Confessions of an Urban Principal/Willing to pay for my silence
by Frank Murphy
Installment 3 of 8
Before the start of the Senator’s meeting last Thursday, one of Vallas’ aides joined me in the reception area. I’ve known him for some time. He is one of several retired district administrators who have been hired as a consultant by the school chief. This former principal has been a member of the Senator’s advisory committee for as long as I. He is a person who is full of himself. Now as an ”aide” to Mr. Vallas, his sense of self-importance is overwhelming.
I’m not quite sure what special talents this man possesses. In all of the time that I have known him, I have never been impressed by his educational expertise. Perhaps he was of use because he is familiar with many of our local elected officials like the senator.
After a quick greeting he said,
“So, Frank, why don’t you tell me what you have heard? Then I’ll tell you what I have found out from the people downtown.”
I didn’t want to get into a conversation with him. I wasn’t interested in sharing with him, my perceptions regarding my future at Meade. I didn’t answer his question. This didn’t stop him from giving me his take on the matter.
“Here’s what I hear from other people in the Central Office. Your school hasn’t made AYP, Frank. They feel like they have to do something. Everyone down there recognizes your talent and hard work. Your name is up on the board for other projects where your abilities can be better employed. A lot of people are thinking of using you to head up one of the new gifted centers.”
His remarks made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as though I was being offered a bribe. Luckily, at that moment the Senator walked into the reception area. She said, “Do you think we should get this meeting started?”
I quickly replied, “ Yes, we should.
She invited us to come into her office. I was eager to get away from the central office messenger. But I wasn’t able to shake him. He sat down next me at the conference table. The “Messenger” continued his sales pitch right from the point where he had left off. From his briefcase he withdrew a document. It was a list of the proposed sites for the gifted schools. Before he had a chance to go over it with me, he was interrupted by the arrival of the other participants. When everyone was seated, the Senator called the group to order. Finally he had no other choice but to stop talking to me.
I was relieved; the gifted center conversation was annoying me. I was supposed to believe that my talent was being recognized. In seven years, not one Central Office or Regional Administrator other than Deputy Slide has been in Meade. How do they know what I am doing at my site?
Though I’m sure that I would be an excellent candidate for the principal position at a school for academically talented students, the logic of this proposition didn’t make sense to me. If according to them I am the principal of a failing school, then why would they want to make me the principal of a newly created gifted school? Why would you offer to reward someone, you are saying isn’t doing a good job? I’m not foolish. I don’t believe that my superiors are interested in utilizing my talents. This aide was at this meeting in order to try to keep me quite. Clearly the central administration didn’t want me to stir up trouble. They were willing to pay for my silence.
In that moment, I understood what was motivating the actions of the district leaders. They know that turning around a school like Meade isn’t going to be a quick fix. For them school reform is a juggling act. They need to demonstrate to the state and the federal education departments that they are imposing sanctions on low scoring schools. By removing the principal they can show that they are doing something.
But at the same time they realize that this gesture will create an uproar in the local community. From their point of view a potential public relations fiasco could be avoided, if I just voluntarily take myself out of the equation.
This tempting proposition makes the thought of leaving Meade feel more palatable. In my head I quickly mull over this idea. If I leave on my own, I will have more control over my fate. I’d be able to maintain my dignity and protect my professional reputation. This course of action would be beneficial to the well being of both my physical and mental health. Life would be much easier beyond the hard and brutal environment that characterizes Meade. It made me wonder. Why should I stay?
In her opening remarks the senator strongly endorsed me as the leader of Meade. She demonstrated her knowledge of our school by citing our achievements: small class size, extensive professional development, increased reading achievement, and a greatly improved school climate. I was impressed by how much she knew about Meade. The senator eloquently stated an argument for using multiple indicators as a way to measure a school’s success. The high stakes test system of NCLB wasn’t an accountability method that impressed her. The senator, a person of the community, is familiar with all of the risk factors outside of the school’s control that can affect student achievement.
“This is a tough community. We have a lot of problems that our people must deal with every day. We also have people who don’t act right. Last year I was ashamed to see such a clear case of harassment that Mr. Murphy had to endure from that woman, Ms. Sims. There are people in our community with real mental health problems who make it hard for all of us. But this man works with the community. He works really hard. I know he doesn’t have a problem sleeping at night. He does the right thing. I’m tired of how we are being pushed around by this administration. If I have to draw a line in the sand here, I will.”
The “Messenger” shifted gears after hearing this unabashed endorsement of my leadership. He responded to her remarks by offering his own glowing remarks regarding my performance as a principal. He didn’t mention gifted schools or names on the board. Instead he turned the finger of blame towards Temple.
“Temple has the authority to choose their own principals. If they they want Mr. Murphy as the principal of Meade, all that they need to do is to tell Mr. Vallas. My understanding is that the Temple School of Education plans on bringing a new program to Meade next year. The Regional Superintendent has talked to Temple about their plans and he supports them. It seems to me, that it is the Temple leaders who are the ones who want a new principal.”
This didn’t sound right to me. If there were any truth to this story, it would mean that there was a serious battle taking place between the Partnership Office and the Temple School of Education. I had heard nothing concerning such a struggle. What seemed more likely to me was that the “Messenger” was trying to exploit the community’s distrust of Temple in order to divert attention from the school district’s own plans.
For many years, long before the creation of the Temple Partnership Schools, a tension has existed between the residents of North Philadelphia and the Temple administration. In the past the, university’s need to build new facilities had resulted in the demolition of properties in the community. As a result of this conflict, the residents of the neighborhoods which surround the campus are perpetually on guard against further intrusions by Temple. It is easy to convince the local folks that the Temple people are working a hidden agenda.
This diversionary tactic succeeded in shifting the group’s attention away from district’s intentions. The participants spent the remainder of the meeting discussing various Temple conspiracy theories. We met for a little more than an hour. At the conclusion of the meeting, I gave the senator a copy of the talking points, which I had prepared. She put this document into an envelope.
“I’m going to a meeting with Temple as soon as I’m finished here. I will bring this matter to their attention. I will ask them to write a letter to Mr. Vallas that states their support for Mr. Murphy. If they don’t agree to do so, then they will have a problem. If they do and Mr. Vallas doesn’t honor their request, I will meet with the School Board.
When I left the senator’s office I had no doubt that I would maintain my position at Meade. I felt protected, at least for the time being.
In the long run there would be more risks. I don’t think that my political supporters can protect me from the rough and tumble times that will lie ahead. The Central Office can retaliate in many ways. My school budgets can be cut, grant opportunities can be sent elsewhere, and staff allotments can be decreased. I will be harassed but it will be done under the guise of legitimate administrative actions.