Archive for the ‘Reflections: Then and Now’ Category


26 Oct

Reflections:Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Oct. 26, 2010

“I’m afraid my whole life is going to be like this. People will always be calling me names.”

(Jordan, 8th grader, in Confessions of an Urban Principal: October)

Asher Brown recently committed suicide.  He was thirteen years old. He shot himself in the head with his stepfather’s gun.  According to media reports, he was relentlessly bullied and tormented by other students in his school.  Earlier in the day on which he died, he had told his parents that he was gay.

As I read and followed the numerous media reports related to this recent rash of youthful suicides, I couldn’t help but note the lack of response on the part of educators.  Who more than anyone else can have a powerful impact on the daily quality of life children will enjoy?  Research has indicated that whole school interventions can be very effective in addressing the problem of bullying. This is a systemic problem that only can only be modified by addressing the entire school culture.  This task cannot be accomplished solely through the acts of gay adults and student activists.  Creating a safe and welcoming school community is primarily the responsibility of the teachers, principals and paraprofessionals who staff any school.

According to media reports, the teachers and administrators in Asher Brown’s school did nothing to help this young boy as he struggled to free himself of the torment that plagued him.  They stated that they had no knowledge nor had they received any complaints in regards to Asher being bullied.

I don’t understand how the adults in his school could not know that Asher was being bullied.  When I was a classroom teacher, it was my business to be aware of the interactions of my students with one another.  Developing an understanding of the personality of each child in my classroom was essential information to me.   I made it a point to pay attention when a particular child’s behavior was out of the ordinary.  It was actually hard not to notice when an individual’s gender expressions didn’t match with societal norms.  I noted children’s behavior not so I could judge them but so that I could help them.  It was my job to protect the children of my classroom from being bullied.

Asher is one of several young people who have recently taken their own lives after suffering continuous harassment regarding their sexual orientation or gender expression.  These tragic loses have sparked a strong response in the adult gay community.  One of the more publicized reactions is Dan Savage’s, It Gets Better Project.  The participants in this Internet-based outreach effort provide frank and touching descriptions of their own stories of being bullied and tormented in middle and high school.  They also recount the happiness and sense of belonging that they have found as adults. The consistent message communicated to young gay teens is that after high school life will get better.  The willingness of these positive adult role models to come forward and speak up in this manner strongly speaks to LGBT youth that they are not alone and they are members of a larger community.

LGBT teens have taken the message of their elders a step further by organizing their own Make It Better Project.  They want their lives to be better now; waiting until after high school feels unreasonable to them.  It is a long time to wait, considering that many more young people are realizing that they are gay and are considering coming out at earlier ages.   The Make it Better Project focuses on directing youthful energy and idealism into acts of self empowerment such as joining or organizing gay straight alliances, telling one’s own stories on YouTube and lobbying elected officials to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Nondiscrimination Act.

The urgency to act on making school life better for young people victimized by homophobic behavior is also felt by many straight students who recognize how wrong this kind of discrimination is.  This awareness is reflected in this perceptive post published in the Philadelphia School Notebook that describes one student’s disgust at gay-bashing.  The participation of many students in national events such as the annual Day of Silence are also signals of growing student discontent with school environments that are hostile and hateful towards gay students.

My responsibility to help protect LGBT students was magnified when I became a principal.  Yet with many more children to care for, I still knew when a child was having a particularly hard time, either academically or socially.  I made sure that I was aware of what was going on in the school.  Students, teachers, custodial staff, volunteers, and parents alike talked with me all of the time about issues and concerns.  I used the information I gathered from these conversations to make decisions about how to shape and influence the school’s climate.  Principals are the people who can have the greatest influence in creating a welcoming school.

Children learn best when they feel that they belong to a positive, concerned, and caring community.  Bullying, teasing, and harassment are serious obstacles that can impede our efforts to teach our children well.

Teachers and principals can make life better for every child in our schools right now.  We can do so by making sure bullies aren’t able to intimidate or isolate any person. Equally important, each of us adults must also respect and accept each child for the person that she or he is.



21 Oct

Reflections: Then and NowSubmitted by Frank Murphy, Oct. 21, 2010

The School District of Philadelphia has launched a new initiative to improve the school climate at 46 focus schools.  An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer described this project as … “a much needed attempt to change the climate in schools where troublemakers have been allowed to run amok…”

This choice of words conjures up an image of schools that are dangerous and out of control, where children do as they please.  It reinforces the misguided perceptions held by many people who have never stepped into a Philadelphia public school.  These misconceptions generally surmise that most of our students are poorly behaved and anti social individuals, and that school personnel are lax and apathetic to creating orderly and safe schools.

There are indeed serious safety issues at these schools.   The amount of incidents reported by the school administrators of 25 of these 46 schools has resulted in having the NCLB label of “persistently dangerous” being attached to their schools.  But like moment-in-time standardized test scores, these numbers hardly tell the full story of what is taking place at a particular school.

It is not exceedingly difficult for a school to qualify as being persistently dangerous.  Look at Northeast High School.  In the 2009 school year, it acquired the dubious title of persistently dangerous after reporting 20 serious incidents during that school year.  There were 3,100 students enrolled in the school.  The students involved in these incidents represent less than 1% of the student population.  Does this sound like students are being allowed to run muck as stated in the Inquirer?  If this particular school was dangerously out of control, one could hardly imagine that the School Reform Commission would have given permission for the filming of Tony Danza’s show Teach at this location.

Again I repeat that there is no doubt that serious incidents of violence do occur in our city’s schools.  What I do question is how this problem is characterized as a result of the failure of teachers and principals to properly manage and operate our schools.  Perhaps the causes of violence and disruptions in our city public school are more complex than those communicated in the media’s narrative.

I know what violence in a school looks like.  I have been a witness to the worst cases of the misbehavior of children.  As an elementary school principal, I have dealt with children who have kicked out glass windows, overturned classroom bookshelves, thrown furniture at their classmates and teacher and seriously assaulted other students and school staff.  More times than I would like to recount, I have been the person who has been responsible for dealing with the aftermath of the disturbing and scary outburst of troubled students.

The most dangerous and unpredictable of these students have been between the ages of 6 and 10.  School critics who have little if any experience working closely with children will scoff at this notion.  They don’t have any idea of what it takes to stop a swinging, kicking, biting, adrenaline-surging, enraged child from trying to seriously injure another child.  In many cases, these children suffer from serious, often untreated, mental health disorders. The effects of their behavior impact negatively on every child in their classrooms and spill over into the hallways, lunchroom and playground.  It is amazing how many confrontations that they can have with other children during the course of one day.  Unfortunately, successfully addressing the root causes of their mental health issues is very often beyond the purview of teachers and administrators.

A little more than ten years ago, district personnel worked in partnership with the Department of Human Service to create new strategies to deal with these troubled youth.  The position of Consultation and Education (C&E) specialist was created.  Contracts were given to qualified non-profit social service providers who hired and then supervised the people for these positions.  The primary objective of the C&E was to assist parents in obtaining the mental health services that their children required.  At the time, this represented a radical rethinking of how mental health services could be provided to the children and families most in need of them.  The C&E acted as a case manager who negotiated the maze of various health providers on the behalf of the children and their families.  It was a great idea.  But in practice this program encountered barriers that had not been anticipated.  The three primary roadblocks that the C&E specialist encountered were:

  • parents would not give permission for their children to participate;
  • many parents who did give permission failed to follow up on appointments;
  • and frequently a family would move out of the school before the intake process was complete.

The end result was that troubled children who did receive limited or incomplete treatment, continued to create havoc in the school.  It most cases, relief to the school community would come only when the family relocated to another neighborhood.

The mobility of these children and their families is amazingly high.  Between kindergarten and eighth grade, they might attend half dozen elementary schools.  For many of these students, treatment doesn’t finally come until after they engage in a serious incident that results in their arrest.  Often times it is the juvenile justice system and not schools that force parental cooperation in obtaining the appropriate social and mental health services for their children.

This certainly is a more complex narrative than the version the media offers to explain serious school violence.  To approach the safety problems of schools by declaring that you are going to “lay down the law and throw the trouble makers out” is just an easy way out of having to find real solutions to difficult problems.

Most of the schools that have been included in this intervention project are high schools.  The students in these schools responsible for much of the disruptions to the school climate did not suddenly become behavior problems when they entered high school.  Their disciplinary history reaches far back to their early days as an elementary student.

I hope that the resources of this new school climate initiative will be used to address in a meaningful manner the needs of these troubled youth and their struggling families.



12 Oct

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Oct. 12, 2010

When I first started teaching, I was required to fill out a continuous progress reading file for each student in my classroom.  This record looked like a file folder.  On all four sides of it were printed the skills and concepts that a student was expected to master at each grade level from grades one to eight.  As a sixth grade teacher, I was responsible for checking off the skills that my students had mastered at this grade level before passing the file on to the seventh grade teacher.

Dutifully as I moved through the instructional year, I would check for student understanding of each of the skills listed for my grade level. One concept in particular befuddled me in my beginning years as a teacher.  That was “judging the qualifications of an author”.  I wasn’t quite sure how my sixth grade students were supposed to accomplish this task.  The stories in the basal readers that we used in those days were mainly composed of redacted chapters from children’s fiction books.  Every so often a non-fiction passage would be included.  I surmised that the students were supposed to look for context clues within those various text selections that would suggest the authors’ expertise about the events and ideas contained in their stories.  I gave scant attention to helping my students master this concept.  After all, I thought there were more easily accessible skills to tackle, like word decoding.

As I grew in experience and knowledge as a reading teacher, I realized the importance of this higher-level concept to my students’ comprehension of text.   Being able to intelligently and critically examine the expertise or qualifications of a person making a claim is essential to determining the validly and reliability of his or her idea.  It is certainly a habit of the mind that teachers should help their students to develop.

Occasionally during my time as a principal, I would encounter a central office staff member who lacked the ability to identify an outrageously false claim.  When confronted with the complaints of an irate parent or over-zealous activist about a situation at school, these central office individuals were quick to assume that the complainants’ claims were the truth.  After my first experience with such a central office staff member, I learned my lesson.  From that that time forward, I made sure that I always carefully documented the events, behaviors of the adults involved and actions taken by the school in dealing with these situations.  I discovered that being able to provide this form of official correspondence carried much weight with central office officials.  When they had written documentation before them, they felt more comfortable to refute unfounded complaints.  It was though I had to help them assess the qualifications of the author of the grievance.

After resolving a central office concern about an unfounded parent complaint, I often shook my head in wonderment.  How could someone in a position of authority be so unable to recognize nonsense?

Apparently, this deficit in critical thinking is one that holds true for many of the more outspoken critics of public education today.  But what is far more distressing to me is the realization that a large number of people actually listen to the preaching of these ill-informed and opinionated individuals.

Among the notable authors of the current story being told about our public schools, are self proclaimed educational experts such as Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and a host of other business, political, and entertainment celebrities.   Uniformly these nouveau educational experts offer the same narrative to the media:  “Our public schools are failing our children and our nation due to the mediocre performance of our public schools.  The situation is even more dire in our urban school districts where our most needy students are receiving an inadequate education in the worst of our failing schools”.

As a result, these school reform “experts” claim America is losing its supremacy as a political and economic world power. According to them, a radical restructuring of our public schools is needed. The ready access these folks have to the media has unfortunately allowed them to continuously repeat this message until it has come to be regarded as the truth.  The media’s assessment of their claims has more often than not been superficial.

What qualifications do all of these individual possess that would make them experts on how to organize and run a school?    Do they have vast experience as classroom teachers?  Do they have extensive understanding and knowledge of child development and appropriate instructional practices?  Do they have expertise and experience as school leaders?

The answers to these questions are “No”.  These reformers would respond however that such qualifying experiences are irrelevant.  They would go on to say that they have other more important qualifications.  “We are smart.  We care.  We are distinguished individuals in our fields of work.  We know how to fix schools because we know how to be successful.  We can do a better job of appropriately spending your tax dollars than your failed educational personnel”.

Given the radical reforms that these nouveau reformers are attempting to force on states and local school districts, a critical analysis of their qualifications is in order.  An examination of the resumes of many of the prominent leaders of the free market school reform movement such as Eli Broad, and Bill Gates, suggests that they are more suited to running Wall Street then managing schools. And considering the sad shape of our national economy, why would we want our schools to be managed by business leaders?

Wouldn’t it be more prudent to rely on a group of smart, caring, qualified and successful educators to formulate reform strategies that will provide every child with a quality educational experience? The philanthropic-minded business managers could then assist the educators in securing the necessary funding to make our goals a reality.

In a democratic society, citizens actively participate in the decision-making that determines the governance of the country.  It is their responsibility to evaluate the qualifications of their leaders and to determine whether they are navigating them in the right direction.   If we allow a small elite group of powerful people to reshape public institutions such as our schools, we put at risk the future of our nation.  By doing so, we give up our right to decide what is best for our children.   It is a dangerous course for a democracy to take, putting too much power into the hands of a few people who claim they know what is best for everyone.

Perhaps educators need to work harder at supporting all of America’s children to develop the habits of mind that are essential for thoughtful and civil engagement in a robust democratic society.   The successful pursuit of this objective will ensure our continuous progress as a nation.  More so than rote skill development, I would wager.



07 Oct

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy,  Oct. 7, 2010

The demands of the principalship are many.  Teacher supervision, student discipline, parent interaction, community relations, facility management and instructional leadership are some of the varied responsibilities that compete for a principal’s time and attention.  Although each of these tasks is different, all of them call for the ability to create meaningful and trusting relationships with people.

When I first arrived at Meade School, trust and respect, like money, were in short supply in the community.  Making ends meet was a challenge for most of our families.  Looking out for one’s own interests took precedence over concern for the good of the whole.  I have on many an occasion heard a parent say; “I am only concerned about my own child.  I don’t care about someone else’s child.”

This mindset was prevalent during most of my early days as principal of Meade.   It was difficult to sell the members of my school community on the virtue and benefits of teamwork.

The time it took for me to win the trust of the various constituency groups that composed the Meade School community varied from group to group. The younger students were the first to accept me.  Then again, younger children are generally accepting people.  Within two years, I had formed the beginning of a strong partnership with my teaching staff.  Around the third year, most of the parents had decided that I had come to stay.  When we added on the middle grades to our k-four school, the older students were initially angry that they were not going to move on to the middle school.   This resentment passed quickly when they realized that we were creating a school environment that respected and valued them.

Building a united and connected school culture required a long-term investment of energy and time.  The high transient rate of our students often slowed the process.  It wasn’t until Year Ten that the rewards of relationship and trust building started to pay off in significant ways.  Serious incidents and discipline referrals declined dramatically.  Student achievement greatly improved.  Parents readily expressed satisfaction with the performance of the school.  They had come to trust and respect the staff.  The fact that so many of us chose to remain in the school for more than five years contributed to the parents belief that we truly cared about the well being of their children.  They were confident that their children were well taken care of at Meade.

Getting to know the folks you work with is a time intensive and long-term process.I was the principal at Meade School for twelve and half years.  Over time, I was able to develop a deep knowledge of the concerns and issues of the members of my school community.  It was possible to build the kind of relationships that contributed to the creation of a healthy and robust learning community.  Getting to that point required me to relentlessly plod through a myriad of situations, some of them unpleasant and hostile.

As the principal of Meade I invested the time needed to make real changes that positively impacted my school community.  Nowadays, new principals, especially those assigned to turn-around schools, are expected to achieve great results in two to three years.  This is such an unrealistic expectation especially in schools that historically have been neglected and disrespected.   It might be possible to artificially increase test scores in two to three years.  There are many tricks that can be utilized to accomplish this feat.  But to truly transform a beleaguered and demoralized school community into an engaged, vibrant, and empowered community of learners takes far more time.

To believe otherwise is nothing more than a willful attempt to deny the truth.



30 Sep

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Sept. 30, 2010

Paul Vallas was employed to lead the School District of Philadelphia in July of 2002. This was shortly after the state had assumed control of the district.  The takeover came at the end of a long and often bitter dispute over the adequacy and equity of the funding provided to the Philadelphia Public Schools by the state. There was much finger pointing concerning who or what was responsible for the less than stellar academic performance of the students of Philadelphia.

Initially, state officials intended to contract a for-profit educational management organization, Edison Schools, to manage the district’s central office.  As part of this plan, Edison Schools would also assume direct operation of many of the schools within the district.  There was significant public opposition to this plan.

CEO Paul Vallas’ response to the prospect of Edison assuming control of the central office was simple and straight to the point.  He said that he was hired to manage the district.  In the end, Edison didn’t obtain a contract to manage the central office.  They did however assume management of 22 of the district’s schools. Paul Vallas assumed control of the central office.  Thus started another chapter in the story of school reform in the city of Philadelphia.

The school reform strategy utilized during the tenure of Paul Vallas was Paul Vallas. From the moment he arrived in Philadelphia, Vallas effectively communicated that he would make all things right in our city’s schools.  He said he would eliminate the chronic school budget deficit.  New schools would be constructed to replace ancient and badly worn facilities. Making every school a safe school would be a priority.  And most importantly, he claimed that the academic performance of all students would improve. The public as well as the local press enthusiastically welcomed him.

During the years he was the district’s leader, Vallas implemented a number of changes to the manner in which the district was managed.  Core curriculum materials were purchased for all of the district’s schools.  A curriculum-pacing framework was created to guide the use of these new materials.  Many middle schools were converted into high schools as part of a drive to create many small high schools in place of large comprehensive ones.  As part of this school reconfiguration plan, most k-5 or k-6 schools were transformed into k-8 schools. These would have been notable accomplishments, if he were able to find a way to pay for them.

The district under his leadership borrowed a large sum of money for the purpose of building new school facilities.  An attempt was made to save money by contracting out many services that were formerly handled by the district to independent venders.   This included food services, alternative education services, various custodial services and facilities management.  In fact, district expenditures increased as a result of these contracts.  Paul Vallas who was acclaimed as a budget expert drove the district into deep debt by pursuing unfunded reform strategies.

Public discussion or debate played little if any part in the decision-making process that drove school reform policies during the Vallas era.   Paul, along with the School Reform Commissioners, decided what the course of the district would be.  He was quite successful at pushing his agenda.   He enjoyed the support of the local media. They portrayed him as though he were a super hero.

Yes, Paul Vallas was a reform strategy.

Faster than a speeding bullet.

More powerful than an entrenched union.  Able to leap tall tasks in a single bound.

Look!  Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane.  It’s Paul Vallas!

For a short time there were people who believed that Superman did exist and he was residing in Philadelphia.  They were wrong.

It has been a little more than three years since Mr. Vallas resigned as the CEO of Philadelphia.   Apparently all wasn’t well between Paul and the members of the SRC.  There were tensions below the surface.   Then the press revealed that there was a massive budget deficit.  Within a few months of this revelation, Vallas flew away.

Philadelphia’s failed champion of school reform is currently attempting to rescue New Orleans’ Recovery School District.  In our city, his formerly touted accomplishments, like sand castles, have been washed away by the rising tide of a new district administration.  A  new super hero, San Francisco’s vanquished school reform leader Arlene Ackerman has replaced him.   She isn’t exactly Superman.  Ackerman is more like an incredibly angry green Hulk.    She is tearing up the district with her reform ideas.

Both of these leaders are  attempting to successfully implement in their new locations, much of the same agenda that they pursued in their prior school districts.  It seems that the elected officials who are responsible for employing them and the press that act as their cheerleaders don’t seem to understand that Superman and the Hulk are comic book characters and not school reform strategies.  We need to help them stop pursuing school reform fantasies and instead seek enduring solutions for the problems that plague our schools.

Making our schools more effective and responsive to the needs of students is a task that we all must accept as members of a democratic society.  Rising to this challenge calls for citizen engagement in the discussion and debate over what type of school reform we should pursue in our nation. We the people must make it clear to our school and elected officials that it is unacceptable for them to make important policy decisions without first engaging the public.

When we abdicate our individual responsibility to participate in important policy discussions and decisions, we weaken our democracy. Our strength as a society derives from our belief in the concept, that the people do govern our society.

There will be no superhero who will save us should we fail to do so ourselves.



28 Sep

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Sept. 28, 2010

A recent trend in school reform has been to restructure public schools deemed to be low performing on state assessments. Schools have been either “reconstituted” with mostly new staff and leadership or turned over to outside providers, such as charter schools. Smedley Elementary School is one of seven public schools in Philadelphia that have been turned over to outside organizations. Mastery Charter Schools is the service provider for Smedley. The chief executive officer of Mastery, Scott Gordon, has assured the Smedley parents that in three years their children will be reading on grade level.

There is a new administrative team at Smedley this year, consisting of a principal and three assistant principals. A central management team that is committed to helping to facilitate the success of every Mastery Charter School supports them. The entire teaching staff of approximately 42 teachers is new to the school. The initial commitment of resources to this reconstituted school is impressive. Mastery Charter has budgeted $500,000 to spruce up the building. This is on top of the repairs and improvements already being made by the school district. An additional $500,000 of Mastery funding will be used to purchase books, supplies and other materials.

When I became the principal of Meade School in February of 1997 it was a school that was quite like the Smedley School. Meade housed grades k through 4. Smedley is a k-5 school. The percentage of students reading on grade level at Meade then was as minimal as the number at Smedley today. The school climate was chaotic. Assaults on students and staff were commonplace. The school facility was in ill repair. Classrooms and the hallways were dingy and poorly lighted. These have all been sited as problems at Smedley

However, the resources available to me as I started my tenure at Meade were nowhere near the level of those that the Smedley administrative team has at their disposal. I was the only administrator. I could have budgeted for an assistant principal but the cost of this position would have required me to drop two teaching positions. I handled the administration of the school in partnership with my teachers. My responsibilities were enormous. In addition to being the instructional leader, I was also the director of fund raising, political lobbyist, police chief, conflict mediator, grant writer, therapist, part-time nurse and jack-of-all-trades.

Teams of volunteers organized by Philadelphia Cares helped to paint the building inside and out. It took several years to complete the job. Persistent nagging and badgering on my part resulted in major capital improvements such as an electrical service upgrade, new playground equipment, and the construction of a new library and science lab. By relentlessly pursuing partnerships with outside organizations, I was able to increase the amount of arts, enrichment and science programs that served our children. I also scoured the field for grant writing opportunities, a chore that opened up new revenue sources for professional development activities, summer programs, after school activities, and the purchase of many leveled storybooks that students could read in class as well as take home. Finding additional funding, forming community partnerships, developing and implementing staff development activities in addition to my daily duties as a principal, made my life quite busy.

It is heartening to see that the school reformers currently directing our public schools are recognizing that principals cannot do it all on their own. They need a team that will assist them at the school site. They also need a central administrative team that will advocate and look out for the school team. It is also terrific that much needed resources are being directed to the schools most in need. Mr. Gordon’s promise to get the children of Smedley School reading on grade level is more likely to occur given the amount of attention and funding they will receive. I am happy for these lucky children and their parents.

Now if the same amount of attention and resources were showered on every school in the district, then every child would have an opportunity to succeed in school. If this were the case, no one would have to depend on luck in order to get a rich instructional program. There would also be no need to restructure public schools.



23 Sep

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Sept. 23, 2010

Right now schools throughout the city are hosting back-to-school nights. At these events, parents and teachers are provided with the opportunity to meet one another for the first time. This occasion, in addition to report conference nights, is usually the only time that most parents will have face- to-face contact with their children’s teachers.

Educators are well aware that when parents are positively involved in their children’s schooling, they have a strong effect on their children’s’ academic performance. To increase the likelihood of engaging them in the activities of the school community, schools typically provide parents with a variety of volunteer opportunities during the school day. Teachers request parents to chaperone class trips. They invite them to special classroom events and school assemblies. School concerts and award assemblies are scheduled throughout the year to encourage parents to come to school. These are but a few of the many ways in which a school’s staff might attempt to engage with parents.

During the course of the school year some parents will go on class trips, attend special events, and maybe even help out in a classroom. But in many urban schools, these folks are usually few in number. The majority of these schools’ parents have little direct contact with the staff. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not involved or supportive of their children’s school. They either have jobs that they cannot easily get away from or they cannot afford to take time off from work.

Working parents often participate in their child’s education in ways they are not easily observable to the school staff. At the end of the day, they will ask their children what happened during the school day. They will check on their children’s homework. Involved parents will talk to their children concerning the importance of school. They will be supportive of their children’s teachers.

When I was a teacher I didn’t have much face-to-face contact with parents. Most of the communication that I did have with a child’s parents took place through notes and phone calls. When I met with a parent at a time other than on back-to-school night or report conferences, the meetings usually concerned children who were seriously misbehaving or receiving failing grades. During my eighteen years as a classroom teacher, the parents I had the most contact with were the parents of these struggling children. Many of these meetings were stressful and emotionally draining affairs.

As the principal of Meade Elementary School, most of my interactions with parents were focused on dealing with problems. Usually the people I met with during the year were either pursuing a complaint or responding to my request to see them in regards to their children’s inappropriate behavior. Many of these meetings were less than pleasant.

Since Meade has consistently had a high rate of transient students, during the course of the school year, I would additionally meet with the caregivers of the students who were newly admitted to the school. Every year at least 70 new children would transfer into Meade School from other schools. Many of these new children were in the midst of a major life setback such as homelessness, placement in foster care or the separation of their parents. Parent conferences with these families were seldom short. Usually they would involve the school counselor, school community liaison, nurse and quite often the special education liaison. In the principal’s office, you often see parents at some of the worst times of their day.

Unfortunately, in these kinds of circumstances teachers and principals can easily lose sight of the positive contributions of most parents. School personnel need to be mindful that they often have limited opportunities to interact with their total parent community. We must be careful to not make unfavorable judgments of all parents based on our experiences with a fairly small subset of parents. When dealing with difficult parents, it is our responsibility and our challenge to avoid letting our resulting frustrations adversely color our view of all parents.

Parents are our partners after all. It is our job as educators to assist them in their efforts to securing a quality education for their children. We have a responsibility to be there for them as well as for their children.



16 Sep

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Sept. 16, 2010

Vaux High School opened as one of thirteen Renaissance Schools in September of this year. It is being marketed along with five other schools, under the title of “Promise Academies”. These Promise Academies are considered to be turn-around schools that are managed by the School District of Philadelphia. A turn-around school is one that has been determined to be a low-performing school. Once identified, the school’s principal is replaced and a maximum of 50% of the former staff may potentially be “rehired”. The district is spending an additional $7.2 million on these six Promise Academies. This money will cover the cost of items such as new curriculum materials and additional enrichment activities. The students who attend Promise Academies will have an extended school day and school year.

Schools were selected to be Promise Academies based on their PSSA test results, climate data, and in the case of the high schools, graduation rates. It isn’t surprising that Vaux was included in this targeted group of schools. When examining its test scores, suspension rates and graduation rate, it is clear that it is a low-performing school.

Vaux is a small high school. Many of the students who are enrolled in this school were not selected to attend any of the citywide or magnet high schools. Vaux is their only high school option. These are the youngsters who either scored in the Below Basic range on the PSSA math or reading tests, received average or less than average report card grades, had poor attendance records, a number of disciplinary infractions or all of the above. These students are the most likely to become disengaged and disinterested with school and therefore, are at risk of becoming involved in serious misbehavior or dropping out of school. Given the homogeneous population of low achievers that it serves, it isn’t surprising that Vaux High School is among the lowest performing schools in the city.

Providing extra money, resources, and instructional time to the students of this school makes sense. These are the children who are most in need of experienced and capable teachers. If they are provided access to a talented and seasoned corps of teachers, they will make steady and incremental academic progress. They will also benefit from being members of a school community in which the teachers are experienced and knowledgeable about how to set and uphold clear and reasonable standards for appropriate behavior.

Access to teachers of this type is not what they will receive in a Promise Academy.
According to published accounts in the local media, 25% of the teachers who will staff these schools will be new teachers. At Vaux, the number of new teachers will be slightly higher than 50%. Only 28% of the teachers at the Promise Academies will have taught at the school in the prior year. Less than half of all current Promise Academy teachers taught in the district last year.

Interestingly, during the protracted contract negotiations between the School Reform Commission and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in 2004, the main point of contention was the SRC’s determination to achieve the right for principals to choose their staff at every school in the city. It was communicated that site selection was an important tool that principals needed in order to put together a staff of experienced and effective teachers. The SRC won a partial victory as a result of that contract negotiation. It was agreed that a site selection process would be utilized to fill a minimum of 50% of the vacant positions at all schools.

In the current PFT/SRC contract, the number of positions filled by school site selection was expanded even further. In the creation of Renaissances Schools, both parties agreed that the site selection process would be utilized to fill all of the staff vacancies at these schools.

It is the belief of the district leadership that the negotiated contract language allowing for the creation of Renaissance Schools is a school reform victory. The resulting Promise Academies such as Vaux, will give the district the authority to place its most highly effective teachers in the lowest performing schools.

The implementation of Promise Academies is barely under way and it is already clear that few highly experienced teachers are being employed at these schools. For years, the school district’s leadership has argued that it was a high priority to redeploy its best teachers to the schools that most needed them. Now when they finally have the ability to do so, they chose to primarily employ new or relatively inexperienced teachers.

How ironic is this?



14 Sep

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Sept. 14, 2010

For three years between 2002 and 2005, M.H. Stanton School appeared to be making great strides in improving student achievement. During this time it was one of 21 schools involved in a reform strategy managed by the School District of Philadelphia. The district’s Office of Restructured Schools was in charge of this effort. Under this arrangement, Stanton along with the other restructured schools, received additional funding, personnel and new instructional materials. In addition, academic coaches worked closely with the teachers at the restructured schools to help them plan and implement effective instructional activities. Poorly resourced schools that had long struggled to build a strong instructional program were finally given the tools they needed to create a better school program.

A research study conducted by the Rand Corporation and Research for Action concluded that student test gains in the restructured schools outpaced gains in other district schools during the time it was in operation. The test scores of M.H. Stanton were spectacular.

To acknowledge its success, in September of 2004, the ceremonial bell ringing for the opening of the school year took place at Stanton. On hand for the ceremony were then mayor, John Street and School District CEO, Paul Vallas. At this event, they proclaimed their pride and satisfaction concerning the tremendous increase in the PSSA test scores achieved by the students at this North Philadelphia elementary school. They said that the test score results of this school were proof that all children, regardless of life circumstances, were capable of high levels of academic achievement.

In a relatively fast sprint from 2002 to 2004, Stanton had raced to the top. However its moment of glory was fleeting. Five years later, this school was declared to be one of the lowest performing schools in the School District of Philadelphia. In February of 2009, it was placed on the “Renaissance Alert” list. This meant that it was likely to become a candidate for one of the school turnaround strategies that have been advocated by Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan and embraced by Philadelphia’s Arlene Ackerman in her Renaissance School plan. The possibility that Stanton will become a charter school or Promise Academy in the 2011 school year is high.

I first wrote about the tremendous success of M.H. Stanton School in raising its PSSA test scores in my book, Confessions of an Urban Principal. In 2004, I wondered why no substantive explanation was offered as to how this feat was accomplished. When I later considered the improvements that Stanton had demonstrated within the context of the restructured school’s effort, I was inclined to be a little less skeptical of this example of school improvement. There was the beginning of a research base with the publication of the RAND-RFA report that indicated that there was some validly to the Office of Restructured Schools reform strategy. So I wonder why was this restructuring effort that appeared to work, so abruptly abandoned in 2005? Most likely, the cost at that time was not sustainable.

The school district’s budget has significantly increased over the last two years. An increase in the percentage of the state’s basic education allocation to our district and the availability of stimulus funds has provided Dr. Ackerman’s team with a substantial amount of money to spend on pursuing their reform ideas.

The success of the restructured schools offered proof that the students who attended schools located in our poorest communities could be academically successful. The abandonment of the restructured schools effort also demonstrated how quickly the progress of children could regress when supports were withdrawn.

So as the members of Dr. Ackerman’s team move ahead with their efforts to reinvent our school district, I have one simple suggestion for them. Build on and continue to do what has already worked. Utilize the expertise of the district employees who have demonstrated that they know how to improve schools. It isn’t necessary to completely reinvent our district.

The large sum of money that is currently available to the school district represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The district should use it wisely to make changes that will endure over time.



09 Sep

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Sept. 9, 2010

Jordan* attended summer school during the month of July before he started eighth grade. Although he had passing grades on his final seventh grade report card, he was still expected to participate in the Philadelphia School District’s summer remedial program.  On the PSSA test that spring, Jordan had scored below basic in both reading and math.   It was the central administration’s decision during the 2004-2005 school year to require mandatory attendance in the summer school program of all students scoring in the below basic range on either the reading or math PSSA tests. Performance in the summer school would determine grade placement in the subsequent school year.

The teacher who instructed Jordan during the twenty day program was not assigned to Meade during the regular school year.  The principal of the summer program was also someone who did not work at Meade during the school year.  The instructional materials used in summer school were purchased specifically for this remedial program.  They had no connection to the instructional materials used during the school year and were primarily decontextualized skill drills.

At the end of the program, Jordan’s summer school teacher recommended that he be retained in seventh grade.  The teacher felt that Jordan was not ready to go on to eighth grade.  It is hard to fathom how this teacher could make such a determination in the short time she knew and worked with Jordan.

It surely didn’t make sense to me. I had known Jordan since he was in first grade.  I had a good understanding of his strengths and weaknesses as a student.   I also knew his family background, what interested him, and who his friends were.  I knew that Jordan would have been devastated if he were retained in the seventh grade.  This would have been an action that would have shut him down.  It would have robbed him of hope and set him on the path to becoming a high school drop out.

What right did this teacher have to make such a potentially life-altering decision, when she knew so little of who Jordan was as a person?

As principal, I decided that this could not happen.  In September when I returned to school, I promoted Jordan to eighth grade.

Of course critics would claim that I was not being accountable.  In their viewpoint, I was just passing Jordan along even though he didn’t make the grade.  They would say that I was denigrating the integrity of the system and lowering the standards and rigor of our educational institutions.

During his eighth grade year Jordan finally started to develop his confidence and in hand, his competence.  Our staff continued to work with him as intensely as they had during prior years.  At the end of eighth grade, he scored at the basic level in reading and math.   I made arrangements for him to be accepted into a Philadelphia high school offering a number of extra curricular activities that I knew would be engaging to Jordan.  This high school also had a college readiness program that could provide him with much individual support.

Jordan grew and flourished in high school.  He proved himself to be a successful student and was in his senior year, awarded a full scholarship to a prestigious state university.

In May of this year, Jordan successfully completed his first year of college. He has done well.  It is hard to imagine this same outcome if I would have abided by the recommendation of his summer school teacher.  But then this teacher would never have entered Jordan’s life that summer if it weren’t for the decision of the school district leaders to make the state test such a high stakes endeavor.

What are we doing to children when we make such important decisions about their future based solely on the results of a single test?

What do you think?

(* Jordan was introduced to readers of Confession of an Urban Principal on September 8, 2010.)