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f goes public

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In May of this year, I became the newest blogger with the Notebook, under the name of “f”.

As a School District principal with an insider’s perspective on school reform efforts for the last 17 years, I was happy to be offered this opportunity. My acceptance of this offer was made under the condition that I remain anonymous until I officially retired. Signing blog posts is an important part of the credibility and transparency of the Notebook blog, so I agreed to blog under my real name, like other Notebook bloggers, after retiring.

In my last months as a principal, it was important to me that my children, parents, and staff be removed from any distractions or retributions that could have been generated as a result of a principal publicly critiquing the school reform efforts of his School District.

At the start of this last school year I had decided that it was time to pursue other challenges and opportunities in the field of education. I made the decision to retire this June.

What was of most interest to me was to write about my experiences as an urban educator. It has become my objective to share with a wider audience the information and insights that I have acquired during the course of my career. I believe that in a modest way I can provide a more nuanced and realistic perspective regarding the challenges and successes of public education than what has often been characterized in the media in recent times.

I have been an educator for 36 years and principal of Meade Elementary School for 12.5 years. Before taking leadership of Meade School, I was the assistant principal at the neighboring Vaux Middle School. Nearly half of my career has been spent in one North Philadelphia community learning much about the schooling of children who live in low-resourced neighborhoods.

The school turnaround advocates who currently dominate the NCLB school reform agenda claim that dramatic increases in student test performance can occur in a short period of one to two years. My years of experience as a school-based leader have taught me that real educational change is a slow, complex, and sometimes grueling process. Yet it is one that has a much greater significance on the future successes of children than increasing test scores on a standardized test.

When I arrived at Meade Elementary School, it was organized as a pre-K to 4th grade school. Only 12 percent of the 4th graders at that time were performing above the 50th percentile on a nationally normed reading test. Four years later, 42 percent of the 4th graders were achieving scores above the 50th percentile. This 30 percent increase could easily be dismissed by anyone who might note that 58 percent of the fourth graders were still scoring below average. But dismissing the efforts of the Meade School team on the basis of a single test score would have ignored the considerable progress that had been made in many different areas during those four years.

What had once been a chaotic and frequently violent environment had become an orderly and safe school. A developmentally appropriate, focused, and rigorous instructional program replaced a fragmented and inadequate one. Class sizes were reduced to an average of 18 students per classroom. A comprehensive professional development program was developed at the site, which addressed the needs of the Meade School staff. Enriching afterschool and summer programs were offered to all children who were willing to participate. Teacher transfers diminished as teachers gained confidence in the successes that were being created with our students.

Change was beginning to occur at a rapid rate after these initial years of hard work. However our progress was greatly slowed for several years after these initial successes when we were asked to convert from a pre-K-4 school to a Pre-K-8 configuration. During that time, we had to regroup our efforts in order to develop a strong middle school program with little resources or support from the district.

We dealt with and overcame these new challenges. We succeeded in making AYP for four out of the last five years. This year 19 of our 31 eighth graders were accepted to special admission high schools. Our suspension rate was almost non-existent. Serious incidents were not a problem. The wealth of engaging art, music, play writing, sports, science, and community service programs that we have developed over the course of several years have kept our students productively occupied.

Our Meade students have been recognized and honored for their achievements in music, writing, and art. These are but a few our school community’s accomplishments during this past year. The preliminary results for this years PSSA test indicate that once again we have made AYP. Though it has taken us many years, we have created a fine school at Meade. Ours is a school that is focused on meeting the needs of all of our children.

Few people however beyond our own school community know of our many accomplishments. We have done little in the way of communicating our own story. Like so many other urban school communities, the staff of Meade has been busy for a long time doing the work of schooling children. Busy teachers and principals don’t have the time to write about or to promote the successes they achieve.

This lack of knowledge of the accomplishments of our school and other schools like us makes it easy for the turnaround advocates to characterize our school communities in the most negative of manners. It is time to start to set the record straight about what it takes to achieve true measures of school reform.

As of today I am no longer an employee of the School District of Philadelphia. It is now time to fulfill my commitment to the Notebook staff to drop the veil of anonymity and to blog as Frank Murphy. I look forward to fully and openly participating in the lively dialogue that the Notebook site generates.