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
Learning that my name is on the school district’s NCLB hit list was a real shock to me. I felt as though a zombie had taken a large bit out of my brain. For the last few days, I have been attempting to reanimate myself.
My thoughts have shuffled through a range of feelings: depression, confusion, embarrassment, and shame. Briefly, I experienced an overwhelming sense of helplessness. A slow building anger has ignited a fire in me. It is burning away the fog that has engulfed my mind. I am starting to consider the actions that I will need to take in order to survive.
There are no children in the school today. For the next two days only the staff will be attendance. During this time a full agenda of professional development activities have been scheduled for the staff.
I had been planning on participating in the seventh and eighth grade literacy session this morning. It was being held at a nearby middle school. This building is located close to the center of Temple’s campus. When I arrived, a university police officer was barring entry to the parking lot. It was full. To make matters worse, there wasn’t any on street parking to be found for many blocks around this congested campus location.
Early bird college students had grabbed every available parking space.
It occurred to me that attending a workshop regarding the Temple Literacy program wouldn’t be a good use of my time, if I weren’t going to be principal of Meade. I decided to go back to school and work. This turned out to be a better plan for the day.
Free of the distractions of a school filled with children, I was able to concentrate on making phone calls to friends and supporters. I started each new phone conversation with the same plea. “I need your help. I need a favor.”
I realized that our teams, thoughtfully prepared school improvement plan wouldn’t save the day by itself. This latest development could only be countered by an artfully crafted political response. Mr. Vallas and his central office staff would more than likely back away from targeting Meade once they understood the depth of community support that the school enjoyed.
Successful politicians such as Mr. Vallas are reluctant to alienate other powerful leaders. I think that he and his team members miscalculated the level of support that I receive from influential community leaders. I am sure that he will leave us alone once he realizes that removing me will cost him the good will of his allies.
Intimidation and threats are the favored tools of the school reformers who are only interested in increasing test scores. Mr. Vallas’ has distinguished himself as a school leader who is adept at publicly humiliating school district administrators. Recently he abruptly removed four of the highest-ranking administrators in the Human Resources Department from their positions. They were given a half-hour in order to pack their personal belongings in a box before being escorted out off the district’s headquarters by school police officers.
These four Human Resource Administrators were respected veterans of the system. They weren’t part of the Chicago crowd that Vallas had imported to Philadelphia. They definitely weren’t “yes people.”
Vallas asserted that these administrators were responsible for the failure of the district to recruit enough teachers to fill its classroom vacancies. Attracting a sufficient number of qualified candidates who will fill hard to staff position is a pressing issue in our district. By blaming these administrators Vallas diverted the publics attention away from the fact that he doesn’t have a ready solution for this problem.
Firing the top administrators in the Human Resources Department, allows him the opportunity to present himself as the man in charge. The problem still isn’t fixed, but it appears as though he is doing something about it. Vallas through his actions in this matter has demonstrated how image is far more important than substance in the school reform business.
I can see another public relations campaign being plotted, with the creation of the Corrective Action Region. It will serve as one more way for Mr. Vallas to demonstrate that he is a decisive man of action.
He identifies a group of schools with low-test scores. The principals of these schools are removed. This action will generate another catchy headline for him.
“Forceful School CEO will not accept excuses from do nothing principals.”
In my head, I can hear Vallas saying to a reporter, “I’m taking charge of these schools. Those principals had enough time to show that they could improve the scores. They didn’t. I will not accept anything less than high scores for all of my children. The right to achieve in school is a civil right. I will remove any principal who stands in the way of success. I will not have failures blocking our schoolhouse doors.”
He has to be kidding if he thinks that achieving higher test scores is a civil right. If he is really concerned about assuring the civil rights of all children, then he should direct his attention towards obtaining the resources that our school children need in order to succeed.
Of course any school chief who pursue this goal will not have an easy time. They will make political enemies. David Hornbeck—our previous superintendent—advocated vigorously for educational funding reform in our state. He was forced out of his job.
Mr. Vallas takes an easier course to demonstrate that he is an effective reformer. He makes the principals the scapegoats for the perceived failure of a school. In doing so he conveys to the public the feeling of reform without any risk to his own future.
I wish I could have it as easy. In order to insure my future, I must take risks.
I have lined up a team of community leaders who will meet with Mr. Vallas. They are respected people who I can count on for their support. I am developing a list of talking points for them.
The argument I am preparing is straightforward. We are making greater progress than our test results indicate. The students who have stayed with us from kindergarten to fifth grade are showing great academic strides. The large turnover of students in these grades however makes overall progress harder to see.
We will continue to make progress. But in order to do so, the school will need the continued direction of my leadership. A change now will undo what has been accomplished.
I don’t really think that Mr. Vallas will seriously consider these points. It doesn’t matter if he does. All that really does matter is that important people will present this argument to him. I am counting on Mr. Vallas to then realize that he could lose political capital by trying to make an example of Meade School. I am positive that he will seek to make my supporters happy. He knows that his own power grows when he satisfies the wishes of the powerful.
I have confidence that this plan will work. However I still am on edge. In a politically charged environment there are no sure bets.
Installment 2 of 8
On a Monday morning coming out of the down hill slope of the weekend, the Meade roller coaster is already moving fast. I have little choice but to jump on and become lost to whatever regrets I brought back to school with me.
The usual crowd awaited me: transfer students, suspension reinstatements and parents with complaints. They kept me busy until well past eleven. I wanted urgently to get together with the Instructional Leadership Team. I had drafted talking points over the weekend. It was a difficult task. The pressure I am feeling to comprise my professional beliefs in order to obtain better test results is getting to be too much for me. I am depressed by the mentality of people like “Deputy Slide” and other school district “reform” leaders. It’s been hard to think. I need feedback and comfort.
The suspension reinstatements went smoothly. Today’s parents were very supportive. Several times in a row I heard, “I will take care of it, Mr. Murphy. My child knows how to act right in school. Believe me, you won’t have any more trouble.”
This morning another half dozen children were admitted into the school. We have been busy since November steadily registering new children.
Last Monday I welcomed a party of five. They were a tangled mess: two boys for seventh grade, a fifth grade girl, and a third grade boy and a kindergarten boy. One of the older boys had been retained in a grade several times. He was fifteen and still in seventh grade. Eighth grade looked like a better fit for him than seventh. We tested him and determined that he could manage the work. I moved him into eighth grade on a trial basis. The second older brother was a special education emotional support student. The other three children were at their correct grade levels. The oldest child had attended eleven different schools; the younger kids were following in their older siblings footsteps.
The children have been moving back and forth between their mother and father care. Apparently there has been an ugly custody battle-taking place over several years. The mother said the father was abusive and alcoholic.
The kindergarten boy’s attendance report indicated that he had been suspended for assaulting school personnel in his former school. There were numerous suspensions on the attendance histories of all of the siblings. The information that I reviewed said “trouble” with a capital T.
On her second school day at Meade, the fifth grade girl refused to go into her classroom. We have not been able to get her to leave the bench outside of the main office since then. She sits there all day with her coat on and her hat pulled down over her face. The kindergarten boy threw a trashcan at the teacher and bit another child on the third day after admission. These brothers and sister are a handful. I have tried to reach the mother for help, but she has not responded to my calls.
A sudden influx of children in crisis can and does upset the tranquility of the school. Today facing yet another group of incoming children and their caretakers, I have more worries. How many problems can we deal with at once in our school?
Two of the children admitted today were ordered by a judge to be enrolled at Meade. They had been frequently absent in their former school. Meade is the closest neighborhood school to their parents’ house. The judge reasoned it would be easier for the parents to get their children to Meade.
There was also a boy named Gordon who had just been placed with a foster parent in the neighborhood. This boy is fourteen going on fifteen and still in the fifth grade. The boy has bounced back and forth between his mother and father for several years. There were a dozen schools in his past. His mother has been in and out of drug treatment programs. The father, who took custody of him when his mom was in treatment, was recently incarcerated. With his parents gone, the Department of Human Services took custody of him.
Tough talk against social promotion has been loud in our city and nation over the last few years. There seems to be a strong feeling among the more ardent school reformers that kids are getting away with something when we don’t retain them for receiving failures on their report card.
Repeating the same grade that they failed in the first place does not help struggling students. It humiliates and discourages them. Our district’s policy encourages retention although there is little evidence that this strategy is effective. I have seen research that concludes that children who are retained in a grade have a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school. Students who have been retained twice have a 90% certainty to be high school dropouts.
The practice of retention also hurts the kids who pass the grade the first time. They are forced to share a room with overage disengaged students who disrupt instruction. I don’t think it makes sense for a fourteen year old to be in the fifth grade. It isn’t healthy for ten and eleven year old fifth graders to have to endure. Too often they learn the wrong lessons in such a classroom. The instruction of their teacher is frequently overshadowed by the antics of the left back teenagers
If we want to help them, we should create alternative programs that are designed to meet their needs. Of course it will require more funds to design and implement new programs.
I decided to test Gordon—who is the oldest of the five kids—for special education services. If he is found to be eligible for resource room support, he can be placed in an age appropriate eighth grade classroom. This is a risky decision to make. I might be perceived as being too soft. Worst yet, I might be accused of having low expectations for this boy.
The foster caregiver was comfortable with my suggestion to move Gordon into eighth grade class on a trial bases while we tested him. I am hopeful that this boy will find a safe haven with us. I was thinking of Arthur throughout our interview. If Arthur had left Meade, he would have been the new boy in foster care placed somewhere else in the city. I’m glad Arthur is still with us. I am determined to try and make this new boy feel comfortable in our school.
When I finally did get free from the office, I had a long meeting with my leadership team. They had several good suggestions for what to include in my talking points document. Formulating a plan was a comforting activity. Doing something about the threat provided me with a means to feel in control of my life. This belief was reinforced when I saw Arthur near the end of the school day. He was happy, bubbling all over happy. He was enjoying the home in which he had been placed. There are other children there and everyone is nice to him. It pleases me to think of him interacting with people instead of being alone in his room all of the time. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It appears that life is getting better for him. I hope I can feel the same about myself sometime soon.
Late in the day on Thursday, I met with my community supporters. The meeting was convened at the office of State Senator Shirley Kitchen. I was encouraged by their willingness to help me. At the same time I felt distressed as I considered the struggle that lie ahead. Protecting my position is a battle I am sure we can win. I wasn’t however as convinced that the war would be won.
What pressures will I face next year? For how long can my supporters protect me? These questions trouble me, but not so much as the questions I have concerning my desire to stay at my school. Meade School is not an assignment that many people want to take on. Why do I want to hold onto a world that can be so difficult? Why do I want to fight? Am I trying to stay for the right reasons? What are those reasons? Am I just being stubborn and egotistical?
I care about the rock and a hard place in which I live, more than I probably should. I’m not sure if staying is a healthy thing to do. I am full of doubts. I start to think that maybe a change would be a good thing for me. I had spent days anticipating this meeting with my supporters, and there I was with them, no longer sure what I wanted.
On Friday I finally took down the Happy New Year flags. I replaced them with the Valentine banners. I’ve been under the weather of Meade; a misbehavior storm has been raging this week, resulting in more than fifty discipline referrals. I’m glad it’s Friday.
Installment 3 of 8
Before the start of the Senator’s meeting last Thursday, one of Vallas’ aides joined me in the reception area. I’ve known him for some time. He is one of several retired district administrators who have been hired as a consultant by the school chief. This former principal has been a member of the Senator’s advisory committee for as long as I. He is a person who is full of himself. Now as an ”aide” to Mr. Vallas, his sense of self-importance is overwhelming.
I’m not quite sure what special talents this man possesses. In all of the time that I have known him, I have never been impressed by his educational expertise. Perhaps he was of use because he is familiar with many of our local elected officials like the senator.
After a quick greeting he said,
“So, Frank, why don’t you tell me what you have heard? Then I’ll tell you what I have found out from the people downtown.”
I didn’t want to get into a conversation with him. I wasn’t interested in sharing with him, my perceptions regarding my future at Meade. I didn’t answer his question. This didn’t stop him from giving me his take on the matter.
“Here’s what I hear from other people in the Central Office. Your school hasn’t made AYP, Frank. They feel like they have to do something. Everyone down there recognizes your talent and hard work. Your name is up on the board for other projects where your abilities can be better employed. A lot of people are thinking of using you to head up one of the new gifted centers.”
His remarks made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as though I was being offered a bribe. Luckily, at that moment the Senator walked into the reception area. She said, “Do you think we should get this meeting started?”
I quickly replied, “ Yes, we should.
She invited us to come into her office. I was eager to get away from the central office messenger. But I wasn’t able to shake him. He sat down next me at the conference table. The “Messenger” continued his sales pitch right from the point where he had left off. From his briefcase he withdrew a document. It was a list of the proposed sites for the gifted schools. Before he had a chance to go over it with me, he was interrupted by the arrival of the other participants. When everyone was seated, the Senator called the group to order. Finally he had no other choice but to stop talking to me.
I was relieved; the gifted center conversation was annoying me. I was supposed to believe that my talent was being recognized. In seven years, not one Central Office or Regional Administrator other than Deputy Slide has been in Meade. How do they know what I am doing at my site?
Though I’m sure that I would be an excellent candidate for the principal position at a school for academically talented students, the logic of this proposition didn’t make sense to me. If according to them I am the principal of a failing school, then why would they want to make me the principal a newly created gifted school? Why would you offer to reward someone, you are saying isn’t doing a good job. I’m not foolish. I don’t believe that my superiors are interested in utilizing my talents. This aide was at this meeting in order to try to keep me quite. Clearly the central administration didn’t want me to stir up trouble. They were willing to pay for my silence.
In that moment, I understood what was motivating the actions of the district leaders. They know that turning around a school like Meade isn’t going to be a quick fix. For them school reform is a juggling act. They need to demonstrate to the state and the federal education departments that they are imposing sanctions on low scoring schools. By removing the principal they can show that they are doing something.
But at the same time they realize that this gesture will create uproar in the local community. From their point of view a potential public relations fiasco could be avoided, if I just voluntarily take myself out of the equation.
This tempting proposition makes the thought of leaving Meade feel more palatable. In my head I quickly mull over this idea. If I leave on my own, I will have more control over my fate. I’d be able to maintain my dignity and protect my professional reputation. This course of action would be beneficial to the well being of both my physical and mental health. Life would be much easier beyond the hard and brutal environment that characterizes Meade. It made me wonder why I should stay.
In her opening remarks the senator strongly endorsed me as the leader of Meade. She demonstrated her knowledge of our school by citing our achievements: small class size, extensive professional development, increased reading achievement, and a greatly improved school climate. I was impressed by how much she knew about Meade. The senator eloquently stated an argument for using multiple indicators as a way to measure a school’s success. The high stakes test system of NCLB wasn’t an accountability method that impressed her. The senator, a person of the community, is familiar with all of the risk factors outside of the school’s control that can affect student achievement.
“This is a tough community. We have a lot of problems that our people must deal with every day. We also have people who don’t act right. Last year I was ashamed to see such a clear case of harassment that Mr. Murphy had to endure from that woman, Ms. Sims. There are people in our community with real mental health problems who make it hard for all of us. But this man works with the community. He works really hard. I know he doesn’t have a problem sleeping at night. He does the right thing. I’m tired of how we are being pushed around by this administration. If I have to draw a line in the sand here, I will.”
The “Messenger” shifted gears after hearing this unabashed endorsement of my leadership. He responded to her remarks by offering his own glowing endorsement of my performance as a principal. He didn’t mention gifted schools or names on the board. Instead he turned the finger of blame towards Temple.
“Temple has the authority to choose their own principals. If they want Mr. Murphy as the principal of Meade, all that they need to do is to tell Mr. Vallas. My understanding is that the Temple School of Education plans on bringing a new program to Meade next year. The Regional Superintendent has talked to Temple about their plans and he supports them. It sounds to me that it is the Temple leaders who are the ones who want a new principal.”
This didn’t sound right to me. If there were any truth to this story it would indicate a serious behind the scenes battle at Temple between the Partnership Office and the School of Education. What seemed more likely was that the assistant was trying to exploit the community’s distrust of Temple in order to divert attention from the school district’s own plans.
For many years, long before the creation of the Temple Partnership Schools, a tension has existed between the residents of North Philadelphia and the Temple administration. In the past the, university’s need to build new facilities had resulted in the demolition of properties in the community. As a result the residents of the neighborhoods, which surround the campus, are perpetually on guard against further intrusions by Temple. It is easy to convince the local folks that the Temple people are always working on hidden agendas.
This diversionary tactic succeeded in shifting the group’s attention away from district’s intentions. The participants spent the remainder of the meeting discussing various Temple conspiracy theories. We met for a little more than an hour. At the conclusion of the meeting, I gave the senator a copy of the talking points, which I had prepared. She put this document into an envelope.
“I’m going to a meeting with Temple as soon as I’m finished here. I will bring this matter to their attention. I will ask them to write a letter to Mr. Vallas that states their support for Mr. Murphy. If they don’t agree to do so then they will have a problem. If they do and Mr. Vallas doesn’t honor their request, I will meet with the School Board.
When I left the senator’s office I had no doubt that I would maintain my position at Meade. I felt protected, at least for the time being.
In the long run there would be more risks. I don’t think that my political supporters can protect me from the rough and tumble times that will lie ahead with the Central Office. My school budgets can be cut, grant opportunities can be sent elsewhere, and staff allotments can be decreased. I will be harassed but it will be done under the guise of allegedly legitimate administrative actions.
Installment 4 of 8
Yes, Meade is my own private roller coaster ride. Come Monday morning without fail, I find myself in the lead car as I start out on yet another wild ride. Dealing with the after math of the large number of suspensions from last week has kept me busy for most of the morning. It was well pass eleven, when I finally finished meeting with the parents of suspended students.
The remainder of my day was spent on administrative tasks. It was near three o’clock, when I decided to take a break from my desk. A trip to the schoolyard, I thought would be a welcome diversion. I almost made it out of the main office door before a call came from one of the eighth grade teachers. Arthur and Luis were fighting in the classroom.
I changed course and headed upstairs. The school police officer was close behind me. When we reached the room, the fight was already over. Luis had run out of the building. Arthur was picking up his things from the floor. I brought Arthur back with me to the office.
Over the years Arthur has seldom caused any trouble. But in the last few weeks he has gotten into trouble several times. Since Arthur was placed in foster care, I have received five discipline referrals on him. I was actually a little happy to see him misbehaving. It was almost like he was finally feeling free enough to have some fun, but that he was going about it in the wrong way. Getting into a fight was something new. Arthur has never been a fighter.
He has been doing silly stuff; wrestling in the hallway, running in the lunchroom, shooting rubber bands. This was the ordinary stuff of kid misbehavior. Kids make mistakes. Normally their parents tell them to knock it off and typically the misbehavior ends.
Arthur was different. For most of the time he has been a student at Meade he has avoided trouble. Under Cindy’s rule, I guess he didn’t want to get beaten. Now without the threat of being whacked in the middle of night he is living more dangerously. I was happy for him, but I still had to maintain law and order in the school. This fight in the classroom demanded my attention.
Together we walked down from the third floor. Neither of us spoke. When we reached my office, I said. “Arthur, what are you doing? I have a problem with you fighting. I have a really big problem with you fighting in the classroom.”
“Luis hit me. I was defending myself.”
“Why would he do that? What happened before the fight started? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything, I didn’t say anything.”
“Come on Arthur, he just jumped you?”
“He was mad. He said I threw his coat on the floor. I told him I didn’t. It fell. He wanted me to pick it up. I didn’t.”
Arthur has never been much of a fighter. Luis has proven in a short time to be fast with his fist. I didn’t find it hard to believe that Luis was the aggressor.
My head was flooded with several waves of thought.
Luis jumps on Arthur and starts throwing punches. Arthur defends himself. Fists are flying. Furniture is being knocked over. The other kids egg them on. The teacher panics…
If I don’t come down hard on Arthur and Luis, then I will risk sending the wrong message to the other students. I need to make it clear to everyone that there are consequences for this type of behavior. If you fight, you are suspended. In order to maintain a safe and secure environment, I have to make it clear that the classroom isn’t a boxing ring.
I’m in a bind. I am hesitant to suspend Arthur. I don’t want his foster caregiver to have to take a bus ride to our school in order to reinstate him. The boy has only been in his new home for a short time. Why create any doubts in the caregiver’s mind? Would it be productive for her to start thinking that she may have taken on a troubled boy? There is no point in giving her reason to doubt the wisdom of her decision to shelter Arthur.
Then there is the problem of the district’s “zero tolerance policy.” Under this decree, I am expected to dole out specific punishments for certain acts. Extending circumstances are of no consequence according to the letter of this district policy. I was annoyed to find myself once again out on a limb. Watching out for Arthur is a challenging business.
“Arthur you know that fighters are suspended. What are you thinking? You put us both in a difficult position. I should suspend you but I don’t want your new caregiver to start thinking that you are a bad kid. I’m going to have to take care of this myself. You will have an in school suspension tomorrow. I will put you into another classroom. You will sit in the hallway during lunch and recess. I’m disappointed. I expect a lot better behavior from you.”
“But I didn’t start it, I swear.”
“You have been in trouble a few times in the last week. You’ve been fooling around with Lenny and some of the other guys. I want you to have friends and be happy but that doesn’t mean you create a mess in the classroom. When I asked your social worker if you could stay here, did you know why I asked?”
When he answered, I barely heard him.
“I don’t know.”
“Leaving your house was a very hard thing to do. I bet you felt very sad leaving your mom.
His head sank a little lower. He was starting to fill up with tears.
“You didn’t let her down. You have always looked out for her. You’re a good boy. But you shouldn’t be the one looking out for your mom. You should have people looking out for you. That’s why I asked the social worker to keep you in this school. A lot of people know you here. We are looking out for you. I don’t want you to go to a new school where no one will know you. You’re in a foster care house now where people talk to you. You don’t have to spend all of your time alone in your room. There are other kids you can talk to there. You like it don’t you?”
He smiled and nodded his head, yes.
“They are nice to me.”
“Okay, here’s what we are going to do. I’ll look out for you here in the school. Tomorrow morning you will come and see me first thing. Together we will work on getting you back on track. I don’t want to see you getting in trouble every other day. You are going to calm down. Do you understand me? ”
I didn’t want to push him too hard. He was engaged in his own emotional roller coaster ride. He needed some time to clear his head. I sent him home. I was out the door myself shortly after he left. Mr. Nottingham wanted to know where I was off to so early.
“I’ve got to go. I’ve things to do. It’s Valentines Day. I have to get home to my Valentine.”
Leaving the building I was drenched by a torrential rain. The drive home behind swishing windshield wipers was miserable. Even so I was still feeling the happiest I had felt all day. I was off the roller coaster at least for the moment.
Installment 5 of 8
Finding a way to avoid entering the main office, first thing in the morning has lately become somewhat of an obsession of mine. Instead I will go to the cafeteria or walk around and visit teachers in their empty classrooms. On some days when the weather cooperates, I will wait in the schoolyard and watch over the children who have arrived early. They like when I do this, since it means that they don’t have to wait in the cafeteria for the start of the school day. For them running and playing outside in the cold is preferable to having to sit at a lunchroom table.
This was the spot I choose for my hiding spot today. Shortly after eight almost a half hour before the start of classes a crowd of kids had already gathered in the yard. Most of the boys were playing football. At various points around the perimeter, girls were jumping rope. I moved about the yard stopping here and there in order to share small snatches of conversation with various children.
It was almost time to go inside when I was surrounded by a group of third grade girls. They peppered me with questions. Eventually one of the girls pointed to the “F” word, which was spray-painted on the wall of the school.
She said, “Do you know who did that, Mr. Murphy?”
The letters were huge, at least three or four feet tall. The building engineer had covered this tag with a fresh coat of paint yesterday but a torrential overnight rainfall had washed away his attempted cover up.
“I’m not sure. Do you know who did it?” I replied.
“It was those big boys down on Gratz Street. They don’t like you, Mr. Murphy.”
The other girls who were with her joined this conversation. They all agreed that the word was nasty.
“They shouldn’t be writing on our building. It’s wrong. They are making our school look ugly.”
Just then Mr. Ong blew the whistle and everyone started to enter the school. My chatty little friends gathered their bags and went inside.
I hate when people Graffiti the walls of our school. It is blight. For years I have had a standing order with my building engineer that he is to paint over it as soon as possible, when ever it appears. I didn’t want my children to be greeted with such hostile signs as they arrived at our schoolhouse door.
Most of the children had already entered the building when the oldest brother of the party of five, Philip, approached. He was with his sister, the girl who refuses to go to her classroom. As they passed, I said to her, “You are going to your classroom. I don’t want to see you sitting outside of the office.”
They started up the short flight of steps to the first landing. The school police officer had asked the brother to remove his hat. The boy ignored his request. The officer followed him up to the landing area. The next thing I knew the boy had thrown the man against the wall and he was punching him. I went to the officer’s assistance.
Philip was no small boy. He was tall, strong and fitter than either one of the two of us. The police officer and I tussled with him for several minutes. During this time, the muscle in the back of my calf tore and the boy punched me repeatedly in the chest and shoulder. It seemly took forever before we finally subdued him. The Philadelphia police were called and the boy was arrested.
I stumbled to my office. It took a while for the adrenaline that was coursing through me to subside. When it did, my whole body felt sore. I decided that I needed to go to the hospital. Before I could do so I had to deal with the new district Workman’s Compensation procedure. In doing so insult was added to injury.
In order to insure that my employer would cover my medical expenses, I needed to obtain a claim number from the district’s insurance company. This is required as part of a multi step workmen’s compensation procedure. Before I could call the insurance company, my school police officer needed to call the District’s Office of School Safety in order to obtain a serious incident control number. This didn’t happen right away since he was still pulling himself back together. When he finally attempted to make the call to the incident desk, he was greeted by an answering service, “Leave a message someone will call you back as soon as possible.” We waited a half hour.
After I had the incident number, I spent another half hour on the phone with a claims representative from the insurance company. I called the Regional Office in order to inform the regional superintendent that this incident had occurred. He was in a meeting. The secretary took a message.
Just before I left for the hospital, I called again in order to let the superintendent know that I was leaving the building. He had instructed the principal’s at a prior meeting, that we were expected to personally inform him whenever we left our school building. The superintendent was still in a meeting. The secretary took another message.
I had also called John DiPaolo in order to inform him of the situation. He came right over to the building to see how I was doing. I appreciated his concern. Ellen drove me to the hospital. On the way there we both marveled at how quickly life can spin out of control.
I didn’t intend to go into work today. Overnight I felt dizzy and the aches intensified. For a time I worried that I might have suffered from an undiagnosed concussion. But then I decided that it was more likely that another virus had taken up residence in my overly stressed body. Throughout the night, the progression of flu-like symptoms confirmed this suspicion. I decided to stay home and rest.
The discipline transfer request for the boy who assaulted me, had to be filed in the Central Office by the end of the day on Friday. I realized that I didn’t have much time to complete it. So I went to school after all. When I arrived there, I tried to get right into this task. I had barely started when Luis’ father came in to reinstate him.
He was two days late bringing Luis back. His son should have been reinstated on Wednesday. I had given him a one-day suspension as his consequence for fighting with Arthur.
Luis’ father and I talked for a long time. He had been trying to find a bigger apartment for him and his son. There was a good prospect but he didn’t have the necessary money for the security deposit. This dad was having a hard time financially. He operated his own custodial business. A client owed him four thousand dollars. This was the cash he had been counting on in order to make his move. As he waited for his client to pay what was owed to him the larger apartment was rented to some one else.
Luis and his father had been bickering for the last week. The son was mad because his father had been coming home really late. According to the dad, he was working long hours in order to take care of a job for an important customer. I suggested to him that Luis might be reacting so angrily because he was worried about being abandoned.
We talked about how emotional and intelligent Luis is. During the course of our conversation, it occurred to me that this dad didn’t have anyone other than me with whom he could confide his concerns.
Eventually, Luis joined us. The three of us became engaged in a lively discussion about whether or not Luis should see a counselor. Luis said that he was all for it as long as he didn’t have to take any drugs.
“They gave me drugs before and I think they only made me worse.”
We concluded by agreeing that Luis would come to see me when he felt as though he was losing control of his emotions. The three of us agreed that our main objective was to get Luis through the year to graduation.
Just before he left, Luis said, “I sure hope I get to graduate. I’ve never have done that. When I was promoted from fifth grade, I didn’t get to participate. Everything has always gotten messed up with me. You know what I wish?”
“I don’t know, Luis, what?”
“I wish I could go back to first grade and start all over again.”
“There isn’t any going back, Luis. There is just going ahead.” I said.
The pain in my leg subsided over the weekend. I am finally able to get up and down stairs with relative ease. But other pains still persist.
The threat to my job, and my ambivalent feelings concerning staying at Meade are still causing my head to ache. These are the hurts that occupy my thoughts and dominate my dreams. The aftermath from Phillip’s attack was of little consequence in comparison.
Installment 6 of 8
Today I finally heard from the regional superintendent. He sent me a warning memo for failing to fax a sign-in sheet to his office.
Each school in the Central Region is required to keep a sign-in register on the office counter for the use of visiting school personnel. Every Friday, it is expected that this document will be faxed to the regional office. This is how the regional attempts to monitor the whereabouts of his staff. There is only one centrally assigned employee who spends any time at Meade. This is the school psychologist.
The hectic nature of events over the last few days has distracted me. Suffering through another flu like illness while recovering from my injuries made it difficult to stay focused. Completing the extensive paper work that was required for Phillip’s disciplinary transfer request occupied most of my attention. In this distracted state I had forgotten to fax the register. Failing to make a deadline is something I rarely do.
After opening the sealed confidential envelope and reading this memo, I was angry. What a silly little thing this was. Why the fuss? Didn’t the super have any important work to occupy his attention? Instead of sending me a petty chastisement, he could have inquired about my well-being. It has been more than a week since I went to the hospital. He has yet to reply to the messages I left for him on the day I was assaulted by Phillip.
Neither he nor anyone from his office has bothered to check to determine if I was all right. I haven’t seen a get-well card. The only contact he chooses to have with me is this petty warning memo. I have never received a disciplinary warning in all of the years I have been an administrator. The lack of sensitivity he has demonstrated offends me. Perhaps I should send him a warning memo.
While I was stewing over this rebuke in the privacy of my office, the mother of the party of five was waiting to see me. It has been five-days since the start of her son’s suspension. He was due to return today.
The Regional Office should have placed him in an interim placement at another location until a disciplinary hearing could be scheduled. This is a typical practice when a student has committed a particularly egregious action, such as an assault on a school staff member that has resulted in an injury. Despite the serious nature of Phillip’s infraction the regional office has yet to take any action on his case. Therefore, I have to readmit him into the school.
She came into my office. I explained to her that I had submitted a request for her son to be placed in an alternative school. After hearing this news she immediately demonstrated that she was as aggressive as her son.
“My son didn’t assault anyone. That man had no right putting his hands on my son. He threw my son against the wall and choked him. I have a witnesses.”
I replied, “You have it backwards. Your son threw the police officer against the wall. Your son tried to choke the officer. I saw it. I am a witness. When I went to help the officer, your son punched me several times in the shoulder and chest. He assaulted me. I will readmit him today. You will be notified of a hearing at the Regional Office, which will determine what actions will be taken. He will remain here for the time being. I am warning you that if he touches anyone again, he will be arrested.”
She started to curse. I told her it was time for her to leave and that I would take care of putting her son back in class. While I was attempting to guide her out of the office, she started to scream.
“Don’t you touch me? Get away from me. You touch me and you will get it. Fuck you. Fuck this school.”
In the hallway she told her son, “You go up to your class.”
I stopped him. “Wait over there on the bench until I send you back to class.”
Her daughter was sitting on the bench in her usual spot. To the mother I said, “Your daughter has to go to class. She cannot sit here all day.”
To the girl I said, “Go to class.”
The child replied, “No.”
The mother screamed, “Don’t you talk to my children.”
Addressing them, she said, “Come on we are getting out of here.”
They moved in the direction of the front door. I followed behind them. The mother turned and said, “Get away from us before I put my foot up your ass.”
Several other parents were entering the building as she made this threat. They seemingly were taken aback by the rudeness of this woman. If looks could kill, the head of the party of five would have been dead.
As soon as the door closed behind her, I went back to my office. Once there I placed another call to the regional office. I wanted to inquire as to the status of Phillip’s transfer request. The regional superintendent was in a meeting with his staff. No one was available who might provide me with some information. A secretary took a message.
Installment 7 of 8
The lack of commitment and loyalty that my school district supervisors have shown towards me is disheartening. It is clear that I am on my own in dealing with the challenges of my struggling school community. In the face of this weighty responsibility, I continue to feel conflicted concerning my desire to remain at Meade.
I am sure that if I do stay, I will be able to make a positive difference in the lives of my children. I do want to stay. On the other hand I find myself continuously calculating the personal cost of doing so. Does it make sense for me to continue to endure the level of stress to which I am exposed? Should I retreat in order to fight another day? Should I go to an easier place to live?
I am close to letting go of Meade and dropping into whatever the central office minions have in store for me. I am thinking that doing so would be easier than fighting them. I have seriously been thinking about the possibility of heading up a gifted center. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea. A school in a different area of the city would be good. A school in a community where the people stayed for more than a year or two would be lovely.
Luckily my eyes were opened by the regional superintendent’s ridiculous memo. I couldn’t let them fool me with their false promises. Any position that I would take, away from Meade and the Temple Partnership, would place me at the mercy of the people I trust least of all in the school district. They would have total control over my fate, once I was out of Meade.
The senator and the others at the meeting had demonstrated through their concern that they appreciated my efforts. I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to let my school community down. I have a deep commitment to this school. I will continue to be loyal to my children, parents and staff. I realize that I am not alone here. I know what I have to do. I must remain the principal of Meade.
On Friday, I finally fully committed myself to this fight. I spent the morning on the phone. I was asking my friends to go to bat for me. In doing so, I was saying that I’m going to stick around here. I will stay for at least two more years. This should give me enough time to find the right person to take my place.
The funny thing is that as soon as I was finished working the phone, I received a call from a colleague who heads a nonprofit literacy professional development organization. She wanted to know if I was interested in the headmaster position at a Center City Charter School. The educational philosophy of this school is in tune with my own. The salary offer is greater than what I am currently earning. If this call had come a day or two earlier, in the midst of my confusion, I might not have been calling my supporters today. The decision to stay would have been harder to make.
In the morning mail, I received a copy of the letter that had been sent to the parent of the party of five. Phillip’s due process hearing was scheduled for next Thursday.
This past week has been quiet. Ms. Wilson’s threats were the only big excitement. In the last few days only five discipline referrals have been sent to the office. These involved the main troublemakers of the school. Compared to my prior weeks from hell, this is a pleasant and needed break. The school is calm.
In the afternoon, I visited the eighth grade classrooms. The playwright was working with the students. I was interested in seeing how she was progressing with this project. When I arrived, I observed that she was performing dramatic readings of a few of the student’s monologues.
The class was interesting, focused and fun. I noticed that Isaiah was sitting in the back of the room. I hadn’t seen him in weeks. There are a lot of students in the room whom I haven’t seen in some time. I realized that I have missed them.
When the playwright finished her readings, the students went back to working on their own pieces. I used this opportunity in order to move around the room and talk to different kids about their work. I was pleased to see that many of them, including Isaiah, had written good piece. As I read their work and asked them questions about their plays, I gained more of an insight into their thoughts.
The plays that they are writings are good examples of an engaging and meaningful academic task. In the students’ work, I observed abundant evidence of their growth and progress as writers.
Many politicians and school leaders are fond of saying that teaching children to read is the civil rights battle of our times. Without skipping a beat they tie this goal to increasing standardized test scores. It is a dangerous connection.
When educators feel that their job security is dependent on pushing for higher student test scores, children will suffer. Teachers will feel compelled to focus instruction on activities that will help their students to develop test-taking skills. Eventually in this kind of environment everything will end up being about teaching to the test.
This will not help our students to develop sophisticated comprehension skills. Good readers do much more than merely decode or answer test questions when they read. A proficient or advanced reader makes meaningful and personal connections between their world and the ideas in the text that they are reading. Good readers are critical thinkers.
In order for our students to sharpen their skills as critical thinkers they need a rigorous, developmentally appropriate, and enriched instructional program. All students need many opportunities to build the background experiences and knowledge that will assist them in interpreting text. Trips to museums and cultural venues should be a part of every child’s school experience. Music, art, computer, and physical education classes should be offered to all children. A variety of extra curricular activities should also be made available to them. Access to these kinds of resources should be their civil right.
I want all of my children at Meade to have the opportunity to develop their gifts and talents. Helping them to do so in a resource poor school is a challenge.
Being with the kids is a great depression-buster. I felt much better after this classroom visit. The final soothing tonic of the day was a quick and peaceful dismissal.
Spring is almost on us. It’s time to push out of my winter cave. I am sensing that the days ahead will bring a brighter outlook to my life.
Installment 8 of 8
Today we dismissed our students at noon. The remainder of the day was reserved for school based professional development activities. Our school leadership team had planned the agenda. After a brief whole staff meeting the rest of the afternoon was organized into grade level meetings. I enjoy this kind of format. I am able to relate on a more personal level with the teaching staff in a small group setting.
The primary task of the afternoon was to examine different samples of student achievement data such as reading levels, report card grades, and test scores in order to indentify the strengths and weaknesses of our instructional programs.
As the afternoon progressed, I moved from one group of teachers to another. All of the group discussions in which I participated were lively and offered a number of insightful observations. The teachers at each grade level did a good job of using data in order to identify the strengths and needs of their students. They then developed an instructional action plan that was based on their analysis of the data. By the end of the day we all felt good about the work that we had completed. This was one of the best Friday afternoons that I had in some time.
Through out this whole past week, I have been focused on finding happy times. I’ve talked to a lot of kids and have visited many classes. Reading student journals, observing lessons, and listening to students explain their work has helped me to feel far less stressed. Doing so reconnected me to the joy of being a teacher. When I am deeply ensnared in disturbing and dysfunctional events, it is easy to overlook the positive and productive things that occur every day in a school.
Meade is a good place to be. The staff is terrific. The students are wonderful. The parents with the exception of a few individuals are supportive. It will be worth the effort of engaging in the battle ahead in order to remain here.