Chapter Six: February

02 Feb

Chapter Six—February

Confessions of an Urban Principal/ Zombie Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment 1 of 8

Learning that my name is on the school district’s NCLB hit list was a real shock to me. I felt as though a zombie had taken a large bit out of my brain. For the last few days, I have been attempting to reanimate myself.

My thoughts have shuffled through a range of feelings: depression, confusion, embarrassment, and shame.  Briefly, I experienced an overwhelming sense of helplessness.  A slow building anger has ignited a fire in me.  It is burning away the fog that has engulfed my mind.  I am starting to consider the actions that I will need to take in order to survive.

There are no children in the school today. For the next two days only the staff will be attendance. During this time a full agenda of professional development activities have been scheduled for the staff.

I had been planning on participating in the seventh and eighth grade literacy session this morning.  It was being held at a nearby middle school.  This building is located close to the center of Temple’s campus.  When I arrived, a university police officer was barring entry to the parking lot.  It was full.  To make matters worse, there wasn’t any on street parking to be found for many blocks around this congested campus location.

Early bird college students had grabbed every available parking space.

It occurred to me that attending a workshop regarding the Temple Literacy program wouldn’t be a good use of my time, if I weren’t going to be principal of Meade.  I decided to go back to school and work.  This turned out to be a better plan for the day.

Free of the distractions of a school filled with children, I was able to concentrate on making phone calls to friends and supporters.  I started each new phone conversation with the same plea. “I need your help. I need a favor.”

I realized that our teams, thoughtfully prepared school improvement plan wouldn’t save the day by itself.  This latest development could only be countered by an artfully crafted political response.  Mr. Vallas and his central office staff would more than likely back away from targeting Meade once they understood the depth of community support that the school enjoyed.

Successful politicians such as Mr. Vallas are reluctant to alienate other powerful leaders. I think that he and his team members miscalculated the level of support that I receive from influential community leaders.  I am sure that he will leave us alone once he realizes that removing me will cost him the good will of his allies.

Intimidation and threats are the favored tools of the school reformers who are only interested in increasing test scores. Mr. Vallas’ has distinguished himself as a school leader who is adept at publicly humiliating school district administrators. Recently he abruptly removed four of the highest-ranking administrators in the Human Resources Department from their positions. They were given a half-hour in order to pack their personal belongings in a box before being escorted out off the district’s headquarters by school police officers.

These four Human Resource Administrators were respected veterans of the system. They weren’t part of the Chicago crowd that Vallas had imported to Philadelphia. They definitely weren’t “yes people.”

Vallas asserted that these administrators were responsible for the failure of the district to recruit enough teachers to fill its classroom vacancies.  Attracting a sufficient number of qualified candidates who will fill hard to staff position is a pressing issue in our district.  By blaming these administrators Vallas diverted the publics attention away from the fact that he doesn’t have a ready solution for this problem.

Firing the top administrators in the Human Resources Department, allows him the opportunity to present himself as the man in charge.  The problem still isn’t fixed, but it appears as though he is doing something about it.  Vallas through his actions in this matter has demonstrated how image is far more important than substance in the school reform business.

I can see another public relations campaign being plotted, with the creation of the Corrective Action Region.  It will serve as one more way for Mr. Vallas to demonstrate that he is a decisive man of action.

He identifies a group of schools with low-test scores.  The principals of these schools are removed.  This action will generate another catchy headline for him.

“Forceful School CEO will not accept excuses from do nothing principals.”

In my head, I can hear Vallas saying to a reporter, “I’m taking charge of these schools. Those principals had enough time to show that they could improve the scores. They didn’t.  I will not accept anything less than high scores for all of my children. The right to achieve in school is a civil right. I will remove any principal who stands in the way of success. I will not have failures blocking our schoolhouse doors.”

He has to be kidding if he thinks that achieving higher test scores is a civil right.  If he is really concerned about assuring the civil rights of all children, then he should direct his attention towards obtaining the resources that our school children need in order to succeed.

Of course any school chief who pursue this goal will not have an easy time. They will make political enemies.  David Hornbeck—our previous superintendent—advocated vigorously for educational funding reform in our state. He was forced out of his job.

Mr. Vallas takes an easier course to demonstrate that he is an effective reformer.  He makes the principals the scapegoats for the perceived failure of a school.   In doing so he conveys to the public the feeling of reform without any risk to his own future.

I wish I could have it as easy.  In order to insure my future, I must take risks.


I have lined up a team of community leaders who will meet with Mr. Vallas.  They are respected people who I can count on for their support.  I am developing a list of talking points for them.

The argument I am preparing is straightforward. We are making greater progress than our test results indicate.  The students who have stayed with us from kindergarten to fifth grade are showing great academic strides. The large turnover of students in these grades however makes overall progress harder to see.

We will continue to make progress. But in order to do so, the school will need the continued direction of my leadership.   A change now will undo what has been accomplished.

I don’t really think that Mr. Vallas will seriously consider these points. It doesn’t matter if he does. All that really does matter is that important people will present this argument to him.  I am counting on Mr. Vallas to then realize that he could lose political capital by trying to make an example of Meade School. I am positive that he will seek to make my supporters happy. He knows that his own power grows when he satisfies the wishes of the powerful.

I have confidence that this plan will work. I still however am on edge. Nothing is ever a sure bet in a politically charged environment.


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