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

By the Notebook on Aug 22, 2014 11:26 AM

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.

Resources

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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Comments (12)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2014 12:18 pm

That is so true. But Dr. Hite thinks he can schools with no assistant principals and support staff. He doesn't understand that staffing plays an important role in student achievemnent. Who can advise him? 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2014 12:00 pm

The worst and sad part is Dr. Hite does not want any experienced talented administrators. He is trying to get rid off all these experienced administraors and bring in new teachers from different school districts as PRINCIPALS and make the city schools fail. He does not provide any assistant principals to support these principals. Other school district groome thier assistant principals to be their PRINCIPALS but unfortunately Hite wants to bring in his inefficient friends from California, Maryland and all of them flee the District within few months. There is no stability in the District. HE CALLS THIS INSTABILITY AS INNOVATION. 

Submitted by Annony (not verified) on August 22, 2014 8:52 pm

This was written in 2000.  Today, Ms. McGinley would have far less.  

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2014 8:33 am

Now all these students are in Tilden Middle School. They have brought in new principal and it is a terrible mess.Fire alarms are being pulled every minute and fights are breaking out between parents and students. It is next BARTRAM. IT IS NOT SAFE. I am not sending my daughter there this year.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2014 8:31 am

This is all by design. The public schools have deliberately been undermined by those who want to privatize them. The schools are been made intolerable on purpose.

At Thursday's SRC meeting, they passed as resolution for the repair of Germantown High School for $2,066,550. Germantown High School was closed last year after years of neglect!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2014 8:55 am

Why are they spending on Germantown High School now? where is the money coming from?

Submitted by Annony (not verified) on August 23, 2014 9:46 am

A charter school wants it.  Julie Stapleton-Carroll, is behind it along with the Germantown High School Project.  She founded Wissahickon Charter which has expanded to two schools thanks to the SRC.  Also worked with Foundations, Inc. and started "Principled Schools, Inc."

This is from the Tribune August 6, 2014:

Ken Weinstein, a developer based in Germantown, placed a bid in June and said then he was willing to work with the community on putting an educational facility in the building.

In a statement he made to the Tribune, after proposing a $1 bid to the school district, he said, “I want to work closely with the community ... so we can find the right use and users to renovate the building for the future. My guess is it’ll be a school, it’ll be offices [and] probably be residential, but we need to initially start with an anchor tenant who will most likely be a school.” 

So, likely to be another charter if the powers that be have their way.  Sounds like another Universal Inc. sweet deal / Audenreid.

 

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2014 9:06 am

With the influx of students from Pepper, Shaw and Tilden, the school is totally out of control. Most of the talented teachers left the school because of the climate. They brought in a strong AP to support the principal.There is no stability. Every year it is a new set of administrators. Hite does not care about stability. The neighborhood is poor and there is no one to fight for these students.

Submitted by Benn there, done that (not verified) on August 24, 2014 11:29 am

I also was an administrator in a city school before moving to a suburban one.  I made the transition in 2010, so have a more current frame of reference than this piece.  While true that the suburban school had more funding to work with, the money led to more problems - the faculty and staff received EVERYTHING they ordered and requested and did less with it. 

The suburban setting was one of spoiled entitlement - the students felt they were entitled to certain grades because of who they were, not because of what they had produced; the more teachers were given, the more they complained; and the sitting administrators (those who had been in place prior to my arrival) were lazy and complacent - they bought their own hype.  The belief that saying a school was "excellent" when it was less than mediocre was good enough.

The teachers in the urban setting had less to work with (in the way of materials) and were more creative in their lessons.  The students in the urban school saw education as their means out of their neighborhoods.

In comparing the two experiences, the students and teachers in the urban setting worked harder and achieved more with less.  They valued education more and their college acceptances showed it: the suburban students were accepted at state colleges and dropped out, ending up at local community colleges, while the urban students routinely went to selective and Ivy League schools - where they stayed and excelled.

Having money is not the solution in education - valuing education is the key.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 25, 2014 9:22 am

I don't think anyone is saying money is THE solution. But it is certainly part of it. 

Submitted by Flabbergasted (not verified) on August 25, 2014 10:37 pm

The teachers in the urban setting had less to work with (in the way of materials) and were more creative in their lessons.  The students in the urban school saw education as their means out of their neighborhoods.

In comparing the two experiences, the students and teachers in the urban setting worked harder and achieved more with less.  They valued education more and their college acceptances showed it: the suburban students were accepted at state colleges and dropped out, ending up at local community colleges, while the urban students routinely went to selective and Ivy League schools - where they stayed and excelled

 

Huh?  Lol.  

 

Submitted by Flabbergasted (not verified) on August 25, 2014 10:42 pm

The teachers in the urban setting had less to work with (in the way of materials) and were more creative in their lessons.  The students in the urban school saw education as their means out of their neighborhoods.

In comparing the two experiences, the students and teachers in the urban setting worked harder and achieved more with less.  They valued education more and their college acceptances showed it: the suburban students were accepted at state colleges and dropped out, ending up at local community colleges, while the urban students routinely went to selective and Ivy League schools - where they stayed and excelled

 

Huh?  Lol.  

 

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