Confessions of an Urban Principal/ Professional Development Schools
By Frank Murphy
Installment (4 of 9)
I awoke this morning to the sound of raindrops pelting against my bedroom windows. A winter thunderstorm had darkened the sunrise. Lightning flashes filled the sky and heavy rains were pouring down on the city. My ears filled with the sound of thunder, as I hazily contemplated the day ahead.
This was going to be a bad data day. Judging from the fearsome nature of this storm, I knew that far fewer students than normal would come to school. One or two days of high student absences in a month can seriously skew the average of our daily pupil attendance. We will be lucky If 70% our students show up today.
Average student attendance is one of the factors that are considered in determining whether a school makes Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). A school most maintain a minimum of 90% daily attendance in order to receive a passing grade in this category.
The Central Office doesn’t make it easy for us to achieve this objective. A half-day student dismissal has been scheduled for every other week of this school year. These half-day dismissals are intended to provide more time for teacher professional development. Giving teachers extra time in order to learn and plan is a good idea. Unfortunately, good ideas sometimes have unintended consequences.
At Meade when we have half-day dismissals, our student attendance drastically declines. It is difficult for our parents to leave work early in order to pick their children up at school. They deal with this problem by simply keeping them home.
Severe weather is another attendance suppressor. When the winter cold first comes, many of our children who don’t have winter coats will be absent. We address this problem by helping them to get heavy coats. A lack of rain gear will also create an attendance wash out.
The arrival of snow will also cause problems. For several days after a heavy snowstorm, city bus routes may be diverted or slow moving. In order to deal with this commuting problem our parents will leave for work much earlier. Their children will stay home with elderly watchers. These older folks won’t risk slippery sidewalks in order to walk young children to school.
The No Child Left Behind Act expects us to increase our average attendance every year. On good days, our attendance rate is 92% to 93%. Last year, when the effect of half-day dismissals and bad weather were factored into our yearly average, we barely made our target goal of 90%.
Somewhere around two, John Di Paolo came to visit me. With him was the assistant to the Dean of Temple’s School of Education. She is spearheading a special project to develop Professional Development Schools (PDS).
These Professional Development Schools would be similar in concept to a teaching hospital, where a cohort of thirty college students would perform all of their program requirements on site at one public school. These undergraduate students would work closely with a group of teachers from the public school. Temple faculty would also work at the public school. They would be responsible for teaching and directing the college students as they completed their intensive internships.
This is part of a plan to redesign the requirements of the degree program that is currently being offered by the college of Education at Temple University. The dean is looking to form partnerships with several Philadelphia Public Schools in order to make this project a reality.
In a PDS school, the teachers would work with university staff in a collaborative and collegial relationship. Together, the public school staff and the college professors would prepare and train prospective teachers. This PDS collaboration would provide a means to implement best practices, and to conduct educational research. This program model would flood the participating schools with additional adults and resources.
The special assistant had already been in contact with the principals of several other schools. None of these schools were Temple Partnership Schools. John was interested in Meade becoming one of the PDS schools. Ellen Lube and I both agreed that this type of arrangement could potentially benefit our school.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Ellen agreed to organize a follow up session. At this second meeting, interested participants from the Temple School of Education would get together with a group of Meade teachers. Collectively they would explore the possibility of working together. I was excited. This proposal, if it moves forward, will offer me a chance to be part of a real school reform effort. This thought brightened my otherwise dreary day.
Tuesday and Wednesday of this week passed in a whirlwind. One chaotic event flowed into another as I stumbled my way through these two days. I met with many parents and even more kids. The adults were high octane and high maintenance people. The children who flooded through my office were class clowns, bullies, cutters, fighters, and victims.
At the start of this week we were coming off the three-day, Martin Luther King weekend. Typically a short week after a holiday is often frantic. This one was no exception.
Today, I attended a retreat with my Leadership Team at the Partnership Office. The Instructional Leadership Teams of the other Partnership Schools were also there.
The mission of the day was to examine various samples of student achievement data in order to determine the instructional progress our schools have made thus far this year. We reviewed student reading levels as well as the results of the math benchmark test, which had recently been administered. There was also a wide assortment of other information. Included in this data were, special education, discipline, and counseling referrals.
This was the second time this week that the Meade leadership team had met. On the previous Monday we had spent the morning preparing the action plan for Greg Thornton, the chief academic officer. The centerpiece of this plan was our intention to pursue the goal of creating a Professional Development School. This afternoon we added the final touches to this action plan.
We completed the final draft by two. It was a smart piece of work. Our day together ended with general conversation. Peggy Saegar shared a story about Arthur. He had stopped by to see her during the lunch period. While he was talking to her he been patted her hair, which was an act that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from an eighth grader.
He said to her, “Mrs. Saegar you have such soft and beautiful white hair. I don’t think I’ll live long enough for my hair to get white.”
Peggy was troubled by this comment. Ellen and I both shared our own stories regarding comments that Arthur had made to us.
The three of us agreed that he had been expressing many subtle statements lately concerning his fear of dying young. This was worrisome.
I arrived back at school in time for dismissal. The student exodus was orderly making for a pleasant ending to the day. Around four, I decided to go home. I was exhausted.
The night before I had slept fitfully tossing and turning in bed. Eventually I had gotten up and read a professional journal. An article that caught my attention, related the story of three principals in Texas who had been taken out of their schools. It unnerved me. These were three hard working principals of high poverty schools. Each of them had been recognized in their district as exemplary leaders of School Site Reform. They were surprised and devastated by their abrupt reassignments. The reason given for their removal was that their schools’ test scores weren’t rising fast enough or high enough.
The author of the article made the point that other principals would soon face this same fate. The test-based accountability system of No Child Left Behind is modeled much after the Texas assessment system, a system that has been in place for the longest of any state in the nation. Reading this article didn’t help me fall asleep; instead, it wound my spring a little tighter.