Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (1 of 8)
Providing our school district with more funds always seems to be the least desirable course of action for our state leaders. Raising taxes in order to help poor schools is not a politically attractive option. In Pennsylvania, our legislators, like many others across the nation, have become proficient in devising and pursuing school reform plans which have little if any cost attached to them.
We divert tax dollars intended for our local public schools to be used for the creation of charter schools. The federal government requires that a portion of Title One funds be spent on providing after school tutoring programs for students who score poorly on their state test. Providers other than the public school districts must deliver these programs. Many of these tutorial services are offered by for profit companies. School districts are forced to spend an increasing proportion of their limited funds and time on administering tests. This is what they have to do in order to prove that they are doing a good job. In Philadelphia, public school funds have also been used to hire for profit companies to run selected schools.
‘Blame and Shame”, has become a popular school reform strategy. Accusing teacher unions of impeding school reform by insisting on seniority rules is the “blame de jour” this year.
I don’t have much time to concern myself with the what-ifs of the contract negotiations between the SRC and the teachers’ union. My school days have been too busy for speculation of this nature. This week has passed in a blur of parent conferences, Temple principal meetings, and student discipline referrals.
Our children and staff are starting to settle in to the new school year. The main problem that we are experiencing is student misbehavior in the lunchroom. In order to fund more teacher positions and reduce class size, I have reduced the number of non teaching positions. As a result there are less aides who are responsible for supervising the lunchroom.
The classes in the periods before lunch are calm and focused. After lunch is a different story. With too few aides to supervise the lunchroom, it has become a more hectic place where the kids get really wound up in a short time. It is becoming a challenge for the teachers to calm their students after they leave the lunchroom.
I wish I could have it all: more aides, administrative support and reduced class size. But our school budget doesn’t allow me the “luxury” of funding all of our school needs. Having to choose one basic need over another is a dilemma that I regularly face.
We can have an art teacher or music teacher but not both, if we want to have a computer teacher.
I eliminated our school’s librarian position in order to purchase a teacher so that we could reduce class size. I haven’t funded an assistant principal position in order to purchase yet another teacher to reduce class size. I dropped a disciplinarian position to purchase a third teacher in order to reduce class size even further. These are all difficult choices but they are the choices I have to make in order to help my children to succeed. Ideally the School Reform Commission should provide us with all of the money that we need. If that were to happen then I wouldn’t have to make Solomonesque choices.
I didn’t go out to the yard at dismissal because I was on the phone with a central office administrator. An adult screaming in the hallway tipped me of to the fact that something was wrong. I could hear Yonnie, our Non Teaching Assistant (NTA), and Nottingham trying to calm the screamer. I decided to wait and see if they could settle this situation down before I had to jumped into it. After about ten minutes, the shouting only seemed to get louder. I had to get involved.
Different staff members came into my office to brief me on the situation. Two fifth-grade girls, Donisha and Saundra, had gotten into a fight. A clique of mean girls, led by Christie Sims’ daughters, had started it. During the fight, Saundra’s mother, Ms. Thompson, pushed through the crowd. She grabbed the other girl—Donisha—who was on top of her daughter, and pulled her to her feet. The mob kept swinging and kicking at Donisha. Donisha’s grandmother and aunt were also in the yard. They thought that Ms. Thompson was holding Donisha so that crowd could beat on her. So they got into a shouting match with Thompson. The staff broke up the kid fight but couldn’t calm the adults.
Nottingham brought Donisha’s grandmother into my office. Donisha is an honor student who has never been in trouble. Someone would have had to really provoke this girl in order for her to start fight.
The grandmom said, “That woman held my granddaughter while the other children beat her.” She wanted Ms. Thompson arrested. I shared the information I had received from the staff that had been in the yard. Quietly, she listened to what I had to say. Then I excused myself to meet with Ms. Thompson in an empty classroom.
She had recently enrolled her children in our school. I didn’t know her or her daughter. She admitted that she had grabbed Donisha.
“I grabbed her and pulled her off of my daughter. When I got her off the ground, the other kids started hitting on her. I wasn’t holding her so they could beat her. It just happened. I was wrong for grabbing the little girl, but I didn’t want my daughter to get hurt.”
I decided to bring Ms. Thompson into my office to meet with Donisha’s grandmother. At first it was dicey. But eventually we made some progress toward finding an agreeable solution. The grandmother said she could see how Saundra’s mom was trying to protect her daughter, and Ms. Thompson apologized for grabbing Donisha. It was agreed that Ms. Thompson would come back the next day so that she meet with Ms. Mills, Donisha’s mother.
Soon after everyone had left I went home. I went to bed as soon as I got there. I was exhausted and had a pounding headache