Special Report

Mission: Stability

By Bess Keller — January 09, 2003 10 min read
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On the night of last April 17, the Philadelphia school community waited anxiously to find out which of the district’s schools would land on a new list of low performers--schools that the state was declaring to be in urgent need of change.

When the list, drawn up by the new governing board appointed in the wake of Pennsylvania’s takeover of the school system here, was posted on the Internet, Bonnie Uditsky, an assistant principal at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, shot off a grim e-mail to a colleague. “We’re f-----,” the normally unflappable and upbeat administrator wrote. Uditsky’s school, in a decaying section of the Germantown neighborhood northwest of downtown, was slated for special treatment and, you might say, marked as a failure.

Amid all the fears raised by that tum of events, one stood out in the mind of Uditsky’s boss, Principal Catherine A. Pizzimenti-Murphy: Already absorbing the stresses of hard-pressed families, racial isolation, and an often-hostile popular culture, would the teachers jump ship?

The answer, overwhelmingly, was no.

“They didn’t leave me,” Pizzimenti-Murphy says. “They all hung, and held my hand, even though they know they are going to be in a fishbowl.”

The detailed answer is a little more complicated. Of a teaching staff of about 45, six teachers transferred out, but with one exception, the principal encouraged them to do so, she says. Another retired.

Still, that’s enviable stability in the face of changes mandated this school year by the district--and, perhaps even more, long-standing patterns in high-poverty urban middle schools.

Around the country, teachers are more likely to leave middle schools than ones at the elementary or high school level. What’s more, they gravitate toward schools where students get help with their homework at night and haven’t witnessed an assault or a drug-related murder. They quit schools such as Roosevelt, where three-quarters of the students come from poor families and almost all are black. In Philadelphia, a 1998-99 survey found one in five middle school teachers reported being new in their schools that year.

Yet few experts envision that student achievement can go up without the semblance of a stable, cohesive teaching staff. So with the resources available to her, the Roosevelt Middle School principal worked toward that goal.

Creating Trust

Pizzimenti-Murphy recalls that when she came to the 900-student school in 1999, it had some 15 vacancies--roughly a third of the teaching staff--at the end of the school year. Those numbers were cut in half this school year. Roosevelt also beats the Philadelphia odds in having more African-Americans (slightly over half) and more males (about a quarter) among its teachers.

But what about the teachers who took the place of those who left? In August, the principal thought she would gain some experienced teachers who wanted to bid for her school in the annual transfer process. Because of the amount of time it took for the positions to open up formally under the rules of the teachers’ contract, that didn’t happen.

So the newcomers are mostly inexperienced, and some are “apprentices"--that is, they have passed basic tests for teaching, possess a bachelor’s degree, and have started their education coursework toward licensure.

Like many people in urban schools, Pizzimenti-Murphy is a confirmed realist. She waves away as irrelevant the fact that she has almost no hand in picking who comes to her school. “It’s not like [teachers] are beating down my door,” she offers.

For the past few years, the Philadelphia district has offered bonuses to teachers in schools where turnover is high. The bonuses are aimed at getting experienced teachers to stay in such schools or come to them. Due to a quirk, Roosevelt qualifies. But the extra $2,000 offered doesn’t seem to have had a strong effect. Pizzimenti- Murphy recalls two experienced teachers who probably transferred in for the money, one just a year before retirement.

On the other hand, the principal is pleased that a special deal for teachers who sought to leave any of the district’s 70 takeover schools helped her edge out five instructors who, she believes, had grown stale or worse. Negotiated by the teachers’ union and the administration, the agreement allowed transferring teachers a slightly better shot at the positions they wanted and better protection should there be job cuts at their new schools.

While well-to-do-schools get to pick and choose among teachers, poorer ones often have to start with putting together a stable staff.

As a result of the transfers, the teachers who remain “are here because I want them to be here,” the principal says. “So there’s a trust element that they can do the job, and because of that, they do a lot of stuff extra.”

Sitting comfortably in Pizzimenti-Murphy’s office, the two assistant principals nod their agreement. Pizzimenti-Murphy, a compact, 49-year-old woman without, apparently, a shy bone in her body, started her fourth year at Roosevelt last August. She persuaded Bonnie Uditsky--whom she knew from professional gatherings--to join her two years ago. The second assistant principal, Sheila A. Eberhardt, came to the 80-year-old building when it reopened as a middle school in 1990.

The three say they offer different strengths. “I know the families,” volunteers Eberhardt, the school veteran and the only African-American among them. “Kathy is intense, Bonnie lighter.”

At the same time, the women share a focus on classroom improvement and an underlying theory about how to make that happen. Pizzimenti-Murphy sums it up: “I think I acknowledge that it’s been very difficult” for the teachers, she says. “I recognize the challenges, and I treat them like people, not just like teachers and professionals.”

New Challenge

Across the hall from the principal’s office, Daniel Heim tends to some photocopying in a teachers’ lounge furnished with not much more than snack machines and a few plastic chairs. He’s the kind of teacher the school can ill afford to lose.

Last year, the 14-year veteran won a citywide teaching award. Even more impressive, the award came because he had put himself out for a colleague and the good of the school. Rather than see a less experienced teacher fold under the challenge of a class that combined regular and special education students two years ago, Heim accepted the assignment. Almost one-fifth of the children at Roosevelt Middle School have special education plans.

“I ended up taking the ‘inclusion’ class, saying at least I have the management skills to tackle a classroom like that,” Heim explains. “I had to learn a whole new way of doing things, for a whole different group.”

He came up with packets that individualized teaching for all his students, often photocopying from the wealth of materials that a parade of programs has left at Roosevelt. In his tall-windowed classroom, the walls are covered with colorfully scripted charts and student work. An upright piano, which he plays, occupies a corner.

He says Pizzimenti-Murphy is one of the reasons he has stayed at the school for five years. He ticks off her qualities: fair, trustworthy, and attentive to organizing faculty meetings, among others. “She and the vice principals,” he says, “they listen and help.”

Staff members mention over and over that the administrators not only have open doors, but also take into account what teachers say. Some recent proof: Pizzimenti-Murphy pushed the new office of restructured schools to allow her English instructors to keep teaching from the high-quality novels they liked using under their old reading program, itself a reform effort developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. She won the compromise she sought.

The principal sees herself as a buffer, the person who will absorb at least some of the pressures, even apparent idiocies, from above, while the teachers get on with their jobs. “I make them understand that they’re not alone, and the buck stops with me,” she says.

That attitude comes through in smaller ways, too, like the work Assistant Principal Uditsky put in to showcase Heim for the award he won, or the administrators’ decision to copy required classroom materials so the teachers didn’t have to do it themselves.

Like Family

The help, though, is part of a tacit bargain that goes beyond tea and sympathy on Pizzimenti-Murphy’s part.

“Sometimes, she can be tough,” acknowledges veteran science teacher Linda Walker, who recently had to start teaching science from a kit and add math instruction to her duties. Walker entertained the notion of refusing the math assignment--which the teachers’ union said was her right--but plunged ahead, in part out of loyalty to the principal. One reward was a hug, Walker says happily.

More than a few staff members talk about the Roosevelt staff as a family. Some of the helpful relationships go back years, but Pizzimenti-Murphy tries to nurture the network along with individual talent. She has arranged schedules so that all the teachers in each of the school’s three grades, 6-8, have the same planning period, and she expects teachers to meet across grades by subject, as well as in their four “small learning communities.” This past summer, she added teachers to the group that decided how the instructional staff would be assigned within the school.

Thanks to the school’s special designation as a restructured school, two afternoons a month are set aside for work on teaching. The district also pays stipends to veteran teachers to mentor rookies.

“Most of us chose not to leave,” says Heim, “because we know each other and go to each other for help.”

Expanding the feeling of kinship to the students and their families is harder, though plainly teachers and administrators try. Students come mostly from parts of Germantown beyond walking distance, and many staff members live in the suburbs, where the reality is music lessons and soccer at an early age, not babysitting siblings.

So the administrators--all of whom live an hour or more from work by car--celebrate and encourage the connections that staff members have to the surrounding area. Teacher Theresa Abney of Germantown, for instance, was a long-term substitute in the school when Pizzimenti-Murphy seeing her good results with the students, helped Abney start working toward her teaching credential. She expects to receive it this spring.

Weary, Frustrated

For all its strengths, a school like Roosevelt seems to generate worlds that don’t bear much resemblance to the collaborative, hopeful universe of the administrators. Down on the first floor of the building, in a classroom shaded by enormous yew bushes, and across from the school’s unused band room (there is no instrumental-music program), art teacher Seth R. Govan thinks this will be his last year in teaching.

Geographically removed from much of the school, he is relatively satisfied with his homemade security arrangement, which was to put the handle of his hall door on the inside. He has nothing in particular against the administrators, nor complaints about the other teachers. He does miss a teacher who left, a man with a nimble sense of humor that made him wonderfully effective in the classroom.

But the 44-year-old Govan is weary. In meeting the needs of children weaned on violence, some suffering from “mental and chemical imbalances” induced by the crack cocaine or alcohol their parents ingested, a few pregnant, he struggles not to lose himself and not to lose a child.

“I can’t keep a scowl on my face all day to keep them under control,” he says. “Some need a hammer and some a feather, and you have to do it right. I have to constantly out-think my kids.” The pay, the degree of respect aren’t worth the strain, Govan says, so he hopes to make the property management he does on the side his full-time work.

Teacher Brent Binder, three years out of the teacher education program at Philadelphia’s Temple University, also feels the distance his students must travel for mainstream success. His brother, after substitute-teaching in the suburbs, now has a job there. But Binder, who teaches math and science to 6th graders, didn’t want to go that route.

Still, he says, “as time goes on, I get frustrated, kind of amazed that people with the same educational background, say, the teachers at the top, get 90 grand there and 60-something-grand here.

“If I had a chance to go the suburbs, I would take it,” he declares. “As long as I’m in the city, I’ll stay here.”

See also: Swimming Upstream

Thwarted by Fact and Fiction

The Road Less Taken

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2003 edition of Education Week


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