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A school's value cannot be so easily calculated

By Frank Murphy on Feb 26, 2013 02:08 PM

Superintendent William Hite has changed a flawed school-closings plan, and the revision was an encouraging sign. Hearing the concerns and suggestions of individual school communities was exactly what Dr. Hite needed to do in order to demonstrate that he is pursuing a school reform agenda responsive to the best interests and needs of city neighborhoods. It is time that the members of the School Reform Commission do the same.

To fully grasp the impact that a school has on the children it serves, one must first understand the neighborhood where those children live. A school is not an island. It is part of the social web of a community. With schools operating in economically distressed areas, they can, and often do, serve as beacons of hope. They are lighthouses, so they shouldn’t be judged in the same way as other institutions.

Meade Elementary at 18th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia, a school where I was once principal, acts as a vital part of the community. That did not stop District officials from putting it on the original closure list. Although it was subsequently taken off the list, we still aren't sure how officials calculated its value in reversing their decision. So let me do that for you.

At present, Meade provides good instruction, offers a wide array of other services like parent outreach programs and a health clinic, and partners with many area organizations. But this was not always the case.

In the early '90s, the neighborhood surrounding Meade laid in shambles. The housing stock was substandard. Drug dealers occupied many of the street corners. Gun violence was rampant. Crumbling, abandoned properties, empty, garbage-strewn lots, and graffiti-marred walls could be found everywhere. It was a place people wanted to escape from, but they lacked the means to do so.

Much has changed since those rock-bottom days. A focused renewal process transformed the long-struggling area, reshaping the streetscape of the neighborhood. Over the course of the last 20 years, hundreds of new homes were built in the area surrounding Meade. A consortium of organizations, formed by developer Beech Interplex, worked together to create programs using a holistic approach to community development. 

As the group’s elementary school partner, Meade has held up its part in helping to change its neighborhood. From 1998 to 2010, the teachers, parents, and students of Meade worked diligently to transform their school from a neglected, underperforming preK-4 building into a well-functioning preK-8 school. During this transition, the staff created a safe, purposeful, and engaging learning environment for all students. 

In 2010, changes in School District leadership led to Meade's designation as an Empowerment School, due to lagging test scores. The staff was forced to abandon best practices that had worked for their students in favor of a scripted teaching plan. The consequence of this decision hurt the school immensely over the last three years. 

Meade is not the only school in the Philadelphia School District that has formed powerful and productive partnerships with faith-based partners, neighborhood groups, and a variety of other business and nonprofit organizations. And, like many other schools, it has been unfairly disrupted by top-down administrative directives issued by a succession of quickly changing CEOs and superintendents. These schools add value to their respected communities. They make it clear that a school can be a place far greater than the sum of the “seats” in its classrooms. 

If the SRC members are committed to making truly informed decisions concerning the closure of District schools, they need to examine a broad range of factors regarding the targeted schools. They shouldn’t rely solely on flawed spreadsheets that show questionable facility usage information and limited standardized test data. They need to take a close look under the hoods of the affected neighborhoods in order to get a realistic view of how targeted schools contribute to powering the social and economic engines of their local communities. Only by making such a comprehensive review will the members of the SRC be able to truly determine how vital a school is. To do so will take more time than a few days of deliberation.

Instead, the SRC should postpone for a year any school-closing decisions. Placing a year-long moratorium on the closure plan will provide the opportunity to really study the effects of leaving wide swaths of residential areas devoid of public schools. It will also provide school communities the time necessary to develop a comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of their importance as anchor institutions in their neighborhoods.

Frank Murphy is the former principal of Gen. George G. Meade Elementary in North Philadelphia and served as an educator for over 35 years. He nows works as a distributed leadership coach for the Penn Leadership Center. He blogs at City School Stories.


The opinions expressed in this post are solely the opinions of the author. 

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Comments (17)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 26, 2013 2:18 pm
Excellent post Frank. That is exactly why good decisions can not be made "for schools" and "for communities" by outsiders who have no familiarity with the community or knowledge of the history of the school. Your paragraph about the implementation of a regimented test preparation curriculum and removing student centered instruction is also on point. Everyone should understand that what is happening affects children, their families and their communities in fundamental ways. Thanks.
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on February 27, 2013 6:24 am
i'm sorry, mr. murphy, but i find it hard to read this. while i'm not of the belief that assessments are everything, you'd be hard pressed to convince me that, "...meade provides good instruction..." i agree that it may not be appropriate to judge them by national or state results, but only one class met the district average in math and none in reading. I read your commentary as "the operation was a success, but the patient died." your emotional appeal for the moratorium is nothing more than lipstick on a pig. the simple fact is you didn't do well enough for those kids and they'll suffer for it. it's not all your fault, but you certainly don't get a pass here. and as a unionized principal, your credibility is shaky. so tell your students at penn that whether the leadership be singular or distributed, they will always bear the responsibility for results.d
Submitted by Philadelphia citizen, voter, taxpayer (not verified) on February 27, 2013 7:44 am
You're missing some important information. Meade School made AYP during the years Frank Murphy was principal. Dr. Ackerman's administration pushed him out for political reasons. Under Murphy, the school functioned, even if you use test scores to measure that success.
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on February 27, 2013 8:39 am
so you think ayp is a fair assessment? did they reach the district average in any of those years? the distric average is not a high bar. if you believe mr. murphy's record is exemplary, you have low standards for low-income children. this is a waste of your taxes.
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on February 27, 2013 9:17 am
I think we all know that you can manipulate data by using the average, median or mode. That is an 8th grade concept I teach my students. A logical way to look at data is to look at the baseline (regardless or mean, median, etc.) and see if there was an improvement over time. Over time, the school showed growth. If you did not take a step into Meade School over the years, I do not think you have a well rounded argument or any position to take on the "results."
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on February 27, 2013 10:44 am
so you think less than 40% proficiency is a good job, considering who goes to meade? thanks, but no thanks.
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on February 27, 2013 10:51 am
That's a loaded question. Did you look at baseline data? Where did these kids begin when they started taking the PSSA and where did they end during Murphy's tenure? Did you look at reading levels and growth over time? Did you look at the number of students admitted to magnet schools and special admit high schools? Are we factoring in the number of students who have excelled in the arts? There are a lot of factors to consider when looking at or for "results."
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on February 27, 2013 10:49 am
reformer, I do not know the details at Meade, but making AYP does show progress. It is not the "snapshot" level, but the change that should be looked at (recall your calculus class). Using just my experience at my neighborhood school, if a school is making AYP consistently over a period of years, and it is not predominantly because of Safe Harbor coupled with significantly declining subgroup population(s), then it is making progress. It is no small feat, and the principal should be commended for fostering the teamwork that is required to do this.
Submitted by Bobbie Cratchit (not verified) on February 27, 2013 3:03 pm
I had the opportunity to know the Meade School community, staff and Frank Murphy during his tenure. It takes many years of hard work, building trust with your staff, students and parents and the development of a collaborative instructional community to increase student performance. That is what I saw happening at Meade school from 1999- 2010. I believe that Mr. Murphy’s record is exemplary. I witnessed teachers attending professional development that was meaningful and relevant, I observed students actively engaged in learning and I saw an administrator who cared for his students and staff. These are the ways that Meade School grew in those years. The data grew as well and the proof is in the data. Every school has a story and I thank you Frank for sharing Meade’s story. I do not understand ‘reformer’s’ stance on meeting the district average as a goal, but making AYP is not considered improvement. You can’t pick the data with which to tell your story. And Meade made AYP through the hard work done by both principal and staff. If ‘reformer’ truly knew about real school reform, not what he/she reads in the headlines, he/she would understand that raising student performance cannot, and will never happen, in one school year. ‘reformer’, you give yourself away here in this forum, as someone who knows nothing about what happens inside a school. Please, show respect for those who have committed their lives and careers to children. I suggest you take a course at Penn, you need to become educated.
Submitted by Meg (not verified) on February 28, 2013 6:30 am
You are judging Meade based on the data that was gathered after we were forced to use scripted programs that made every child be on the same page at the same time, which we all know is not education. This frustrates those even slightly below those levels and turns off those even slightly above. These programs, while focused on where the "average child" should be neglect the reality of where every child truly is. They are not reality, and hurt every child.
Submitted by reformer (not verified) on February 27, 2013 8:26 pm
alright bobbie, and you know so much. My point is simple, if you can't reach the school district average, that's not exemplary teaching. the ayp attainment was by going up and down then up again, but never over 40% prociency. and no, i'm not impressed about who had a wonderful experience i the arts. what galls me is how flippantly you all accept that level of achievement as okay fo the neighborhood. boobie, if you lived around that area, would you be happy with a meade education for your child? you take your mr. murphy. i'd rather see kipp take over. they don't throw parades for 3/10 achievement rates.
Submitted by Luke (not verified) on February 27, 2013 11:26 pm
Reformer, Nobody posting here ever settled for 40%. No one thinks 40% is an end goal. That would be absurd. What is being explained to you, though obviously you are not able to understand, is that from 1999-2010, the school improved, and student scores improved. Had the program been able to continue, the goal was always to keep improving. If you expect scores to increase drastically in a short period of time, I urge you too look into the schools that did. It turns out they cheated. What was done at Meade was a transformation of learning that was slowly but STEADILY raising scores. It wasn't miraculous but it was working. It it showed potential for long term success. What is wrong with that?
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on February 28, 2013 5:47 am
Luke, there is nothing wrong with that. That should be the goal of all schools, to steadily increase scores over time and provide a well rounded education for ALL students. Reformer has not analyzed the data - he is accepting it at face value. And by the way, Meade was over 40% in both math and reading in 2010 - then the SDP stepped in with their mandated, scripted curriculum. Reformer - you did not respond to my post above. We all know data can be skewed. The average was obviously skewed for years with a lot of "questionable" test taking practices. Look critically at the data.
Submitted by Meg (not verified) on February 28, 2013 7:07 am
Well said, Luke. As a member of this staff, before Murphy and after, I can honestly say those years were focused on the children in ways I had never experienced and greatly miss. The data drove our professional development and every lesson. We pioneered a huge variety of ideas and programs that worked - they mattered because they were chosen for our kids and their specific needs. For example, the use of the 100 Book Challenge as a leveled, planned independent reading piece. This supported the guided reading lesson and was driven by DRA levels. This program is now greatly ignored, but I was it work - increase reading levels, and the desire to read which is immeasurable.
Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on February 28, 2013 9:31 am
Fret not over cowards like "reformer." A quick gloss of this person's post will reveal someone who is either deeply misinformed, or else a flat out liar. This person pontificates about educational issues that s/he knows little about, and seeks to diminish the work of those of us who actually dedicate our professional lives to teaching and learning. The successes of Meade are well known. Ignore the critiques of the unknowing.
Submitted by Luke (not verified) on February 27, 2013 11:59 pm
Reformer, Nobody posting here ever settled for 40%. No one thinks 40% is an end goal. That would be absurd. What is being explained to you, though obviously you are not able to understand, is that from 1999-2010, the school improved, and student scores improved. Had the program been able to continue, the goal was always to keep improving. If you expect scores to increase drastically in a short period of time, I urge you too look into the schools that did. It turns out they cheated. What was done at Meade was a transformation of learning that was slowly but STEADILY raising scores. It wasn't miraculous but it was working. It it showed potential for long term success. What is wrong with that?
Submitted by Hmann (not verified) on February 28, 2013 9:57 am
I had the privilege of teaching at Meade School. I saw first hand that purposeful teaching and learning can have a powerful impact upon a school of dedicated learners, both students and teachers. Students were engaged in reading, math, writing, and problem solving. Teachers were engaged in professional development that directly impacted the learning of students in the classroom. I saw improvement over the years in test scores and student behavior. I also was a witness to how quickly a program can decline when sound teaching practices and resources are pulled from a school in favor of scripted teaching.Test scores plummeted and those same once engaged learners became disengaged from academics and became behavior problems.

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