rash behavior.


The next day I attended the monthly citywide principals’ meeting. This one was held at a hotel conference center located on City Line Avenue.  The venue was well appointed, with all of the services available that would be expected at a business conference.  The morning started off with coffee and pastries in the ballroom.  Later there was a sit down lunch.  I calculated that the cost of this event was most likely equal to the amount of money that I needed to complete the funding for an assistant principal’s position.  The extravagance of this event mildly annoyed me.  But this irritation was nothing compared to the aggravation I felt concerning the shallow, pep rally-like tone of this principal meeting.

Chief Academic Officer Greg Thornton delivered the opening address. He started by acknowledging the dozen or so principals who had decided to retire at the end of the year. He then informed us that a national search was being conducted to identify new principal candidates.  The human resources department has thus far received only four responses, according to Thornton.  “We aren’t sure we will have enough qualified people to fill the positions we have, he said. “Perhaps the retirees would reconsider their decisions.”

For most of his speech, Thornton elaborated on his analysis of the progress of the current administration’s reform efforts.  I found his eventual conclusion to be ironic especially coming from an individual who is intent on changing every aspect of our district’s operations.  “We are making great progress, he said. “In order to keep the momentum of reform going, the most important thing we need is consistency.  Half-completed reforms have to stop.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by this statement.   Was he referencing the Hornbeck agenda, which had been cut short by the Vallas model?  Or was he referring to the continuous stream of initiatives that are announced by the current administration only to then falter or fade from sight?  Either way consistence has been in short supply in this district.

After he spoke, we moved to our breakout rooms.  I chose to attend a session on how to integrate arts activities into classroom instruction. The presenters were book company sales representatives.  They explained how classroom teachers would now be expected to use the art and music textbooks that had already been purchased for all of our schools by the central administration.  According to the presenters, these supplementary materials are aligned with the district’s core curriculum in that the format used to write their texts is the same one used in the district’s basal reading series.

The decision to purchase these materials for our arts and music programs didn’t make sense to me.   Since many of our schools don’t have either an art or music teacher, it would seem to be more important to direct our resources towards hiring appropriate staff rather than purchasing expensive and glitzy textbooks.  A highly qualified teacher will certainly be better able to help our children experience the arts than a pretty, packaged book from a publishing company.  Is this an example of another initiative to add to Thornton’s “momentum of reform”? If so, it’s a disappointing choice.

Lunch was scheduled between 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.  It was billed as a working session.  This meant that we were expected to listen to speeches while we eat.

A motivational speaker was the first person to address us.  She started her speech as soon as everyone was seated. “Merchants of Hope” was the theme around which she shaped her talk.  Over the front of the speaker’s podium, she had hung a tee shirt emblazoned with this phrase.  Slowly and carefully she weaved this message into her personal life story, offering one example after another of the adults who had inspired her as a child.

Her talk focused on the potential within every person and the responsibility of all educators to help their students to tap into their own potential.   According to her, academic success is all about attitude, vision and self-responsibility.  At one point, she mockingly dismissed the cynics. “There are people who want to ignore a child’s potential because of a thing called socioeconomics!  These are the people who think poor people cannot achieve.  I grew up poor and I achieved!  I wasn’t just poor, I was po’!  Yes, my family was so poor we couldn’t even afford the ‘or!”

The speaker then went on to describe in detail her humble origins.  She spoke of facing daunting obstacles through out her life but despite them, becoming a successful person.   She concluded by describing the greatest personal tragedy of her life.  A young boy had shot and killed her beloved husband during a botched hold-up attempt.  Her account was a gripping tale, with a vivid and intimate description of her pain.  The speaker recounted the devastation of her loss, the despair that consumed her, the hopelessness she felt.  For several years after being parted from her husband, she lived in despair.  She gave up on life, but friends and family kept after her during this time. Finally she found salvation in their embrace.  She thanked these “merchants of hope” who helped her through her sorrow.

The speaker concluded her speech by quite movingly describing how the grandmother of the boy who had killed her husband later came to her and asked for her forgiveness.  “This poor sad grandmother begged me to forgive her grandson”, she said.  “The grandmother told me, ‘He is a good boy with a very troubled life.  I tried to protect him from the street.  Please forgive him’.”

Amazingly, the speaker revealed that she did forgive the boy.  “I had only wished that a merchant of hope had succeeded in touching the life of that boy”, she said.  “If only he could have seen hope before he met my husband in that parking lot.”

Tears welled up in the eyes of people throughout the ballroom as she finished her story.  Then to the assembled principals she said, “Children need merchants of hope in order to guide them through perilous times and situations.  You are merchants of hope.  You are the ones who can make a great difference in helping a child find a positive direction.  In your work, you can help stop other boys who are on the low path before they bring suffering to another wife.”

I was personally touched by her story.   Yet professionally a part of me felt as though I were being manipulated. I sensed that the intent of the planners of this event was to convince us that we could increase the test scores of the children who are educated in our under-resourced schools if only we displayed the right attitude.  If we just believe in the children, all will be made right.  The problem with this worldview is that it frees our society from claiming any responsibility for dealing fairly with the needs of the poor.

I talk to my students everyday. I cajole them. I encourage them. I know that I am a merchant of hope.  I also know that good merchants deliver more than a fancy sales pitch. The children I serve need more resources than what is available to them in order to succeed.  For these children to thrive, they must be given the same opportunities that more advantaged children enjoy.

The leaders of more affluent school districts readily acknowledge that money does make a difference in the quality of education for their children.  It is evident in the money that they purposefully allocate in their budgets for the arts, for counselors and for keeping their class sizes small.

In Philadelphia, our leaders tell us to stop talking about poverty and the need for additional funds.  We are told money doesn’t make a difference.  Instead of larger budgets, we are given motivational speakers whose apparent objective is to convince us that a proper “attitude” is all that anyone needs in order to succeed.  These well-compensated messengers highlight the successes of a few exceptionally resilient children in order to prove their point.

I don’t buy the arguments they make.  In my opinion, true “merchants of hope” work to secure the resources that every child requires, regardless of cost.  Perhaps if Isaiah had come from a more wealthy family, he would have won acceptance to the exclusive New England prep school he so desperately wanted to attend.

Installment 4 of 9/ The Foot Soldiers of Homeland Defense

Midway through our citywide principals’ meeting, with lunch nearly finished, we were instructed to stand up and take a stretch at our tables. Our first luncheon speaker had just concluded her lengthy Merchant of Hope speech.  Now we were to be addressed by CEO Vallas, who followed with his own long monologue.

Vallas began by describing the businesses of his day so far. In the morning he had worked on negotiating a bond deal in New York.  “I have four bond deals on the table right now.  Convincing people to invest in me has been difficult”, he informed us. “When I first came here, no one wanted to have anything to do with us.  We were a money hole.  Now people can see the district we are becoming.  As I put reform into place, this district is no longer viewed negatively.  I was one of two districts in the nation who dared to quickly move on a comprehensive package of reforms.  At the end of the day, we will get the job done.”


Vallas continued with a call to action for principals in the district. He informed us that we, the principals of Philadelphia, are the new civil rights activists of our times.  We are the also the foot soldiers of homeland defense.  “Reforming public education will be the defining moment of our generation”, he declared.  “Schools and school districts must be the transformational agents for our society.  Through the opportunities we provide children in our public schools, we will protect their civil rights.  We will protect our nation.  Making better schools is the work of homeland defense.”  According to Mr. Vallas, terrorists will not be able to find a foothold in a well-educated nation.

By the time he was finished, I had more than my share of inspirational speeches for one day.   Imbibing in too much of the happy spirits can leave you tired and nursing a nasty headache.  I didn’t need to soak in any more inspiration.

After the meeting, I found myself in the hotel lobby with several principals of CAR designated schools.  One of them was relating to us how she had heard from a reliable source that all of the principals of the CAR schools were going to be replaced.  Her comment created quite a stir within the group.  After a lively discussion, we concluded that in the current climate of the school district anything is possible.  I left the hotel thinking that I need a “merchant of hope” who will encourage me to keep on with my work.

Installment 5 of 9/ The Victim’s Waiting Room

The neoclassical façade of the courthouse in which Family Court is located is quite an impressive sight. The first floor courtrooms and waiting areas, which are designed in a symmetrical Beaux Arts style, are equally grand. Stained glass windows depicting the virtues of family life, adorn the lobby. Bronze chandeliers and majestic torches convey a sense of elegance and wealth that contrasts starkly with the humble origins of the multitude of citizens who face judgment in this chamber of justice.

As I entered the lobby, I was struck by the gravity of this place. It was a few minutes before nine, the designated time on my subpoena. Airport-style metal detectors, monitored by armed police officers, were positioned on both sides of the lobby. In order to gain entry to the building, visitors had to pass through these security checkpoints. I did not clear security until well after my appointed arrival time. Once I was free to move around the courthouse, it didn’t take long for me to find the victim’s waiting room. I was there to testify at Phillip’s hearing.

Arm to arm hardback chairs lined the walls of this cramped room. In the middle of the space, two more rows of chairs were arranged back to back. Throughout the room victims like myself sat facing one another. Separate in our thoughts yet thrown together in this intimate place, we waited to give testimony. Elbow to elbow and knee to knee we the injured parties of a crime sat ready to testify against our offenders. We waited for the call of justice.

At nine thirty-five, an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) addressed the assembly. She gave a concise explanation of how the day would unfold. “You might be here all day or you might be out by noon. It is hard to predict how quickly any judge will act on a case. You might even find that you will have to come back at a later date. The attorneys of defendants will often ask for a continuance. If the defendant has a private lawyer, this will most likely happen. It is a strategy that they use. By making you come back repeatedly, they hope to wear you down until you drop the case.”

A woman seated across the room from me nodded her head vigorously up and down as the ADA talked. She called out. “That’s what they are trying to do to me and my daughter. This is the fifth time that we have come here.” Until I heard this speech, I had been thinking that I would be quickly finished with this business. It appeared that I would not be making it back to my car before the two hours allotted on my parking meter expired. It would have been a wiser move on my part to have parked in the ten-dollar all-day parking lot across from the courthouse.

As the morning progressed, various ADAs entered the room and called out names of people. At ten o’clock it was my turn. “Frank Murphy, is there a Frank Murphy here?” I stood up. “There you are. Follow me, Mr. Murphy.” I felt as though I were in a busy doctor’s office. The ADA led me down a short hallway. We entered a small room. The only furniture there consisted of two beat up metal folding chairs. We sat down while the ADA quizzed me about the details of Phillip’s assault. Then she told me that the public defender had contacted her earlier in order to share details of Philip’s difficult life.

She inquired as to the kind of action I wanted to see taken. I said, “I am only interested in getting help for Phillip. From past experience in dealing with other children, I have learned that the court has access to a variety of social and counseling services that are unavailable to schools. I want Philip and his family to get this assistance. What do you suggest?” I asked.

“I’m thinking we should ask the Judge for a Consent Decree.” She replied.
“What is a Consent Decree?”
“We set up requirements that Philip and his family must agree to perform.”
“Would this include social services?”
“ Yes. The family would be monitored by a caseworker for a year. Counseling for Philip and his mother would be a mandatory part of the deal. At the end of the year, he will come back before the judge. If the agreement has been adhered to, the charges against Philip will be dismissed and he will have no juvenile record. If Phillip and his parents don’t follow through on the court’s orders, his case will be adjudicated. The irony is that he will be held more accountable by a Consent Decree then by being convicted of a crime. If he is found guilty today, he might be sentenced to thirty to sixty day of community service. After he serves the time, he will be dismissed without receiving any further services.”

I asked a few more questions, before I agreed to her suggestion to request a Consent Decree. She told me it would be a little longer before I was called into the court. I was sent back to the waiting room.

Upon my return I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. He told me that he was a teacher in a disciplinary school. When he mentioned the name of the school. I realized it was the same one to which Philip had been assigned by the school district hearing officer. This information I kept to myself. This teacher had been assaulted by one of the students in his unit. We talked for some time about his work in a discipline school before he was called to the courtroom. After he left, I was obsessed with thoughts of the parking ticket that I was sure would be waiting for me on the windshield of my car. Eventually I resigned myself to the inevitability of receiving a thirty-dollar parking fine. My daydreams were interrupted by someone calling my name. This time it was a victim’s advocate who escorted me into the tiny conference room.

As soon as we were entered the room, she offered me an apology. “There has been some kind of mix-up Mr. Murphy. Philip has not been transported to court from the orphanage. This hearing will have to be rescheduled. Most likely the new date will be sometime near the end of June.”

At the moment I thought this was good news. Now I would be able to get back to my car before the ticket writer arrived. The advocate offered me one final apology before she told me that I was free to leave. I didn’t waste anytime getting out of there. There was one minute left on the meter when I arrived at my car.

Installment 6 of 9/ A Guardian Without Immortal Powers

Isaiah’s teacher had sent him to the office on an errand.  When I saw him at the counter, I invited him into my office.  I’ve been meaning to talk to him.  As he meandered through my doorway, I was reminded of the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.  This past year I have seen him grow quite a bit.  He has become a tall and lanky boy.  In this clumsy stage of his teenage years, Isaiah is struggling to control his emerging adult self.

Isaiah plopped down into my desk chair and pretended to be the boss.  I could see both the shyness of a boy and the social confidence of a young man in his smiling face.  I pretended to be stern as I directed him to give up my seat.  Isaiah laughed as he moved over to the sofa.   He practically fell into it.

“Your father told me that you didn’t get accepted to the prep school.  That stinks.  How are you feeling?”

His smile faded.   His head bowed and his eyes searched the floor.  I have seen children do this so many times before when they are asked a question that makes them feel uncomfortable.

“I don’t know”, he reluctantly responded.

“I would guess that you are feeling awfully disappointed.”

He didn’t immediately reply.   I continued to talk.

“You’ve gotten into quite a few messes these last few days.  Do you think you’re making  trouble because you’re a little angry?”

“Maybe.”  This time his response was barely audible.

“ Sure, it’s a disappointment.   I know how much you were looking forward to going there.”

Lifting up his head, Isaiah looked directly at me. “I guess I’m mad.  But I try to talk to myself in my head.  I try to be like my own counselor.”

“Have you talked to anyone else beside yourself about your feelings, like maybe your father?”

“Talking  to another person can help you sort your feelings out.  It is a way of dealing with your anger that won’t get you into trouble.”

Isaiah started let his guard down.   He told me about how much he had been looking forward to the prep school, how much he has worked to control his temper and to do better in school.  He was so disappointed.


I tried to console him.  “Sometimes what we want to happen doesn’t always work out the way we want it to.   I feel bad for you.  This will hurt for a while but it will get better.  I know it will get better from my own experiences with disappointments. You are a special person.  You are smart and funny.  You have a lot of heart.  You’re going to have a great life.  It will get better, I promise you.  But while you are waiting don’t make your life worse.  Control your temper.  Stay out of trouble.  Keep talking to yourself.  I’m looking forward to seeing you walk down the aisle at graduation.  Don’t mess it up.”

For a few seconds Isaiah just stared at me.   Then the smile returned to his face.  He assured me that he was going to behave.  We talked for a little while longer.  He was laughing and clowning when I finally put him out of my office.

Giving guidance to my children underlies most of what I do as an educator.   I spend much of my time pointing them in the direction of the high road of life.  I warn them,  “Stay away from the edges.  Be careful.  Don’t fall off the cliff.  Slow down!  Don’t be so quick to follow behind someone else’s bad idea.   Hurry up!  There is much for you yet to learn”.  My students mainly listen.  But despite all of my best efforts, some children do fall. Each one of these lost children is a painful reminder of how fragile life is. I so much don’t want Isaiah to be one of the fallen.  It is exhausting being a guardian without immortal powers.

Soon after his departure, I received a call from the Assistant District Attorney who is handling Philip’s case.  She had talked to the Public Defender.  Philip was going to agree to accept a consent decree.   I won’t have to go back to the victim’s waiting room after all.

I was happy for Philip. Juvenile court is the best institution in this city that can offer a good array of services to children in desperate need of help.  Philip has been brutalized by the circumstance in which he lives.  His alcoholic father often beat him with an electric cord.  His mother suffers from mental health issues of her own.  The children of these parents are now in the care of the state.   I don’t know why Philip’s mother and father are the way they are.  What I do know is that they have five children who have serious problems of their own.  Hopefully someone will catch them before they fall.    I wish Philip well and I hope he gets the help he needs.

Installment 7 of 9/ Domestic Battlefields

Whenever teachers and principals take a personal interest in the lives of their students and families, they face the possibility of being suddenly drawn onto a domestic battlefield created by warring parents.  Mothers and fathers who are no longer compatible with each other, can inadvertently reek havoc on their children’s lives.  Their sons and daughters are pulled in different directions as they find themselves caught in the middle of a nasty tug of war between parents vying for their loyalty and love.


The children of these shattered unions often vent their frustrations in a variety of inappropriate manners.  They might fight or be disrespectful to other children and adults. Frequently they are argumentative. Some children just completely shut down. Whatever the form their anger takes, it often ends up in a disciplinary referral to the principal.

I was reminded of this family minefield the other day when I talked to Gregory.  He is an eighth grader who was referred to me by his teacher.  He had been acting disrespectfully as of late.  Gregory was refusing to do his class work and was constantly arguing with the teacher.  The last straw in his recent string of misbehavers was when he cursed at her.  This is the first real trouble he has been into since his fight with the twins in the fall.

I met with Gregory in my office.  At first it was an awkward encounter.  He isn’t much of a conversationalist.  Getting him to say something, anything, is like pulling teeth.

“Your teacher tells me that you have been talking back to her for the last week, I began.    “She also says that your mother told her that you are being disrespectful at home.  You sound like you are angry about something.  I am concerned about you.  Who is making you angry, your teacher or your mom?”

He stood silently in front of me.  His eyes seemed to search my face for signs that I was being truthful in the concerns I expressed.  His gaze was unnerving but I didn’t let on to my discomfort.  I think he is a decent person who is trying to find his place in the world.

His eyes continued to scan me.  Quietly he said, “My mom.”

“So your teacher is like an innocent victim here.  You are letting your feelings leak out in a negative way. What’s up with you and your mom?”

Again the gaze of his eyes passed over me.  I must have passed his lie detector test, because he said, “she says things about my father that aren’t true.  When I tell her that they’re not true, she says I’m being disrespectful.”

“Do you talk to your father about those things?”

“We talk, but not about that.”

“You are angry because your mom says untrue things about your dad.  Her words hurt you.  You feel bad”,  I said.

“She won’t stop when I tell her to stop.”

“Your mother is angry.  She and your father are mad at each other.  This doesn’t mean that they don’t love you and your brother and sister.  They do.  Sometimes people end up not being able to get along together.  This is what is happening with your parents.  Your mom probably feels hurt and angry.   She wants to talk to someone about her feelings.  You are the person she chose to speak to.”

His eyes remained glued on me.  He seemed to suck my words right into his head.  There were tears in his eyes but none fell.

“You need to tell your mom that you don’t want to be caught in the middle between her and your dad.  Let her know that you love her and that you love your father.  You know that they have problems, but that’s between them.  Here’s what you can say:  “Mom, I don’t mean any disrespect to you, I just don’t want you to say bad things about my dad. And I don’t want to hear bad things about you from Dad.  I love you both.”

Gregory didn’t dismiss my suggestion.  He just stood quietly, weighing my advice.

“Anyway, you need to knock off giving backtalk to your teacher.  She isn’t doing you any harm and the way you’re talking to her isn’t right.”

Gregory assured me that he would be more respectful towards his teacher.

Installment 8 of 9/ Zany Brainy Moments

Within the twenty-two minute rectangle of dismissal, all has been peaceful for the last few weeks.  My dread had been unfounded that tougher times would accelerate as the warmer spring climate took hold.   The biggest trouble I’ve had to confront at the end of day has been the rush of students crossing in the middle of Gratz Street to get to a neighbor’s water ice stand.  The owner is the grandmother of several of our students.  She set up a freezer and umbrella in front of her row house.  For several years she has busily dispensed twenty-five cent cups of flavored ice to thirsty students in the warmer months of the school year.

Today there weren’t as many customers as usual.  Many of her regulars had run off down the street.   Somewhere further away from the yard there was a fight.

Later I learned that it had been Samuel and Isaiah who were the fighters.  Mr. Nottingham was dealing with the aftermath of their conflict when I returned to the office.   I decided to stay to steer clear of this problem for the time being.  I was disappointed when I heard Isaiah was involved.  I wondered what had happened to our agreement earlier in the day.  I was not happy with the boy. I resign myself to the fact that I will have to deal with him tomorrow.


When we did met the following day, I was still angry. It had only been a few hours before this fight that I had talked to him about controlling his temper.   Now it appeared as though he had been stringing me along with his line, “I talk to myself in my head.  I tell myself not to be mad.”

Through habit more than patience, I sat back quietly and listened to his latest explanation for his poor behavior.

“He was messing with my sister at lunch time.  He hit her.  My sister came to my classroom crying just before we let out of school.”

“Your sister gets hit at lunchtime and she comes to your classroom over an hour later crying to you.  What was she doing out of her class?  This sounds like a silly drama to me.” I responded.  Isaiah didn’t disagree.

“Isaiah, you don’t know what happened in the lunchroom.  You don’t have lunch during that period.  Jumping to conclusions and losing your temper is how you get yourself into these jams.  Didn’t we talk about you not getting into trouble just an hour or so before this fight?”

“It wasn’t like that Mr. Murphy.  I didn’t jump him or anything like that.  I tried to talk to him.  He was standing on the corner with his boys.  I went up to him and asked him if we could talk in private.  He didn’t answer me.  Like I wasn’t there.”

I thought over this comment for a moment before I responded. “Isaiah, you let Samuel get into your head.  You were trying to be sincere and straight up with him.  You wanted to peacefully set things straight concerning your sister.  He didn’t want to talk.  He acted like he didn’t understand what you were trying to say.  His responses made you feel stupid and embarrassed.”

I could see the light going on in Isaiah’s head.  He was nodding his head up and down in agreement.

“Samuel was playing with your head.  He was showing off for his boys.  Isaiah, he was trying to make you look like a fool.  You tried to talk to him. That was good. But you did it on his turf when his crew surrounded him.  You were by yourself.  There wasn’t anyone there who could back you up.  People play games.  You have to watch out for yourself.”

From his explanation I understood why he had gotten himself into this mess.  He wasn’t acting out.  It was a matter of protecting the honor of his family.   I gave Isaiah a lunchtime detention.  A suspension would have excluded him from the eighth grade trip.

I squeezed my meeting with Isaiah into the time just before I had to leave for the Zany Brainy excursion. The students who get to go on this trip are either the top readers in their classrooms, are on the principal’s honor roll, or are their teachers’ choices for best citizens.  In the year we inaugurated this event, fifty children were on this list to participate. Now in the third year of our Zany Brainy outing, the number has increased to one hundred and seventy students.

When we arrived at the toy store, each child picked out twenty dollars worth of merchandise.  I have recruited a variety of donors who provide the funds for this much anticipated event.  This year it took us two days to move so many children through the store.  I find that with smaller groups, the adults are better able to manage the children. The older children help out with the kindergarteners and first graders but there is still a lot for the adults to handle. Watching the children shop is a treat.  Every one of them demonstrated that they were thrifty shoppers who could get the most for their money.  Many of them bought toys for their younger siblings in addition to their own treat.  I was moved by the generosity they showed for their brothers and sisters.   It was a fun and exhausting excursion.

On the drive back to school, my head was filled with pleasant images of excited and happy kids.  With these thoughts still in mind I reconsidered my conversation with Isaiah. I had a revelation.   I realized that I needed to heed my own advice.  I shouldn’t allow people to get into my head.  People like Christie Sims and Judith Wilson have pulled me seriously off my game for most of this year.  I’ve allowed their personal problems and bizarre agendas to become far too much of a distraction for me.  In doing so, I’ve lost sight of all of the good things and people in my life.  Instead of letting them play with my mind, I need to focus more on the Zany Brainy moments.

Installment 9 of 9/Pensive Mood

Today the eighth graders attended their graduation luncheon. On this last day of another month, finding the time to join them in this celebration was an accomplishment.  Shortly before I planned on making my departure from the building, two different crises erupted.  I had just come back in to my office from the yard when Mr. Nottingham asked me to come with him to the nurse’s office.  He was insistent.  Reluctantly I followed him.

“Mr. Murphy, I sent Corey over here to go to use the bathroom.  He locked himself in and won’t come out or even answer me when I call to him.”

Corey is the first grader who was placed in a psychiatric program after hearing voices in his head.  He has been back in school for the last two weeks.  It hasn’t been going well. His behavior is worse now than before he was admitted for treatment.  The last few days he has been sitting with us in the main office.  He has repeatedly punched his teacher, trashed his classroom and run out of the school.  Last week the personal aide assigned to monitor his behavior, quit.

The bathroom inside the nurse’s office had transom windows around the top of the wall.  I climbed up on a chair in order to get a view inside the room.  Corey was sitting on the floor next to the toilet.  His knees were tucked up under his chin and he was hugging his legs.  I called out to him, “Corey, open the door.”

He didn’t respond.  Mr. Nottingham and I decided to ram the door until the lock broke.  After three shoves, it gave way.  Once we got Corey out of the bathroom, figuring out what to do with him became our next puzzle to solve.  His mother had not been helpful to date.  She wasn’t following through on any of the recommendations from the therapist.  When we called for her assistance, she frequently refused to help.  Regardless, I still asked Nottingham to call her.  We can’t give up on her if we are to have any chance of helping her child.

While we were attempting to contact Corey’s mother, the school police officer brought a knife to me. The kindergarten teacher had taken it from one of her students. I thought that by the time I dealt with the kindergartner and found Corey’s mother, I would miss the launch of the riverboat where the eighth-grade luncheon and dance is to take place.

“Who did you get this knife from, Mr. G?”

It was a switchblade about five inches long and serrated.  This knife was made to do only one thing, to seriously hurt someone.  When he told me it had been taken from a kindergarten child, I just shook my head.  At first I thought it would be a situation that I could easily manage.  I would call the mother and have her come in and take her child home.  We would discuss the seriousness of the matter and that would be the end of it.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out that simply. The boy who had brought this weapon to school was by now an old acquaintance. He has been involved in several physical confrontations during the year, beginning with bullying another little boy in the schoolyard back in October.  This later led to his victim’s mother coming into the cafeteria to beat up the bully’s mom.

I instructed the school police officer to call the serious incident desk and make a report.  I didn’t call the Philadelphia police nor did I suspend him.  This was a case where I exercised my discretion.  His mother was called.  She came right up to the school.  I instructed her take her son and told her that we would meet the next day.

Soon after her departure, Corey’s mom was located by Nottingham. She readily agreed to take him home.  To have resolved both of these matters so quickly was a lucky break. I made it to the launch on time.

The eighth grade luncheon was held on the Spirit of Philadelphia, a local Delaware River cruise ship and entertainment attraction.  Many other school groups were also booked for this day.  A lunch buffet, dancing and entertainment were all included in the package.  The boat was filled to capacity.  The eighth graders were dressed in their best clothes.  They were excited and looking forward to a fun day.

The food was unimpressive. The view from the deck was of rusting commercial piers.   The entertainment was corny. The music wasn’t the kind of sound to which my feet dance.   But despite it all, the kids loved it.  The weather was beautiful.   I was glad to be on board.  It was a joy watching my children having great fun.  Besides it was a pleasant reprieve to be away from the problems of the school.

Following so quickly on the heels of the two serious incidents earlier in the day, this celebration created an interesting day of contrasts.  Experiencing such great highs and lows so close together put me in a pensive mood.  I enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that our team has pulled through so many of our eighth graders to a successful conclusion of their middle school years.  These students stand now on the threshold of their high school years.  My hope is that every single one will graduate from high school.  I feel good, but I know this is not the end for my team or me. There is much work yet to do.  There are kindergarteners and first graders already in serious need of our attention and care.  Supporting and guiding these little brothers and sisters of our graduates will continue to be our greatest challenge.