Introduction: Complete (1 to 4)

02 Sep


Confessions of an Urban Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment (1 of 4)

When someone asks me what I do, I always hesitate for at least a half second.  I want to say I am a teacher, the role that best describes me.   However, the few times I’ve termed myself teacher in recent years, people become confused when they realize I am an elementary school principal.  People think of a principal as different from a teacher: more important, in charge of the school.  People wonder why I would present myself as just a teacher.  So I have taken to introducing myself as an educator.  But this title doesn’t work well for me either.

Who is an educator?  It could mean a range of careers from college professor to daycare aide.  I would prefer a term that communicates clearly who I am. I have lived my entire adult professional life in elementary or middle schools; I have grown to be a man by teaching school children.  If it didn’t sound so corny, I would tell people that I’m a “schoolman”

When I decided to become a principal, my graduate studies advisor suggested that I start by applying to be a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia.   While anyone who met the requirements could apply for an administrative position, if you didn’t already work for the District your chances of being hired as a principal were slim.

So in 1988, I became a public school teacher.  I was already a fourteen year veteran of the classroom: eleven years teaching in white working class Catholic schools and three years in an affluent suburban district.  I was an experienced and knowledgeable teacher, but quickly found out I still had much to learn.

The hiring process I endured in Philadelphia was protracted and confusing. I didn’t know I had a definite position until the day before school started. The school to which I reported was disorganized and poorly managed.  At first I was given a sixth grade class, which was a good match for my many years of experience at that grade level.  After two months, the principal abruptly reassigned me to an eighth grade math class, thinking I was the best choice to handle this newly vacant position.

The eighth grade teacher that I replaced had been popular with his students.  They resented losing him.  I became the main focus of their resentment. I worked hard to learn new content, as well as to adjust to the differences between my bubbly curious sixth graders and the volatile emotional cocktail of these eighth graders.  During the months of November and December, I shrunk from a size forty waist to a size thirty-six.  I also went back to smoking, a habit that I had broken nearly three years before. The shifting my teaching assignments had sent me into a tailspin.

It was a harrowing experience.  I was on the phone every night for at least an hour with parents.  Every day in each of my sections, unruly students attempted to disrupt the lesson. I experienced classroom management problems I had never seen before. I went from loving going to work every day to doubting my career choice. I thought of quitting daily.

One student in particular made those first days in Philadelphia especially difficult:  Samuel G. Washington.  Samuel was an eighth grader who was going to turn seventeen before the end of the school year.  In 1988, there was no limit to the number of times a student could be retained in a grade.  Even though Samuel had repeated several grades in elementary school, I discovered that his academic failures didn’t correlate with a lack of intelligence.  Samuel was bright young man with a strong and dominant personality.  He was popular with his peers.  He exercised a great influence over them.  It soon became apparent that Samuel G. Washington was the leader of the eighth grade nation.   It was Samuel with whom I struggled to gain control of my classroom.

Installment (2 of 4)

One day in February, Samuel and another boy engaged in a pushing match in the hallway during the change of classes.  Reflexively, I stepped between them because I always intervened when my students acted inappropriately.  I did so even though I had taken quite a beating a few weeks earlier when I’d attempted to separate two other fighting students.  Fortunately, this time the boys stopped.

I led Samuel down the hallway while another teacher took the second boy to his room.  I talked to Samuel.

“What are you doing?  This isn’t like you.  I know you can do better.”

These were words that I was used to saying to students.  I was, in my own mind, a wise teacher.  Samuel stared at me fearlessly.  I continued to talk until he finally said, “You don’t know me.”

And that was all he said.  Then he made a little whistling sound and gave me a coy smile.  He walked back into the classroom. His words stopped me in my tracks.  I didn’t know him. He was a young African American man who had had little success in school.  I was a thirty-something white man and teacher who had never taught in a school where the students saw me as an outsider. To them I was suspect, someone to be mistrusted.  Maybe because of this realization, I was finally able to hear him.  It was clear that Samuel hadn’t received many breaks in school.  I suspect he hadn’t received many breaks in life.

For the fourteen years before I had come to this new school, I had listened to my students from the perspective of someone who was powerful and in charge.  Now that the education world I have known is spinning out of control, I need to put my assumptions aside. I need to see my new world as it is.

I have always been comfortable telling kids how I think they should act. But I hadn’t listened closely to them when they tried to tell me what their world was actually like. Suddenly and unpleasantly, I was learning what it felt like to be disempowered.

Slowly, life turned around after this encounter with Samuel.  I started to listen more than I talked.  I grew to understand Samuel and his classmates better.

By the end of the term I had established a solid relationship with my students. I read carefully what they wrote in class and listened to what they said.  I was determined to understand them. In the process, I discovered that I had many unexamined preconceptions about race and class, notions that hindered my ability to comprehend the full humanity of others and of my own.

My students became my teachers. They made it clear to me that I had much to learn about the problems of an urban public school. They lived an American experience that didn’t share the riches our nation provides to so many of its citizens.  I stopped thinking of them as poor, “at-risk” children who needed to be saved.  At the end of that year, I knew that I had finally found where I needed to be as an educator.

Twenty years have passed since I met Samuel G. Washington. The rawness of that tumultuous year has been replaced by a tougher skin.  But the lessons learned from that young man and his many friends have not faded.  He shaped my development as a teacher and, eventually, as a principal.

For the last eleven years I have been the principal of General George G. Meade Elementary School. Meade is located in a poor, urban community in North Philadelphia. For the four and half years before I came to Meade, I was the assistant principal at the middle school Meade students fed into after fourth grade.  For these fifteen years I have lived my school life in the same North Philadelphia community.  It is community greatly challenged by drugs, poverty and urban decay.

The children served by Meade School are among those most in need effective and committed teachers and principals.  As the leader guiding them through their school experience, I am personally accountable to these children.

Providing my children with a quality of service so they can excel academically is a monumental challenge.  Our school (and entire school district) is under-funded. We struggle to provide the same level and quality of services that more affluent districts routinely offer. Recruiting and retaining effective teachers is difficult.  Our average district class sizes are large. There are more than 30 children in each of our classrooms.  Our building facilities are old and often need repair.

In 1998, Meade had the highest percentage of poor families of any school in the district.  At that time, student achievement was low. Only eighteen percent of first graders could read at grade level expectation.  The environment was chaotic.  The student transience rate was, and continues to be, high. Many teachers took the first available opportunity to transfer to other schools. Administrative turnover was also high. Before my arrival, Meade had had three principals in two years.

Installment (3 of 4)

I have forged strong partnerships with and among my staff, parents and students. Together, we have come a long way.  While initially a Kindergarten through grade four school, we transformed Meade into a K-8 facility.  Through collective efforts, our school is now a safe and orderly place. Our teachers and students enjoy small classes, ample supplies and materials, and a strong support system.  Fifty percent of our students now read at grade level or above, three times the rate when I first arrived. The obstacles abundant in a poor, urban community are still present in the neighborhood, but the teachers, students and families have moved forward anyway.

It has taken many years to change the climate of Meade School. In spite of our considerable achievements, none of these will determine our school’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind.  In this age of school reform, making AYP is the one and only measure that will determine our success or failure to the public.

Many elected officials have seized the issue of “school reform” as their number one legislative agenda item. The No Child left Behind Legislation (NCLB) enacted in 2002 is their premier school reform accomplishment. The goal of this legislation is to fix the schools and school districts with  high numbers of students with very low scores on standardized tests.  Most of these lowest performing schools are located in poor, urban or rural communities like the one Meade serves.

Under the current definition of school reform, our performance on the Pennsylvania State System of Accountability (PSSA) test is all that matters. The pressure to excel on this one test has created a new force pressing against our schoolhouse walls.

Our society has a strong, collective belief that a single standardized test can tell the truth regarding student and school progress.  The current government school reform policy taps into this collective belief to spin the story that every child will have equal access to the benefits of our democratic society under No Child Left Behind.  It is a story that needs closer scrutiny.

Gaining equal access to standards of living enjoyed by the middle class in our country involves much more than passing a test.   To provide every child with the experiences and opportunities they need to be proficient readers, writers, and problem solvers requires a financial investment in the necessary resources.  The NCLB legislation doesn’t provide additional resources to schools that serve children with additional needs.  It proposes change in “failing” schools with low-test scores by holding adults more accountable.

This premise assumes that the adults who work in these failing schools are people with low expectations for the children they serve.  Working with and teaching children is challenging work.  The adults who choose to do this work are usually hard working people dedicated to their profession and to the children they serve.

When I am on the job at Meade, I see the commitment and determination of my staff as they attempt to fulfill the promise that all kids will be equally valued participants in our democratic society every day.  I, too, strive to actualize this vision for our children, despite their difficult economic circumstances.  The assertion that these children do poorly on standardized tests because the adults in their schools are not “accountable” is offensive.

When we talk about no child being “left behind,” we imply that all children start at the same place.  Children in our society do not start at the same place.  The majority of children who enter the kindergarten classrooms at Meade are already far behind other children who live in well-resourced communities.

They have a smaller active vocabulary, twelve thousand words to a middle class child’s eighteen thousand words.  They have been read to less and less often, and have had limited exposure to books and other print materials.  Our children have spent less time with their parents, who are often working long hours at minimum wage jobs and commuting great distances in order to reach these service jobs.

Less is mostly what they have.  Less is mostly what their parents have.  Many single mothers, surving in poverty and struggling to raise their children safely, live the community surrounding my school.  These families deal with inferior housing, poor access to health care, low-wage jobs, and unsafe streets.  These already stressed parents also have to compete with a street culture that tries to seduce their children, a culture that too often leads promising young lives to jail or death. All of these factors stunt a child’s learning and success in school.  These important considerations are beyond any educators’ ability to control, but remain part of the equation.

Installment (4 of 4)

If we want all children to be proficient learners, we must provide the advantages that will help them learn. We should hold schools accountable for teaching reading, writing and math.  We must also hold our society accountable. Every citizen should have access to good jobs, homes, and affordable health care. Children who are protected will learn well. Providing them with this support and protection is the job of the whole community, including the national community. This cannot remain the sole responsibility of individual schools.

No matter what gains Meade has made in the past several years, I do not hold any illusions that our school can be the sole force to transform the community in which our children live. The poverty that dominates their world is a problem too big for our school to solve alone.

In the intense debate about our public schools, hardly anyone addresses the multiple social needs of children. Instead, the discussion centers on how to reorganize and manage public schools.  Nationally, government and business leaders have initiated wide ranging reform experiments on our most disadvantaged students.  In a relatively short period of time, state takeovers of local schools, aggressive creation of charter schools, using for-profit management companies, and vouchers have become more common occurrences.  The Philadelphia School District is engaged in one of the largest of these national experiments.  Since 2002, forty-five schools were turned over to outside managers, and sixty-three charter schools have been created.  There are plans to turn another thirty schools over to outside management by 2010. There is little scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of these reform strategies.  Yet they continue to expand.  It seems that feelings, rather than facts, dominate our school reform arguments.

The cost of these experiments reduces the funds available to Meade and other public schools in our city.  This reduction comes as other costs associated with the expansive testing program and the myriad of time-consuming administrative compliance tasks mount.  Interestingly, by forcing school districts to divert funds from classrooms to pay for its mandates, NCLB further aggravates the problem of inequitable funding in our poorest schools.

The American public school system has been credited with supporting the nation’s cultural and social melting pot.  Public schools provide common ground where citizens meet the challenge of preparing children to be full participants in a democratic society.  They are places where people of different backgrounds can learn to understand one another better as they work together to pursue a common social good.

American schools have been (and still remain) the means through which all children are provided the equal opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge to live well and to pursue a better future.   Our public schools are the keepers of a sacred public trust.

If the public school system is broken, as current reformers insist, then let’s fix it in a manner that preserves our national belief that we are one nation of the people, by the people and for the people.  Fragmenting our public school system by turning over pieces of it to corporate management and special interest groups does not serve our democracy.


Becoming a school reformer is not an easy task.  I have learned this the hard way. As Samuel said to me so many years ago, I now say to those reformers who seem intent on dismantling the American public school system, “You don’t know me.”

To this statement, I add the following:   “You don’t know my students or their families.  You don’t know the communities that we live in every day.  Your measurements of our progress and success don’t truly measure us.  Try to see us through our own eyes and hear our voices.”

In this book I offer my own story of school reform.  This is a first hand account of the life of an urban elementary school principal in the era of No Child Left Behind.

These writings will share my interactions and experiences with students, parents and teachers during one full school year.  Each of the ten chapters represent a month of the school year.

Remember that the observations I share were not made from a distance.  They are derived from hard lessons, which I have learned from my daily encounters as an American educator.  These challenges cannot be described or measured by standardized test score data charts or political sound bites.

  1. annie

    March 16, 2011 at 12:41 am

    This is beautiful and haunting. Thank you for writing this, for your spirit and heart as a teacher, and for your desire and passion for getting it right…
    You touched my soul.