Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (8 of 9)
The previous day’s depression clung to me like the remnants of a spider web that had accidentally entangled me. I started the day off by meeting with my leadership team. We formulated plans that would address the Chief Academic Officer’s concern about our student test data.
We calculated how many students needed to score at the proficient or advanced level on the PSSA test in the spring in order to make our school’s, Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) target. Our count indicated that the number of students who have scored at these levels in prior test years were less than what we needed. Begrudgingly we decided to identify our” bubble students” in both math and reading. These are students whose test scores are just below the passing score of proficient. Many schools will expend a great deal of their attention and resources on working with these students. This is done by focusing less on the low achieving students who have little likelihood of scoring at the proficient level on the PSSA. I had long been resistant this idea.
We considered a plan that would provide test prep and extra tutoring for this targeted group. Our intention was to offer additional attention to this group of children without changing the quality of services we strive to give to all of our students.
Once we decided who belonged in this group we divided them into several smaller groups. According to the plan each member of the leadership team would take responsibility for one group. Making time in our already crammed schedules in order to mentor, tutor and push the students who were assigned to us would do this.
I was not completely comfortable with this course of action. Targeting one group of students for special supports at the possible expense of another group challenges my professional ethics. I am not pleased with being placed in a situation where I am forced to chose between either doing what is right for kids or keeping my job. After much discussion the leadership team finally agreed on this plan. I convinced myself that by doing so I wasn’t compromising my integrity. It was a stretch but I decided I could live with this plan.
I made a pledge to myself that we would get the needed number of kids to the proficient level while at the same time moving every other child forward. Alison concluded the meeting by resurrecting one of my more embarrassing quotes, “We can’t lie down with defeat.”
I had spoken this line two years ago when I had first realized that our school might be taken over by an outside group or worse yet completely closed down. At that time my staff poked fun at me for being so dramatic. They keep me in check when they think I am acting pompous or too self-important. I appreciate how they help me to stay honest.
But today Alison wasn’t making fun of me. When the Educational Management Organizations were introduced to our district the threat to our school’s future became more evident. She reminded the team that we had a mission to accomplish. We were going to make Meade an excellent neighborhood public school.
“We can’t lie down with defeat.”
Everybody agreed with this sentiment. I am fortunate to have such a smart and loyal team to back me.
Later in the day, a new Arthur problem developed. It has occurred to me that ninety to ninety-five percent of the bad scenes that unfold at Meade take place either between 8:30 and 9:30 in the morning or 2:00 and 3:30 in the afternoon. These are the two time frames when the doorway to our psychotic world swings wide open. There are also some days that are more prone to problems than others. Wednesdays and Friday are the days when it seems that the greatest amount of bad traffic crosses the threshold of my office. The end of this day followed that trend.
Arthur’s teacher reported to the office, shortly after two o’clock, that he had disappeared. She was worried. He had cursed at her and slammed the classroom door. She stated that Arthur had gotten into an argument with another student in the classroom. He asked to go to the bathroom, and when he returned, he looked like he had been crying. The teacher asked what was wrong, but he wouldn’t talk.
Shortly after his return, the class went to the computer lab. There, the computer teacher observed Arthur trying to connect to a pornography website. She asked him to stop. Arthur mumbled a comment, which may have contained a “fuck you,” and he stormed out of the room. A search team of aides scoured the building looking for him. When they found him, they brought him to my office.
When we spoke, Arthur was remorseful. He was also very quiet. A soulful stare was his only reply to my probing questions. Finally, he spoke.
“I wasn’t mad at the teacher. I was thinking about something which happened this morning before school.”
“Did you and your mother have an argument?”
“It wasn’t her.”
“I know you are very protective of your mother, Arthur. It is really hard work for a boy to watch out for his mom the way you do. I guess sometimes that must make you feel pretty bad. Is that why you are feeling and acting like you are today?”
“I didn’t fight with my mom. It was with the man that is living with her.”
This was a revelation. I didn’t know Cindy had a man living with her. My wheels started to turn. A few years back, a little boy named Lester had lived with Cindy. She claimed that Lester was her cousin’s son. Lester was in first grade. Towards the end of his first grade school year, Lester had demonstrated many of the signs that a child who was being sexually abused exhibits.
He frequently made sexually explicit comments to the other children. He would grab his crotch and rub his genitals. He also often reeked of urine. Eventually, we reported our suspicions to the Department of Human Services. Lester, we learned, had been sharing a bed with Arthur, but often times he ended up sleeping on the floor. There was an investigation, but DHS didn’t inform us of their conclusions.
Lester didn’t return in September for second grade. Another relative took custody of him. What had happened to Lester in Cindy’s home was an unanswered question. I had wondered if Arthur was abusing the little boy. This new information caused me to rethink the Lester affair. Could this man have been the person behind Lester’s troubles? Now Arthur was arguing with the man. Had Arthur himself been receiving some special attention from Cindy’s man friend during the last few years?
Arthur is such easy prey: a predator making a nest in his dysfunctional home could possibly have a field day with him. Arthur wants to be taken care of, but he has for the longest time been the caretaker of his alcoholic mother. I could easily see him mistaking abuse for love.
A million thoughts raced through my mind on the way home. I wondered if I should call Social Services and report my suspicions. Arthur could face the possibility of being removed from his home. I thought it was possible that any close scrutiny of Cindy could raise questions concerning her fitness as a parent. What protection would DHS offer a thirteen-year-old boy in foster care? Would they protect him from the unbearable hurt he would feel when separated from his mother? Maybe I should just confront the man on my own? I could beat him up.
I tried to push these thoughts away. I should be working on improving the test scores of my students instead of being distracted by Arthur’s problems.
For years, I have attended fully to each day’s problems and joys. At night, back in my home, I have let go of the worries of the day. In the company of my family, I have taken comfort. Lately the unrealistic expectations being forced on me by central office administrators have been messing with my mind. This pressure plus the sadness and chaos that I regularly encounter in my school is suffocating me. The discordant sounds of this bizarre world are ringing in my ears.
I have to tell myself that there is joy in my work. Being in a position where I can help kids like Arthur is a reminder of why I have chosen to live my life at Meade. I am needed here. Sometimes this thought is the only thing that keeps me doing what I do.