Confessions of an Urban Principal/Plenty of Doubts
by Frank Murphy
Installment 2 of 8
There is no easy or slow transition into my workweek. Come Monday morning the Meade roll coaster starts off fast. Within a matter of minutes after arriving at my office, I face the first downhill plunge. Once the ride begins, I have no other choice but to hold on tight and go with the flow.
The usual crowd awaited me: transfer students, suspension reinstatements and parents with complaints. They kept me busy until well past eleven. I urgently wanted to get together with the Instructional Leadership Team.
During the weekend, I had constructed a draft of the list of talking points that I would distribute to our community partners. This had been a time consuming and difficult task. It wasn’t as though I were stuck for ideas. No, what slowed me down was the ill mood that held me in its grip.
The overbearing pressure that is being exerted on me by my employers to get better test scores is wearing me down. On the one hand I am adamant that I will not compromise my professional values and beliefs in order to fake success. On the other hand I am not willing to be a martyr.
Dealing with the mentality of people like “Deputy Slide” and other school district “reform” leaders is a depressing experience. Over the weekend as I sorted through my conflicting feelings, I found it hard to think clearly. I desperately need the feedback and comfort of my friends and colleagues.
The suspension reinstatements went smoothly. Today’s parents were very supportive. Several times in a row I heard, “I will take care of it, Mr. Murphy. My child knows how to act right in school. Believe me, you won’t have any more trouble.”
In between my conferences with the parents of misbehaving students, I greeted the parents who were registering students into our school. This morning another half dozen children were admitted. Since late November a steady stream of new students have arrived at our school.
Last week I welcomed a party of five students who were all from the same family. This group of siblings is a tangled lot: two boys for seventh grade, a fifth grade girl, and a third grade boy and a kindergarten boy. One of the older boys had been retained several times in the early grades. He was fifteen and still in seventh grade. It didn’t take me long to determine that eighth grade looked like a better fit for him than seventh. We tested him and determined that he could manage the work. I moved him into eighth grade on a trial basis.
The second to oldest brother was a special education emotional support student. The other three children were at their correct grade levels. The fifteen year old had attended eleven different schools; the younger kids were following in their older siblings footsteps.
These children have been moving back and forth between their mother and father’s care. According to the mother she and the father have been engaged in an ugly custody battle. It has been going on for several years. The mother said that the children’s’ father was an abusive alcoholic.
The kindergarten boy’s attendance report indicated that he had been suspended for assaulting school personnel in his former school. There were numerous suspensions on the attendance histories of all of the siblings. The information that I reviewed from their previous schools said “trouble” with a capital “T”.
On her second day at Meade, the fifth grade girl refused to go into her classroom. She sat on the bench located outside of the main office. She refused to budge from there until it was time to go home. She didn’t take off her coat and she covered her face with her hat.
The kindergarten boy threw a trashcan at his teacher and bit another child on the third day after his admission. These brothers and sister are demonstrating rather quickly that they will be a real handful to manage. I have tried several times to reach their mother but she has not responded to my calls.
A sudden influx of children who are in crisis can and does upset the tranquility of the school. Today facing yet another group of incoming children and their caretakers, I wondered about how many more worries will these new admits cause.
A judge had ordered the enrollment of two of the students who were enrolled today. In their former school they had frequently been absent. Meade is the closest neighborhood school to where they reside. Apparently the judged had reasoned that it would be easier for the parents to get their children to Meade.
Included in the newcomers was a boy named Gordon. He had just been placed with a foster parent who lives in our neighborhood. This boy was listed on the school computer network as being a fifth grader. He is fourteen going on fifteen. Gordon is another child who has for several years bounced back and forth between his mother and father. There were a dozen schools in his past. His mother has been in and out of drug treatment programs. The father would take custody of him when his mom was in treatment. Gordon’s father had recently been incarcerated. With both his parents out of the picture, the Department of Human Services had assumed responsibility for his custody.
It struck me as ridiculous that this teenager was still in fifth grade. He has been retained four times since starting Kindergarten. He obviously had never received a social promotion. I am sure that this will please the more ardent school reformers amongst us. They believe that kids are getting away with something when they aren’t retained after receiving failing grades on their final report card. Ok, I can see that they want to hold children accountable for completing their schoolwork. But aren’t four detentions rather excessive?
Our district’s promotion policy encourages retention although there is little evidence that this strategy is effective. I have seen research that concludes that children who are retained in a grade have a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school. Students who have been retained twice have a 90% certainty to be high school dropouts. Those are pretty daunting odds. Even without a research study my own experiences as a teacher tell me, that making children repeat the same grade that they just failed doesn’t help them. Instead it humiliates and discourages them.
The practice of retention also does harm to the students who have never been retained. They are forced to share a classroom with overage disengaged students who often disrupt the instructional program.
I don’t think it makes sense for a fourteen year old to be in the fifth grade. Ten and eleven year olds shouldn’t be put in a situation where they can be led astray by the negative influence of a disgruntled teenager. They will learn the wrong lessons when the instruction of their teacher is frequently overshadowed by the antics of a retained student.
If we want to help struggling students, we should create alternative programs that are designed to meet their needs. Of course it will require more funds in order to implement new programs. This is something I don’t see happening anytime soon. In Gordon’s case placing him in the special programs that already do exist would more than likely benefit him. I was absolutely amazed to discover that no one had ever referred Gordon for a special education evaluation. This student who had been retained four times clearly is a good candidate to be tested.
I decided to recommend that Gordon be tested in order to determine his eligibility to receive special education services. If he had a learning disability we could provide him with support services and assign him to an age appropriate grade level. This would be an eighth grade classroom for him. In making this decision, I opened myself up to some risk. My fellow administrators might perceive me as being too soft. Worst yet, I might be accused of having low expectations for this boy.
The foster caregiver was comfortable with my suggestion to place Gordon in an eighth grade class on a trial bases while we evaluated him. Through out this meeting I was thinking of Arthur. If he had been taken out of Meade, he would have been the new foster care boy being placed in some other school. I was reminded of how glad I am that Arthur is still with us. I decided that I would try and make this new boy feel as comfortable in our school as I possibly could.
When I finally did get free from the office, I had a long meeting with my leadership team. They had several good suggestions concerning what to include in my talking points document. Working with them to formulate a plan of action was a comforting activity. It provided me with an opportunity to feel like I was in control of the situation.
At the end of the day I caught sight of Arthur as he left the school. He looked like he was happy, bubbling all over happy. From talking to him, I knew that he was enjoying the home in which he had been placed. There are other children there and everyone is nice to him. It pleases me to think of him interacting with people instead of always being left alone in his room. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It appears that life is getting better for him. I hope I can say the same thing about myself sometime soon.
Late in the day on Thursday, I met with my community supporters. The meeting was convened at the office of State Senator Shirley Kitchen. I was encouraged by the willingness of these people to help me. At the same time I was distressed as I considered the struggle that lie ahead. Protecting my position is a battle I am sure we can win. I wasn’t however as convinced that we would win the war.
What pressures will I face next year? For how long can my supporters protect me? These questions troubled me, but not as much as the doubts I am experiencing about my continuing on as the principal of Meade.
This assignment is one that not many people are willing to take on. So why do I want to hold onto a position that can be so difficult? Why do I want to fight? Am I trying to stay for the right reasons? What are those reasons? Am I just being stubborn and egotistical?
My doubts are numerous. I have been thinking lately that making a change might be a good thing for me.
I had been anticipating this meeting with my supporters for days. But finally on the day that we gathered, I found myself not really sure about what I wanted to happen.
I care about the rock and a hard place in which I live, more than I probably should. Though I’m not sure if staying is a healthy thing to do. I still plan to do so.
The day after this meeting, I finally took down the Happy New Year flags. I replaced them with the Valentine banners. I was glad that it was Friday. For two days I can take a break from the roller coaster.