Murphy's Law

Year after year, Murphy school district officials watched their students die in a hail of violence. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

After 12-hour days, he'd go over to the Coffelt Community Center and play basketball. And people would come out.

"They wouldn't let me go home," he says, smiling. "They'd say, 'Aaah, come on over and have a burrito.' People knew each other, and they cared."

The massive influx of crack cocaine and crime in the 1980s chased the neighborhood indoors. "People just hid," says Donofrio. "And it became 'see no evil, hear no evil.'"

Ed Eisele, president of Holsum Bakery, in front of new houses being built in the Murphy area.
Paolo Vescia
Ed Eisele, president of Holsum Bakery, in front of new houses being built in the Murphy area.
Students attend an assembly at Hamilton School in the Murphy district.
Paolo Vescia
Students attend an assembly at Hamilton School in the Murphy district.

Those troubles have only compounded the many educational ones that Murphy faces.

In 1989, the Arizona Department of Education ranked Murphy as the third most "at-risk" non-Indian school district in the state.

The so-called risk factors have only worsened since then.

"We've got some nasty poverty down here," says Donofrio. "We've got about 95 percent, or something like that, who qualify for free or reduced lunches. We've got a low literacy level. We've got a lot of impoverished single-headed households.

"And we have a notorious problem down here with kids baby-sitting for other kids. A lot of 8-year-olds are going home from school to take care of their 3- and 4-year-old brothers and sisters."

Donofrio and other officials can only guess at the number of undocumented immigrants attending Murphy schools. But they say that more than 50 percent of the children -- documented and undocumented -- come to school with little English proficiency. And there has been a disturbing trend in recent years of a small yet growing percentage of incoming students -- less than 10 percent now -- who don't test literate in any language. Many are coming from the rural communities of Mexico.

The mobility rate of students is also high, considered an indicator of problems by educational experts. Last year, more than half of the students who ended the year at Murphy schools weren't there at the beginning.

Donofrio says he tracked one of the district's four entering kindergarten classes from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s and found that by the time those kindergarten students reached the eighth grade, only 26 of the original group of 330 were still in Murphy schools.

In 1993, the state Department of Education placed a couple of Murphy's schools on probation for poor test scores. The scores hovered in the teens and low 20s, while the state average that year was in the 40s.

At the state's urging, Donofrio brought in Mary Belle McCorkle, president of the Tucson Unified School District and an educational consultant.

"Bob told me he'd done all he could do to add resources outside the classroom, and that he was convinced the real problem existed in the classroom."

What she encountered, she says, was a district with "a group of teachers who in many cases had given up. They felt like the job was so impossible, they just got through the day."

"The kids were doing drugs. The homes didn't have the support the kids needed," McCorkle says. "There was danger in the neighborhood. The kids came to school hungry, without clothing -- all the ingredients of poverty."

She focused on developing the curriculum and bringing some consistency to how the schools approached literacy.

She says it's fairly easy for teachers in impoverished districts to "get into the syndrome of thinking: these poor kids, this poor neighborhood."

"The minute you start that 'poor kids' stuff, you tend to lose the expectations they need to succeed," she says. "The fact is, they can rise to the occasion, but they need a hell of a lot of support to do it."

She says the community-school model that Donofrio has built provides that.

Donofrio says the model was shaped by community need.

"When you look around down here, it's pretty obvious that we don't have what a lot of other places would consider normal amenities or services. They're just not here."

Donofrio says that one of Murphy's biggest problems in the 1980s was that there weren't many after-school programs.

(In the early '80s, the city eliminated after-school programs in a financial dispute with schools over sanitation fees. The loss of programs came at the same time street gangs were rapidly expanding in the Valley and many kids turned to gangs for lack of other alternatives ("Net Loss," September 16).

"Kids were easy prey," says Donofrio. "They were just hanging on the streets, with the pushers and everyone else out there to entice them. We figured if we could minimize the time latchkey kids spend alone, we could start to win this battle."

The district started changing that in 1988, when it landed a five-year, $2.5 million Drug Free Schools and Community Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The money was intended to reduce the prevalence of drugs in communities. It enabled Murphy to lay the groundwork for many of the partnerships with local businesses and other organizations that exist today.

The district used some of the money to help create neighborhood organizations that began tackling local blight and crime.

"The fear factor was huge," says Donofrio. "I had neighborhood activists whose car was firebombed. And we were never able to get more than a handful of leaders. The burnout rate was huge."

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