Confessions of an Urban Principal / Stop That Train
by Frank Murphy
Installment 1 of 8
The deluge of rain that was soaking the city this last Saturday was no mere April shower. It was a monumental storm that brought thoughts of Noah’s ark to mind. I wondered,who would come out on such a miserable weekend morning for a school meeting? I had wanted to pull my comforter up over my head and stay in bed for the whole day. But reluctantly I had dressed and headed off to North Philly. My stomach was knotted in apprehension.
My wife Mary Anne went with me to the church where the meeting was to be held. Her presence had insured that someone other than Reverend Moore, the pastor of the church, and myself were in attendance. The reverend has been helping me to organize the resistance to the district’s plan to shift the school’s management away from Temple. Creating a strong showing of parental support for Meade and its university manager was an important element in the strategy we had developed in order to alter this decision.
When we arrived the church was empty. It didn’t look good. For a brief moment I suffered a panic attack. I thought. “Oh my God, no one is going to show.”
Then the two grandmothers arrived. These women faithfully bring their grandchildren to the schoolyard every school day. They return in the afternoon in order to escort the children home. They regularly update me on all of the neighborhood news. Hope arrived next. She is the President of the Home and School Association. During the course of fifteen minutes people came into the church. Finally there were nineteen people present. The meeting lasted for a little more than an hour. The assembled group agreed that we needed to get the attention of Temple’s president as well as Mr. Vallas. We would invite them to a family day at Meade. This event would be scheduled for the first Saturday in May. At this time our parents would express their enthusiastic support for the school and our Temple managers to both of these leaders.
Reverend Moore acted as the meeting facilitator. He was explicit in defining a mission for the group. “We are going to make sure that Meade stays in the Temple Partnership. But even more importantly, Mr. Murphy must continue as our principal. The school district is trying to take us somewhere we don’t want to go. They have a train they want us to board. And once it starts moving we won’t be able to stop it. Our job is to make sure it never leaves the station.” The parents agreed to meet again on the following Wednesday night. In the mean time they would work on recruiting more parents to the cause. It was a good start.
Mary Anne and I were the last to leave the church. When we stepped outside, I saw Ms. Wilson standing at the corner. She was leaning into the window a police car talking to the officer who was sitting in the car. The rain had diminished to a soft drizzle. Ms. Wilson was dressed in her pajamas and bathrobe. I waved and said hello. She made a face and stuck her tongue out at me. The female police officer gave a friendly wave in our direction. She looked as though she had been trapped.
Early Monday morning, John stopped by to inform me that the creation of the Corrective Action Region would be made public on April 18. Meade and Ferguson are both slated for inclusion in this new region. I realized that the timeline we had started to develop last Saturday would have to be revised. After John left, I split the remainder of the day between visiting classrooms and contacting community leaders. There isn’t much time left in which to avoid the CAR crash. A May meeting with Mr.Vallas will be too late to do us any good.
This is the week the Pennsylvania state testing is scheduled to begin. Our future will soon be determined by the result of a single test. In the struggle for the control of our school, we are about to face our greatest challenge. I am proud of my children. They are intelligent and capable. They are striving to overcome the ills that have ravished their community. I sense their determination to do well on the test. Our objective is to make Adequate Yearly Progress. At our school we pursue this goal with honor. If we reduce the number of students who are scoring below the proficient level by 10% in both reading and math we will make AYP by the safe harbor provision of NCLB. We are sure that we can do this.
The approval for Ms. Wilson’s transfer request arrived in the morning mail on Monday. When Philip departs tomorrow for a disciplinary school, his siblings will also leave for other neighborhood schools. This afternoon she came into the office in order to pick up the transfer slips for her children. I said hello. She glowered.
I am relieved that I won’t have to deal with any more trouble from Ms. Wilson, but there will be no victory celebration to mark the departure of her children. I feel badly for them. It is a hard life that they lead. I wish I could have been of more help to them. However, I can’t dwell on this thought for long. Tomorrow the students take the first section of the PSSA test. Making sure that that the school remains calm and the students stay focused during testing is my priority now.
At the end of the first day of testing I was expressing to Pat my satisfaction with how well everything had gone, but as we entered the schoolyard our conversation was cut short. A large group of students surrounded Saundra Thompson. Two high school girls had a hold of her. They were dragging her towards the Gratz street gate. A smaller group encircled the school police officer that was struggling to keep a hold on a second angry girl. This child had been fighting with Saundra. Several teachers were assisting him.
I headed towards the larger mob. Other staff members were trying to break up this group. It appeared that the high school girls knew Saundra. One of them had her in a headlock. They apparently were trying to pull her away from the other girl. Saundra was enraged. She broke away from the older girl. Two teachers tried to stop Saundra from running back to the girl she had been fighting. The two older high school girls pushed and shoved the adults out of her way. They shouted: “Get off of her. We are her aunts. Get away from her.”
One of them grabbed Saundra and put her back into a headlock. Kids were running in all directions, taunting Saundra. It was bedlam. The crowd was chanting: “Fight! Fight! Fight!” I remember that I was thinking that I would not interfere with the so-called aunt who was trying to drag Saundra out of the yard. I figured it would be safer to deal with Saundra the next day when it would be calmer. I walked beside the two older girls and Saundra. I repeatedly said to them, “get her out of the school yard.”
They had almost gotten her to the sidewalk when Saundra broke free. She tried to run back into the building after the other girl. The school police officer had taken her opponent to the office. I attempted to stop her charge. The staff was starting to lose control of the mob that was swirling around Saundra and me. Everything was moving so fast. The older girls were screaming again, “Get off of her! Get off of her!”
One of the girls started to punch me in the face. Saundra managed to jump on to my back. She repeatedly punched me in the head. The second high school girl pummeled my chest and shoulder with her fist.
I wanted to swing back at them, but I couldn’t. How would it look for a principal to engage in a fistfight with three girls? I felt detached from my body as they beat me. I staggered across the yard with the three of them on top of me. Isaiah and Donte were off to the side. They were pushing a crowd of kids back from me. They were trying to help. A father of one of our students pulled one of the girls away from me. Another man grabbed the second girl. I managed to shake Saundra off of my back.
My glasses had been knocked free of my face. They were on the ground somewhere in the midst of the stampeding feet of the mob. “Can you see my glasses?” I said to a nearby first grade teacher. She recovered them from the ground. Miraculously, they were unbroken.
One of the older girls pulled a knife out of her pocket and started towards me. Many people were trying to push the attackers away from me at this point. Seeing that the crowd was turning against her, she ran. I managed to contact the office using my walkie-talkie. “Call 9-1-1. Report that an assault has taken place in the yard.”
Saundra and the other older girl succeeded in entering the building. They were looking for the girl Saundra had been fighting. The police arrived before they could get to her. Saundra and her aunt ran out of the front door. The police gave chase but didn’t catch them.
It was after nine o’clock when I finally arrived home that evening. The police reports, the school district reports, and the visit to the hospital emergency room kept me occupied for many hours. What a chaotic conclusion this whole scene had been to the first day of testing!
I was plenty sore the next day, but I made a point of going into work. I wanted all of my children to see me in the yard during the morning pledge. I received quite a few inquiries from staff, parents, and students regarding my well-being. “Are you all right Mr. Murphy?” I was grateful for the show of concern.