National Writing Project

It Takes a School

By: Mary Ann Smith
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: Smith describes a tour of Meade Elementary School, where a five-year partnership with the Philadelphia Writing Project has built a professional community working toward school reform.


The first phone call Frank Murphy made when he became principal of North Philadelphia's Meade Elementary was to the Philadelphia Writing Project.

"Can you help us build a professional community?" Murphy asked Marci Resnick, then the director of the writing project site. Aware that the reading scores at Meade were dismal, the building itself depressing, and the staff disjointed albeit talented, Murphy looked to the writing project to unite the faculty around an effective reading and writing program for the school.

Seven years later, NWP Senior Editor Art Peterson and I visit Meade Elementary as part of our participation in the 18th annual National Writing Project Urban Sites Conference, held this year in Philadelphia. We sit in Murphy's office, surrounded by mounds of stuffed animals. Last year, we learn, one animal of indeterminate species disappeared suddenly, precipitating a schoolwide writing effort on the topic: "What happened to Victor?" But it is not the instant writing prompts, not the packaged reading programs, and not the standardized tests that shape the teaching and learning at Meade. What does shape the work is the commitment of Murphy and the Meade staff to giving students access to the world through literacy. At the heart of the school's effort is a dedication to developing the leadership that renews and focuses a school community.

Art and I have a cursory understanding of Meade Elementary. In Murphy's words, it's a "resource-poor, high-poverty school" where 98.5 percent of the students are African American. We know, too, that once Murphy had "the keys to the school," he set about "to make everyone a driver." And by "everyone" he means the teachers at Meade who are integral to leading the school.

It's worth noting several details of the five-year partnership that developed between Meade and the Philadelphia Writing Project. The initial group involved in the partnership—25 teachers and 5 aides—worked in an intensive institute with 40 students and 3 writing project teacher-consultants. They taught, observed each other, attended workshops, and learned from the feedback they gave one another on their teaching. While the staff was skeptical initially, in the end, a dozen teachers formed an after-school study group to continue examining effective practices in the teaching of reading and writing. Two more writing project offerings—one focusing on guided reading and the other examining leadership—attracted another group of 25 teachers.

A Meade Elementary School student takes a jump up on mastering the school's 100-Book Challenge.

Too many professional development programs end after the initial offering. These are programs that neglect to build on-site leadership. They also may fail to take advantage of research, of successful classroom experiences, or of a school's sheer determination to turn the resources at hand into reform. By contrast, the Philadelphia Writing Project's professional development effort became the launching pad for a solid in-school leadership team. Murphy, committed as ever to a school led by talented and informed teachers, assembled two teams. The planning and management team takes charge of professional development in the school, visiting classrooms, deciding on needs, and conducting workshops. The instructional leadership team, meeting once a week on released time, reviews student data and determines long- and short-term goals. As for Murphy, he is affectionately described by Meade teachers as the "data dog."

Murphy has been selective about the data that he and his staff study. In an era of what he calls snapshot tests, Meade tracks reading levels with a test that teachers administer year after year. His theory holds that reading level assessment is a more useful tool for evaluating student growth, particularly when the assessment takes place three times a year. The fact that teacher involvement makes some critics question the scientific rigor of this data source does not faze Murphy. In a school with as much as a 25 percent student turnover each year, Murphy quarrels with the idea that a standardized test could possibly measure progress.

Since the 1998–1999 school year, the kindergarten through third grades at Meade Elementary have demonstrated steady and significant gains in achievement. At the end of the 2000–2001 school year, according to the results of the Joetta Beaver Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), 67 percent of all first grade students were at or above grade level in reading.

Art and I spend our morning at Meade trailing behind Murphy as he charges through classrooms that speak to his belief in teachers. In Kate O'Donnell's K–1 classroom, the students have already met the 100-Book Challenge. I sat down on the rug to watch Tyreese mentor Amaiyah as he reads aloud from a suspenseful, dog-eared paperback. Tyreese gently helps with difficult words and takes notes in a log as the story proceeds.

I sit in on a teacher/student conference in another first grade classroom. The discussion centers on a three-page second draft that is about to take its final form—a book for all classmates to read. The six-year-old author is confident as she marches off to write and illustrate her newest publication. I stop by another classroom where volunteers from the Rotary Club are knee-to-knee with their student reading partners.

A day away is the presentation at the Urban Sites Conference, at which ten Meade teacher-leaders and Murphy will describe a high-poverty school that is rich in leadership and in the teaching of reading and writing. A later conversation with Vanessa Brown, director of the Philadelphia Writing Project, will confirm that the project is still part of the Meade story, currently working with the faculty on writing about how the partnership has affected teaching, learning, and school leadership.

But for now, two casual visitors to Meade happily rely on the story of the moment: an exuberant principal racing us from classroom to classroom, showing us what happens when a school, supported by a writing project partner, commits itself to literacy and leadership.

About the Author Mary Ann Smith is the director of governmental relations and public affairs for the National Writing Project.

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