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Column

He'll stick with his day job for now

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published October 20, 2006


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Almost everything I know about being a school principal, I learned from watching Morgan Freeman in the movie Lean On Me.

In the film, Freeman portrays legendary real-life principal Joe Clark, who brought order back to a Paterson, N.J., school with a tough-love approach. Clark roamed the campus with a baseball bat and a bullhorn, challenged kids to sing the alma mater whenever he stopped them in the hall and forcibly relieved the school of its biggest troublemakers.

With that in mind, I arrived at Mulrennan Middle School last week ready to fully engage the campus as a participant in the Hillsborough Education Foundation's Presidents as Principals program. The goal is to give presidents and chief executive officers a chance to witness first-hand the challenges principals endure each day.

Of course, I've never been president or CEO of anything. Still, I was excited about the chance to whip Mulrennan into shape. I figured as the honorary principal, I would prowl the halls, break up a few fights, tell some angry parent her child is the problem and then snatch a cigarette out of the mouth of an unruly eighth- grader.

I had left my baseball bat at home, but I was still fired up. As parents streamed through to drop off their kids in front of the school, I helped direct the traffic with help from the real principal, Tim Ducker.

I was looking for some parent to give the evil eye so I could tell them there's a new sheriff in town, but it never happened.

Ducker smiled easily and, even though this is his first year at Mulrennan, he already seemed to know a number of parents.

When the first bell rang at 8:50, we moved to the courtyard to shepherd kids to class. The school buzzed with conversations and laughter, but there were no obscenities, no bawdy talk and no guys making out with girls.

Ducker did let me carry the walkie-talkie, and it quickly became my new favorite toy. At one point, I radioed assistant principal Matthew DiPrima, not because I needed anything but just because it was cool to hear someone say, "Yes, Mr. Hooper?"

The day officially started with Mr. Ducker and me making an appearance on the school's morning show. By the way, whether it's cable television beamed to the world or closed circuit TV broadcast to 1,300 students, I just want you to know the camera really does add 10 pounds.

After the show, we visited a few classrooms where the kids appeared engaged and eager to learn. Lisa Siemenski's math class was particularly impressive.

The kids were engaged, alive. She asked, "Who thinks that's the right answer, who thinks it isn't right and who isn't sure?" Everyone expressed their opinion with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

I just raised my hand because I had no idea what was the absolute value of -11.

We visited a few more classrooms, where there were no discipline problems darn, and then went into a meeting with DiPrima and fellow assistant principal Holly Eckstein, who had new information about FCAT testing.

So many numbers, so little time. If you're guessing that FCAT simply is about getting kids to produce a certain average on the standardized test, guess again. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

There are all kinds of measures and standards that have to be met. The administration has to worry about the performance of student subgroups, such as students who speak English as a second language.

Then there's adequate yearly progress. What's that? Basically, it's not enough for kids to score well. They have to keep getting better.

The lowest-performing students at Mulrennan increased their scores by a whopping 21 percent last year. That's great, but the state wants them to improve again this year.

Janet Jackson's What Have You Done For Me Lately should be played at the next faculty meeting.

From what I could gather, there is a guy with the school district named Sam who is the Yoda of testing. Eckstein kept saying, "We'll have to ask Sam about that. I think Sam will have an answer."

All I know is my head was spinning. I was ready to get out and catch somebody smoking in the boys' room. So we checked that restroom and there was nothing going on.

Another letdown.

In fact, I didn't get to reel in one kid or challenge one parent. In my three-hour visit, the biggest problem Ducker handled was picking up trash in the courtyard. The main joy I got out of the day was embarrassing my own sons, who were mortified about me serving as a principal for a day.

As we drove to lunch to gather with other program participants, Ducker conceded not every day goes as well as this one, but for the most part Mulrennan is a great school filled with great kids.

After 22 years in the business, he has yet to grow weary. The kids keep him going, and his best moments come when he connects with the students on a one-on-one level.

When we got back from lunch, there was something else waiting. His secretary, Mandy Ross, wanted him to know a parent called to say, "I've hired an attorney."

I'm guessing that in the unofficial principals' handbook, there is a list of things a principal never wants to hear a parent say. And at or near the top of that list is the sentence, "I've hired an attorney."

Mr. Ducker's drama-free day was over. It was time for him to go back to work, and for me to go home.

Suddenly, the walkie-talkie didn't seem all that cool.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or hooper@sptimes.com.

[Last modified October 19, 2006, 12:28:47]


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