Chapter One: September

08 Sep

Confessions of an Urban Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment (2 of 8)

This first day of school it seemed that I was everywhere—in every class, at every lunch, making sure that things ran smoothly.  I enjoy talking with my students.  I take every possible opportunity that I can to converse with them.  On this day I spent almost all of the recess period talking to Jordon. He was starting eighth grade.  I have known him since he was in first grade.

It was a beautiful day to be outside.  Jordon and I were leaning against the wall of the building.   Side by side we chatted.  Like two old farmers with straws of grass in our mouths, the pauses in our conversation were as long as the intermittent burst of dialogue.

Jordon said, “Are you going to get a music teacher this year?”

“No, we got a computer teacher.  We don’t have enough money for both. You really like to sing don’t you?”

He nodded his head, “Yes”.

Jordon attends an after school program at a local Baptist Church.  I have known the pastor of this church for many years.   Frequently we work together on community projects.  Reverend Moore, his wife Mrs. Moore, and their daughter run an after school program which quite a few of our Meade students attend.  They provide a variety of activities for the kids. They also feed them dinner each day.  Jordon was one of the first kids I recommended to their program.

Jordon said, “How do you know Mrs. Moore?”

“I know a lot of people. Seriously, why don’t you ask Mrs. Moore to help you find some one from the choir to help you with your singing?  You like being down there at the church don’t you?”

“Yeah”, he replied.

“Maybe you could become a member of their choir.  I’m sure that would make your grandmom proud”.


There was a long pause.  We just stood silently leaning against the wall. He spoke next. “How can I get into CAPA?”

CAPA is a magnet high school that specializes in the creative and performing arts.  I wasn’t surprised that he was interested in this school.  It is exactly the high school I would expect that he would want to attend. Although I was encouraged to hear that he was actively thinking about where he wanted to go, I also knew competition for admission to this school is intense.

“It is a really hard high school to get into, Jordon.”

“Do you think I could get in?” he asked.

It was a tough question.  Jordon had been required to attend summer school this past summer because of his low standardized test scores.  At the end of the summer program, his summer school teacher recommended that he be retained in seventh grade.  I didn’t go along with this recommendation. I have never seen a child improve academically as a result of repeating a grade. The only proven effect of retention is that it increases the likelihood of a student dropping out of school. I made sure he was placed in an eighth grade classroom for this year.  I called it a provisional promotion, which was dependent upon his participation in an extended day tutorial program.

It is hardly likely that CAPA would accept him. His poor grades and low standardized test scores would take him right out of consideration.  I did not want to hurt his feelings, but I knew I couldn’t lie to him.

I said, “Do you want me to give a pretend happy-talk adult answer or do you want a straight-up answer?” He hesitated for a minute before responding.

“Straight-up,” he said.

I turned my head in order to look at him.  “CAPA is a really hard school to get into.  You need to have good grades, A’s and B’s, and high test scores.  You had to go to summer school this summer and your teacher in summer school said you should be left back.  I don’t think you will get in CAPA.”

He didn’t look surprised or disappointed by my response.  Jordon might not be  successful at mastering school skills, but he isn’t stupid.

There was a long pause before he asked, “Where do you think I should go to high school?”

“There are quite a few schools which have art programs.  I’m not sure which ones offer classes for students who want to be singers.  I know that Strawberry Mansion has an arts academy, which is supposed to be pretty good. “

Jordon interrupted, “I hear that Strawberry Mansion is a pretty unsafe school.  I don’t think I want to go there.”

“Let me check it out for you,” I said.  “I will make it my job to look around for a high school for you.”

During the next pause in our conversation, a small group of first grade boys and girls came up to me in order to tattle-tale on each other.  In the time it took me to sort out their problems, Jordon drifted away to talk with one of his friends.  Recess ended.  I sent the first graders back to their line.

The rest of the day was a blur, yet things seemed to go on without a hitch and our first dismissal was great.   Later in my office I spoke with Ellen Lube, our literacy coordinator teacher.  She shared an exchange she had with Quenton, another eighth grader.  She had asked him how his day had gone.

“Ms. Lube, it didn’t seem like a first day.  It felt like I have been here for a while.”

“Is it because you have been here during the summer, helping us get ready?”

“No, that’s not it.  Everyone seems like they have been here for a while. Everyone is doing their work.”

I agreed with Quenton. This was exactly what I had been thinking as I visited all of the classes during the day.  So I start another year as a principal.


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