Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (1 of 9)
Last Friday I spent most of the day in classrooms. The school was happily abuzz with Halloween activities. I had fun. Long after the children had dismissed and shortly before the close of the after school program, I sat with Mr. Nottingham in my office. We talked and listened to music. I told him about the recent accusations of Ms. Sims. We agreed that she was a pain. Ms. Sims always seemed to be playing dirty tricks. Her latest bit of mischief had come early for this holiday: Mischief night wasn’t until tomorrow, a Saturday.
We spent the rest of our conversation telling each other stories about our childhood trick or treating experiences. Mr. Nottingham told me about his boyhood adventures, trick or treating in the high-rise public housing projects where he grew up during the 1960’s. He and his friends would start on the eleventh floor and apartment-by-apartment work their way down to the main lobby. There were four buildings in the complex. By the time they were done, they had a supermarket bag full of candy. From his tone I could tell that these were warm memories.
His high-rise childhood was a happy one. He spoke softly and with a smile as he recounted these childhood tales, “We could do everything in our buildings. When it rained, we had a big dry lobby where we could play. There were elevators to ride, stairways to run up and down. You had to watch how you acted because there was always a grown up who knew you. They would correct you when you did wrong. I never really could get into the idea of going house to house on Halloween. I couldn’t see all of that walking around.”
I couldn’t imagine trick or treating in any way other than by going house to house. Back in the sixties, when I too, was carrying the supermarket bag and wearing the costume of my own design, my trail of trick or treating was up and down the long blocks of my row house neighborhood. In only three blocks of my horizontal world, my bag would become an overflowing candy cornucopia. I loved my childhood world as much as Nottingham loved his. There were alleys to run through and the local schoolyard with plenty of nooks and crannies where you could take shelter from the rain. You had to be careful to hide your mischief from the prying eyes of the adults. If they saw you doing wrong, they would tell your mother.
We are much alike, Nottingham and I. All of us are more alike than different. His childhood was vertical, mine horizontal. We are an x and y. Together we form an axis on the plane of existence where life is plotted.
I can clearly see the lines that connect us. I wish I could see more clearly how to coordinate in the same way with everyone in our school community.
Today was almost as good of a day as Friday until I received a call from a staffer in Mr. Vallas’ office. It was 2:50 PM when she informed me that Mr. Vallas’ chief of staff had a meeting scheduled at 4:00 PM with Dr. Rider. The community activist had requested a meeting with him to discuss a serious allegation concerning the Meade school staff. The staffer wasn’t very specific about the complaints other than the fact that Dr. Rider wanted to address Ms. Sims allegations that I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
By 3:00 PM I had faxed to Mr. Vallas’ assistant forty pages of letters and reports that described Ms. Sims continuous patterns of false accusations, disruptive behavior and inappropriate actions on school grounds.
I was concerned that Mr. Vallas’ Chief of Staff would not have enough time to review the information before she met with Dr. Rider. It was a lot of information to absorb in such a short time. My reputation could be injured. I have a bad feeling about this matter.
After the school had settled down this morning, I checked in with the assistant from Vallas’ office. She had promised to get back to me last night in order to update me on the result of the meeting between Rider and the Chief of Staff. I waited in my office till well past 6. She didn’t call. When I got her on the phone today, she didn’t know whom I was. It took a little prodding on my part for her to remember. Once our reintroduction was complete, she said, “What really went well for you was that Ms. Sims showed up early for the meeting. She brought her entire family to the meeting. We were able to get a real sense of them. They were in our office for a half hour, screaming at each other. They were something else. I was impressed with how well you have documented everything related to Ms. Sims’ complaints. I will try to get you on the Chief of Staff’s schedule so that she can talk to you by phone later today.”
Her brief account of yesterday’s conference was off-putting to me. I was annoyed when she said it was in my favor that they were able to view the Sims’s family. It made me think that in their eyes I was guilty until proven innocent. My confidence in their ability to protect me was not bolstered by this conversation. I thought the meeting was just with Dr. Rider, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that Christie Sims was there. Why hadn’t the staffer mentioned that she would be participating in the meeting yesterday?
When I got off the phone, I started to contact my friends in the community. When you are the principal of an elementary school you spend much of your waking day living in your school community. You meet many people. I have been at this school for a long time. I have worked with many of our local ministers, business people, elected officials, and heads of local non-profits organizations. Together we have established a Safe corridor, after school programs, as well as tutoring and mentoring services. We respect one another’s commitment to helping other people.
The first person I called was Shirley Kitchen. She is a State Senator who has taken an enduring interest in the affairs of the schools in her Senatorial district. Meade is located in this district. About ten years ago, she formed an educational advisory committee to assist her in understanding the needs of these schools. The committee, of which I am a member, helped her to set educational advocacy objectives.
After I talked to Senator Kitchen she wanted to set up her own meeting with Mr. Vallas. She wasn’t happy with either the accusations being made or the person who was making them. On other occasions Ms. Sims had attempted to complain to the senator about the Meade school staff and me. The Senator knew me too well to seriously consider Ms. Sims’ accusations. I had conversations with several other people after the Senator. They too said they would contact Mr. Vallas on my behalf.
Installment (2 of 9)
The spin of Meade takes me from day to night and back. My school world spins so fast at times it makes me sick; the last few weeks the pace has been particularly frantic. My workday has been filled with the endless details of the daily operations of the school. Responding to the Christie Sims attacks, on top of the daily task of leading a challenged school, is difficult. At the end of the day, I am exhausted. I just want to go home and sleep. When finally I do get myself tucked into bed, I sleep only for an hour or two. Then the thoughts of what I have to do the next day prod me back to consciousness. Restless tossing and turning is becoming my nightly norm. When the morning comes I start off exhausted. By the end of the week I am wiped out physically and mentally.
John DiPaolo, stopped in to see me this morning. He wanted to review our results from the previous year’s Terra Nova tests. He is preparing for a meeting with Greg Thorton the new Chief Academic Officer (CAO) for the school district. At this meeting, the CAO wants to review the progress partnership students are making towards reaching the academic goals set by the school district. John is concerned that the number of students scoring above the fiftieth percentile in our third and fifth grades is lower than the other grades in the school. This concern is justified. The test scores of these two groups are much lower than the other grades. I attribute the poor showing of these students to the difficulty of the back-to-back testing cycle they were subjected to last year. They had to take two different tests. First they took the state test, which took two weeks to complete. Then they completed the “Terra Nova”, a nationally normed, standardized test that lasted for another two weeks. For one whole month these students answered test questions.
The scores of the students in grades three, five and eight who took the state test improved significantly, but decreased greatly on the Terra Nova. However, the students who didn’t take the state test in grades —four, six and seven—all significantly improved their Terra Nova test scores when compared to their results in the prior year.
To me, the most promising result of our test scores was the significant decrease in the percentage of students scoring in the lowest percentile across all grades. This is a strong signal that our instructional program is having a significant impact on all of the students in the school. This is not a result that would occur as a result of test prep instruction. However only moving students into the proficient category counts for making Adequate Yearly Progress. In Pennsylvania to score at the proficient level on the PSSA is equivalent to scoring at the sixty-fifth percentile or higher on the Terra Nova test, which is well above the national norm. Very few of our students are scoring at this performance level in spite of our progress. Our test results make us appear to be a failing school despite our success at providing our children with a quality educational program.
As we were reviewing this data, the editor and staff writer from the Temple Review Magazine were visiting classrooms in the school. Their mission was to observe the academic performance of students in our school.
When John and I finished reviewing test score data, I joined the two journalists. For an hour and a half we toured the school. The three of us talked about the work the Meade staff has accomplished over the last seven years. There was much for me to describe and explain to them, including our successful efforts to reduce class size and to improve professional development at the school site. We have created teacher study groups and partnered with the Philadelphia Writing Project to offer graduate credit courses for our teachers. Our retention of teachers for five or more years was near seventy percent. A number of successful parent outreach activities have finally resulted in the organization of a Home and School Association. School safety has greatly improved. Seven years ago we had thirty serious assaults on teachers and/or students. For the last three years we have had none. We have applied for and been successful in winning several grants. Remembering and explaining so much in so little time left me breathless. They had many questions, the answers leading to many more questions. They were impressed by the scope and extent of the work that our Meade team has accomplished.
Our school has made so much progress over the years. I often lose sight of our achievements. I need to be reminded. The result of a single high stakes test is how the federal and state government determine our success. Yet there isn’t one measure that can describe a school’s strengths or weaknesses. This accountability system taps into people’s feelings about schools more than it describes them. Anyone in this country who has attended school knows that if you don’t pass the test, you are a failure. We have a long history as participants in an educational system where you don’t question the test. There are a lot of questions to ask about the fairness of using one test score in order to judge the effectiveness of a school. Frequently policy makers suggest that those who question this accountability procedure are just making excuses. It doesn’t make sense that professional educators are discouraged from questioning the validity or use of a high stakes accountability system in order to grade schools. Someone needs to ask these questions.
Installment (3 of 9)
In my first year at Meade, I set up a summer professional development school and started a teacher study group. These efforts were lead by facilitators from the Philadelphia Writing Project. Twenty-six staff members participated in that summer school program. The teachers worked in groups of four with two or three aides. Each staff group was responsible for a group of ten students. The children received three hours of reading, writing and math instruction a day for four weeks.
Each day after the kids left, the staff would meet for two hours of professional development activities. Together, they planned lessons for the next day. They debriefed each other on the strengths and weakness of the lessons they had conducted in the morning. The writing project facilitators directed these activities. The facilitators provided the teachers with relevant information regarding effective instruction. Reading assignments from professional texts were assigned and the participants were required to maintain a journal. It was a powerful four weeks. It created a strong community foundation on which we have been building our instructional program ever since.
Many of the participants of the summer professional development school wanted to continue to work together in the fall so they formed an after school study group. They continued to examine and implement the best practices in literacy and math instruction. Seven years later, fourteen of these pioneer teachers are still active in identifying and promoting good instructional practices throughout the school community. They have become the backbone of all of the professional activities in the school. They are a strong team of instructional leaders. I count myself fortunate to be a member of this team.
The motivation and desire to be excellent teachers demonstrated by my staff has had a profound impact on my leadership style. Over the years, I have moved from the role of the administrator ensuring compliance through evaluation to the role of a coach, an encourager, and a believer. Helping teachers get on their feet with instructional and management issues requires patience and hard work. It is worth the effort in the long run.
As our teachers become more proficient instructors, the students become better readers, writers and problem solvers.
After work today, I headed to the airport. I am attending the Fall Forum of Coalition of Essential Schools in San Francisco. This is one of my favorite gatherings of educators. It is nice to get away for a few days.
I have found the Coalition Forums to be interesting meetings where I can meet many like-minded teachers. I have never stopped thinking of myself as a teacher.
This year’s conference theme is Educating Children to Participate in a Democratic Society. I am eager to engage in discussion on this topic. The forum provides a lot of interactive sessions. I am curious to hear what my kindred spirits think of the current national educational policies. This year has been overcast; I can use some professional sunshine. This conference, I hope will be the “pick me up” I need.
Three days removed from Meade, three thousand miles away, in the company of respected peers, I am regaining sight of my mission. Most people would not consider Meade School to be a crown jewel of public education. It is a place deep in the shadows of America’s success. The faces of my children are hidden. They are of the underclass, which our society prefers to ignore. My children did not choose to be in this group. It is their inheritance. I believe that their future can take them to a better place. They are intelligent beings; it is geography not ability that determines my children’s opportunities. Live in poor places, have poor options, live in rich places have rich options. The failure of our society to provide for all of our children is a hidden shame camouflaged by test score results.
When I came to this conference, I was feeling down. I’ve been letting myself get sucked into the test score trap. We didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress last year. I asked myself, “What is wrong with our instructional program? Why aren’t we making progress? What can I do better? “ One day at this conference and I realized that I am asking myself the wrong questions. I should be questioning the fairness of the No Child Left Behind Accountability system. I should be demanding to know why it seems impossible for us to get all of the resources that we need.
Speaker after speaker at this conference pointed out what should be obvious to everyone: you don’t make important decisions about the future of children on the basis of one high stakes test. Education professionals who do so are guilty of serious malpractice. It is a refreshing tonic to hear colleagues I respect delivering this message.
I am struck by the powerful impact that words can have on me. When people whom I respect speak, I listen. This is such an obvious observation. Yet I realize many people including myself don’t always remember how much words can either serve to hurt or heal a person. When I speak to my children at school, I always remember to remind them of what good people they are. I identify for them the strengths they posses.
The words I have heard at this conference have reminded me that I am good principal. I have been reviewing in my head the strengths of the Meade instructional program. They are many. During the last five years despite limited resources our staff has increase by a third the number of children school wide who are reading at or above grade level. This is the kind of result we were seeking when we launched our school level reform efforts. Our school team has worked tirelessly to transform our school.
The test by which our accomplishments are measured does not accurately describe us. I struggle to keep this thought in mind when I see our student’s test scores published in the local newspaper once a year. It hurts to consider that our success is hidden by a report of a test result, which is indiscriminately used to compare one school against another. This is wrong. We wouldn’t determine an individual’s physical fitness on the bases of one health test. Why do we decide a child’s academic fitness on the bases of one test? Leaving this conference, I am determined to voice my concerns regarding the one test accountability aspect of NCLB to any one who will listen.
Installment (4 of 9)
Today our Instructional Leadership Team joined with the teams from the other Temple Partnership schools for a daylong retreat. The focus was on our progress to date in implementing the math curriculum in our schools, improving student management, and refining our professional development plans. We had just finished a lively discussion regarding our math consultants when I was pulled out of the meeting by another Christie Sims problem. Barbara Henderson, of the regional office, had left a message on my cell phone. Dr. Rider had called her. Christie was alleging that we were suspending her daughter in order to harass her. When I called her back, Barbara had stepped out of the office and I had to leave a message. I assumed Christie was complaining about her daughter’s latest discipline referral.
Malika had disrupted her classroom the day before. She stopped all instruction by screaming out to her teacher, “You can’t tell me what to do. I can sleep if I want to sleep. You ain’t my mother.” When told she could wait for ten minutes before lunch to use the bathroom by the teacher, she left the room. “You can’t tell me what to do. My mother said I don’t have to listen to you. I’m going to the bathroom,” she said, and left the room without permission. She didn’t return until forty minutes after the lunch period had ended. She and two of her friends had been hanging out in the bathroom the entire time. I requested that all their parents come to see me. Christie brought Malika back to school and refused to discuss how to help her daughter manage her behavior. She stated that her daughter had been helping the custodian, which was why she wasn’t in class. The custodian denied this. Christie then stated that when her daughter was menstruating she needed to go to the bathroom frequently and that her teacher was being insensitive by not allowing her to use the restroom on demand.
Thinking back on all this, and with the news of Christie’s further complaints to the regional office, I had a difficult time regaining my focus at the Partnership retreat.
For almost two full weeks, I had had very little contact with my kids or staff. I was out of school for two days attending the Fall Forum. When I returned, I was swamped with management issues on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday was the all-day retreat at Temple with The Partnership Schools Instructional Leadership Teams. First thing on Thursday, the principals joined The Partnership office staff for a walkthrough at Ferguson. I didn’t get back until late afternoon. Friday I spent at a principals’ meeting for the school district’s Central Region. It was a lot of time to be out of the building for a principal.
During the Wednesday retreat, I had to go back to the school for a brief time to make some calls regarding an important grant. Luckily, in the brief time that I was there, I was able to save one of my students from a disastrous situation.
I had just put the phone back into its cradle after many failed attempts to contact the Title One Director. From the outer office, I heard Ms Sample calling for the school police officer over the walkie-talkie. “Mr. G would you go to room 304.”
Mr. Nottingham asked, “What’s happening?”
“Arthur hit a teacher in the back of the head. She is very upset.”
Hearing that a student has hit a teacher is terrible news. Yet hearing Arthur’s name as the alleged attacker was worse news. Of all the eighth graders, Arthur was one of the least likely to get into trouble. His teacher was out sick. There wasn’t a substitute and we were covering from within using our own staff. The science teacher was covering his class in lieu of taking her prep period.
I said to Mr. Nottingham, “Bring Arthur down to see me.”
I wanted to move quickly to settle this. The teacher was not a “Quick Draw McGraw” in seeking disciplinary actions against students. I was concerned to hear that she was upset. It didn’t sound good for Arthur. I couldn’t comprehend the idea of Arthur intentionally hitting a teacher; it had to be an accident.
Installment (5 of 9)
Arthur, a sweet kid, mainly concerns himself with getting along with everyone. He has severe learning problems, and by seventh grade was reading at a first grade reading level though he desperately wanted to learn how to read. For several years, we had been trying to convince his mom, Cindy, to give her permission to test him to determine his eligibility for special education services. Cindy did not like the idea. Each time we asked, she would respond with an angry outburst. She would get quite loud and curse at everyone in sight.
If I didn’t get Arthur classified as a special education student, he would never get promoted to ninth grade. Philadelphia’s tough new promotion requirements weren’t going to let him move on as a social promotion. He was clearly learning disabled – if he were classified, the district couldn’t retain him. In May of last year, I took the matter directly to Arthur.
“Arthur, you are a good kid. You know how much I like you. So what I’m going to tell you now, I tell you because I care about you. Reading is really hard for you. It always has been. You’ve tried your hardest, but you still have problems with it. You need more help than what we can give you in your regular classroom. You need to go to Ms. Saegar’s classroom for extra help.”
Ms. Saegar is one of our special education teachers. She is a master teacher. What I was telling Arthur wasn’t anything new to him. In fact, for most of his seventh grade year, Arthur had been stopping by Ms. Sugar’s room at lunchtime on his own.
“What do I have to do to go to Ms. Saegar’s room?”
“Your mom has to sign a paper so that we can test you. After you get tested, we can put you in her class if the test shows you need to be there.”
“Where do I get the paper?”
“Come and see me in the office tomorrow and I’ll give you the paper.”
Arthur is a determined young man. He picked up the paper first thing the next day. He brought it back the day after that, signed by his mother. In one day he got done what we couldn’t do for years.
This past Wednesday, knowing all of this, it was hard to believe that Arthur would act the hoodlum in the classroom. Arthur entered my office with his head down. He has grown taller than I in his many years at Meade. I could tell he was upset. “Arthur, I’m scheduled to be at a meeting outside of school. I stopped back here for a few minutes to take care of some urgent business. Maybe it’s lucky for you that I’m here. They tell me that you hit your teacher in the back of the head. I don’t understand that. If a student hits a teacher, they can be arrested.”
Tears were in his eyes.
“It was an accident.”
“Accident? How can hitting a teacher in the back of the head be an accident? Arthur, I don’t want to hear that it was an accident. I’m leaving again in a few minutes. When I get back here at three o’clock, you will have this fixed. Do you understand?” Arthur nodded his head. Mr. Nottingham was standing behind him. I said to Mr. Nottingham, “Mr. Nottingham, take Arthur back upstairs so that he can do what he has to do.”
Mr. Nottingham returned to the office before I left. I was in a rush to get back to the Instructional Team retreat. Our conversation was brief.
“Is it taken care of?”
“All taken care of.”
“Is the teacher okay with it?”
“She is fine.”
I didn’t get back together with Mr. Nottingham until late in the afternoon. He filled me in on the details of Arthur’s apology, but there wasn’t much to tell. Arthur had been fooling around with Malik. They were plunking each other on the head. Arthur missed his shot and accidentally pinged the teacher.
“It wasn’t anything,” she said. “It was just bad timing. The Experience Corp volunteers were in the room. I don’t know what happened. It just upset me. I guess I was just having a bad day.”
I asked Mr. Nottingham about Arthur’s apology, “Was it real? Did he mumble?”
Nottingham said, “He was in the middle of the room. I was in the hallway by the door. I could hear him loud and clear. He was really hurt. He knew he had messed up. He was hurting real bad.”
The fast and satisfactory resolution of this incident is a good indication of how far the school has come over the years. This outcome was proof of how right it was to take the school to grade eight. If he had been in a middle school, he would have been one of a couple hundred eighth graders who wouldn’t be well known to the adults in the school. He most likely would have been arrested for assaulting a teacher, then transferred to a disciplinary school. It would be doubtful that the principal would know him. His inappropriate actions on this day would have been perceived as a criminal act in a large anonymous, urban middle school. It wouldn’t be likely that he would be dealt with as a big, clunky, socially awkward but sweet kid who was acting stupid.
Installment (6 of 9)
Arthur’s mother, Cindy, came into the main office Friday afternoon. She wanted to get a copy of his birth certificate. We had been looking for her during the last couple of weeks. Cindy can be very hard to locate. She had to sign Arthur’s NORAP, which was the official form used to acknowledge the parents’ consent for their child to be placed in a special education placement. Arthur’s testing had been completed for many weeks. The psychologist recommended that he receive resource room services. The counselor, Ms. Edwards, had sent several letters to Cindy requesting that she come in to sign the document. Cindy hadn’t responded. The NORAP was in my office. Ms. Edwards had given it to me so that I could get one of the School-Community Liaisons to take it around to her house. When Cindy showed up at the school counter, Mr. Nottingham came right to me to get the form.
Cindy was guarded when the counselor asked her to sign the NORAP. Ms. Edwards had a cold, and when she stepped back from Cindy so that she could blow her nose, Cindy reacted instantly.
“Yes, I’ve been drinking but I don’t smell that bad.”
Ms. Edwards did not respond to Cindy’s comment. She started to explain what the NORAP was. She remained calm. She said in low-key voice, “This will authorize us to change Arthur’s educational placement”.
Cindy exploded. “Ain’t no one taking my child away from me. No one…I’m not stupid. I have a nurse’s degree.” She went on like this for several minutes. Ms Sample and Ms. Martin worked at calming her down. Ms Sample explained to Cindy that we weren’t trying to take Arthur away from her. Cindy started to relax. She looked at Ms. Martin and said, “Should I sign this?” Ms. Martin assured her that it was okay. Cindy pointed at Ms Martin and Ms Sample. “You I trust, but I don’t trust her,” she said, pointing at the counselor. Cindy signed the NORAP. The counselor left the office. A calmer Cindy started a conversation with Ms Sample and Ms. Martin.
“Arthur is going to get a job this summer. I need to go see the counselor about it. How do I find her?”
Ms Sample told her that the counselor was the woman she was just talking to about the NORAP.
“That was the counselor? I better apologize to her.” Ms Sample and Ms. Martin agreed with her that an apology would be a good idea. Cindy left the office, looking for the counselor.
The week ended well for Arthur. He wasn’t arrested; he wasn’t being transferred to a disciplinary school. He was finally officially on Peggy Saegar’s caseload. Arthur is on his way to high school.
These were the thoughts on my mind as I headed over to regional office. I had a 3:30 appointment with the regional superintendent and John DiPaolo. They were going to review with me my performance appraisal for the 2003-2004 school year.
This conference lasted for a half hour. Both of them acknowledged that I have been a strong leader of Meade School over the last seven years. The superintendent did most of the talking. The main point on his agenda was to state that it was expected that Meade would make AYP this year. “Your school is at the Corrective Action II level. You must make AYP. Downtown will not look favorably on another year where you don’t make the expected progress towards improving your school’s test scores. If you don’t make AYP there will be changes at your school. As you know, change always starts at the top.”
I wanted to say to him, do you or the people downtown have any real understanding about the challenges a school like Meade really faces? Do you or the policy makers in Washington have any clue as to what it will take to get all of the Arthurs of the world to “proficient”? Do you have any idea as to how many Arthurs there are in a place like Meade? I was silent. I kept my thoughts to myself.
The regional superintendent wanted to talk AYP numbers. I joined him in this conversation. It was more comfortable than provoking a confrontation. It was safer.
Installment (7 of 9)
During dismissal at a local neighborhood high school on Monday, a battle erupted. A blast of gunfire on a neighborhood street crowded with high school students left a male tenth grader dead on the sidewalk. The surrounding street was littered with empty shell casings. Three other students were wounded in the shoot out. Both of the local papers headlined this story the next day.
While this shooting was taking place not far from Meade, I was walking the streets of the neighborhood. Several other staff members were with me. We were following a group of fight-hungry kids who were chasing the Island Twins. Tyson and Tysen were identical twins. They are eighth graders who had transferred into our school two weeks ago. The brothers had lived most of their lives on the Island of Trinidad with their grandparents. The boys had recently moved back to the states to live with their mother after the death of their grandfather. Their transition into our school has not been going well. They have been teased and tormented by the bullyboys. The twins responded to the taunts and insults that were directed towards them with their fists. After a few blocks we lost sight of the mob.
According to different kids and adults we met along the way, the boys who were chasing Tyson and Tysen didn’t go to our school. This was troubling news. If they were our own kids, we could control them. Strangers are a different story. We retreated. When we were getting near the school, Gregory Nichol’s mother hurried pass us with her younger son. She said to me, “What’s going on?”
I told her, “I don’t know.” Her older son, Gregory, had been fighting with one of the twins the other day. That fight had taken place on Eighteenth Street about a block away from school. I had headed towards it but it had broken up when the kids saw me. I couldn’t miss spotting Gregory as one of the fighters. He is a tall skinny kid who stands out in a crowd. I didn’t immediately recognize the other fighter, a boy who quickly moved away from the scene. I caught a brief glimpse of his profile. In the center of the mob was Ms. Nichols. She was instigating her son to fight the other boy. When she saw me, she also left the scene. She put her head down as she and Gregory moved pass me. I didn’t say anything to her, thinking that I would send for her later. We needed to talk about her involvement in her son’s fight.
When I saw Ms Nichols hustling down Oxford Street today, suddenly it all clicked. I knew that Thursday’s fight wasn’t yet over. Gregory had organized an attack on his enemies. One of the twins, I realized was the boy whose profile I had seen on Eighteen Street. I was upset with Ms Nichols. She had egged her son to fight with the twin in the first place. Her irresponsible actions had started this fight.
This was the second time today that parents from our school had involved their children in acts of violence. In the yard this morning I had the misfortune of being caught in the middle of a feud between two parents. I was talking to both of the kindergarten teachers at the back of their lines when there was a loud scream and a child began to cry. The teachers and I looked to the side of the yard where the scream had originated. There, flat on the ground, was a kindergarten boy. He wasn’t exactly on the ground. He was on top of his oversized backpack. His arms and legs were flaying up and down. The boy looked like a turtle turned upside down on his shell. A woman who I assumed was his mother roughly picked him up off of the ground. She threw him at another kindergarten boy. He thumped into this bigger boy, and then fell back to the ground. The boy cried even louder as he lay once again flat on his backpack. His mother screamed, “Get the fuck up. Fucking hit him. Hit him. If someone hits you, you hit them back.”
I moved toward the two kindergarten boys. It looked like the angry mother was going to hit the other boy herself. I stepped in front of the boy and the mother who was making the threats. I said, “Stop it, this is no way to act in front of children.”
“I’m going to tell my child to fight, I don’t care what you say.”
I ignored this comment. I wrapped my arm around the bigger boy and started to steer him towards the teachers. I said, “Who is your teacher?” He didn’t answer me. The boy looked freaked out.
Barbara McGuire, one of the kindergarten teachers, lifted the smaller boy up from the ground. She took his hand and led him to her line. His mother was still cursing and screaming. She started to leave. She didn’t stop to say anything to her son. Just then, another woman called out, “That is my son,” referring to the boy standing with me. “Why isn’t anyone doing a fucking thing to protect my boy? That ain’t right.” Her response was delayed; this was several minutes after the incident started.
“Great”, I thought, “She is going to scream and curse too.” What a way to start a Monday. To the second mother I said, “Please stop screaming. Please stop cursing. You are in a schoolyard full of children.”
“I don’t fucking care, no one is helping my child.”
“That is not true, I stepped over here in front of your child as soon as I saw trouble. Let’s go into my office where we can talk in private.”
“I don’t have time to fucking talk to you. I’m going to be late for work.”
“Please stop cursing, you are acting scary in front of the children.”
She lowered her voice. We exchanged a few more words before she left the yard. I guided the boy who was with me over to an aide who took him to his room. I headed for the office.
Immediately I wrote a letter to both parents. I described the event that had occurred in the yard. I explain how their actions were inappropriate. Then I detailed how I expected them to act in the future when they are on school grounds.
Installment (8 of 9)
TV and news radio stations were reporting accounts of the high school shooting by the time I arrived back at the school. It had taken place outside of Strawberry Mansion High School, the same high school that I had suggested to Jordon as a possible high school choice. He had thought the school was dangerous. He was right. Briefly I watched the newscast. For a second I wondered what the shooter had been like when he was in kindergarten. I went back to my office and worked on some of my long neglected paper work.
Today I sent Mrs. Martin around to Ms. Nichol’s house to tell her that I wanted to see her. Ms Nichols was up to see me within fifteen minutes. When she came in to my office, I immediately put her off balance. “I thought you like this school?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You told me before that you really liked this school. You did say that, didn’t you? Do you still like our school?”
“Yes I do like this school. It’s a good school.”
“So what are you doing to help us keep it that way? Being in the middle of Gregory’s fight last week isn’t helping us. Encouraging him to fight isn’t helping us. And what was yesterday about?”
She looked away from me.
“I don’t know what was going on yesterday, that’s why I was going down the street. I was trying to find out what was up.”
She said Gregory has been staying with his dad for the last two weeks. “His father lives over at the Raymond Rosen project. I sent him to his father’s. I can’t control him. That temper of his is too much for me. He put his fist through the wall.”
“Who were the boys he had with him yesterday? They aren’t from this school.”
“They are from around his father’s way. I know the mom of one of the boys. Do you want her telephone number?”
I didn’t want her telephone number. I could imagine the disaster that would unfold if I attempted a conversation with the mother of a boy who doesn’t go to our school. As she talked it became clearer to me what was behind yesterday’s incident. Gregory got his behind whooped by the island twins. He wanted to save his pride, so he recruited his friends from his father’s neighborhood to help him to settle the score.
To his mother I said, “This needs to be settled today, now. So far, Gregory has been lucky. If his crew had caught up to the twins yesterday, there could have been serious trouble for you and your son. If the twins were stomped, were hurt, your son would have been locked up along with the rest of his boys. A boy was killed yesterday at The Mansion. Is that what you want for your son? Do you want to be locked up along with him? I’ll put you into it, too, if this mess gets out of hand. You were there last Thursday, encouraging this fight.”
She didn’t jump back at me. I was laying a heavy trip down on her.
“His father tells him to hit them back. He is always telling the boys to fight anyone who hits them or pushes or whatever.”
“Do you and the boy’s father talk? Do you have a good enough relationship with him where you can tell Gregory’s dad to lay off the violence talk? Or do you want me to talk to him?”
“Yeah, we talk. I’ll say something to his dad, but would you talk to him?”
I told her that I would. Gregory arrived in the office just then. I had sent for him. When he came into my office, his mom started to question him. He smothered her in mumbled “I don’t knows.” Then he acted like he didn’t understand what she was saying to him. He is a young adolescent boy trying to throw his mother off of his trail. He claimed that he didn’t know why his buddies were standing on the corner across from school at dismissal. They don’t live in the neighborhood. They don’t go to the school. He didn’t ask them to come over to Eighteenth and Oxford Street. They just happened to be there. He almost lost her in his smokescreen. I didn’t have much patience for his game.
“Cut me a break, Gregory. You don’t know why they were here?” I said.
Mr. Nottingham was in the room with us. I turned to him and said, “Do you believe that he is trying to pass this off on us?”
Mr. Nottingham said, “Cut us a break.”
Our conversation with Gregory didn’t last long.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know what your boys were doing here. You got your behind beat by a boy you were busting on. You were making fun of how the twins talk. You were trying to have a laugh on them. Well the laugh ended up on you when one of the twins punched you in the face. Your feelings were hurt. You told your friends from around your dad’s way about it. You wanted them to help you to get back at the twins. When I was fourteen, if I told my friends about something like this, they would help me out. You told them about getting beat up so that you could get them over here. You might not have asked them directly to come, but you knew they would once you told them you were jumped. You wanted revenge. Now you call them off and stop making a mess in this school. If you don’t end this now, if the twins get hurt, I will have you locked up and then transferred to a disciplinary school. Do you understand me?”
I didn’t wait for him to answer. I left my office. It was a dramatic performance – just the right touch. Mr. Nottingham ended the conversation with the mother and son. It was a routine that we have performed more than once.
The shooting of the high school boy at the mansion stayed a top story for several days. The papers in their accounts were playing up the fact that the Mansion had been on the “persistently dangerous” school list last year. The reporters of this story didn’t consider the broader neighborhood problems or the deep personal problems of the offenders that could have contributed to the making of this tragedy. Blaming the school over looks the fact that to many of our students school is the safest place in their life. It’s the world around their school that presents the real danger. This is a world in which angry mothers live out their own issues through their children’s problems. This is the world where fathers give misguided advice to their sons on how to protect their masculine pride. It’s the world where mobs run after fights for the sake of entertainment. This is the world of the streets where every hurt must be avenged
Installment (9 of 9)
Today the local newspaper reported that the alleged shooter in the Strawberry Mansion High School incident surrendered to the police. The suspect’s attorney made a plea to the public to not rush to a judgment regarding his client’s guilt. The article shed a bit more light on the history of the boy who was murdered.
The victim of this crime had previously been charged with shooting a fourteen-year boy in the back during the past summer. This case was dismissed when the fourteen-year refused to testify. The article inferred that the boy who had been shot was fearful of retaliation. There had been a pending drug charge against the Strawberry Mansion murder victim. The boys involved in this tale are actors in a mad and complicated play.
The disappointing test scores on the Terra Nova and PSSA tests last year have caused doubts about the effectiveness of our instructional program in the minds of our Instructional Leadership Team. We needed answers. We decided to track our current fifth grade students’ reading levels year-by-year, starting with second grade. We were looking for trends. While we were doing this, we stumbled across an interesting discovery concerning our school’s transient rate. It is much higher than we had previously thought.
The school district’s computer network deletes student enrollment information after one year. You cannot discern from the data available on the district’s network how long a student has been in ant particular school. Robert Ong, our technology coordinator, had created a database, which tracked the reading levels of students who have been in our school for several years. I asked him to print out the second, third, and fourth grade reading levels of the current fifth grade students. This would provide us with three years of previous reading levels for examination as we sought an answer to the following question. If ours student met grade level expectations at the end of second grade and these same student continued to make expected progress in third and fourth grade, then why were the test scores so low in fifth grade?
As we matched up kids with their previous years reading levels, we discovered that sixty-seven students who had been in second grade with us were gone by fifth grade. There were one hundred seven kids in the second grade class; thirty-two of them were still at Meade in fifth grade. Half of these thirty-two students had been the struggling readers in second grade. This turnover of students represented a two year 70% transient rate. It is difficult to sustain program improvements and student growth when a major portion of your student population leaves after such a short period of time. More problematic was the fact that many of the students who have left our school were the better readers. It appears that the students who struggle the most are the ones who are more likely to remain with us. However when we closely examined the growth in reading levels and test results of the thirty-two students who have been with us since second grade, some encouraging data did emerge. Half of these students were reading at or above grade level. It felt good to know that we were indeed making progress with the students who remained with us.