Confessions of an Urban Principal/ Shakespearian Tragedy or Comedy: Life in Meade School.
by Frank Murphy
Installment (3 of 9)
At three-fifteen, I headed off to the district headquarters. I had been invited to be a member of the Chief Academic Officer’s advisory committee. The first meeting of this group was scheduled for four o’clock this afternoon. I didn’t want to be late.
I counted fifteen principals, Greg Thornton the CAO and two members of his staff in attendance. The meeting started with everyone introducing themselves. The first half hour of this hour meeting was consumed by these introductions. At four-thirty Mr. Thornton opened the floor for questions and comments.
When I received an opportunity to speak, I made several points related to the K-8 conversion initiative. His assistants appeared to dutifully note my points in there notebooks: inadequate facilities for middle school age students, the difficulty in hiring teachers for grades seven and eight, and the tremendous increase in the workload of the principals who managed the conversion schools.
Several other principals offered comments that expanded on my three points. Others expressed their concerns about how well the core curriculum was addressing the needs of Special Education and English as Second Language students. Every principal in the room expressed a concern about the overwhelming amount of testing which was being imposed on students. Every sixth week the teachers who taught in grades 3 to 8 were required to give a benchmark test in both reading and math to their students. Three times a year, the K-3 teachers had to administer the Dibels test. All teachers K-8 conducted Directed Reading Assessments (DRA) three times a year. In the spring, two weeks of testing for the PSSA state test was scheduled. Immediately following the PSSA tests, two more weeks of Terra Nova testing followed.
Thornton acknowledged each principal’s concern with a thank you. His staff representative took notes throughout the entire meeting. He ended the question and comment segment of the agenda after fifteen minutes. He rose from his seat and went to the front of the conference room. He stood in front of a wipe off board.
“What I really want to get done at this meeting is to get your views on a new idea we have been considering for next year.”
Thornton then described Mr. Vallas’ intention to develop special schools that would serve only the most gifted children in the district. The plan was to open three new schools that would enroll only students who had scored between the ninety-sixth and ninety-ninth percentile on the Terra Nova test.
“I am hoping that we will have these three centrally administered schools operational by September. So far we have identified only enough students district-wide to create one of these gifted schools. I am disappointed that we have not identified more students who have scored at this percentile level.
We also want to open a gifted schools in each of the regions for students who score between the ninety-third and ninety-sixth percentile on the Terra Nova.”
He paused. The room was silent.
“Of course, we know that there will be people who won’t think this is a good idea. They will say we are creaming off the brightest students from the neighborhood schools. I’m not concerned with this worry. I’m just disappointed that we didn’t identify more gifted students for these schools in our initial data search.”
The School Reform Commission says that they expect that high academic standards will be set for every child in the district. NCLB requirements hold every school responsible for posting test sores that meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards. These are tough challenges to accomplish for neighborhood schools that are populated with children who demonstrate a wide range of abilities and talents. Skimming off the most talented children from these schools will only increase the likelihood of their failure.
Several principals immediately voiced their concerns regarding how this plan would have a detrimental effect on neighborhood schools. Thornton’s tone wasn’t friendly as he responded to their critique. He brushed their concerns aside.
I had to question the sincerity of our districts No Child Left Behind reform plan as I considered this gifted school concept.
Two professors from Temple’s theatre department brought a troupe of their students to Meade today. One of the professors was the author of a play that the student actors were going to perform. The objective of this play was to introduce our of seventh and eighth grade students to the works of Shakespeare. We set up chairs in the gym. The theatre people wanted to work in a space in which the audience could interact with them. The two lead actors were modeled after Jerry Springer the talk show host. Their part in the play was to interview various characters from Shakespeare’s plays.
The first guest that was brought on stage was Juliet. She confided to the audience that the night before she had secretly married Romeo. Juliet described to the hosts the multiple points of contention between her family and Romeo’s. After Juliet finished her reveal, the hosts brought out her parents. They had been waiting off stage in an imaginary soundproof booth. The ensuing confrontation between Juliet and her parents was a dead- on parody of over the top daytime TV.
During the course of the play many other guests were introduced to the middle school audience. There was Rosalind who confessed of her love for Duke Frederick. She shared her apprehension concerning how she would explain to him that she was a girl disguised as a boy.
Kate the Shrew made an appearance as Petruchio tamed her in front of the audience. Next up was Hamlet who proclaimed his hatred for his treacherous uncle. The show concluded with a sword fight. The result of which left Hamlet, and his uncle dead on the gym floor along side of Hamlet’s poisoned mother.
As I watched this play, in my head I envisioned the world in which I live. Love, hatred, jealousy, revenge, misunderstanding; all of the stuff of a Shakespearian tragedy or comedy are the stuff of daily life in Meade School. For a brief time, I enjoyed the feeling of being in the audience rather the lead actor in the real drama of a principal’s life
Before the students left for lunch, I took a few minutes to talk to them about the play-writing project, which we were about to launch in their class. The partnership elementary schools, along with three nonprofit organizations, had just won a three -year grant to promote the arts in our community.
One of the groups that will be working with us on this project is the Philadelphia Young Playwrights. A playwright from this organization is going to help our eighth graders write their own plays. There are two main goals we hope to accomplish through this project. First we want to provide our middle school students with more opportunities to participate in cultural activities such as going to plays. We also want them to create their own plays. Plays in which they will communicate their ideas to the larger society of our city. I told them that this project would give them an opportunity to show their face to the world as well as providing them an opportunity to observe the face of the world. The Shakespeare performance was the kick off event for this project.
During my explanation to the students, I made a reference to the murders that had happened outside of different high schools this year. The Strawberry Mansion murder was an act of revenge; the more recent killing in front of another school was related to a feud over a girl. Yesterday a fifteen-year-old boy had been arrested as a suspect in this second case.
I suggested to my students that they could safely explore through their playwriting, the feelings and rages they harbor. “The beauty of Shakespeare, of artistic creation”, I said, “is that you can explore the elemental themes of human existence with passion and fury and yet live to see another day.”
I am hoping that our guest artist can help our kids to channel their raw emotions into the drama of a stage production. As authors they can continue to learn how to use words to create stories about themselves, stories they can watch being performed. This creative process is one way in which they can safely explore their feelings, desires and fears.
Through the art of play writing, the students of Meade can find a means to be heard in this world. By exploring and gaining mastery of the use of words, they can define who they are. They can learn as well how to communicate in a constructive manner. I have great hope that words will soon replace fists as the means for resolving conflicts at our school.