Confessions of an Urban Principal/Harbor
by Frank Murphy
Installment 8 of 8
Principals in Philadelphia continue to work five more days after the last day of school for ten-month employees. Except for the custodial staff, I was alone in the school. For the first time in a long while I was able to leisurely go about my business. There wasn’t much for me to do. The preparations for the next school year are mainly done. In the last few weeks, I had worked out the roster for next year. The leadership team has taken care of preparing the student assignments to classrooms in their new grade levels. All of the supplies and textbook we will need in September have been ordered. Registration for summer school is well underway. Everything is in good order.
My plan for the day was to clean up and reorganize my office. It felt like a luxury to be able to concentrate solely on properly filing the various documents that have stacked up on my desktop during the month of June. But before I started, I sat at my desk and studied the latest reports on the state of the school district. I am finding it amusing that my best source of information concerning the events and happenings of my work site is the newspaper, rather than my supervisors.
Reading an article in this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer, I learned that Mr.Vallas had conducted a press conference the day before in order to announce continuing improvement in Philadelphia’s test scores. The results of the spring Terra Nova test have been made available to the District’s leadership team. The increase in the overall percentage of students who had scored above average was relatively small. Still Vallas was pleased. In some areas there had been significant improvements. The group of schools that showed the most test score growth were the Edison-managed schools. The results of the Temple schools were close to the Edison results, according to the newspaper article. The reporter who had written the article made a special note of how well the Temple schools had performed, in light of the fact that two of the Temple Schools had recently been taken back by the School Reform Commission. She apparently wasn’t aware of the latest SRC resolution, which left Meade and Ferguson under Temple management.
This news confirmed my suspicion that the Terra Nova test results had been sent to the District earlier in June. A few weeks prior I had noticed a series of reports on the District’s website. There were several data sets available for my review. One in particular caught my attention. It listed the names of all of the students who were eligible for summer school attendance. This report included student names, report card grades, and Terra Nova test results for the third and eighth grade. These are the two grade levels where students not meeting district benchmarks, must be retained in their current grade for the upcoming school year. According to the district’s current promotion policy, children who score below the twenty-fifth percentile on the Terra Nova in either of these two grades can be retained, unless they attend summer school. As I reviewed this information, I was pleasantly surprised to note that the number of Meade students in this low score range was significantly less than in the previous year. I suspected that this might be a harbinger of good news yet to come. Today’s newspaper story indicates that I was right.
I gave John DiPaolo a call. He hadn’t yet read the paper when we talked. I shared with him my excitement over the possibility that my students have shown significant test score improvements. I also vented my frustration with the continuing reference to Meade and Ferguson as having been removed from the Partnership. By the conclusion of our conversation, John agreed to call the office of the school district that has oversight of EMO schools. He was going to get a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding between Temple and the District and any test score data that was available.
In less than an hour he called back. “Frank, I got a copy of the board resolution regarding the MOU. It was passed at Wednesday’s SRC meeting. I have mailed a copy to you.”
The timing of this news was quite fitting, I thought. Word of the final decision comes on the last day of school. Finally, I can exhale. There is at least one more year for me at my school.
Undoubtedly the days ahead will continue to be difficult. My dogged determination over the past few months to remain principal of Meade has won me no friends in the District’s central office. By lobbying to remain part of the Temple partnership, instead of quietly accepting my fate as a CAR school, I have increased the likelihood of being scrutinized by my superiors downtown. I put it all on the line to obtain this result.
Though Meade remains a Temple-managed school, there is still an ill-defined relationship with the CAR Region that needs to be clarified. The potential complexity of this Meade-Temple-CAR relationship will surely create many more uncomfortable encounters with the “Electric Slide”. Balancing this relationship will be like walking a tight rope. Our school belongs to the School District of Philadelphia. Though for now Temple offers us safety, the SRC can claim us whenever it deems to do so.
I know that as long as No Child Left Behind remains the rule of the land, it will be a struggle to do the right thing for my children. The School District will continue to focus on test prep activities rather than supporting appropriate instructional programs. Desperate leaders will continue to demand unrealistic results. They will take increased test scores any way they can get them. They can make “no excuses” so they must continue to create the feeling of reform.
During my second conversation with John, I told him that I intended to contact the reporter who had filed the story in today’s paper. Now that I was sure that Meade was back under Temple Partnership management, I wanted to share this information with her. I was also interested in obtaining some detailed information regarding our test score results. I would see what information she could offer.
Quite conveniently for me, the e-mail address and phone number of the reporter was listed at the end of the story. I dialed the number expecting to leave a voice mail message. I was pleasantly surprised when she answered after the fourth ring. We talked for a long time. The reporter gladly shared with me the test sore statistics that she had for Meade and the other Temple Partnership Schools. I hurriedly copied down the percentage increases or decreases for each school as she read them to me. Overall, the percentage of students enrolled in the Temple Schools who scored above average exceeded the average for the District. The number of our students who scored in the lowest quartile was also significantly lower than the District average. We had done well. In addition, the scores of the Meade students had significantly boosted the Partnership’s overall performance. I would have to wait a few more weeks for a more detailed school-by-school report. But there was no doubt that our students had performed well on this test.
The reporter thanked me for bringing to her attention that Meade and Ferguson would continue to be managed by Temple. “I’m pretty busy following up on the rumors that Mr. Vallas may possibly be leaving the District”, she said. When I get some free time, I will do a story about Meade and Ferguson staying with Temple. I will give a call to my contacts at Twenty-First Street in order to get their reactions.”
I’d love to hear her conversation with Vallas. What explanation will he offer her in order to explain his change of heart?
Our continuation with the Partnership will provide us some additional breathing room. The improvement in our test scores will help even more. The threat posed by the CAR Region has grown smaller. Soon it will be no more than an ever-shrinking vision in the rear view mirror as we gain momentum in our own reform efforts.
Ahead is a long summer’s wait for the test results that will most matter. Our PSSA scores will determine whether our progress has been adequate according to NCLB requirements. Whatever the final judgment, this year’s story is finished for now. We have successfully traveled across a stormy and hazardous school year. We have reached the shelter of a harbor. In time we will know if it is safe one.