Confessions of an Urban Principal
By Frank Murphy
This book provides a first hand account of the life of an urban elementary school principal in the era of No Child Left Behind. On Monday and Wednesday, I post an installment of the current month’s chapter. The complete text for previous chapters can be found listed under Categories.
The names of all students and parents who are described in this story have been altered in order to protect their privacy.
Installment 1 of 9
The quality of our central office leadership declined when a Chief Executive Officer replaced the position of the Superintendent. Though many of the people who Paul Vallas brought with him are well versed in the ways of the corporate world, they know little about educational practices.
They like to buy products such as computer assisted learning applications, textbooks, and canned instructional programs. These corporate leaders have demonstrated little faith in the ability of our teachers to do an effective job. Any program, which directs a teacher on how to instruct in a step-by-step manner using a publisher’s manual, appeals to them. They also are in favor of outsourcing many of the basic operations of the district. School support services such as data management, food delivery, maintenance work, student testing, and program evaluations have in short order been turned over to private contractors. There has been little if any public discussion related to these decisions.
Within the district staff no objections have been raised concerning this aggressive outsourcing of services. Staff members who were not brought in by Vallas are playing it safe. Many formerly opinionated administrators have seemingly overnight become a yes-person. Can you really blame them? After all if they were to say “no” to the boss, the school police would most likely escort them out of the district’s headquarters.
Larry is the central office director who is in charge of preparing individual school staffing and budget allotments. He does his job well. Larry is a bright guy who has an uncanny ability to accurately project a school’s future enrollment. He is one of the Central Office Administrators who has not been replaced by the current administration.
Today I called him. I was disturbed by the budget package that I had been given. Every fund area had been significantly reduced. This is problematic but I am sure that I can figure out a plan to deal with this lost of funds. What worried me more was the staffing allotment. The number of teachers that would be assigned to the school for next year had been brutally slashed. We were slated to lose seven teachers.
The budget packages had been distributed last Tuesday, during a meeting held at the District’s headquarters. Several officials addressed the various school leadership teams that had gathered there in the auditorium.
The Chief Financial Officer spoke first. He provided a quick overview of the district’s financial picture.
“This next year’s budget is balanced. It is a ‘maintenance budget’ as Mr. Vallas likes to describe it. The year after this, there will be a small shortfall. This shortfall will grow even larger in the following year. By 2009, there will be a serious budget hole that we will need to fill. Of the three hundred million dollars Mr. Vallas convinced the School Reform Commissioner to borrow when he first arrived, only sixty million now remains.”
This rapid spend down of these borrowed funds had been used to pay for the multitude of contracts awarded to vendors and consultants since Mr. Vallas arrival.
Millions have been distributed to testing companies. Twenty million was paid out to one book publisher that supplied a basal reader series for all of the city schools. Another firm provided all new math books and supplemental materials for another huge sum of money.
Just the other day there was a newspaper article that stated that the district’s disciplinary schools where going to be managed by private contractors. These companies had been awarded a total of thirty-six million dollars per year in contracts in order to do so. One of these vendors is in the business of managing prisons. When asked why the district should hire commercial firms for this purpose, Mr. Vallas replied that he didn’t think the school district should be in the business of running disciplinary schools. He felt that a private company could do a much better job.
It is a good time to do business in our school district. The bottom lines of several companies have been enriched by the lucrative contracts awarded by our district. Consultants offering all kinds of professional services have benefitted from a cornucopia of economic opportunities created by Vallas’ business friendly management style. Some of these deals have involved vendors who previously worked with him in Chicago.
Many of our School District’s departments are being dismantled or reorganized as the work they formerly performed is doled out to private contractors. Our new state controlled managers call this a better way of doing business.
Mr. Vallas has had a lot of money to spend since he first arrived. Many a new friend he has made as he has done so. Everyone, it seems, loves a man with money to burn. In life, money doesn’t necessarily buy you love. But in politics it helps you to have your way.
Mr. Vallas is a masterful politician.
Installment 2 of 9
For each of the last three years the resources allocated to Meade has decreased. This steady decline of funds and staff positions has resulted in an unwanted increase in our average class size. The number of children per classroom has risen from eighteen to twenty four students. Even so our ratio of students to teacher is still better than the district’s standard class size of thirty students in K to 3 classrooms and thirty-three in grades 4 to 8 classrooms.
Next year’s budget will once again reduce our resources. I am frustrated by this discouraging trend. It is becoming close to impossible to maintain a high quality instructional program. Our children benefit immensely from the added attention they receive in a smaller class. Assuming responsibility for managing thirty to thirty three students is a difficult challenge for any teacher to assume. Placing this number of high need, low-achieving children in a classroom lead by an inexperienced instructor is an injustice to both the teacher and the students.
Our district’s central leadership team claims that schools are receiving the resources they need in order to reduce the size of their classes. This will be accomplished by adding a paraprofessional aide to every K-3 classroom for the upcoming year. They will work for a total of three hours a day. These aides will be assigned to work with two teachers in different rooms during each of their hour and half literacy blocks. This is an economical approach for reducing the ratio of students to adults in a classroom. This strategy will save money at the expense of instructional quality. Utilizing aides to provide instructional support to struggling readers is a less than effective strategy. These are the students who are the most in need of the services of highly effective certified teachers.
For next year I need three more teachers, in order to organize my K to 3 classrooms into groups of twenty-four students. In order to reduce class sizes in grades 4 to 8 to this ratio, I will need four more teachers. This doesn’t seem to be a realistic possibility. These positions are not affordable given the stingy budget allocation that I have received.
The average cost of a teacher according to the district’s budget office is seventy-six thousand five hundred dollars. There is only one teacher on staff at Meade who earns this sum of money. The majority of the staff earns considerably less than this amount. The average cost of a Meade teacher, including salary and benefits, is around forty thousand dollars. Our teachers for the most part are fairly new and thus are paid at the lower end of the salary schedule.
Using the average cost factor, I will be able to purchase four additional teachers in order to reduce class size. I will use Title One funds in order to do so. If I were able to budget at the actual cost for the teachers’ on our staff, I would be able to purchase eight additional teachers. The difference between the average system cost and the actual cost of one of our teachers is about thirty five thousand dollars.
Title One funds are supposed to be targeted to the neediest students first then to other students. By charging the budgets of schools like Meade for the cost of their teachers the district is able to fund the cost of teachers in less distressed schools. These other schools that serve far less impoverished communities are the places where experienced and thus more expensive teachers work.
I don’t support the idea of using aides to deliver reading instruction to the students who are the most in need of highly effective instructors. My top budget priority is to fund certified teacher positions for this purpose. With this year’s budget dollars, I don’t see how I can accomplish this goal. I desperately need more teachers. So here I am on a Saturday morning, begging Larry for some help. I tried to talk to him the day before but he was to busy. He gave me his home number and told me to call him over the weekend. Together we reviewed Meade’s current enrollment numbers. I had counted ninety more children than he had projected for the upcoming year. My count was based on the number of children currently enrolled in the school. Larry checked the figures that he had and determined that there was a discrepancy. He agreed to add another teacher to my allotment. He told me he didn’t have many resources with which to work this budget year. The number of teacher positions he was authorized to allot was less than the current number of teachers employed in the system.
“I had to be really tight with each school’s allotment this year,” Larry said.
This reduction in the number of teachers that will be allocated district wide is intended to solve a budget problem that Mr. Vallas had created two years ago. At that time he proclaimed that he would eliminate the dreaded September reorganization process. This was good news for everyone at a school site. The process of reorganizing classrooms at the end of September had long been a spur in the heel of every district school.
Back then in September after the first two weeks of school were completed, the numbers of students at every school were counted. If a school had more teachers than were needed for its actual enrollment, the low seniority teachers would be forced transferred to a school, which was over enrolled. The teachers, who were bumped, dreaded the change. They for the most part were recent hires. These newcomers had already lived through the anxiety of picking a school. They had set up their classrooms, met the staff and greeted the students in the school that they had chosen. A victim of the “leveling,” had to start all over at another school location. The students who were assigned to the classrooms of these transferees would be shuffled into other teachers’ classrooms. This was a poor way for anyone to start a new year.
When Mr. Vallas eliminated this practice, teachers who were assigned to a school in the prior spring were allowed to remain at their schools, even if the number of enrolled students decreased in September. This change in policy was good for students and teachers and bad for district finances. Enrollment as usual fluctuated across the city. The schools, which lost students, benefited from having fewer children in their classrooms. At the schools where an influx of new students created overcrowding, new teachers had to be hired in September. This was a costly proposition that quickly became fiscally unsustainable.
The next year the budget office had to find a way to make Mr. Vallas’s leveling promise a less costly endeavor. If a teacher left the district during the summer, his/her position was declared vacant. These positions would not be filled if a school’s enrollment fell in the fall. This helped to somewhat compensate for the increased cost of Mr. Vallas’ new leveling policy. Unfortunately these savings were not enough. This year a more drastic solution is being put in place. Every school in the district has been allotted fewer teaching positions for the next year despite what their current enrollment suggests they will need. Principals are being forced to organize oversized classes for the next year. If the enrollment for their schools falls in September, then they can reorganize their teachers’ assignments in order to create class sizes that comply with mandated contract ratios. If more students than expected enroll in the fall, than additional teachers will be deployed to the school. ? This approach solved the problem of hiring too many teachers. Now instead of abruptly transferring teachers in September, they will be forced transferred at the end of the school year.
This is but one example of the many big promises that Vallas has made which later need to be modified. Last year he stated that every K-8 school would be given an assistant principal and two school police officers. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t fiscally possible to do so. He regularly dangles hopeful ideas for media consumption. There is a lot of hoopla over whatever the next great thing is that he promises. Then later when it becomes obvious that his latest proposal isn’t feasible, it is quietly put to rest.
When I finished talking to Larry, I went back to figuring out next year’s budget plan. The additional teacher he gave me helped to make this job a little easier. Now I was short by only two teachers. Though I had made some good progress, I was still disappointed. This is now the third year in a row that there hasn’t been enough money available to purchase an Assistant Principal’s position. For another year I will have to carry the full load of student discipline, parent conferences, and teacher supervision.
I fight this same budget battle year after year. It is a constant challenge. Advocating for the best interest of my school community is an essential part of my job. For the greater part of this past last week, I have tried to make budget magic.
I did manage to sandwich into my schedule some classroom visits. Seeing the good instruction-taking place in our classrooms motivated me to work harder in order to find a means of maintaining our current instructional program and class sizes. I enjoyed talking to and joking with the children. Every time I ran into Isaiah, I was amazed at how much he has grown. The boy is looking like a man. When he comes into the main office, he greets the whole staff by name. He is personable and funny.
When I am working on a budget, there is a danger that I will only see numbers and bottom lines. By staying in touch with my children, I am reminded that the budget is all about them. This reminder helps me to stay focused on their needs. Paul Villas, his cabinet and the members of the School Reform Commission should spend more time with our children. Perhaps if they did have frequent encounters with children like Isaiah, they would be more motivated to fight for the additional resources that our schools need.
Installment 3 of 9
Financial concerns have taken center stage in my mind. For days now, my thoughts have been obsessively focused on the Meade School budget. How am I going to make the figures work? How can I avoid cutting teaching positions? Will I be able to find money for an Assistant Principal? Ugh! My head feels like it is about to explode.
Walking into the building this morning, I was totally preoccupied with these thoughts. I wanted to get settled quickly at my desk so that I could continue to work on these problems. Hopefully the student entry would be quick, painless and distraction free.
The morning routine had barely gotten underway when Luis came in to the main office. He was agitated. Before I had a chance to say a word to him, he started to spout off complaints concerning his teacher.
“I can’t stand her. She has to sugarcoat everything. She doesn’t say stuff straight out, like you.”
“What’s wrong, Luis? Why are you upset?”
He didn’t respond to my question. Instead he continued to rant about his teacher. I couldn’t figure out what was bothering him. After listening to several more minutes of his ramblings, I told him to come into my office.
Luis continued on with his tirade. Mr. Nottingham attempted to calm him and failed.
Ms. Sample tried to soothe him to no avail. She gave up after several tries and went back to her desk. Her parting words were, “I’m getting a headache.”
Finally I said. “Luis stop. Stop talking. You aren’t making any sense.”
He didn’t stop. Apparently he couldn’t stop. Whatever was going on in his head, he couldn’t control. I realized that there wasn’t going to be any reasoning with him. I concluded that Luis needed to go home. In his current state of mind, he was only going to get himself into serious trouble. I was starting to get my own headache from listening to him. I sent him out to sit on the hallway bench. Mrs. Martin contacted his father.
Luis’ father came to the school soon after he was called. The two of us had a lengthy conversation. He told me that Luis has been pretty worked up during the last few days.
“We have been having a rough time these past two weeks. Money has been tight. I’ve been working late. The other day I didn’t get home until after nine. Luis was worried and upset. He didn’t know where I was. He has been mad at me ever since then.”
Once again the thought crossed my mind that Luis was terrified by the thought that his dad might not come home at all. We talked for a while longer about Luis’ fear of being abandoned. When we were finished Luis’ father took him home.
I managed to get back on track with my budget work after they left. But it wasn’t long, before I was once again interrupted. Arthur’s mom, Cindy, came into the office just before the start of the lunch periods. She wanted to visit with her son.
The tension radiating from my office staff was intense. I was sure that none of us were interested in being involved in a nasty scene with her. Mrs. Martin ushered Cindy into my office. I haven’t seen her or talked to her since before Arthur had been taken into protective custody. Cindy appeared to be almost sober. There was only a slight odor of alcohol on her breath. She wanted me to close my door to the outer office so that no one could hear her business. The thought of being alone with her raised my level of apprehension. Despite my concern, I still let her close the door.
Cindy wasted no time on small talk. She immediately launched into an animated explanation of why Arthur had been removed from her home. In her version of the story it was Arthur’s jumping hormones and his interest in girls that had caused the problems between them.
She wanted me to know that she didn’t beat her child. Cindy wanted me to believe, that she hadn’t mistreated Arthur. She appeared to be deeply troubled by the lost of her son. Her pain and sorrow was intense. Being a witness to her hurt was a painful experience.
Cindy wasn’t allowed to have contact with Arthur, except during court appointed and supervised visits. It wasn’t easy to tell her that she had to leave the school without seeing her son.
“You cannot come into the school in order to see Arthur. I know that you want to be with him but the court says no. I can only imagine how hard it is for you to have lost your boy. I also know that this separation hasn’t been easy on Arthur either.
I asked his caseworker at DHS to allow him to remain at Meade. I thought that by staying in this school, with the kids and adults he has known for most of his life, that these changes would be a little easier for him to take. Please don’t give his caseworker a reason to take him out of our school. If she thinks you will keep coming here to see Arthur, she might just do that.”
“I love my son, Mr. Murphy I would never hurt him. It isn’t right what they did.”
“I know you love him. Let us help you. We will watch out for him here.”
“I don’t want to cause any trouble. I’ll go. I just wanted to give him some money.”
“I’ll give it to him.”
Cindy handed me a little roll of money. As she did so she made direct eye contact with me. She said, “I need you to do a favor for me. Tell my boy that I love him. Will you tell him? I love him so much.”
She gave me a hug as she said.
“Thank you for watching out for my boy.”
I felt bad for Cindy. Her life is a wreck. I felt bad for Arthur. He is having a rough time himself. I’m sure he is missing his mom. Hopefully this will all work out well for the two of them.
After Cindy left, I sat quietly at my desk lost in thought. Pat Costello snapped me back to attention with the news that there was a crisis in a first grade classroom. A boy who has been acting out aggressively and violently over the last few weeks had punched his teacher in the stomach. This was not the first time he had been physical with her. I had seen his mother on several recent occasions regarding his troubling violent behavior. She didn’t know what to do for him.
Nottingham had taken him to the counselor’s office. This is where I caught up with him. He told us that he had hit the teacher because the voices in his head told him to be bad. It was just last week that we have we learned about these voices. They were telling him to do lots of bad things. This six-year-old boy is seriously ill. This is a scary situation. We need to get him the help that he needs.
The counselor contacted his mother. While I waited for her, I consulted with a member of the district’s crisis response team. He recommended that the boy should undergo an immediate psychiatric evaluation. When the child’s mother arrived I filled her in on the details concerning his latest violent outburst. I suggested that she take him to Einstein Hospital. There is an emergency child psychiatric clinic at this facility. She politely listened to me before leaving with her son. I hope that she will follow through with my recommendation. There is something alarming going on in her son’s head. It cannot be ignored.
Today the Inquirer published its school report card supplement. It listed the results from last year’s tests for every school in our metropolitan area. This is a yearly event. It’s sort of like listing the win/lost statistics for professional sports teams. Our test scores place us close to last place in the NCLB accountability league. We aren’t a very competitive team in the test score game.
In the sports world, a team can improve their prospects of winning the championship in the next season by purchasing the personnel and the resources that they will need in order to do so. If our school could do the same, then we might know what it feels like to be a winner for a change.
After carefully scanning the school standings for the past year, I return to working on the budget. I hadn’t gotten far with it on this sad day.
Installment 4 of 9
For about twenty minutes I believed that I would finally be able to purchase an assistant principal position. As soon as I completed the calculations that lead me to this conclusion, I headed to Ellen’s room. I was eager to share with her my excitement. The two of us enjoyed a brief mini-celebration before I headed back to the office.
Despite a constant barrage of distractions, I had finally scripted out the first draft of the budget. I was pleased with the outcome. Now I needed to recheck my figures. Within minutes of starting this review I figured out that the numbers didn’t add up. I had exceeded my budget allotments by more than eighty thousand dollars. This was a big mistake. My bubble was popped as I completed this redo. Just like that, the possibility of receiving the aid of an assistant principal was wiped out. Frustrated, I put the budget aside. It is starting to feel as though I will never complete this task.
Earlier this morning, I had determinedly pulled out the budget forms that needed to be completed. It was my intention to lock myself in my office. I was going to stay there until it was done. This strategy might have worked, if I had actually closed my door.
I had hardly gotten started with my calculations when I received a note from one of my most experienced teachers. She expressed a serious concern regarding Arthur. This teacher isn’t involved in delivering instructional services to him. Her classroom is located in an area of the building in which Arthur shouldn’t have access. She felt as though he might be stalking her. Even more alarming was her allegation that Arthur had touched her breast.
As I read this message, I was reminded of Cindy’s comments about her son’s jumping hormones. Again I am faced with a situation that forces me to re-examine my assumptions concerning a person. It seems that there is always more than what meets the eye to everything that I confront in this school.
I left my budget behind, while I went to this teacher’s classroom. To my relief she didn’t feel threaten by Arthur. She was worried about him. Neither of us were sure as to what he intended by this inappropriate gesture. I decided to ask Peggy, if she would be willing to talk to him.
While she was quizzing Arthur, I handled Luis. He, too, had managed to be referred to me by a teacher. Luis had been dragging a girl around on the floor of the third floor hallway. I wasn’t looking forward to having another long drawn out conversation with him. My patience was wearing thin and I didn’t need to be tested by his denials. Surprisingly, he immediately admitted to his inappropriate behavior. He liked the girl and said he was only playing with her. The girl admitted that she had willingly participated in this roughhouse behavior.
Peggy’s discussion with Arthur wasn’t as clear-cut as the one I had with Luis. Arthur is not a very forth-coming individual. He did tell her that he does seem to be getting into more trouble as he gets older, but he denied he was stalking the teacher. Peggy and I agreed that his behavior was odd and we decided to keep a closer watch on the boy.
After this interruption I wasn’t in the mood to continue my budget work. I set it aside. I decided to take a walk so that I could clear my head. I ended up visiting the fifth grade classrooms. This was a healthy diversion.
The day before, I had visited all of the sixth, seventh and eighth grade classrooms. During these classroom visits, I thanked the students for how well they take care of and respect our schoolhouse. Our hallways are filled with displays of student work. There are numerous oil paintings and clay murals throughout our public spaces. Our hallways are furnished with fish aquariums, benches, rocking chairs, children’s books, plants and large teddy bears. When I first started to place these items in our common spaces, there were adults who thought that the children would destroy them. They didn’t. In fact they took responsibility for maintaining the hallways I encouraged them to continue their efforts to make our school look nice. I also apologized for not thanking them more frequently for their hard work and cooperation.
Many of the children sent me notes after my visit. They wrote that they would continue to help me to keep the school clean and in order. I appreciate their interest and concern.
I had to rush through my last classroom visit. Just as I entered this room, I received a call from the main office. A child had been injured. She had broken a windowpane with her fist. Her wounds needed to be tended to and the nurse was not in school today. After I made a quick hello to the students I went to the office.
Installment 5 of 9
A nurse is assigned to our school three days a week. On the off days, I handle any medical emergencies that arise. Rashida, a third grader was the patient who awaited me in the office. She had put her fist through the classroom window during a temper tantrum. She is a sister to Rashid, the fourth grader I had transferred back in December to a disciplinary school.
Fortunately, her injuries weren’t severe. Several small superficial lacerations dotted her fingers, knuckles and wrist area. I swabbed them with antiseptic and applied band-aids to a few of the slashes. This child was luckier than most. I have seen some nasty wounds that were acquired by other children in this same fashion. When I finished, I sent her to sit on the bench in the hallway.
Ms Sample contacted her home. During her conversation with the mother she learned that this would be Rashida’s last day at Meade. The Philadelphia Housing Authority planned on relocating this family to a house in another neighborhood. Several blocks of dilapidated homes and vacant lots within our school boundary area are about to be bulldozed. Once this tract of land is cleared, the construction of one hundred fifty new homes will commence. There will be a significant drop in our student population next September, when the substandard housing units in this area are razed.
Behavior problems should also decline with the exodus of some of our most troublesome students and their families who reside on these forgotten blocks. After this incident I gave up on the budget for another day.
Another new Regional Superintendent was introduced at today’s principals’ meeting. She is the fifth person in the last seven years who has held this position. Her introductory speech included all of the usual reform rhetoric.
“We are here for the children. We will have high expectations. We are accountable. We will continue to increase our test scores.”
Her speech might have been moving and inspirational, if I hadn’t already heard it so many times. So we have a new face for our leader, one who will carry on as usual.
The “Old Man Super” conducted the meeting. It was his last. He started at eight thirty and concluded by one. The agenda consisted of a “to do” list for the next month. The items listed were fairly self-explanatory. The enclosures that were included with the agenda provided more details than the speakers. Most of the talk from the podium was preachy and officious.
Mr.Vallas’ plan for the gifted centers was a major agenda item. The principals were instructed to list on a form the names of their students who are demonstrating academic promise. When completed it was to be sent to the regional office. What would be done with this information was not made clear to us.
Many of the principals expressed concern over the prospect of the region creaming into a gifted center the highest achieving students from their schools. I shared this concern.
I considered drawing up a list of all the students like Luis and Arthur who attend Meade. They are gifted in their own manner. All children are gifted in some way. Aren’t they? If these are the gifted children I send to Mr.Vallas’ special schools, then perhaps real school reform might occur in North Philadelphia. But I know that these children are not the ones that the central office plans to target. I decided that I wouldn’t turn in a list. I would wait and see what response I received for not complying with this request.
I counted the minutes to the conclusion of this monthly ordeal.
Installment 6 of 9
Finally the numbers for next years budget have been carved into stone. First thing this morning I met with the staff from the finance department. This was the last step in the school budget process. They had set up shop on the main floor of the district’s former Pedagogy Library.
Finance analysts were position around the room at temporary workstations. I was directed to one of these locations. The individual assigned to work with me, inputted the budget figures that I had prepared into a master program. Department directors were present in order to lend assistance and to monitor the process. Representatives from the Title One and Special Education offices carefully examined how the funds from these revenue streams were utilized. These money sources couldn’t be used in a manner other than one, which complied with legislative and regulatory intent.
The principals from the Temple Partnership Schools were the first group of administrators scheduled for the day’ session. My review went smoothly. The analysts didn’t raise any serious objections to my budget plan. I spent a total of two hours with them. There were significant cuts to our instructional program. The seventh and eighth grades would be back to a thirty-three to one student teacher ratio. The third and fourth grades weren’t much better off, with a twenty-eight to one ratio. I spent nearly every available dollar in order to secure as many teaching positions as possible. In doing so, I choose to go another year without an assistant principal.
I have devised a plan that will reduce the student to teacher ratio to twenty to one in third, seventh and eighth grade for half of the day. This will necessitate a creative redeployment of several of my expressive arts teachers, the gifted teacher, and the technology teacher. The fourth grade will still have thirty students in a class. The remaining grades will have a student-teacher ratio of twenty-four to one for the whole day. The final version of next year’s budget eliminates two teaching positions. Our instructional program will be weaken by these cuts. But I am confident that these wounds will not be fatal.
The last person I met with was Larry. He checked to verify that the district’s reduced size initiative was addressed in my budget. Larry also checked to make sure that the number of teachers I identified on my allocation sheet was covered by my budget funds. According to him, one teacher was not accounted for in my calculations. I told him that the cost of this position would be charged to a federal school improvement grant. Larry said he would have to see something in writing before he could authorize this position.
When I got back to the school, I called the budget analyst who was charged with overseeing this grant. She assured me that she would send a memo to Larry. She also provided me with some unexpected good news. The funds from this source had not been authorized until the beginning of December. This year only half of the teacher’s salary will be deducted from this fund. This means that there is twenty thousand dollars available now that can be used to purchase books and supplies. The biggest concern I had with my budget was that it allotted a meager eight thousand dollars for next year’s textbooks and supplies. With this unexpected windfall the materials problem was solved.
Finally next year’s staffing and spending blueprint is complete. I am done anguishing over it. We will learn to live with the consequences of these decisions.
Shortly after my arrival back in school, I met with Mr. Sanchez, Luis’s father. He assured me that I would have no more trouble from his son.
“I’ve had another long talk with Luis. I try and talk to him all of the time. He is hearing from me about how to act. He isn’t going to be in trouble for the rest of the year.”
“Knock on wood. Let’s not jinx him. Never is a pretty strong word to use. Mr. Sanchez, if you say he will have a lot less trouble, I’ll be satisfied. It is hard for someone to change how he or she acts overnight. “
“You’re right, it takes time. He’s changed though. Luis has changed a lot. You wouldn’t believe how he acted before he came here.”
Luis came into my office. The boy was in a good mood. We talked. We laughed. He told me himself that he wasn’t going to get into any more trouble. I sure hope that he doesn’t. I want to see him at the eighth grade graduation.
I started the morning off by attending a Temple principals’ meeting at one of our partnership schools. When we were done, John asked for a ride back to his office. It was an unusual request. Usually he walks, so I figured he wanted a private moment. My guess was right. John had more bad news for me.
A central office administrator had told him, that the district intended to terminate Temple as the manager of Meade. When our school was returned to district control, it would be placed in the Corrective Action Region. John said, that he didn’t favor this plan. The president of the University wasn’t happy either, concerning this development. But it didn’t appear as though he would protest the decision.
He had told John, “What is the point of managing a school if the district feels it can do it better? We took on managing schools in order to help the district. If they don’t want our help…”
The possibility that the president won’t fight to keep control of Meade puts me in serious jeopardy.
Our conversation was brief. John had a lunch engagement. I dropped him off at a restaurant near Temple’s campus.
This latest news packed a powerful wallop. Once again, I experienced what is becoming an all too familiar sinking feeling in my stomach. When I arrived back at the office, I didn’t have much time to think about it. There was much work to do. Dr. Rider, the community activist, had launched another attack. I needed to gather together documentation that would rebut her latest allegations.
Dr. Rider is now representing Ms. Judith Wilson. Rider sent a scathing letter filled with inaccurate statements to the Chief Academic Officer. She said I was abusing my power as the principal of Meade School. Rider claimed that I suspended the older brother of the party of five and his sister for a total of 22 school days. She also asserted that the school police officer and I had attacked Ms. Wilson’s son.
It was a lengthy letter. In it Dr. Rider restated all of her former defamatory statements regarding my character. She rehashed the allegation that I won’t allow a Home and School organization to be formed and she reiterated all of Christe Sim’s prior complaints.
A copy of this letter had been faxed to me late yesterday afternoon. Immediately after I received it, the calls from the central office started. Despite the fact that I have already sent them a massive amount of documents concerning Christe’s escapades, they wanted more information. The case file for Philip was in the legal office. I wondered if any of the administrators to whom I report have the ability to pull information together on their own. I spent the afternoon going through files and faxing information to the Chief Academic Officer’s Office.
It is March 17 and I should be shouting hurrah for St. Patrick’s Day!
But I don’t t feel like a lucky Irishman.
Installment 7 of 9
I was but a few steps into the building when the door monitor caught my attention. In a confidential voice she told me that there would soon be a fight in the cafeteria. Various members of the staff stopped me as I passed through the hallway. They too alerted me to an impending brawl. Upon my arrival in the main office, Mrs. Martin quickly briefed me on the details of this opening challenge.
The mother of the kindergarten boy who was thrown to the ground so many months ago was looking for revenge. According to her the two boys have been feuding with each other ever since October. This mother has been telling anyone who will listen that she will settle this matter today. She is going to fight the mother of the boy who is bullying her son.
I grabbed my walkie-talkie from its charger. As I left the office, I asked Ms Sample to come with me to the lunchroom. I told her, “I need a witness. Just hang in the background. I will deal with the moms.”
The aggrieved woman entered the cafeteria from the schoolyard entrance, just as we arrived. She walked over to the food service counter. It looked as though she was scouting out the room. I greeted her. She didn’t reply. We stood silently beside each other for several minutes. Another woman joined the sullen mother at my side. This new arrival looked as though she was closer to my age. I listen to their conversation. I quickly discerned that they are mother and daughter. I heard the younger of the two say, “He is the principal.” The older woman then turned her attention to me.
She introduced herself as the grandmother of the Kindergarten child. She said,” I was up here yesterday to see you. You weren’t here. I don’t understand why my grandson keeps getting hit by that boy… and his mother is calling my daughter a crack head.”
Politely, I asked the grand mom to come up to my office so that we could discuss this matter in private. She agreed and we went upstairs. Her daughter trailed behind us. Once in my office, we talked. Grand mom wanted her grandson to be safe in our school. I assured her that he would be protected.
I in turn asked her to talk to her daughter about her behavior. I explained how the younger woman had been threatening to beat the other parent up in the lunchroom. I said that I didn’t want adults fighting in our school.
This was a strange conversation. Usually the parents I meet with have a child enrolled in the school. Conferring with the parent of one of my parents is odd. Especially since I was requesting that she help me to modify her adult child’s behavior.
She agreed to speak to her daughter. Then together we developed a plan to deal with the kindergarten child’s problem. I agreed to move the boy who has been bullying her grandson to another classroom. She would come back and see me next week after she finished work. We would determine then whether this problem was finally resolved. This agreement satisfied the grandmother.
A few minutes after I met with her, I saw the mother of the other boy. She expressed her frustration concerning her son’s behavior. “I can’t get him to stop hitting people.”
This parent is seeking help in dealing with her child’s behavior. I sent for the school counselor. She recommended that the mother and child participate in a family-counseling program that is operated by an outside agency at our school. The counselor took this parent to her office in order to fill out the referral forms. In a short period of time an adult boxing match was averted and two children received the help that they needed.
Just as this crisis was resolved another arose. I was informed that intruders were in the building. They were running through the third floor hallway. Again, I made a hasty exit from the office. But before I was able to make it upstairs, the trespassers made their exit. During the remainder of the day I worked on figuring out who these invaders were and what they wanted. This investigation distracted me from the activities that I had planned for the day.
Installment 8 of 9
One of Senator Kitchen’s aides called to inform me that she is scheduled to meet with Vallas at four o’clock this afternoon. I tried to contact her. She needed an update on the most recent developments regarding the management of my school. The letter that the senator had requested from the president of Temple University had just arrived. John had written it on behalf of his employer. In it, he stated it was the desire of the University’s president that I continue on as the principal of Meade School. This would have been good news if the district weren’t planning on reassuming control of the school.
Throughout the day, I engaged several students in discreet conversations. I was purposeful in my selection, seeking out those kids who always know what is going on in the neighborhood. From them, I learned the identities of four of the intruders from the other day. My sources told me that the trespassers were members of the Gratz Street Mafia. All four were enrolled in disciplinary schools. Two of them had been sent to alternative schools upon my recommendation. They came into the school in order to jump Luis.
I realized that this was a problem that was far from being resolved. The outsiders would be back. They were on a mission. I needed help in order to prevent future attempts to attack Luis. I didn’t bother trying to reach my district regional office for assistance. They seldom ever responded to requests for assistance. Instead, I contacted the captain of the local police district. When I headed out to the yard at dismissal, I found two of the intruders had already gained entrance to the school. A fourth grade girl had opened a door for them. I chased them back outside. They retreated to the far end of the yard. From that location, they shouted obscenities in my direction.
When the police arrived, these boys took off running. I was grateful that I had contacted the captain. He sent five police officers to assist me.
The front page of the Sunday edition of the Inquirer had two articles that caught my attention. The lead article’s headline read “Shootings Ravage City Neighborhoods.” It was the first installment of a series titled “The Meanest Streets.”
The second article was carried at the bottom of the front page. Its headline read, “Schools Under Assault from Parents.” It reported that as of February 28th, there have been fifty-seven attacks on school employees (several of them principals) by parents or other adults. Nearly two hundred threats have been recorded so far this school year.
The hottest news stories of the last few months have been focused on the violent tales of our city. Murder and mayhem are indiscriminately stalking our streets, according to the journalists who are telling this story. As stated in one report from the Inquirer, “More than four people a day are shot in our city. Most of these shootings take place in a few notorious areas. But no one seems to be able to do much about it.” This article included graphs and maps that visually illustrated the last three years worth of information concerning shooting incidents in the city. One pie chart identified seventy-eight percent of the victims as being black males. Another graph showed that fifty percent of the victims were under the age of twenty-five and mostly black.
Accompanying the article was a large map of the city, pinpointing the three main “hot zones” of violence. The number of shootings in these areas ranged from 601 to 727 shootings per square mile over a three-year period. Many of these incidents have resulted in the death of the victim. The entire Meade School attendance boundary is situated inside of one of these killing fields. Using the information from this news article, I counted that sixty-two of those shootings had taken place within close proximity to my school during this period.
A brief reference was made in the report to the cycle of despair and violence that dominates the social activities of our community. Poverty, drug dealing, dysfunctional families and the glamorization of narcotics and gunplay were all listed as possible causes for this epidemic of deadly violence. It occurred to me as I read this article that it is describing a likely future for some of my boys. Sadly, it seems that too many young men in my community are seeking status and respect by those most deadly of fashions. For them, the street culture of gunman thug is the path they have chosen to follow to manhood. And it is a short-lived manhood at that. I wonder how long it will be before some of my troubled boys have a gun in their hands.
The article also referenced a program that offered intensive supervision, counseling, remedial education and job placement assistance for at-risk youth. This program had been implemented in a few city neighborhoods. There were early indications that youth shootings and homicides had dropped in these areas. Unfortunately, a lack of funds had curtailed a plan to expand these services into the Meade community. The youth who won’t benefit from these enhanced social services are truly those children who are being left behind. Among those abandoned, were the boys running through our third floor hallway the other day.
Mr.Vallas is quoted in the article. He said. “The district is taking steps that could help avert parental violence and disruption. This month, we received a $746,000 grant from William Penn Foundation in order to set up parent leadership academies.” I don’t have much confidence in the ability of the Vallas administration to recruit parents who are positive forces in their school communities.
I have been a witness to the pandering of his staff. They give to much credit to the unreasonable accusations of people like Christie Sims and Judith Wilson. I think that it is likely that the people who create much of the havoc in our school communities will be empowered to cause even more confusion as participants in the Vallas-designed parent leadership academies. I could easily envision these academies filled with Sims and Wilson types.
Installment 9 of 9
As I drove up to the school, I saw Philip standing on the corner. He was wearing the same outfit he had worn on the day of the assault. I felt uneasy. The sight of him brought back a flood of uncomfortable emotions. In that moment, I felt threatened and unprotected. This boy had physically hurt me and his mother had threatened to assault me. I wasn’t interested in suffering any more injuries today.
On this same day, Phillip’s mother, Judith Wilson, was a busy woman. At eleven a.m., she made an appearance at the school. She presented two letters to the counselor. One letter requested that Philip be tested in order to determine his eligibility to receive special education services. The second letter made the same request for her daughter in fifth grade.
At one p.m., Ms. Wilson arrived at the district’s legal office for Philip’s disciplinary hearing. A lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office accompanied her. Mr. Ong and Mr. G., our school police officer, were with me. The public defender was aggressive. The conference had barely begun when she expressed her intention to cross-examine us. The hearing officer promptly pointed out that she wasn’t in a courtroom. The three of us related our accounts of the assault without interruption.
When we were finished, Philip and his mother gave their statements. Philip simply said that he didn’t like to be touched. Ms. Wilson said that on the first day that she met me, she requested that Philip be tested. She also claimed that she gave me a copy of a restraining order against the boy’s father. Both of these statements were untrue. The public defender stated that the restraining order described alleged physical abuse inflicted on Philip by his father. She argued that the boy did not like to be touched as a result of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. It was her contention that the school police officer caused the boy to react in an emotionally disturbed fashion by touching him. If the boy had been receiving special education services, she asserted, this incident would never have occurred.
The public defender concluded that the school police officer and I should have known the boy was emotionally disturbed. It was her position that Philip shouldn’t be punished since his actions were a manifestation of his disability. The hearing officer told us she would review our statements and notify us of her decision at a later time. We had been crammed into a windowless conference room. It was a stuffy and uncomfortable place. The air was thick with tension. It was relief when we were finally finished.
At four p.m., Ms. Wilson and Dr. Rider met with Greg Thornton, the Chief Academic Officer of the school district. At this meeting, they pressed their complaints against me. Ms. Wilson’s main complaint was that I was responsible for her children’s excessive absences. She stated to Thornton that I was not permitting her children to enter the school. Earlier at the disciplinary conference, I had made it clear that the numerous absences of this boy and his siblings were a result of their mother’s decision to keep her children out of school. I presented the letter I sent to the mother after she had taken her children out of school. In that correspondence, I clearly stated that her children were not suspended. Ms. Wilson denied ever receiving this letter. I suspect that her public defender had told her to get her children back into school.
I later learned about Ms. Wilson’s meeting with Thornton from a member of the regional office staff who was present at the meeting. I didn’t hear from Mr. Thornton concerning the outcome of this conference. Most likely my feelings or thoughts on this matter weren’t of interest to him.
The day after the hearing, Ms. Wilson brought Philip and his sister back to school. Her three other children were still absent. According to her, the seventh grader had been placed in an in-patient program for emotionally disturbed children. The kindergarten boy was in an orphanage. She didn’t offer an explanation regarding her other son. ?Ms. Wilson appeared at the school office very early in the morning to reinstate her children. Ms. Sample hadn’t yet arrived to work. After ten days of consecutive absences, the school computer network automatically moves the names of chronically absent children into an inactive roll. I didn’t know how to put her children back onto the active school roll. I had Mrs. Martin ask Ms. Wilson to wait for the school secretary to arrive so that she could process the reinstatement. This request upset Ms. Wilson. She asked to use the office phone. She called Dr. Rider and registered another complaint.
This Thursday marks the last day of March. On Tuesday we returned from an abbreviated spring break. Unlike the customary weeklong hiatus, schools had been closed for only three days this year. The weather had been dreadful for all of the holiday weekend, consisting of dark and gloomy days with constant rain.
This break didn’t do much in the way of picking up my spirits. Winter just didn’t seem to want to loosen its grip. A dreary and overcast sky persisted on the first day back to school. My day did brighten later with some welcomed news. The hearing officer from Philip’s case had made her decision. Philip would be transferred in a week’s time to a disciplinary school. I will feel safer when he is gone.
Just as my mood started to improve, so did the weather. These last two days have been beautiful spring days. I’ve been actively observing classrooms, meeting with parents and monitoring the lunchroom. My primary job of leading the instructional program and managing school operations has kept me busy. My secondary jobs as a counselor, crisis manager, police officer and all around “strong man” have not demanded too much of my attention. My high maintenance boys have been calm. I feel like I’m still on vacation. March is ending well. It came in like a lion and is now choosing to exit like a lamb. There are two and a half months left to go before this school year ends.