Confessions of an Urban Principal / You Can’t Light a Voodoo Candle
by Frank Murphy
Installment 4 of 8
I have been instigating an uprising. Parents, community leaders and politicians are answering my call and stepping forward to help. Hearing so forcefully from the Meade community has caught Vallas and his people by surprise. Our parents are not normally outspoken. They tend to mind their own business and seldom speak up to authority. But taking them for granted has been a mistake.
Being a quiet people doesn’t mean that they will tolerate having their rights trampled. They expect to be respected and protected regardless of their socioeconomic status. As someone who proclaims that he is a civil rights leader, Mr. Vallas needs to attend to the concerns of the people he has been charged to lead.
For the last few weeks I’ve been going as fast as I can in order to organize the Meade rebellion. I am possessed with the feeling that time is running out on my efforts to save our school. I met with Deputy Electric Slide today.
I was in my car soon after the last of the children left the yard at dismissal. The meeting was scheduled to start at four o’clock. I met one of the invited principals in the main hallway of the district administration building. The two of us were the first to enter the dingy conference room to which we had been directed to report.
One by one, the other principals of the eleven targeted schools arrived. There was little conversation among us. I suppose that when you face a firing squad there isn’t much to convey to those who stand beside you. What is there to say? “Please don’t?”
Deputy Electric Slide was late. When she finally did enter the room, several assistants and the Director of Personnel trailed behind her. Deputy Slide wasted no time in getting to the point. She told us that our schools would be in the CAR Region next year and that the name of this new region had been changed to the Creative Action and Results Region. Apparently someone had enough sense to realize that “corrective action” without results sounded harshly punitive.
The conference room was stifling hot. Deputy Slide continued her speech by offering a vague description of both the objective and composition of the CAR region. “Johns Hopkins University”, she began, “has been contracted to provide a complete audit of your schools. A custom designed school improvement plan will be created for each of you. You will implement this plan. It is expected that immediate and radical changes will take place in your school. We are not going to take a year to plan and then implement an action plan. Everything will be happening now, all at once. We expect big results by the end of the first year. Your schools will make Adequate Yearly Progress. We aren’t talking Safe Harbor. We expect you to make AYP by the required percentages at the end of next year. If you cannot produce the results we are looking for than, your schools might be turned into charters or even closed. You and your staff will be expected to buy into this plan and make it work. Scratch that! There isn’t any “buy into” this process. You and your staff will do whatever is required to implement the plan designed for your school. Tomorrow the School Reform Commission (SRC) will vote to create the CAR region. After they approve the creation of this region, we will invoke the special powers that the state takeover law has provided to us. Your school day will be longer. The school year will be extended to eleven months. More importantly, we will have the ability to easily remove any staff we deem as being unsatisfactory. The difficulties that result from honoring the union contract will be eliminated. It will be a lot of hard work for you. Maybe you aren’t up to it. If you aren’t, you can leave.”
After making these initial remarks, Deputy Slide instructed the gathered principals to introduce themselves. When we were finished, she introduced one of her assistants. This woman had prepared a Power Point presentation to help explain the purpose of the Corrective Action Region. The audio portion of the presentation didn’t work. Other assistants tried to fix this problem. As they worked on the problem, the speaker started her presentation. She told us that she was renaming this new district. It would be called “PASCAR” instead of “CAR”. I missed the explanation for the newer acronym. I simply wasn’t paying close attention to her speech. Instead, I was staring at the PowerPoint that was being projected on the screen in the front of the room. More specifically I was focused on the images of the little racecars that ran around the perimeter of the slides.
The presenter continued, “We wanted a name to which parents and children could relate. We wanted a fun name. It’s like NASCAR. We chose this title in order to communicate the urgency that you should feel. You are in a race to achieve better test scores. Yes, being in the PASCAR district is like being in a race. You are all in the final lap of Corrective Action. It is a high stakes competition.”
I wanted to giggle as I listened to her comments.
The efforts of the other assistants to fix the sound portion of her PowerPoint presentation were unsuccessful. She continued on without the audio. Each new page that flashed onto the screen was bordered by the same racecar images.
“If the sound was working, you would hear racecar noises”, the presenter said.
Once again I had an almost overwhelming desire to laugh. But she was so serious and earnest that I didn’t want to appear to disrespect her.
Like the Deputy Slide, her statements were threatening in tone. She appeared to be more interested in intimidating the group rather than offering us any useful information. Particular comments from her speech stood out in my mind. “Make no mistake… Let me make it very clear… Have no doubt… There will be radical improvement.”
The racecar graphics were cutesy and childish. The language she used was demeaning and abusive. My stomach began to churn. The urge to giggle was replaced with an urge to vomit.
Deputy Side concluded the meeting. She stated, “You are in this region now. You can’t light a voodoo candle and wish your way out of it. Tomorrow the SRC will vote to approve the establishment of this region. “Are there any questions?”
There was a long silence until finally one of the assembled principals spoke. “How long will the John Hopkins audits take before we can start to implement the recommended improvements?” Deputy Slide almost snapped this principal’s head off.
“Immediate changes are going to take place. We aren’t waiting for the completion of a study. There will be radical results in you schools by the end of next year. We don’t believe that change has to take a long time.”
After this response I didn’t pay close attention to what was being asked and answered. I was mulling over the fact that the SRC would be voting on this plan the very next day. We are in worse shape than I had thought.
The final question asked was, “Can we share any of the information from this meeting with our staff?” Deputy Slide responded. “You can share it. But we caution you to be careful in how you communicate what you heard today. We don’t want parents to get upset. If they do, we will view that as a result of you poor communication skills. You don’t want negative comments in your evaluations. And as of today, we are the people who will rate you.”
I wondered if her message was directed at me. My parents are already up in arms.
I was the first person out of the room when the meeting concluded. The struggle to keep from laughing or puking was more than I could take.