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A school rises or falls with the caliber of its leader

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While there's been quite a bit of discussion lately about “failing schools" and “low-performing seats" -- indeed, the two phrases have become synonymous with public education -- there has been little discussion about how schools come to fall off the curve. Sometimes this happens gradually, and sometimes quickly. I saw it happen at my school. And it wasn't because of failed teachers, but because of failed leadership.

When I began working at Roxborough High School in September 1999, the school had an enrollment of more than 1,300 students. Classrooms were filled to capacity. For many students, Roxborough was their safety school, the school they went to when they didn't get accepted into magnet schools. No school can be perfect, but we were one of the better comprehensive high schools. Kids wanted to attend Roxborough. Parents felt comfortable sending them there.

That all changed when, five years later, a new principal began what I call a reign of error. Within weeks, the kids were telling teachers they were in charge of the school. And, indeed, they were.

Over the course of the next 18 months, we had stampedes in the hallways, fires, fights, and group and individual assaults. Disrespectful students played cat and mouse in the halls with the school police. Our enrollment began to drop as our reputation changed from being adequate to unsatisfactory, and then, finally, to dangerous and failing.

But the staff had remained about the same as it had been the year before. 

When things go awry, blame must be ascribed. And who was responsible for the disastrous conditions? The teachers, of course! They didn’t teach properly. Their classroom management skills were lacking. They created a negative school culture. Never mind that the school had been under control just a few months earlier.

So, what did the District superintendent, the leaders at the District's central office and the School Reform Commission do to stop the downward slide of what had been a decent school? They permitted an incompetent principal to retain her appointment. She was rewarded with another school year, during which conditions were even worse than they had been the year before.

In 2006, the teachers finally reached the ear of a new superintendent, who actually listened to what the staff had to say. The incompetent principal left, and a retired principal came on board as interim.

What happened then? In a few weeks time, the halls emptied and the number of serious incidents fell. Did the central office leaders learn a lesson?

Apparently not. Under our next appointed principal, the culture of student responsibility that the interim had established faded like the autumn leaves. The tide turned back toward disorder: more fires, more fights, more assaults. Our enrollment dropped below 600. In 2009, our school had 75 serious incidents, landing us on the state's list of persistently dangerous schools. With rising violence and declining enrollment, rumors flew that the school was to be closed. 

The following year, another new principal arrived. The school experienced another amazing turnaround -- with the same teaching staff -- in less than two weeks. A school that had been a disaster was again under control. The following year, we had fewer than 10 serious incidents and shed our “persistently dangerous” status.

Bill Green, the new SRC chair, said in an interview on WHYY's Radio Times last week that every adult in the School District is responsible for failed schools. This is a fallacy. Indeed, there are adults responsible for all those low-performing seats. These adults are sitting safely in air-conditioned offices far removed from the rank and file who teach in run-down buildings and overcrowded classrooms with ever-declining resources.

So, there is an answer to the question of why schools fail. 

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Eileen DiFranco

Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 25 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.