A Forced Transfer: From Affluence to Poverty

by TERRENCE K. QUINN

It started off pleasantly enough when I met with the superintendent for my annual evaluation. We discussed the progress my elementary school had made in the two years I had served as principal. He expressed satisfaction with the variety of innovative programs that I had helped introduce.

Without preamble, the superintendent’s next statement startled me. “Terry, I am moving you to another school.” In a second I was being reassigned from a national Blue Ribbon School in Westchester County, a wealthy suburb north of New York City, to a school on the other side of town with the lowest test scores not only in the district but in the entire county. Four out of five students in that school who sat for the state’s standardized test in English language arts failed.
My anxiety deepened as the superintendent, a proud man, stretched way back to a baseball analogy. He pointedly noted, “I will not preside over the worst team in the county. The fans deserve better than what they got in the last few years. … The kids can hit the ball as well as anyone. They need a new manager. You’re it. ... Do what you need to do but I expect results. If you don’t get results, the state may well take over and trade a few players. They will certainly ask me to trade the manager.”

When the import of his decision to transfer me sunk in, I meekly asked if I had done something wrong. After all, his initial remarks had just commended me for progress and then, without any prior notice, he had announced that a new assignment awaited me. He crisply replied, “You have done nothing wrong. I just need to assign my resources to areas where they are most needed. I need you at Parker School.”

A Challenge Accepted
As a forced transfer plucked from the more affluent part of town to the poverty-stricken community of Parker School, I had my work cut out for me. In addition to a seriously sub-par record of pupil achievement, Parker was suffering from other blights common to urban schools. Large numbers of families on public assistance, many parents who were not active in their children’s schooling, high rates of student mobility and inadequate resources were the order of the day.

Neither the parents nor the teachers had any role in my selection as the turn-around principal. Would the school and the community accept me? Would they see me as a hired gun foisted on them by a superintendent obsessed with test scores?

Despite some misgivings, I accepted the superintendent’s transfer. Something inside beckoned me to accept the challenge of running a “last place” school. I had accepted a similar position earlier in my career as a principal and regarded it as the most fulfilling assignment of my entire professional life. I believed Ron Edmonds’ exhortation from more than 20 years ago that all children can learn. And as an old baseball fan, I could still hear those immortal words of New York Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw: “Ya gotta believe.”

I inherited the existing staff at the school. I knew I could not trade or transfer anyone. Early on I realized that some people needed to be rotated out of the classroom because they were burned out and had become part of the problem. However, union rules prevented me from acting on that need. I found it ironic that principals could be transferred to respond to student needs but teachers could not. It made me wonder who really runs the schools.

I resolved to work with the existing staff. I had a genuine respect for the teachers. As a principal for more than 15 years, I still believe in the inherent professionalism of teachers who come to work every day against daunting odds. Blaming them as individuals or as a group for the school’s difficulties was too simplistic. I wanted to help them turn around a struggling ship. If not, I knew I would walk the plank.

We put into motion a game plan that we were confident would bring about an increase in achievement levels. The plan included standards-oriented professional development conducted by a specially trained language arts coordinator assigned by the superintendent to work with teachers, reassignment of several staff members, a highly organized daily literacy block and classroom environments that emphasized order. These strategies all blended together to create a new culture of learning.

A Proud Response
Fortunately, the superintendent supported me first by leaving me alone to make necessary changes and later backing me up when some of my decisions came under fire. I recall one experience when, despite protests, I reassigned an experienced teacher to take over a vacant classroom teaching position. I felt her skills in instruction could be best tapped in the new assignment. She filed a grievance. The superintendent supported the change when the grievance landed on my desk. And when the union appealed the issue to a sympathetic hearing officer at the central office, the superintendent advised him to find a solution that would support my priorities.

Of course I always made certain to touch base with my boss on any major initiatives I planned. His support in all these changes was crucial. He could have thwarted my efforts and scuttled my plans.

I learned that surviving and succeeding in tough, inner-city schools has as much to do with hard work and a team attitude as it has to do with swagger and street smarts. The superintendent proved this daily. He often defied entrenched interests that cropped up with the school board, unions and the mayor’s office. I learned too that common sense and moxie would stand me in good stead as I confronted the pathos that describes many failing urban schools. Low expectations for kids, lack of parent involvement, poorly trained teachers, inequitable resources allocated to inner-city buildings and poverty, to name but a few, cannot be used as an excuse for not educating children.

The students and teachers did us proud. When the results of the New York State English Language Arts test were announced, one would have thought we won the World Series. Our school had rocketed from a shabby 22 percent to a highly respectable 65 percent passing rate on the test in one year. Parker School registered the third highest gain in the state.

It was a winning year for the kids and their teachers. The students’ success vindicated the adults’ faith in them. They proved Ron Edmonds was right and so was Tug McGraw. I was more than a little proud and relieved too. I would not be traded nor would I walk the plank. In fact, the superintendent and the board of education renewed my contract.

Leaving a Winner
I also rediscovered some unsettling truths. Under pressure to raise scores, some very good teachers may be throwing overboard some necessary time that should be spent on developing critical thinking skills and replacing that time with teaching to the test. It’s human nature to do so, but we run the risk of our schools becoming massive factories of test preparation.

In addition, management by numbers as a philosophy of education runs the risk of turning administrators into head coaches. Is there a correlation between higher scores and higher educational quality? I’m not sure. Test scores are simply a narrow criterion of a school’s effectiveness. I’m sure of that.

Like the old ballplayer, everyone wants to go out hitting a homer or winning the game. I retired a year ago after 16 years as an urban school principal. Like it or not, I was a hired gun brought in to move the school up in the standings. The kids and teachers helped me to go out a winner but those nagging questions of equity, teacher quality and resources continue to gnaw at me.

Terry Quinn is an associate professor of education at Queens College, 67-35 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, N.Y. 11367.
E-mail: Quinn2@aol.com