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From the archives: A principal’s tale of two schools: city and suburban

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

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

This piece is from the Spring 2000 print edition:

by Nancy J. McGinley

When I left my job as a middle school principal in the School District of Philadelphia to become principal of a suburban junior high school, the first major difference appeared in the form of a $20,000 increase in my annual salary.

I had spent 19 years in Philadelphia as a teacher, researcher, central office administrator, and middle school principal. I had taught education courses at Drexel University. Still, I was unprepared for the degree to which the level of school funding impacts upon the operation of schools and the quality of education in city and suburban schools.

Both Pepper Middle School (Philadelphia) and Abington Junior High School (Montgomery County) serve racially and ethnically diverse middle-level student populations. Both schools are large, 1,140 and 1,700 students respectively.

Because of the contrast in poverty rate between the two schools, student needs vary. Still, it has been my experience that adolescents in both the city and the suburbs pass through the same stages of development, pose similar challenges for educators, and, most important, have the same dreams for successful, productive lives.

What awaits students when they walk through the school door varies greatly. The difference in funding levels between the city and suburbs creates significant differences in programs, materials, resources, staffing levels, and to a certain degree, the quality of personnel holding various positions.

The truth is that Philadelphia’s school district operates a "bare bones" program in comparison to school districts throughout the state. As a result, students may not receive the educational services and supports they need to succeed and to compete in a global economy.

Administrative support

In Philadelphia, my school had an 85 percent poverty rate (compared to 9 percent in Abington). I was assigned one assistant principal, a nurse four days per week, two counselors, three secretaries, five non-teaching assistants, and two security officers.

My role as instructional leader was often secondary to the daily demands of supervision, issuing medications, dealing with discipline, cluster and central office priorities, and parent concerns. Lack of adequate administrative and support personnel stole time away from my focus on instruction.

At Pepper, I often was forced to sacrifice plans to observe teachers in classrooms because I was the only one in the building available to process disciplinary referrals, meet with parents, sit in on IEP conferences, and respond to problems. Lack of adequate secretarial support meant that I wrote the memos, typed them on my computer, duplicated and distributed them in teacher mailboxes.

In Abington, by contrast, I had three very capable and experienced assistant principals. Each assistant principal had a secretary to help monitor student records and maintain ongoing contact with parents. Six counselors served our students. Also available were a full-time psychologist, a visiting psychiatrist, a school-community coordinator, and a part-time student assistance program counselor.

The guidance department had a chairperson and its own secretarial staff. Our two nurses had the support of a health room clerk. A clerk and a secretary assisted the two full-time librarians. Twenty-six full and part-time aides worked in the building to monitor the hallways, supervise the buses and lunchroom, and provide supervision in subject-area clinics, which were available throughout the day and after school for students who needed additional support.

In terms of administrator/counselor support, Abington had two and a half times the level of per-student support available at Pepper Middle School. The ratio of support staff to students illustrates a similar disparity. In Abington, there was one support staff person for every 39 students. At Pepper, the ratio was one to 79.

At Abington, we successfully blended the concept of "small learning communities" with a rigorous academic program to create a program attuned to both the intellectual and social needs of students. The teachers who were assigned to teams within the learning communities were given an additional two periods per week for planning and student support. This time was over and above the teachers’ contractually mandated preparation periods.

At Pepper Middle School, in Southwest Philadelphia, we worked hard to establish four small learning communities and a myriad of school committees. Meeting time during the school day, however, was impossible to find. The effective functioning of staff teams depended upon the willingness of staff to give up their own time before or after school, at lunch, or during their preparation periods.


Abington enjoyed funding that enabled all students to have current textbooks for every subject. My building operating budget for textbooks, materials, and audio-visual supplies typically approximated $250,000. Old and damaged books were routinely replaced. The school district provided each student with a calculator for use at home and in the classroom.

At Pepper, the yearly operating budget totaled between $60,000 and $70,000. At $30 to $40 per textbook, we had to make difficult choices about our priorities. One year we bought a sufficient number of English anthologies for the entire school to enable each teacher to have a full classroom set. Another year we supplemented our inventory in mathematics. There was never enough money to have current books in all subject areas. Students were given older books to carry home. The newer classroom sets were shared among five classes per day.

At Pepper, every class had 30 or more students. Abington had lower class sizes across the school.

Instructional supervision

Abington Junior High had seven department chairpersons who taught a reduced schedule and functioned as subject area specialists within the building. They were part of the administrative team and, as such, had responsibility for conducting teacher observations and providing support. They managed staff development within their departments, held monthly department meetings, reviewed curriculum, and ordered books and materials. Through the work of seven department chairpersons and three assistant principals, we were able to formally observe all of our 115 teachers four times per year.

At Pepper, with 75 teachers and only one assistant principal, it was difficult for me to complete the required two observations per year. Even when we were able to carry out the observations, it was not possible for us to provide the rich, discipline-specific critiques and advice that routinely are communicated by department chairpersons.

Program offerings

At Abington, a rigorous honors program was open to highly motivated students in five disciplines, beginning in grade 7. Students were involved in supporting each other through a highly successful peer mediation program and student-to-student tutoring initiatives. Students who needed academic intervention were assigned to small-group tutoring in our humanities, mathematics, foreign language, science, and special education clinics. Clinics were staffed by aides or by certified teachers.

Opportunities for involvement and achievement extended beyond the classroom walls. Abington offered 28 interscholastic sports, an intramural. athletic program featuring non-traditional activities, and a wide variety of clubs and organizations. Afterschool "activity" buses ensured that all students could participate, regardless of parent availability. Instruction in performance music was incorporated into the instructional program. About 880 students participated in band, orchestra, and chorus.

At Pepper, the program offered basic instruction in four major subjects and reading. Instruction in foreign language was not provided. A small number of students (fewer than 25) received instruction in instrumental music. There were six interscholastic athletic teams (three for boys and three for girls), and an intramural and club program.

Professional staff

The teacher and administrative salary scale enabled Abington to attract highly qualified professional staff. A significant percentage of the faculty at the junior high school had over 25 years of experience. This level of staff stability is in direct contrast to the staffing picture in most Philadelphia middle schools. In the overwhelming majority of schools, there is a tremendous problem with teacher turnover, and Pepper was no exception.

Because of the district’s fine reputation and attractive salary package, new teachers seek out Abington School District, and as a result, we were able to hire excellent young professionals. We could afford to be selective in hiring because of the large number of applicants.

At Pepper, I generally was sent a list of the new teachers who had selected my school without the opportunity for me to assess their credentials in relation to the needs of my building.

My experience as an adjunct professor at Drexel has been that the majority of students are seeking employment in the suburbs. Comments such as "If I can’t get a job, I’ll teach in the city," reinforce the notion that city schools are the second choice of candidates who themselves are not the first choice of suburban districts.

Student performance

Comparisons of student test scores reveal vast differences in achievement levels between the two schools.

I did not become a better principal when I moved to the suburbs, but I was given the tools necessary to produce better results for children.

It is my belief that given the resources I had in Abington, students at Pepper Middle School could be performing at academic levels that are comparable to those in suburban districts.

As a resident of the city, I continue to view the improvement of our public school system as a key determinant of our future status as a world-class metropolis. My experience tells me, however, that even the most committed educators carmot transform city schools without the infrastructure of support that exists in districts throughout the state.

Nancy J. McGinley is Executive Director of the Philadelphia Education Fund.

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