February 27 — 11:52 am, 2015

A farewell to Philly schools: ‘I’ve loved every day’

I had never thought about school nursing until a friend told me about an opening at Germantown Academy, the prestigious private school where she worked. I had four children, and working in labor and delivery during the night and on weekends in a hospital had become a nightmare. As a school nurse, I would have the same schedule as my children. An added perk: They could attend the school tuition-free. I was psyched.

I didn’t get the job. At first, I was disappointed. The specter of endless night shifts loomed again. But then another friend told me about public school nursing in Philadelphia. Since I lived in the city, I took the test in the fall of 1989 and began work the following January.

It was the best career choice I ever made. I’ve loved every day I spent as a school nurse.

Before I retire at the end of the school year, over the next several months, I will share the experiences I’ve had with children, fellow staff members, school administration, community agencies like the Department of Human Services, and the various superintendents who built, bought, and hawked expensive programs. For the most part, these programs fell far short of their cost.

In my 25 years of working in public education, I’ve learned things I would never have learned had I worked in an elite private school — things about class, poverty and racism that have made me a much wiser and more empathetic human being. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I’ve also seen how bureaucracy, politics, elitism, and prejudice can hijack even the best-laid plans and intentions, leading to disaster rather than reform. I have seen superintendents like David Hornbeck, Paul Vallas, Arlene Ackerman, and William Hite ride into the city on their white horses, promising the sun, the moon, and the stars. Many of them skulked out of town in the dark a few years later. I have seen agencies that are responsible for the welfare of children instead tear huge holes in the proverbial safety net. I’ve seen a few bad teachers and an entire host of dedicated ones who manage to teach in spite of the obstacles placed in front of them by the pet reformer of the day. I’ve seen great principals who build up schools, and I’ve seen terrible ones who run the school into the ground in just a few short weeks.

When I walked into Olney Elementary on a cold January day in 1990, I had no idea what to expect. I had spent 12 years in Catholic school in Philadelphia and had my own prejudices about what we used to call back in the day “the publics.”

Those prejudices were quickly dashed. At Olney Elementary, I worked with talented, dedicated, intelligent teachers who toiled away in an old building with a tiny nurse’s office, one staff bathroom, and a basement lunchroom that looked like something from the movie Annie.

Olney’s enrollment was diverse. At one time, we figured out that 77 different languages were spoken by students. The students came from Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India, Thailand, and Pakistan. There was an Afghan family, a Palestinian family. Several came from the former Yugoslavia and Russia, and a couple from Portugal. There were students from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Colombia, Guyana, Mexico, Bolivia, and Brazil.

The teachers somehow made it all work.

A family from India had been in Bhopal during a chemical disaster in 1984. The girls remembered seeing a white powder covering the area outside their home, almost like the snow they later came to see in Philadelphia.

A Cambodian girl told me of her family’s long march to a refugee camp during the terrorist regime of Pol Pot.

In 1993, I transferred to Stetson Middle School, because I believed that a school-based clinic would solve the health issues I saw treated with difficulty at Olney Elementary, where most of the children did not have health insurance. The clinic was begun with good intentions but without the crucial input of parents, who chose instead to send their children to the many doctors and clinics that existed in Kensington. The clinic closed from lack of use.

Very significant numbers of students at Stetson did not speak English. Neither did their parents. I learned to speak a very rudimentary form of nurse’s Spanish. “Tiene dolor in la garganta?” (Do you have a sore throat?) Or I could write to the parents on a nursing form, "Su hija está mala. No escuela mañana." (Your daughter is sick. No school tomorrow.)

From Stetson, I transferred to Roxborough High School in 1999. In high school, the little-kid problems often become big problems, as kids flex the muscles of pre-adulthood. As in many schools, most of the students do the right thing and somehow manage to graduate. Unfortunately, some get pregnant and some get involved in drugs. One terrible year, two of our students were murdered.

In 25 years, I’ve heard stories from students and seen things that broke my heart: child abuse, little girls with venereal disease in their throats, incest, dead parents, mental illness, intractable poverty, invincible ignorance, and throw-away children who made their way from couch to couch yet still managed to get to school.

I’ve met mostly stellar people who do their job to the best of their ability and a few slugs. The slugs were always in the minority.

I also saw multiple administrations ride roughshod over the opinions and input of those who worked in the trenches. Big Brother and Big Sister always seemed to have a better idea. Those with their boots on the ground were forced to follow orders, even if the orders didn’t make any sense.

When I retire in June, I’ll miss the students and my fellow workers in the commendable field of education. What I won’t miss is the politics and the underlying disrespect for those of us who work in dirty, overheated or underheated, poorly staffed buildings with little to no resources with children who are crying out for more help.


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.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism