Chapter One-Complete (Installments 1 to 8)

30 Sep

Chapter One—September

Confessions of an Urban Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment (1 of 8)

Outside my window the sounds of a block party fill the air. The final barbeque of summer is cooking and the air is starting to cool.  Tomorrow we will get dressed in our new school clothes and start another year.  In the world of school, Labor Day is the real New Year’s Eve. It is a day when regrets and longing are perfectly compressed together.  Summer is in its last few hours. Whether child or adult, we all relate to the feelings that the night before school stirs in us.  Shortly a new grade will be started.  It will be a new beginning for everyone in the school community.   Teachers, children, parents and principals all make resolutions to do better and to have a good school year.

For me, Labor Day has been my New Year’s Eve for the last forty-nine years.  So here I’m sitting, waiting for midnight to come.  I don’t have a pot to bang or a whistle to blow.  All I have is a funny feeling I never felt before.  My mind is clouded by a sense of dread.  I fear the year that lies ahead of me.  It’s not a good feeling.  School has always been my life, my way of living.  I loved being a teacher from the first day in my first sixth grade class.  I loved being a principal from my first day in every class.  I have always looked forward to the challenge of each new school day. Helping children to learn how to read and write, to solve problems and to think critically has always invigorated me.  Creating and maintaining a learning environment which helps all children to accomplish these objectives has always been my professional goal. While this has never been an easy task, it has become almost an impossible task in the face of the misguided accountability systems that are now entangling our public schools.  No Child left Behind (NCLB) states that all children will be academically proficient by the year 2014.  In other words they will pass the test that their state has created for them.  If they don’t make adequate yearly progress (AYP) towards this goal of 100% proficiency in 2014 their school will be punished.  The response from our school systems is to teach the children in their care how to take the test and to score well on it.  The accountability system of NCLB creates a race to the finish line.  It is a race were only the fittest will survive.  The concept of accountability is overly simplified by this legislation.

Holding true to my professional and moral beliefs has become more of a fight than a challenge is these days of No Child Left Behind.  The push by our school district leaders to increase the test scores of our students is intense.  The battle is wearing on me.  I am feeling the pressure.    The feelings of school reform are wearing me down; making me start this year with my head not in the game.  I have to get it there.

Throughout the years, school reforms imitative have been fueled by the personal feelings we all have about our schools.  Crafty leaders understand how much our feelings play into the judgments we make.  Educational legislation, policy, and practice have been greatly influenced by the manipulation of these feelings.  Going into another year I can see how much the feelings of reform are shaping me.

Earlier today, I went up to visit my school.  The second floor hallway wasn’t ready for opening day and I wanted to get it finished.  The fish mobiles had to be hung and some of the banners were down.  Well-decorated hallways have been my responsibility since my first full year as principal of Meade.  The school I found here when I took charge of it was a barren place.  The only decorations in the public spaces were in a corner of the third floor hallway.  Some first grade artwork was on display there.  It was hung so high up on the wall that it was almost touching the ceiling.   I couldn’t make out the writing below the drawings at that height.  I asked the teacher who had hung the work why she had put it so far out of reach.  She said, “So that no one would pull it down.”  The school was bleak.  Every surface needed a paint job.  The lighting was dim.  I was depressed walking the hallway.

Over the last few years with the help of many volunteers and dozens of gallons of paint, the dingy world I took charge of has been transformed.  These days, it is a cozy home for children.  Their work is on display throughout the public spaces of the school as well as in their classrooms.

Each of the three floors has a number of flagpoles down the length of the hallway, poles used to fly banners that mark the seasons of school. Rituals and customs are comforts and anchors to children, and to us all, I believe.  They are touchstones that make a place feel familiar and safe. I believe that it is my responsibility to take the lead in working to make our school a special place for our children who spend so much time living here.

I had meant to have the hallways done last Friday, but I ran out of steam.  The staff had returned the Wednesday before and it had been a busy three days.   Preparing the school for the arrival of the children takes much effort.

Installment (2 of 8)

This first day of school it seemed that I was everywhere—in every class, at every lunch, making sure that things ran smoothly.  I enjoy talking with my students.  I take every possible opportunity that I can to converse with them.  On this day I spent almost all of the recess period talking to Jordon. He was starting eighth grade.  I have known him since he was in first grade.

It was a beautiful day to be outside.  Jordon and I were leaning against the wall of the building.   Side by side we chatted.  Like two old farmers with straws of grass in our mouths, the pauses in our conversation were as long as the intermittent burst of dialogue.

Jordon said, “Are you going to get a music teacher this year?”

“No, we got a computer teacher.  We don’t have enough money for both. You really like to sing don’t you?”

He nodded his head, “Yes”.

Jordon attends an after school program at a local Baptist Church.  I have known the pastor of this church for many years.   Frequently we work together on community projects.  Reverend Moore, his wife Mrs. Moore, and their daughter run an after school program which quite a few of our Meade students attend.  They provide a variety of activities for the kids. They also feed them dinner each day.  Jordon was one of the first kids I recommended to their program.

Jordon said, “How do you know Mrs. Moore?”

“I know a lot of people. Seriously, why don’t you ask Mrs. Moore to help you find some one from the choir to help you with your singing?  You like being down there at the church don’t you?”

“Yeah”, he replied.

“Maybe you could become a member of their choir.  I’m sure that would make your grandmom proud”.


There was a long pause.  We just stood silently leaning against the wall. He spoke next. “How can I get into CAPA?”

CAPA is a magnet high school that specializes in the creative and performing arts.  I wasn’t surprised that he was interested in this school.  It is exactly the high school I would expect that he would want to attend. Although I was encouraged to hear that he was actively thinking about where he wanted to go, I also knew competition for admission to this school is intense.

“It is a really hard high school to get into, Jordon.”

“Do you think I could get in?” he asked.

It was a tough question.  Jordon had been required to attend summer school this past summer because of his low standardized test scores.  At the end of the summer program, his summer school teacher recommended that he be retained in seventh grade.  I didn’t go along with this recommendation. I have never seen a child improve academically as a result of repeating a grade. The only proven effect of retention is that it increases the likelihood of a student dropping out of school. I made sure he was placed in an eighth grade classroom for this year.  I called it a provisional promotion, which was dependent upon his participation in an extended day tutorial program.

It is hardly likely that CAPA would accept him. His poor grades and low standardized test scores would take him right out of consideration.  I did not want to hurt his feelings, but I knew I couldn’t lie to him.

I said, “Do you want me to give a pretend happy-talk adult answer or do you want a straight-up answer?” He hesitated for a minute before responding.

“Straight-up,” he said.

I turned my head in order to look at him.  “CAPA is a really hard school to get into.  You need to have good grades, A’s and B’s, and high test scores.  You had to go to summer school this summer and your teacher in summer school said you should be left back.  I don’t think you will get in CAPA.”

He didn’t look surprised or disappointed by my response.  Jordon might not be  successful at mastering school skills, but he isn’t stupid.

There was a long pause before he asked, “Where do you think I should go to high school?”

“There are quite a few schools which have art programs.  I’m not sure which ones offer classes for students who want to be singers.  I know that Strawberry Mansion has an arts academy, which is supposed to be pretty good. “

Jordon interrupted, “I hear that Strawberry Mansion is a pretty unsafe school.  I don’t think I want to go there.”

“Let me check it out for you,” I said.  “I will make it my job to look around for a high school for you.”

During the next pause in our conversation, a small group of first grade boys and girls came up to me in order to tattle-tale on each other.  In the time it took me to sort out their problems, Jordon drifted away to talk with one of his friends.  Recess ended.  I sent the first graders back to their line.

The rest of the day was a blur, yet things seemed to go on without a hitch and our first dismissal was great.   Later in my office I spoke with Ellen Lube, our literacy coordinator teacher.  She shared an exchange she had with Quenton, another eighth grader.  She had asked him how his day had gone.

“Ms. Lube, it didn’t seem like a first day.  It felt like I have been here for a while.”

“Is it because you have been here during the summer, helping us get ready?”

“No, that’s not it.  Everyone seems like they have been here for a while. Everyone is doing their work.”

I agreed with Quenton. This was exactly what I had been thinking as I visited all of the classes during the day.  So I start another year as a principal.

Installment (3 of 8)/The Bell Ringing

Yesterday was the first day of school. School District CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor John Street, School Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels and other dignitaries participated in an opening day ceremony at a nearby elementary school in North Philadelphia.  This school was chosen as the site for the official “bell ringing” ceremony because of the significant increase in the percentage of its students scoring at the advanced and proficient levels of on the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment (PSSA). In a Philadelphia Daily News article, Mayor Street was quoted as saying, “The schools, students, parents, teachers and staff are proving that with the right attitude and resources, Philadelphia’s schools will excel.”

According to the Daily News, the latest round of state standardized test scores showed that the number of students at this North Philadelphia school scoring at the advanced or proficient level increased in reading from 13.1 % to 70.7 %.  In math, the numbers rose from 18.7 % to 46.7 %.

The officials at the ceremony were quite proud of this accomplishment.  They pointed out that although the school is in a very poor community, this achievement demonstrates how the dedication of teachers and the effectiveness of school district reforms are making a difference.  Only two years ago, the test scores were so low in this school that it was one of the sixty schools targeted for dramatic reform in the district. It was designated as a “restructured school” and began to receive extra support.

I take careful note of the success of this school, whose demographics are so similar to my own.   I want to celebrate their success but I am somewhat skeptical of the validity of their achievement.  Increasing the percentage of students at the advanced or proficient level in reading by over fifty-seven points in one year is nothing short of a miracle.

Perhaps these percentages were a misprint, I thought.  I went to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website to check the numbers.  What was reported in the newspaper was the same as the information provided by the Department of Education.

The author of Daily News report didn’t reference any of the actions taken at this school in order to achieve these spectacular results.  I was interested in knowing what they had done differently than the teachers in my school.  It seems that this poor, urban, historically low-achieving school has discovered a reform strategy that we should try to replicate.

If I were the CEO of our district, I surely would want to know how such an accomplishment was made in such a short time.  I would want all of my schools to know how to create such growth in student achievement. This is the kind of success the state was looking for when it took control of our district.  What is the secret?   I wonder why isn’t it being shared with the principals of all of the schools who aren’t making this kind of dramatic test score improvement.

Installment (4 of 8)

At Meade we believe that having an effective teacher is the most important influence on a child’s academic success.  Effective teachers are critical thinkers who model this skill to their students.  Effective teachers understand how children develop and learn.  They know what is important to teach and how to teach it.  At Meade we believe that developing and retaining effective teachers is the most important strategy we most pursue in our school reform agenda.

Recruiting and hiring staff for this year has not gone according to plan. When the teaching staff returned this September, two new teachers reported to Meade. They had been assigned to Meade by the district’s personnel department. These two individuals are apprentice teachers.  They are college graduates whom the state has granted emergency certification. When they complete their graduate education masters’ program they will receive their regular teaching certificate.  In our district, apprentice teachers are often used to staff vacant positions.

I will assign both of them to our seventh grade vacancies.  This is the one grade at Meade where we haven’t been able to reduce class size this year.   Our two seventh grades are each at maximum enrollment (thirty-three students).  This is a tough assignment for even the most experienced and able teacher.

In the current teacher contract, which is about to expire there, is a provision that an individual school can choose to set aside the traditional seniority based method by which a teacher is placed at a school. If two thirds of a school staff votes to do so they, along with the principal and a parent representative, can select who is hired at the school. Schools that have this authority to make personnel decisions for their school are called Site Selection Schools. Meade was one of the forty-four schools in our system this past year that was a Site Selection school.  Making all of the schools in our district Site Selection sites is one of the most problematic issues of the current unresolved contract negotiations.  The School Reform Commission has identified site selection as a must have contract provision.  The teacher’s union, The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) is opposed to giving up their traditional transfer by seniority approach to school staffing.  The chairperson of the SRC, James Nevels, believes that a principal should be able to select his/her own staff.  According to Nevels if the principal is the one who is held responsible for the success or failure of the school, the principal should be the one to choose the staff.  The union sees site selection as an opportunity for a principal to show favoritism and to punish teachers she or he doesn’t like.  It is the position of the union leadership that the district should spend more energy and money on recruiting qualified teachers and reducing class size.  I agree with the union’s argument. What good is the power to choose my own staff when the choices are so limited?

Attracting experienced teachers and retaining good emerging teachers is nearly impossible when the suburbs are luring them away with better facilities, decent supplies, and smaller classes.  At Meade, we would love to have the option of selecting the best-qualified teacher for a position in our school. In reality, as a Site Selection School we choose individuals for positions from a pool of candidates who are not highly qualified.

The people who apply to Meade are all recent college graduates, apprentices, or alternative career seekers. We can only site select up till July 31.  The Human Resources Department fills any vacancies that occur after that date. Most of the time, teachers who resign or retire don’t do so until August.  The two positions, which these apprentices will fill, became available in late August.  Our two vacancies occurred because one of our teachers retired; another took a job in the suburbs.

Teaching is a very complex activity.  A teacher makes hundreds of decisions every day.  Planning instructional activities, managing student behavior, communicating with parents, and interacting with other teachers are but a few of the areas that new teachers must master.  Our leadership team will spend a lot of our time this year supporting these two new teachers.  They will need help in learning the curriculum and pacing their lessons.  The children will test them.  There will be a steady stream of discipline referrals.  Eventually I will end up meeting with many of the parents of the seventh graders.  I will find plenty of support from the parents.   Much time will be spent on managing the behavior of these two classes, time which could be better spent on improving the instructional program of our school.

When I was a classroom teacher, I always loved my work.  I spent almost every minute of my professional day working with children. Now there are days when I barely see one child. Always I have to remind myself to find my way back to the classroom.  Whenever I get into the classroom, this work I do makes sense to me. When I am in a good teachers classroom I see clearly the work we need to do in all of our classrooms.  Good teachers make sure that children have regular opportunities to construct meaning from all that they see and do. They help children to develop essential skills such as reading, writing and problem-solving. This is what I want all of my teachers to be able to do.  Supporting teachers in their own growth and development towards this goal is one of the most important aspects of my job as a principal.  When I observe good instruction I purge myself of the toxins, which are generated by the crazy demands of unreasonable superiors.

Today, I resolved that as soon as the lines were in the building I would start visiting classrooms.  At 8:45 a.m. I tried to get free of the main office. I wasn’t very successful at achieving this goal.  There were a few eighth grade students who had been giving a substitute teacher a problem for the last couple of days.  I needed to deal with them.  When I finished with these students another half dozen issues demanded my attention.

At 10:05 a.m., I managed to slip away at last.  I was happily immersed in the world of the third and fourth grades until about 11:15 a.m., when the office called with a problem needing my immediate attention.  In a little over an hour, I had managed to visit with five different groups of students. I wasn’t able to spend as large a chunk of time with my children and teachers as I had hoped. I was however able to see that our third and fourth grades were off to a good start.

In the afternoon I visited our three first grade classes.  It always gives me such a kick to observe the happy faces of young children as they enthusiastically attack the challenge of gaining more control over their gross and fine motor skills.

Spending some time with teachers and students everyday is what I need to maintain a healthy mentality.   I can best see through the work of our teachers the strengths of our instructional program and the needs of students.   What I observe during classroom visits provides powerful data that truly informs schools improvement.  On a personal level, being present in the school community helps me to maintain my own individual strengths.  One of my greatest skills as a teacher is my ability to relate to and understand the personalities of my students.  When you understand the needs of the people you live with, you build trust with those people. I have to continue to utilize the interpersonal skills I developed as a teacher and a principal. I have to remain connected to the classroom.

Installment (5 of 8)

Today the kindergarten children started school.  I love this day.  It is our tradition that the entire school greets the new kindergarten boys and girls on their first day in the schoolyard.  Immediately following the morning opening ceremony, I ask everyone to give the kindergartners a big round of applause.  Then Valerie Marshal, one of our excellent special education teachers, leads the lower grade students in our Good Job, Good Job chant.  It is a simple event, but we all enjoy it immensely.

As the lines started to enter the building, I asked the kindergarten teachers to wait with their children in the yard.  I wanted a chance to greet the kindergarten children and their parents and to go over a few informational items.

It only took me a few minutes to review the essentials, like what time dismissal is and where the kindergarten lines exit the school.  I introduced various staff members who were present in the yard.  It was a low-key review of school procedures.  When I finished, I asked if anyone had any questions.  A parent who was standing off to the side of the group raised her hand. I didn’t recognize her.  When I acknowledged her, she said, “I don’t understand why you are lecturing us.  It doesn’t seem right to lecture us on the first day.”   I was taken aback by her remark. She seemed to be looking for a confrontation.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to sound as though I was giving a lecture.  I just wanted to share with you some basic information while we were all gathered together.”

One of the other parents in the crowd called out.  “That’s OK, Mr. Murphy.  You are doing a good job”.

The parents started to applaud.  Some more of the adults in the crowd called out, “You’re doing good.” The applause grew louder as did the shout outs.

“Keep up the good work.”

“Have a blessed day, Mr. Murphy.”

I replied, “Thanks for your support, I hope we all have a great year”.  Again I’m sorry if anyone felt as though I was giving you a lecture.”

Their applause and remarks drowned out the angry noise of the one.

I was grateful to not have to endure a tongue lashing in front of the kindergarten children. My parents had rescued me.

Later, inside the building, the parent who accused me of lecturing to the parents appeared at my door and introduced herself to me.  Her name was Ms. Yates. She had just moved to the neighborhood from another state. She offered her apology to me.  She said she was angry because she had waited in the wrong place with her child for the start of school. It seemed as though she wanted someone to blame for her mistake. Her anger had to be released. The woman needed to ventilate and I was the target.

These simple acts of verbal violence are not uncommon in our school community.

Some of our parents, when they are angry, don’t respect social boundaries. They don’t concern themselves with the feelings or rights of others.  Their thought process is simple. “I have been done wrong, my child has been done wrong and I’m going to scream and yell. No one is going to tell me what to do.”

You cannot reason with or easily calm such a person.   You just ride out their storm and you repair the damage later.   I am responsible for maintaining the safety of the school. I must calmly and forcefully deal with the people who are full of rage.  The community looks to the principal to be in charge.

I knew that their attacks aren’t personal.  They will act the way they do no matter who the principal is.  I understand this.  I have become good at letting their anger roll off my back.  A few of these troubled people arrive each year.

Installment (6 of 8)

From my first day on the job as principal of Meade, relating to my parents has been a regular an important part of my day. The majority of my parents are good, hard working people trying to make something from almost nothing for their children. A large percentage of our parents receive public assistance. There is also a significant group of Meade parents who live just above the edge of poverty. This group doesn’t receive any form of assistance. Almost all of our parents have jobs – this fact comes as a surprise to the middle-income volunteers who frequent our school.  The work that many of our parents perform is the work that few people really want to do: low paying service jobs such as office cleaners, nurse’s aides, and maids in hotels, the kind of work that makes life comfortable for the rest of us.  Our parents often work in the suburbs, far away from their homes.  It takes them hours to travel to work by public transportation. Additionally, they often work either night or irregular shifts, work schedules that are not ideal for raising a family, especially in single parent homes.

In the language of the No Child Left Behind Act,” parent involvement” in schools is frequently mentioned.   Active parent involvement in the affairs of their children’s schools has been demonstrated to be an important positive influence on children’s academic achievement. When parents are not actively involved in their children’s schools it is commonly assumed that the parents either don’t care about their children’s academic performance or the school is blocking them from participation.

Meade parents spend little time in the school.  They don’t have much time to give to volunteer work.  Their feedback is usually limited to brief comments.  “I really like this school.”  “Keep up the good work.”  “Things have really changed here since you came.”  They talk as they walk – our parents are always in a hurry to get to work or to pick up their children for doctor appointments. They might not spend much time in the school building but they do spend time with their children.  They encourage their children to do well in school, and they are supportive of their children’s teachers. If they didn’t have to worry about taking time off from work or losing pay, they would spend more time in our school.


First thing this morning, I met with Ms. Miller. She is a parent who withdrew her son Armand from our school two years ago. Ms. Miller hadn’t been satisfied with her son’s experiences with one of our best first grade teachers.  At the time her complaints were puzzling and nonspecific. Her son just wasn’t being treated right, she would say. Her complaints about the teacher were similar to her complaints about the doctors she said were attending to her three-year old daughter, a child she pushed around in a wire grocery cart. I had often listened to Ms. Miller during that school year describe numerous concerns about her children. She thought her daughter had stomach cancer and the doctors weren’t doing anything. She also thought that her son’s teacher hated him. She was a very soft-spoken, melancholy woman.

It was a day late in May a few years back when I had last seen her.  Ms. Miller had come to see me about changing her son’s classroom. We had been talking quietly in the hallway, and I asked, “What good would that do him? He likes his teacher. She likes him. He is doing well. School is almost finished for the year.”

“Fuck you and this fucking school.”  She exploded.

The vile anger gushing out of her caught me totally by surprise. She screamed so loudly that everyone on the floor could hear her. In all of our past conversations, I had struggled to hear her. There was no missing her voice now.

“I fucking want him now. I’m taking him out of this fucking school.”

Ms. Miller’s behavior wasn’t a behavior that was unfamiliar to me.  I have heard many times before the screams of the frustrated and angry. I tried to talk to her.

“Please stop screaming. Our Kindergarten children are on this floor. You are scaring them. You can’t talk like that here.”

“You can’t tell me what the fuck can come out of my mouth”.

One of the aides had gone to Ms Miller’s son’s room and brought him back to the main office. His arrival calmed her and she stopped her rant. She took her son’s hand and led him out of the school.

She did not bring him back for the remainder of the school year.  In September of the next school year Ms. Miller enrolled her son in a nearby Charter School.  Armand remained there for two years. During that time I saw her almost everyday passing the schoolyard, pushing her daughter in the grocery cart on her way to the Charter School.

I was surprised to see her standing at the counter on this Monday morning.  Ms. Miller requested to enroll her son in Meade School.

“It was a mistake taking him out of here,” she said. “Those people at the Charter School don’t know what they are doing.”  She apologized for her past behavior. “Please, will you let my son come back?”

Meade School is her children’s neighborhood public school. They cannot be excluded. We reenrolled Armand in the fourth grade. His sister was registered in Kindergarten. I have a feeling I’m going to see a lot of Ms. Miller this year.

Installment (7 of 8)

The next few days passed well.  I dragged a little with the discomfort of a cold.  I sniffled and sneezed my way through the week.  Friday was a messy day.  Many student discipline problems occupied my attention through out the day. Keeping up with the increased demands of our expanded school is becoming hard to handle by myself. I could use the help of an assistant principal. Unfortunately there aren’t any funds available to hire someone to fill this role.

At around four o’clock on Friday afternoon, I was talking to John DiPaolo regarding the scheduling of several partnership meetings that were to take place next week. Toward the end of this conversation he said, “Oh by the way, the regional superintendent has received a letter from a parent who is complaining about you.”

“Who is the parent?”

He didn’t know; he hadn’t seen the letter. After I got off the phone with him, I decided to call the Regional Superintendent. One of his secretaries answered.  She said, “I’m not sure if he is back there.  I’ll give a buzz”.  After a few minutes on hold, she transferred me. He picked up.

“Mr. Beddin speaking.”

“Hi, Dana, this is Frank. John tells me that you received a complaint letter from one of my parents.”

“John DiPaolo will be handling that.  I’ve sent him a copy of the letter.” His tone was cold.  He seemed to be put off by having to talk to me.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember.  It was someone who didn’t like the way you talked to them,” A light went on in my head. Could it be the kindergarten parent who felt that I was lecturing to the parents on the opening day?

“Is it a kindergarten parent?”

“Yeah it is,” he replied.  “But I don’t remember anything else, I gave the letter to my secretary and she is out today.”

We didn’t talk for long.


When I came in from the yard today, Ms. Yates was sitting on the bench outside of the main office. She didn’t speak to me. Once inside the office, I asked the staff if any of them knew what was up with her. No one knew what she wanted.

We had scheduled three back-to-back assemblies to introduce our “Read Three Times A Day” literacy program to the students. I didn’t need a major distraction to disrupt this busy day.  I went by the bench several times as I shuffled back and forth between the auditorium and the main office.  During several of these passes, she was sitting with the classroom assistant from the kindergarten class.  They appeared to be having a calm discussion.  At the end of the first of the assemblies, I noticed that she was gone. The morning passed quietly and calmly

It wasn’t so quiet over at the Regional Office.  Barbara, the assistant to the regional superintendent, had various parents from different schools lined up to see her.  Ms Yates had joined them unannounced.  I learned this from Barbara when she gave me a call around noon.  The assemblies were over by then and I was meeting with the leadership team.  We were figuring out how to set up a service-learning program for the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students.  We wanted to have the older students work with the younger students on a regular weekly basis as reading buddies.

Barbara had some routine questions for me.  When I finished answering her questions, she described the litany of complaints from Ms Yates.  I had screamed at the kindergarten parents.  I lectured the parents.  We didn’t feed her child.  She didn’t like the school. Ms Yates also didn’t like the way the classroom assistant had talked to her.  “She talked down to me,” she had told Barbara.

Barbara teasingly said to me, “Your Meade parent stories are too long and complicated.  They are giving me a headache. Christie Sims was in to see me last week.  She said you suspended her daughter and she didn’t do anything. Frank, what are you doing to me?”

Ms. Sims is another parent who is very much like Ms. Yates.  For many years Ms. Sims has been a regular complainer at the regional office.  Her daughters often disrupt the instructional activities of their classrooms.  When I meet with Ms Sims to discuss the girl’s misbehaviors, she insist that my staff and I were picking on her daughters

Barbara and I chatted for a while about Christie’s never-ending complaints. We conjectured as to the true nature of Ms Yates’ agenda.  I thanked Barbara for watching at for my interest.  She is one of the few folks at the Regional Office that I trust to handle delicate matters well.

The rest of the day was calm.  I was able to work on the real business of an instructional leader, instruction. I stayed late in order to finish the work, which I can never get to during regular school hours. It was almost six o’clock when I heard someone knocking on the counter in the main office. When I checked it out I saw Ms Miller standing there in the main office.

In her whispery voice she said, “Can I talk to you about a problem my son is having in class.”

“Sure”, I said.

“Well some boy touched my son on his chest.  I don’t like it.  I also heard that the same boy was in the bathroom touching other boys on the behind.  Maybe it isn’t what I think it is, but if it is, I don’t like that stuff.”

I promised her that I would look into the matter first thing in the morning

Installment (8 of 8)

The teacher’s contract has expired today for the second time. It had been extended at the end of August for one month.  Today is September 30th.   The School Reform Commissions Chair, Jim Nevels, has been insinuating that the SRC is going to impose a contract on the union.  The leadership of the PFT so far has scoffed at Nevels’s threat. They say they will not accept an imposed agreement. This is a big story but you would hardly know it by reading the Philadelphia area newspapers.  The reporting on this contract dispute has been occasional and brief.  The articles I have seen have been buried in the back pages of the paper.  This scanty coverage by the press is curious.  Even more intriguing is the amount of coverage Paul Vallas has received in the last two weeks on a subject other than contract negotiations.

Last Friday, the Daily News ran an article entitled, “Vallas won’t run for Mayor”.  The Sunday Inquirer ran a similar article on its front page.  The Inquirer headline read, “Vallas brings sense of hope to beleaguered city schools.” A potential teacher strike looms and the media doesn’t describe the role of Vallas in the contract negotiations.  Instead, the paper circulates speculation that he might be running for mayor.

Nevels—not Vallas—is the person consistently identified by the press as the main man involved in negotiating a new the teachers’ contract with the school district.   Anything positive which happens related to the district is attributed to Vallas, while the negatives belongs to other people.  The Inquirer article gives Vallas credit for raising the test scores of the district, initiating a building boom, and balancing the school district’s budget.  You couldn’t pay to get better press.  Included in the article are quotes from a school district parent.  Her praise for Vallas would make any modest person blush.  “He is my hero.  He is my knight in shining armor.  He’s innovative.  He’s creative.”  Such earnest praise from a parent is priceless. She is a parent whose children attend one of the more successful schools in the district, located in the very affluent Society Hill section of the city.

In this six-column article there are a total of two sentences that refer to the teacher’s contract negotiations:  “The latest contract extension expires Thursday.  I wish we had a contract with the teacher’s union,” the reporter quoted Mr. Vallas.   Towards the very end of the article, there are quotes from a former district administrator and from Phil Goldsmith the district’s prior CEO.  The quotes compliment Vallas while suggesting that much of the seeds of the current change were laid during the Hornbeck administration.  Their remarks, I suppose, were intended to offer some balance to the piece.

After I finish reading the article I have many questions.  From the first week Vallas arrived in town he has made big promises.  Among his first claims was his intention to balance the districts budget and to build new schools.   He wowed the public with his ambitious plans.

In his two years thus far there hasn’t been much school construction, just stories of what is going to be built.  The budget deficit still exists.  When the SRC took control of the district’s finances, it took out a three hundred million dollar loan.  This money has helped to balance the district’s budget. Payment of this debt will not begin until long after Mr. Vallas is gone.  The challenge of repaying this loan will be the next boss’s problem.

He makes people feel good.  He talks tough about school reform.  He says he’ll make the schools more accountable to the people.  Mr.Vallas understands that the people’s feelings are what most influence their thoughts and judgments about school issues. He is great manipulator of the feelings of school reform.  Mr.Vallas knows what people want to hear and he seems to have no problem saying the right things to his audiences.

The papers are speculating about whether he will run for office in Philadelphia or return for another bid to become Governor of Illinois.  If he does aspire to political office in Philadelphia, it makes sense that he would want to stay out of messy items like contract negations with the teacher’s union.

The Inquirer reporter who wrote this article didn’t attempt to penetrate the protective wall of positive perception, which has been built around our new school chief.  There wasn’t any probing investigative reporting evident in this piece.

The Daily News story did reveal some interesting information: Mr. Vallas has brought to Philadelphia several members of his former campaign staff from his failed gubernatorial bid in Illinois. Among these individuals are his current Chief of Staff, the manager of Foundation and Business Partnerships for the school district, a special assistant, and an individual who runs a private business, which has been awarded over two hundred thousand dollars in contracts from the district.  The husband of the manager of Foundation and Business Partnerships has also been given a job in the district’s facilities operations department.  What educational credentials do any of these individuals have which would qualify them for positions in an urban school system?  Is it appropriate for the head of a large urban school district to hire individuals who have such close personal connections with him?

One of the main sticking points in the current teacher negotiations is the SRC’s insistence that the principal be the sole individual who is responsible for choosing the staff of the school.  The union is concerned that staffing will return to the bad old days where teacher hiring was political and dependent on whom the teacher knew instead of on his or her qualifications. I would like to know more about our school chief’s position on the S.R.C. proposal regarding how to hire staff.  One might wonder whether Mr.Vallas’ recent staff hiring justify the union’s concern. The Daily News story doesn’t raise this question.


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