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/ Stop That Train
The deluge of rain that was soaking the city this last Saturday was no mere April shower. It was a monumental storm that brought thoughts of Noah’s ark to mind. I wondered,who would come out on such a miserable weekend morning for a school meeting? I had wanted to pull my comforter up over my head and stay in bed for the whole day. But reluctantly I had dressed and headed off to North Philly. My stomach was knotted in apprehension.
My wife Mary Anne went with me to the church where the meeting was to be held. Her presence had insured that someone other than Reverend Moore, the pastor of the church, and myself were in attendance. The reverend has been helping me to organize the resistance to the district’s plan to shift the school’s management away from Temple. Creating a strong showing of parental support for Meade and its university manager was an important element in the strategy we had developed in order to alter this decision.
When we arrived the church was empty. It didn’t look good. For a brief moment I suffered a panic attack. I thought. “Oh my God, no one is going to show.”
Then the two grandmothers arrived.
These women faithfully bring their grandchildren to the schoolyard every school day. They return in the afternoon in order to escort the children home. They regularly update me on all of the neighborhood news. Hope arrived next. She is the President of the Home and School Association. During the course of fifteen minutes people came into the church. Finally there were nineteen people present. The meeting lasted for a little more than an hour. The assembled group agreed that we needed to get the attention of Temple’s president as well as Mr. Vallas. We would invite them to a family day at Meade. This event would be scheduled for the first Saturday in May. At this time our parents would express their enthusiastic support for the school and our Temple managers to both of these leaders.
Reverend Moore acted as the meeting facilitator. He was explicit in defining a mission for the group. “We are going to make sure that Meade stays in the Temple Partnership. But even more importantly, Mr. Murphy must continue as our principal. The school district is trying to take us somewhere we don’t want to go. They have a train they want us to board. And once it starts moving we won’t be able to stop it. Our job is to make sure it never leaves the station.” The parents agreed to meet again on the following Wednesday night. In the mean time they would work on recruiting more parents to the cause. It was a good start.
Mary Anne and I were the last to leave the church. When we stepped outside, I saw Ms. Wilson standing at the corner. She was leaning into the window a police car talking to the officer who was sitting in the car. The rain had diminished to a soft drizzle. Ms. Wilson was dressed in her pajamas and bathrobe. I waved and said hello. She made a face and stuck her tongue out at me. The female police officer gave a friendly wave in our direction. She looked as though she had been trapped.
Early Monday morning, John stopped by to inform me that the creation of the Corrective Action Region would be made public on April 18. Meade and Ferguson are both slated for inclusion in this new region. I realized that the timeline we had started to develop last Saturday would have to be revised. After John left, I split the remainder of the day between visiting classrooms and contacting community leaders. There isn’t much time left in which to avoid the CAR crash. A May meeting with Mr.Vallas will be too late to do us any good.
This is the week the Pennsylvania state testing is scheduled to begin. Our future will soon be determined by the result of a single test. In the struggle for the control of our school, we are about to face our greatest challenge. I am proud of my children. They are intelligent and capable. They are striving to overcome the ills that have ravished their community. I sense their determination to do well on the test. Our objective is to make Adequate Yearly Progress. At our school we pursue this goal with honor. If we reduce the number of students who are scoring below the proficient level by 10% in both reading and math we will make AYP by the safe harbor provision of NCLB. We are sure that we can do this.
The approval for Ms. Wilson’s transfer request arrived in the morning mail on Monday. When Philip departs tomorrow for a disciplinary school, his siblings will also leave for other neighborhood schools. This afternoon she came into the office in order to pick up the transfer slips for her children. I said hello. She glowered.
I am relieved that I won’t have to deal with any more trouble from Ms. Wilson, but there will be no victory celebration to mark the departure of her children. I feel badly for them. It is a hard life that they lead. I wish I could have been of more help to them. However, I can’t dwell on this thought for long. Tomorrow the students take the first section of the PSSA test. Making sure that that the school remains calm and the students stay focused during testing is my priority now.
At the end of the first day of testing I was expressing to Pat my satisfaction with how well everything had gone, but as we entered the schoolyard our conversation was cut short. A large group of students surrounded Saundra Thompson. Two high school girls had a hold of her. They were dragging her towards the Gratz street gate. A smaller group encircled the school police officer that was struggling to keep a hold on a second angry girl. This child had been fighting with Saundra. Several teachers were assisting him.
I headed towards the larger mob. Other staff members were trying to break up this group. It appeared that the high school girls knew Saundra. One of them had her in a headlock. They apparently were trying to pull her away from the other girl. Saundra was enraged. She broke away from the older girl. Two teachers tried to stop Saundra from running back to the girl she had been fighting. The two older high school girls pushed and shoved the adults out of her way. They shouted: “Get off of her. We are her aunts. Get away from her.”
One of them grabbed Saundra and put her back into a headlock. Kids were running in all directions, taunting Saundra. It was bedlam. The crowd was chanting: “Fight! Fight! Fight!” I remember that I was thinking that I would not interfere with the so-called aunt who was trying to drag Saundra out of the yard. I figured it would be safer to deal with Saundra the next day when it would be calmer. I walked beside the two older girls and Saundra. I repeatedly said to them, “get her out of the school yard.”
They had almost gotten her to the sidewalk when Saundra broke free. She tried to run back into the building after the other girl. The school police officer had taken her opponent to the office. I attempted to stop her charge. The staff was starting to lose control of the mob that was swirling around Saundra and me. Everything was moving so fast. The older girls were screaming again, “Get off of her! Get off of her!”
One of the girls started to punch me in the face. Saundra managed to jump on to my back. She repeatedly punched me in the head. The second high school girl pummeled my chest and shoulder with her fist.
I wanted to swing back at them, but I couldn’t. How would it look for a principal to engage in a fistfight with three girls? I felt detached from my body as they beat me. I staggered across the yard with the three of them on top of me. Isaiah and Donte were off to the side. They were pushing a crowd of kids back from me. They were trying to help. A father of one of our students pulled one of the girls away from me. Another man grabbed the second girl. I managed to shake Saundra off of my back.
My glasses had been knocked free of my face. They were on the ground somewhere in the midst of the stampeding feet of the mob. “Can you see my glasses?” I said to a nearby first grade teacher. She recovered them from the ground. Miraculously, they were unbroken.
One of the older girls pulled a knife out of her pocket and started towards me. Many people were trying to push the attackers away from me at this point. Seeing that the crowd was turning against her, she ran. I managed to contact the office using my walkie-talkie. “Call 9-1-1. Report that an assault has taken place in the yard.”
Saundra and the other older girl succeeded in entering the building. They were looking for the girl Saundra had been fighting. The police arrived before they could get to her. Saundra and her aunt ran out of the front door. The police gave chase but didn’t catch them.
It was after nine o’clock when I finally arrived home that evening. The police reports, the school district reports, and the visit to the hospital emergency room kept me occupied for many hours. What a chaotic conclusion this whole scene had been to the first day of testing!
I was plenty sore the next day, but I made a point of going into work. I wanted all of my children to see me in the yard during the morning pledge. I received quite a few inquiries from staff, parents, and students regarding my well-being. “Are you all right Mr. Murphy?” I was grateful for the show of concern.
Installment 2 of 8 /Hope
On Wednesday evening, I met with the Home and School Association. I brought them up to date on the plan to place Meade in the CAR (Corrective Action Region). The parents in attendance decided it was time to meet with the President of Temple University. Hope, our Home and School president, would communicate this request in a letter that she would write on behalf of the Home and School Association. Several times during the course of the meeting, parents expressed their appreciation for my work at the school and in the community. They also heaped lots of praise on our teachers. It was clear that they were satisfied with the management of our school. As I listened to them talk, I wondered why don’t I spend more time with these people.
*** On Thursday, Hope’s letter was hand delivered to the President’s office at Temple University. Copies were also sent to Mr.Vallas and various local elected officials. The parents weren’t wasting anytime in getting their message out.The next day I received a memo from Deputy Electric Slide. In it, she directed that I attend a meeting on April 18, 2005, a week from next Monday. According to her memo, at this meeting I would receive information, along with several other principals about the impending reorganization of the district’s regions. This communication offered no details beyond this statement. Since I had already received inside information from John, I knew that this would be the time when the principals of the targeted schools would learn their fate.
I realized that another letter from Hope would be needed. This one would be directed to Mr. Vallas. In this letter, it would be important for the Home and School Association to express their support for the current Meade management team. The group is scheduled to meet again next Wednesday. I can bring this matter up with them then. John DiPaolo and one of the Temple’s Vice Presidents will be at this meeting. They will deliver the reply from Temple’s President to our parents’ first letter.
On Friday afternoon, I observed our young playwrights at work. They were gathered in Lori Odum’s eighth grade classroom. The teaching artist had brought two actors along with her. They were acting out scenes from the emerging scripts of the students. The teaching artist was prodding the students to think critically about their work. As the actors finished a scene, the teaching artist would ask the playwrights the same two questions. “Does it sound real? Does it look real?”
This artist had engendered a lively exchange among the participants. Luis was one of the main contributors to this discussion. It was evident that everyone in the group was feeling enthusiastic about this project. The artist had really succeeded in involving the students in the art of writing. I am hopeful that next year with the new eighth grade class, this work will continue. I’m not sure that this will be the case. If the district does carry through with its plans for our school, there will be no playwriting. The focus of a Corrective Action School will be on test preparation.
*** Our eighth grade graduation is an event to which our school community is looking forward. We are determined to create a pleasant and memorable culminating experience for our graduates. A class trip to Washington, lunch on a river cruise boat and a closing ceremony in the Great Court of Mitten Hall at Temple University are part of the package we have put together. During first period, Lori gave me a list of the eighth grade students who can’t afford to pay their class dues. She had identified four students so far. The class dues for these children will be paid using donations we have received. I don’t want anyone to be left out of the closing activities due to financial concerns.
*** On Tuesday, PSSA testing came to a conclusion. There are a few students to whom the testing team will have to administer make-up tests. It appears as though only one student, a third grade boy, will not complete all of the test sections. The Department of Human Services had taken him into protective services during the second day of the testing period.
We didn’t need an Electric Slide or a chant to encourage our students to participate in the testing. There wasn’t any pep rally or prizes offered to motivate them. The students understood the seriousness of this test. I ran into more than a few students with upset stomachs during the test weeks. There was almost an audible sigh of relief from the school when the testing was finished.
We have a two-week break before we start administering the Terra Nova Test. The Terra Nova is administered to students in grades one through eight. The pressure that our students feel will increase during this second test cycle. Any student who scores below the twenty-fifth percentile on the Terra Nova test will have to go to summer school. The stakes are high for all of us in the test accountability game. The future of our school community will be determined by the results of the Pennsylvania State Assessment. How our students spend their summer will be determined by the Terra Nova test.
I received a call from Reverend Moore later in the day. Mr. Vallas had been in contact with him. He assured the Reverend that a final decision hadn’t been made yet concerning Meade’s placement in the CAR region. This was encouraging news. Reverend Moore confirmed that he would be at Wednesday night’s Home and School meeting.
I assisted Hope in writing the letter to Vallas. It had two main points. First, it stated that the community is happy with and wishes to continue with The Temple Partnership. Secondly, it expressed the parents’ unhappiness with the lack of communication from the school district leadership regarding the plan to remove Meade from the Partnership. The letter concluded with a request for Vallas to meet with a committee of parents to further discuss their viewpoints.
*** At the conclusion of today’s meeting with Temple Partnership principals, John shared with me a letter that the President of Temple had sent to Mr. Vallas. He communicated his displeasure regarding the school district’s negative description of the Partnership’s work. Included in this document was a data analysis of the test scores of the schools, which Temple managed. This information indicated that the Temple-managed schools were performing better than half of all of the other EMO managed schools. The President stated in the conclusion of his letter that the University was still interested in managing Meade School. This letter clearly disputed the claim made by Vallas’s staff that Temple wanted to dissolve the Partnership.
This evening at the Home & School meeting, John read this letter aloud to the parents. John was representing the president. The audience attentively listened to him. Since the Saturday church meeting, the group has grown to fifty-eight people. After he was finished reading, John reiterated in his own words Temple’s commitment to Meade. The response from Temple to our parents has been rapid and positive.
After John left, the group decided on the next step that they would take. Everyone agreed to call Mr. Vallas’s office the following morning in order to express concern about Meade. Essentially the message would be the same for every caller. ‘I am a parent at Meade School and I am not happy with the idea of Meade being removed from The Temple Partnership.’ I was a bit apprehensive that only one or two people would call. If this were to happen, the claim that Hope had made in her letter regarding the strength of our parent support will appear to be false.
*** By the end of the day on Thursday, more than forty-five calls had been made to Mr.Vallas’ office. The people who answered the phones in the CEO’s were rude. Many of the parents described to me the response they received. Callers were transferred to one of Vallas’ aides. She told them that Temple wanted to dissolve the Partnership. By three o’clock, the aide was exasperated. To one caller, she said, “Don’t you people get it. This Partnership has been dissolved. It’s over. Mr. Vallas knows all about your meeting and he has made his decision.” After this outburst, the aide told several people that Mr. Vallas was no longer taking calls from Meade parents.
These reports were delivered to me as I made my rounds. Near the end of the day I was distracted by several reports that the two high school girls who had earlier jumped me were in the main office. Saundra had returned to school this morning. She was awaiting a transfer hearing that was scheduled for next week. I had requested that she be given an interim placement until that time. The regional office staff had ignored my request. Her presence in our school is communicating the wrong message. It says that you can assault the principal and nothing serious happens will happen to you. If this weren’t bad enough now I had to deal with her partners in crime. It bothers me that feel comfortable enough to enter the school. This potential threat to my security distracted me.
Installment 3 of 8/ Bottle of Gin
While making arrangements to have Hope’s letter hand delivered to Vallas’ office, another crisis competed for my attention. Ms. Martin pointed to a pint bottle of gin which was perched on top of a filing cabinet in the main office.
“Mr. Murphy, look at the bottle sitting over there.”
I was taken aback to see a bottle of liquor so brazenly on display in the main office of an elementary school. Snatching the bottle from its resting place, I took it into my office to get it out of sight. Ms. Martin followed me. She explained. “One of the teachers took it away from Gordon.”
The contents of the bottle were amber colored. Is it really gin, I wondered? I unscrewed the cap and the undeniable scent of alcohol assaulted my nostrils. By the smell of it, either iced tea or soda had been the mixer for this gin. The bottle was three quarters empty. Instinctually, I felt that there was much more do this than mere misbehavior.
Gordon was placed in foster care in our neighborhood just about the same time Arthur was taken from Cindy’s house. I sent for Gordon. When he arrived, he didn’t appear to be intoxicated. The situation called for some skillful detective work. I needed to hastily find the right words to put him at ease, yet quiz him at the same time. Pushing him too hard, too quickly, would shut him down. I said. “You must be really hurting, Gordon.”
“I don’t care if I graduate!” he replied.
“Swigging on a gin bottle at your age tells me that you must have a lot hurt in you. I’m wondering how long have you been drinking?”
“I don’t have the money anyway. No one is going to give it to me.”
We seemed to be having two separate conversations. I replied to his graduation concern.
“You’re worried about not having the dues for graduation. That’s not a problem. I’m not going to stop you from graduating because you don’t have the money for your class dues. I’ll take care of the money for you.”
He in turn responded to my alcohol query.
“It’s ice tea.”
“Why are you drinking, Gordon?”
“It’s ice tea.”
“Why are you doing this? You’re worrying me.”
“There isn’t anything for me to look forward to… I don’t care.”
“Why do you say that, Gordon?”
“Because I’m either going to prison or I’m going to die.”
Tears were starting pool at the edges of his eyes. Gordon looked so lost. He radiated despair. I was almost overwhelmed by his sense of hopelessness.
“Why do you think you are either going to jail or going to die?”
“Everyone tells me it. Everyone who talks to me tells me that I’m either going to jail or going to die. I don’t care.”
“I know that you have been having a rough time of it. Going through different foster homes must not be easy. Your father being in prison stinks. You must miss him a lot. Do you?”
“There isn’t anything for me here, I don’t care.”
“Gordon, you are so young, there can be lots of things for you.”
In my own head, the words I offered sounded cheap and unconvincing to me. How was Gordon hearing what I was saying? His life seems to be such a mess. The boy’s mom has suffered a nervous break down. His father is in prison. He is bouncing from one foster home to another. Saying that it has been rough for him is an understatement.
After I had told him that I would pay his class dues, he seemed to relax just a smidge. His reaction made me wonder. Was he really a drinker, or had he staged this scene so that he could create an excuse for not participating in the closing ceremonies? Was he trying to save face with his peers? Could it be he didn’t want the other kids to know that his life was so bleak? By allowing himself to be caught drinking in school Gordon could provide them with the opportunity to say that he is crazy. When he didn’t graduate, it would be because he was drinking in school. No one would know how poor he is.
Mulling these thoughts over, I wasn’t sure if he was a drinker or a faker. But I was sure that I had seen a deep well of sadness in his teary eyes. I was sure that whatever his story was, Gordon is a troubled boy. For the next hour or two he was the center of my attention. First I called the foster caregiver who had registered him in the school. I was surprised to learn that he no longer resided in her home.
“He doesn’t live here anymore. He wouldn’t listen. Gordon ran away from my house twice. I told the DHS caseworker that she had to take him back. I think he is living with one of his father’s ex-girlfriends.”
The former caretaker gave me the name and address of the woman who Gordon was allegedly living with now. “DHS knows about it. They checked out the woman.”
There was a hint of the wicked stepmother about this woman. I had felt this vibe when I first met her at the intake conference. She seemed to dislike Gordon. He must have hated living with her.
After several attempts, I reached Gordon’s caseworker. She confirmed that he wasn’t with the original foster parent. He had indeed run away from the foster parent several times. Eventually, Gordon had found his own foster care home, that of his father’s ex-girlfriend. A caseworker from DHS had conducted a screening and approved this woman to be Gordon’s caretaker. The location of his new home is beyond our school boundaries. Hearing this, I asked Gordon if he wanted to remain at our school. He said, “yes”. Then I made it clear to the DHS representative that I wanted him to finish out the school year at Meade. I told her that I would arrange to get him bus tokens. He is old enough to travel on public transportation by himself. She was okay with this idea.
The caseworker also agreed that I should call the mobile mental health crisis team. The suicidal thoughts that Gordon had articulated needed to be taken seriously. A mental health professional should perform an immediate evaluation. I sent Gordon to the counselor’s office to wait while I made the necessary contacts.
Making arrangements for the mobile crisis team to come to the school required me to make several calls. First I contacted our special education liaison. She directed me to a regional contact person. This individual put me in touch with an intake representative from the mobile crises team. This person asked me several question concerning Gordon’s mental state. After quizzing me she stated that a mobile team would be immediately dispatched. They arrived within the hour. I went to the counselor’s office with them and participated in Gordon’s evaluation.
Teenage African American boys are often perceived as being threatening in the eyes of our society. The bigotry from which this stereotype springs is unfortunately far too common. I wish that the rest of world could see this boy as I saw him that day in the counselor’s office. If they did, people would quickly realize how unfounded their fears are of boys like Gordon. He was seated at a table in a corner of the room. He was tossing a green ball up in the air and then catching it. It had a big smiley face painted on its side. One of the therapists invited him to come sit at a table with the team. Gordon quickly joined us. He was hugging the ball when he did so. It was almost like he was hiding behind it. As the therapists introduced themselves, Gordon gazed suspiciously at the faces around the table. The way this sad eyed teenager partially hid his face behind the ball made him look like a scared and vulnerable five year old. Cautiously he responded to their questions. Though hesitant, he still obviously wanted to talk about his feelings.
After the evaluation was completed, one of the therapists talked by phone to the DHS caseworker. It was decided that Gordon should be taken to the psychological emergency intake center at a local hospital. He would receive a full psychiatric examination there.
When the therapist finished his phone conversation, he turned his attention back to Gordon. He explained to him what was going to happen next. The hospital visit was recommended because the mobile health team had diagnosed him as being moderately depressed. Gordon said, “What does that mean?”
In response the therapist listed for him the symptoms of depression. Gordon listened carefully to his explanation. When the therapist mentioned the symptom of having trouble sleeping, it was like a light had been turned on in Gordon’s head. His face was a wonder to see. It was almost as if he had just seen a huge beautiful Christmas tree for the first time in his life. Someone could explain what was happening to him. Finally another person understood what he was feeling. In that moment I saw hope in his face. I left the counselor’s office shortly after this conversation took place. Gordon was going to get the assistance that he needed. His gin bottle was a call for help.
At the end of the day, I retreated to the safety that a quiet read often provides me. The two educational journal articles I consumed, however, didn’t soothe my aching head. They each offered different takes on the issue of racial achievement gaps. The first article examined the extent of the achievement gaps that exist between children of different socioeconomic and racial groups as indicated on standardized test scores. The second discussed a detected gap between middle class children of color and white middle class children. The gap in achievement discussed in the second article is one that might be explained as being attributable to the low expectations of some teachers regarding the academic abilities of children of color. In the first article, the achievement gaps examined primarily had to do with the socio-economic status of the test takers.
Gordon is the poster child of the low-income student of color who occupies the lowest stanine of standardized achievement. His struggles to master even the most rudimentary of math and reading skills are monumental. The gruesome circumstances of Gordon’s life are not considered by the accountability standards of the No Child Left Behind Act. He has been barely raised by any adult who has the resources, monetarily or emotionally, to address his needs. His adult role models have been a mentally ill mother, an incarcerated father, various foster parents and now a former girlfriend of his father. He has attended multiple schools during the last eight years. The economic chasm is enormous that separates Gordon and many of the inhabitants of my school community from the world of the well-to-do. The prospect of bridging this gap with the resources we have available at our school is highly unlikely. Yet we persist in trying to do so.
Gordon’s life is filled with obstacles just like many of the other children we work with in our school. My staff and I do the best that we can to assist them. Daily is our struggle to pull every child ahead. I believe that Gordon is a good person who can do well. I believe all my students are great people. This is a view that I share with my staff. Together we guide our students towards success by teaching them and helping to deal with their problems.
When I look Gordon in the eye and say, “you don’t have to die”, I know I’m not leaving him behind. Gordon doesn’t have to go to jail. He can be someone. I won’t give up on him or any of my children. They all can succeed if given a decent chance.
Installment 4 of 8/ You Can’t Light aVoodoo Candle
I have been instigating an uprising. Parents, community leaders and politicians are answering my call and stepping forward to help. Hearing so forcefully from the Meade community has caught Vallas and his people by surprise. Our parents are not normally outspoken. They tend to mind their own business and seldom speak up to authority. But taking them for granted has been a mistake. Being a quiet people doesn’t mean that they will tolerate having their rights trampled. They expect to be respected and protected regardless of their socioeconomic status. As someone who proclaims that he is a civil rights leader, Mr. Vallas needs to attend to the concerns of the people he has been charged to lead.
For the last few weeks I’ve been going as fast as I can in order to organize the Meade rebellion. I am possessed with the feeling that time is running out on my efforts to save our school. I met with Deputy Electric Slide today.I was in my car soon after the last of the children left the yard at dismissal. The meeting was scheduled to start at four o’clock. I met one of the invited principals in the main hallway of the district administration building. The two of us were the first to enter the dingy conference room to which we had been directed to report.
One by one, the other principals of the eleven targeted schools arrived. There was little conversation among us. I suppose that when you face a firing squad there isn’t much to convey to those who stand beside you. What is there to say? “Please don’t?”
Deputy Electric Slide was late. When she finally did enter the room, several assistants and the Director of Personnel trailed behind her. Deputy Slide wasted no time in getting to the point. She told us that our schools would be in the CAR Region next year and that the name of this new region had been changed to the Creative Action and Results Region. Apparently someone had enough sense to realize that “corrective action” without results sounded harshly punitive.
The conference room was stifling hot. Deputy Slide continued her speech by offering a vague description of both the objective and composition of the CAR region. “Johns Hopkins University”, she began, “has been contracted to provide a complete audit of your schools. A custom designed school improvement plan will be created for each of you. You will implement this plan. It is expected that immediate and radical changes will take place in your school. We are not going to take a year to plan and then implement an action plan. Everything will be happening now, all at once. We expect big results by the end of the first year. Your schools will make Adequate Yearly Progress. We aren’t talking Safe Harbor. We expect you to make AYP by the required percentages at the end of next year. If you cannot produce the results we are looking for than, your schools might be turned into charters or even closed. You and your staff will be expected to buy into this plan and make it work. Scratch that! There isn’t any “buy into” this process. You and your staff will do whatever is required to implement the plan designed for your school. Tomorrow the School Reform Commission (SRC) will vote to create the CAR region. After they approve the creation of this region, we will invoke the special powers that the state takeover law has provided to us. Your school day will be longer. The school year will be extended to eleven months. More importantly, we will have the ability to easily remove any staff we deem as being unsatisfactory. The difficulties that result from honoring the union contract will be eliminated. It will be a lot of hard work for you. Maybe you aren’t up to it. If you aren’t, you can leave.”
After making these initial remarks, Deputy Slide instructed the gathered principals to introduce themselves. When we were finished, she introduced one of her assistants. This woman had prepared a Power Point presentation to help explain the purpose of the Corrective Action Region. The audio portion of the presentation didn’t work. Other assistants tried to fix this problem. As they worked on the problem, the speaker started her presentation. She told us that she was renaming this new district. It would be called “PASCAR” instead of “CAR”. I missed the explanation for the newer acronym. I simply wasn’t paying close attention to her speech. Instead, I was staring at the PowerPoint that was being projected on the screen in the front of the room. More specifically I was focused on the images of the little racecars that ran around the perimeter of the slides.
The presenter continued, “We wanted a name to which parents and children could relate. We wanted a fun name. It’s like NASCAR. We chose this title in order to communicate the urgency that you should feel. You are in a race to achieve better test scores. Yes, being in the PASCAR district is like being in a race. You are all in the final lap of Corrective Action. It is a high stakes competition.”
I wanted to giggle as I listened to her comments.
The efforts of the other assistants to fix the sound portion of her PowerPoint presentation were unsuccessful. She continued on without the audio. Each new page that flashed onto the screen was bordered by the same racecar images.
“If the sound was working, you would hear racecar noises”, the presenter said.
Once again I had an almost overwhelming desire to laugh. But she was so serious and earnest that I didn’t want to appear to disrespect her.
Like the Deputy Slide, her statements were threatening in tone. She appeared to be more interested in intimidating the group rather than offering us any useful information. Particular comments from her speech stood out in my mind. “Make no mistake… Let me make it very clear… Have no doubt… There will be radical improvement.”
The racecar graphics were cutesy and childish. The language she used was demeaning and abusive. My stomach began to churn. The urge to giggle was replaced with an urge to vomit.
Deputy Side concluded the meeting. She stated, “You are in this region now. You can’t light a voodoo candle and wish your way out of it. Tomorrow the SRC will vote to approve the establishment of this region. “Are there any questions?”
There was a long silence until finally one of the assembled principals spoke. “How long will the John Hopkins audits take before we can start to implement the recommended improvements?” Deputy Slide almost snapped this principal’s head off.
“Immediate changes are going to take place. We aren’t waiting for the completion of a study. There will be radical results in you schools by the end of next year. We don’t believe that change has to take a long time.”
After this response I didn’t pay close attention to what was being asked and answered. I was mulling over the fact that the SRC would be voting on this plan the very next day. We are in worse shape than I had thought.
The final question asked was, “Can we share any of the information from this meeting with our staff?” Deputy Slide responded. “You can share it. But we caution you to be careful in how you communicate what you heard today. We don’t want parents to get upset. If they do, we will view that as a result of you poor communication skills. You don’t want negative comments in your evaluations. And as of today, we are the people who will rate you.”
I wondered if her message was directed at me. My parents are already up in arms.
I was the first person out of the room when the meeting concluded. The struggle to keep from laughing or puking was more than I could take.
Installment 5 of 8/ “I can’t believe he lied to me.”
*** Shortly after 8:00 a.m. this morning, I received a call from Reverend Bill Moore. He had just finished speaking by phone with Mr. Vallas.
“Paul told me that Meade is going to stay with the Temple Partnership. He is going to meet with your parents,” he said.
“That sounds like good news,” I responded.
“Paul wants me to set up a meeting at my church for this Saturday at 10:00 a.m.”
“That’s pretty short notice, Bill. Does he want to meet with a small committee of parents?”
Reverend Moore didn’t think that a small group meeting would send the right message. “I think we should get a crowd. I don’t want him to think Meade is a paper tiger.”
I had my doubts.
“Two days to organize a Saturday meeting is going to be tough work.”
We didn’t talk for long. The two of us were in a hurry to get the day started. I should have felt cheered by this news, but I didn’t. I don’t trust Vallas. He might be stringing us along until he seals the deal to create the CAR region. The SRC is scheduled to meet this afternoon. The CAR region is on the agenda.
Around 3:45, I received a call from The Daily News’ education reporter. He sought my reaction to the SRC’s decision to establish the CAR region. He said, “Your school is one of the eleven schools that will be included in the CAR.” I was taken aback by his call. A few minutes after I finished speaking to him, a reporter from The Inquirer called with the same news.
Reverend Moore had left town on a business trip to Harrisburg. I left a message for him on his cell phone voicemail. A few minutes later he called. I told him of the reporters’ calls. He too was stunned.
“He lied to me. The man lied to me.”
He was talking while he drove. The cell reception was poor. Our conversation was garbled. The two of us agreed to talk the next day. We ended our conversation. Five minutes later he called me back. He repeated what he had said earlier.
“I can’t believe he lied to me.”
*** For the last two days, staff members and parents have been making phone calls to recruit participants for Saturday. A flyer reminding parents to attend on Saturday was sent home with the children at the end of the day on Friday. I drafted a meeting agenda for Reverend Moore and Hope. They will act as the meeting facilitators. I talked to both of them several times during the day on Thursday as we went over the details. To each of them I expressed my worry that we might not be able to turn out a large crowd. Bill Moore didn’t seem to be concerned about this possibility. He said, “We have to have a good turnout to make our point. And we will.” I knew he was right, but I still I worried. Producing a crowd at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday will be a challenge.
Several parents have come into the office to check on whether the school is going to close. Both daily newspapers have published articles about the formation of the CAR region. In these accounts, the possibility that CAR schools might eventually be closed was stated. This information is causing confusion and resentment among our parents. Perhaps this news will spur people to come out on Saturday.
Just before lunch periods started, Ms. Sample let me know that Damian would be returning to school tomorrow. He is the first grade boy who hears voices in his head.
“They released him from the partial treatment program. His mother just called to let us know. The program will provide him with an aide in school,” she said.
“Are you going to tell his teacher?” I asked.
“You’re the principal, you tell her. I’m going over to the Regional Office to drop off these reports. Here is a copy of the agenda for Saturday. Look it over.”
I put the draft she had typed on top of my desk. When she left, I slipped out the back door to my office. I wandered out to the schoolyard to see the children. It was a nice break.
When Ms Sample returned from the Regional Office, she handed me an envelope. In it is was a copy of a letter from the disciplinary officer who is handling Saundra’s case. He had scheduled a second hearing for Saundra at the district’s law offices. It was set for the twelfth of May. Saundra will remain at Meade, until then. I was not happy.
After reading the letter, I said to Ms Sample, “I don’t get it, the parent signed a waiver. She agreed to a transfer to a disciplinary school for her daughter.”
“When the hearing officer gave me the letter, he told me that Saundra said she didn’t hit you. I guess the mother has changed her mind about the transfer.”
“Really.” I replied.
“She brought a witness to the hearing.” Mrs. Sample continued.
“She has a witness who said she didn’t hit me?! Where did she get a witness?”
“She brought one of the older girls who attacked you. I think it was the one who had the knife. The girl said that she was the one who attacked you, not Saundra.”
I asked Ms Sample to get the disciplinary hearing officer on the phone. When I talked to him, I made clear my displeasure that Saundra would be staying in my school for another month. He attempted to put me off by saying, “…my hands are tied. We can only place students in an interim placement in weapon or drug cases.” This response only served to make me angrier than I already was. I wasn’t interested in hearing excuses.
“This girl, along with two high school girls, jumps me in the schoolyard in front of my children. All three of them assaulted me. One of them pulled a knife. You allow the girl who came at me with a weapon to testify as a character witness at the hearing for Saundra. Now you plan on leaving Saundra in my school for at least another month. You have to be kidding. The older girls have been back on our school property several times since this incident. They have even come into the main office. Where does my safety, the safety of my staff and my children fit into this case?”
I was furious. His response indicated that felt my fury.
“I’ll tell you what. Just for you. I will place her in an interim placement starting tomorrow. I’ll send the paperwork over to you right away.”
Finally, I had an appropriate response. I should have thrown a temper tantrum earlier.
I finished the day on Friday by making some final calls to line up participants for the meeting on Saturday. After I was finished talking, I yet again experienced doubts. Why am I so set on holding onto a school that can be so frightfully disturbing and chaotic at times? Why? In response to my question I tell myself that what I do at Meade is important work. Someone has to take a stand for our children. This is a rough ride. I am trying as best as I can to keep my grip.
Installment 6 of 8/ If they had come looking for a fight, they quickly found one.
Long before the alarm clock sounded, I was awake. The sound of another torrential downpour broke the pre-dawn silence of my bedroom. I had been tossing and turning for some time as I tried to recapture fleeting sleep. It was a futile effort. A nagging worry had captured my thoughts. Was the frantic work of the last few months about to be washed away by another Saturday storm?
I arrived at the church an hour earlier than the scheduled start of the Home and School meeting with Mr. Vallas. Reverend Moore and Hope were already there. We reviewed the agenda one final time. It was essential to our success that we control the tone and direction of this meeting.
With only a few minutes left before the ten o’clock start time, the hall was mostly empty. A half dozen people dotted the room. The first official to arrive was the assistant of Vallas who had attended the last meeting at the senator’s office. He said that Mr. Vallas would be late. “ He is just leaving a meeting in another section of the city.”
I wished he wasn’t coming at all. It seem as though all of the effort we had put into organizing this event had been in vain. The handful of people who were present would confirm that the Meade community wasn’t a serious concern to Vallas after all.
And then just like that, people started to enter the church hall. One small group after another came into the room. By the time Vallas made his entry, a good-sized audience had gathered. Parents and other members of the community continued to pour in during the first half hour of the meeting. By ten-thirty, there was well over a hundred people in attendance. Additional chairs had to be set up to accommodate the larger than expected crowd.
Hope thanked everyone for coming out on such a rainy and unpleasant morning . She introduced Reverend Moore. He explained to the assembled crowd that he would be acting as the moderator for the session. The pastor outlined three points of concern expressed by the Meade school parents. They wanted Meade to be managed by Temple University. They didn’t want any more school reform experiments to be performed on their children. And finally the parents wanted Mr. Vallas to acknowledge the district’s failure to communicate with them. The Reverend passionately described the frustration of the Meade School parents over being ignored by district officials. When he was finished speaking, he introduced Paul Vallas.
Mr. Vallas neither acknowledged Reverend Moore nor greeted the audience. He took hold of the microphone and immediately started to shout at the people. “I’m upset too. I’m very upset. Do you know what upsets me? Abysmal test scores upset me. The scores of your school are really low. They just aren’t good enough. I just can’t tolerate such low performance.”
Vallas was combative. It felt like he wanted to pick a fight. I was taken aback by his display of aggression. He radiated annoyance. His opening speech continued for ten minutes. During this time, he didn’t address a single one of the points that Reverend Moore had articulated. He concluded by calling his Chief Academic Officer up to the microphone. He said, “Mr. Thornton will talk to you about the test data we have collected.”
The tone of Mr. Thornton, the Chief Academic Officer, was just as aggressive as Mr.Vallas’. The two of them acted as though they were offended by our request to meet with them. In their view, Meade School was an obvious failure. Repeatedly Thornton said, “The test scores of Meade are very low.” He started to hand out a packet of papers. Thorton said it contained multiple years of test score information for Meade and Ferguson schools.
“We have compared the scores of these two schools to other district schools. When you look at our information, you will see how poorly these two schools are performing.”
The pastor stopped him from handing out his data packets.
“We didn’t ask you here in order to discuss the test scores of different schools. We have questions and concerns about your plans for Meade. We will look at that information later. The parents here today are offended by how you have failed to address their concerns. And you are continuing to ignore them right now.”
Reverend Moore restated the three points he had made when he opened the meeting.
“Our parents support the Temple Partnership. Our parents don’t want you experimenting with their children’s education. They are not pleased with your continuing failure to respond to their concerns. What do you have to say about these points?”
Vallas and Thorton again tried to brush aside the parents’ concerns. They wanted to talk about poor test scores, the advantages of the Creative Action and Results region, and their perception of Temple’s work in managing Meade School. Their insistence on setting the agenda and their aggressive tone backfired on them. They ignited the ire of the crowd. If they had come looking for a fight, they quickly found one. This group wasn’t going to be bullied .
The meeting lasted for more than two hours. During this time there were more than a few heated exchanges between the audience and the district leaders. I was especially surprised by the harshness of Vallas’ critique of Temple. He stated that Temple hadn’t done a good job of managing its schools. Then he claimed that Temple wanted to give the schools back to the district. After he said this, several audience members referenced the Temple President’s letter of support for the Temple Partnership Schools. They waved copies of this letter in the air. Mr.Vallas responded, “The man I spoke to in private wasn’t the same person who wrote that letter.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that comment.
The parents were particularly expressive regarding the plan to bring in Johns Hopkins University to conduct a study of our school.
“Why do you have to pay another university to study Meade School? They aren’t even from this area.”
In responding to this question, Vallas used the phrase, “I am very careful about how I spend my money.” As soon as those words were out of his mouth, the crowd shouted back at him. “Whose money? It’s our money!”
Several times during the meeting it felt as though things were getting out of control. The pastor did a great job of keeping everyone in line.
Repeatedly parents made it clear that they were satisfied with the performance of Meade School. Parent after parent stated that his/her child was reading at or above grade level. “Our children are doing well. The teachers are doing a good job.” The parents forcefully made these points. They refused to be dismissed or ignored.
Mr. Thorton replied, “Obviously you are the parents of the children who are doing well. I’m glad you are here for your children, but you are a minority. I also have to be concerned for the children of the parents who aren’t here. Their children are the ones who are scoring too low. We have to do something for those children.”
The parents responded by telling him that he doesn’t know anything about their neighborhood or school. They ticked off a few facts of their own. Number one on their list of concerns was the high number of children who move in and out of the neighborhood. Next they talked of the difficulties of converting a K-4 school to a K-8 school. Thorton quickly dismissed their concerns. “I have schools all across the city that face the same problems. Those schools still make AYP.” I thought that his comparison was unfair. There are close to two hundred schools in the system. The range in the socioeconomic status of the children who attend these schools greatly varies. Meade School has the highest percentage of low economic families in the city.
Throughout their presentation, Vallas and Thornton repeatedly stated that they had nine years of failing PSSA test scores for Meade students. It was on the basis of these results that they had decided to place Meade in the CAR region. I was confused by this reference to nine years of data. During five of the nine years to which they referred, Meade was a K-4 school. Since the PSSA test has only been given to fifth and eighth grades, we didn’t have any test results during that time. Our current eighth grade is the first eighth grade in our school’s history. They haven’t taken the test yet. In fact we didn’t have much in the way of test results. When an audience member pointed out there weren’t any eighth grade test scores, and only three years of fifth grade test scores for Meade students, Mr.Thorton was flustered. It occurred to me that they weren’t well prepared.
I remained silent in the background until the last five minutes of the meeting. There were several times when I wanted to dispute a statement made by one of the district leaders. But I held my tongue. I didn’t want to distract from my parents’ voices. Near to the end of the meeting, my hand finally shot up in the air. The pastor saw it and called on me.
“Let me offer a principal’s point of view. I am very proud of my staff. The teachers of Meade pour themselves into working with our children. They have been very active participants in district professional development activities. When the district was implementing a Balanced Literacy Framework, the participation of the Meade staff was among the highest in our region. In the Temple Partnership, our teachers have been the most active participants in the workshops and courses that have been offered by the Partnership. The Meade staff is a committed group of professionals. Yes, our students’ test scores are low. We are struggling with this issue. And we are confident that we will find solutions that will help our students to do better.”
Reverend Moore brought things to a close right after my remarks. He summed up the meeting in a few words. “We all agree that Meade’s test scores are low. We need to work together in order to achieve improvement. Our parents expect to be heard and involved by you, Mr. Vallas when you make important decisions concerning their children’s school. The Home and School President is going to contact you soon in order to set up a meeting between the two of you and the President of Temple University. We are going to figure out a way for Temple to keep on working with Meade.”
As the crowd started to disperse, Mr. Vallas told the pastor in private that Meade was going to stay with Temple. I hope he is telling the truth this time.
Installment 7 of 8/ The Squeaky Wheel
People have been sharing their reactions to Saturday’s meeting. I received a call from Ken this morning. He is a local leader. He was upbeat. From his sources he was able to get a fix on Vallas’s reaction to the concerns of the Meade community. Several individuals who work closely with the CEO had told Ken that Mr. Vallas was impressed by the respect shown to me by both parents and other community members.
Though Ken hadn’t heard any definitive statement concerning the fate of our school, he is confident that we will be spared. He said, “Meade is going to stay with the Temple Partnership. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”
Our conversation turned to discussing a front-page article in yesterday’s Sunday edition of the Inquirer. It examined numerous contracts the School Reform Commission has approved since the state takeover of the district. The reporters had found that large sums of money had been paid out to Educational Management Organizations (EMOs), other private companies that administer disciplinary schools, textbook publishers, charter schools, test prep firms, standardized test manufactures, and other educational product contractors. John Perzel, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, was quoted as saying, “Vallas’s embrace of private enterprise goes beyond what we could have expected or hoped for.”
Representative Perzel, one of the leading architects of the state takeover plan for the Philadelphia School District, was also quoted as saying, “Philadelphia’s experience has validated privatization, showing that companies can solve problems beyond the scope of the educational bureaucracy.” His comments place him as a member of the group of corporate school reformers who are intent on gaining a strong hold on the public treasury. Their goal is to create new for profit educational markets. They attempt to undermine the public’s confidence in the public school system. In doing so they pave the way for the creation of charter schools and the use of vouchers. The Vallas’ administration contributes to this effort by using student test scores to identify schools as failures. It is easier to impose punitive sanctions when a school’s creditability is destroyed. When Thorton attempted to hand out his inaccurate data packet at the church meeting, he was setting the stage for a hostile takeover attempt of Meade.
The article also discussed the district’s intention to hire outside companies to manage the transition of district high schools into smaller units. It appears that every area of the district’s operations is in some way being impacted by privatization efforts. The expertise and knowledge of School district employees are being ignored as private interest groups are increasingly setting the district’s direction. This trend does not bode well for the future of our public schools.
Jolley Bruce Christman of Research for Action, was also quoted. She said, “It is still an open question whether these groups actually bring the expertise, knowledge and best practices that will make a difference.”
Ken ended our conversation with this observation. “It seems that the media is starting to take a closer look at the effectiveness of school reform in Philadelphia.”
Shortly after my conversation with Ken, Bill Moore called. He had just talked to Thorton. Bill received an assurance from him that Meade and Ferguson would continue to be part of the Temple Partnership. The CAO said the lawyers were working on drawing up a new management agreement.
As soon as Bill hung up I contacted John. He informed me that Vallas and the Temple President are in fact talking through their differences. According to John, they have agreed on the big picture issues. I wasn’t sure what he meant by this remark.
I didn’t have much time to get to the district headquarters, after I completed these conversations. I was scheduled for a 9:30 conference with the newly appointed Superintendent of the CAR region. Just as I was about to walk out of the office I received another call. Someone from the Human Resources Department was on the line. She informed me that an important package would be delivered to the school before noon by a school police officer. The package contained multiple copies of a letter addressed to the teaching staff. I was instructed to immediately distribute it to the teachers. They are being offered an opportunity to opt-out of your school explained the H.R. representative. “Since it is possible that their work rules may be radically changed they are eligible to file a forced transferred request. All of the teachers in the CAR schools are receiving this letter. If they choose to do so, they will be moved to another school without losing any of their school based seniority. They must respond by the end of the school day on Thursday.”
This didn’t sound as though we were going to remain in the Temple Partnership.
I made it to my meeting on time. Cordially the CAR Superintendent and I greeted each other. After a few minutes of conversation I discerned that she wasn’t familiar with Meade. I gave her a copy of the action plan our Instructional Leadership Team had developed in January. During our conversation I highlighted for her the history of my school for the last eight years. I listed our achievements and described the issues, which have confronted us.
She appeared to be interested in the information that I shared. “You have some very challenging problems, Frank. The CAR region is going to be good for you. I will be the only person you will report to from now on. You can make a lot of things happen with my support. Together we can plan strategically to fill in the gaps in your instructional program. It’s up to you to determine how your school will work. Whether your program will be a success or a failure is on you. You will be the person who people will remember at your school in the future. You want your legacy to be good. You have a lot of support and respect from your parents and community. I can see that in these letters.”
On her desk were copies of the letters sent to the district chief from the Meade Home and School Association. I wasn’t sure where she was going to with her legacy speech. Was it a warning or friendly advice? She also stated that she didn’t know whether Temple would continue to have a relationship with Meade. “I’m going to have to get clarity from Greg Thorton on Temple’s relationship with your school. I’m going to see him later today.”
Our conference ended with her stating, “Yours is a very difficult situation. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, Frank.”
Installment 8 of 8/ The Opt-Out
I was planning on spending the morning in classrooms. I needed a break from the CAR drama. Focusing my energies on supporting the instructional program would be good for me. I hoped to recapture a sense of normalcy. Before I was able to get going, Jordan came to see me. He was upset. A group of boys were harassing him. They were throwing things at him, calling him a girl, and making life generally miserable for him. He was having the most difficulty during art class. According to Jordon he has been suffering through this forty-five minute period for weeks. The boys were hurling taunts as well as crayons at him there. The classroom management skills of the art teacher aren’t the best.
Jordan’s other classes were okay. He said that his main teachers didn’t tolerate misbehaver in their classes. Recess, however was a problem. In the more loosely managed schoolyard the bullies were throwing footballs at him. Jordan listed for me the names of his tormentors. I suggested that he could help in the office during his art class and lunch period. The school year is almost done. Worrying about him missing one art period per week didn’t seem to be that important. Protecting him from any further abuse was my main concern. Jordan liked this idea.
I decided that I would deal with these boys one by one over the next few days. Most of them are decent people. They like most young adolescence are trying to fit in with their peer group. They need to hear a respected adult tell them that they are acting in an inappropriate manner. Each of them has a healthy sense of fairness. I planned on pointing out to them that their actions towards Jordan were cruel and injustice. The poor management skills of the art teacher also called out for my attention. He wasn’t doing a very good job of creating a safe environment for all of his students.
After I finished talking to Jordan, I spent the rest of the morning in classrooms.
Arthur’s teacher sought me out during her preparation period. She told me, “I’m a little worried about him. Arthur says that he is having problems with the other boy he shares a bedroom with in the foster home. He calls him the devil child.” I assured her that I would have a talk with Arthur.
Close to the end of the school day, I caught up with him. In our conversation he didn’t express any complaints about his foster home nor did he mention any devil child.
Afterwards I wasn’t sure what I thought. Was he keeping stuff to himself or was he playing with his teacher’s head?
The building union representative had requested that I attend an after school meeting with the staff. The teachers were worried about the impending takeover by the CAR district. The opt-out transfer requests that I had distributed to them had heightened their concerns. With the exception of two teachers, the entire staff was in attendance.
The teachers asked many questions concerning the future of our school. Many of their queries concerned me. They wanted to know if I would be the principal for the next school year.
“As far as I can tell from what Temple and the school district has said, the answer is yes. I personally plan to stay. They will have to carry me out of here, if they want me to go.”
“What is this CAR district? Can they make us work a later day and a longer year? Will we be paid more? What help will we get? Is this some kind of punishment? What is the union going to do about this? This isn’t fair.” I tried to help them make some sense of the situation. Finally one of the teachers said to the group, “Frank isn’t the person who should be talking to us about this. Where are the school district leaders? Where are the union leaders?” I didn’t know the answers to these questions.
I had expected to meet for five no more than ten minutes. It was well after four by the time this meeting concluded. In the end it was apparent to all of us that we are facing an uncertain future. I said if we hang tough together, we could get through this.
The Union staffer assigned to our school came out this morning to address the staff. By the time she was finished, she had upset everyone even more. She didn’t offer any answers. “The Union can’t respond to the plan for the CAR district since no real plan has been presented. We can’t object to something when we don’t know what it is,” she said.
Several teachers carried the opt-out transfer around with them for the rest of the day. They were unsure as to what to do. When it was time for me to hand deliver the transfer requests to the Human Resources office, only two out of our thirty-five teachers had decided to leave. The staff was going to stand with me. It might be hell next year, but it will be a hell that I share with the people I trust.