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.

They're evaluated on test scores.

"So even though those other things are important," says Dillon, "they often wind up not being a school's priority."

Margaret Dugan, principal at Glendale High School, is one school official who's convinced that schools aren't equipped to raise kids and teach them, too.

Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School.
Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School.
Virginia Alcocer, principal at Garcia School.
Paolo Vescia
Virginia Alcocer, principal at Garcia School.

"That's what families and churches are there for," she says. "Someone just needs to say, 'Hey, that's your responsibility and let us, the schools, get back to doing what we're supposed to do: educate children to read and write.'"

Dugan, who began her teaching career in 1973 at what is now Garcia School in the Murphy district -- long before Donofrio's tenure as superintendent -- says she doesn't have much time or patience for anti-gang, anti-teen-pregnancy or other programs that shift the school's focus from educating to moralizing.

"I've told people I don't want to do that," she says. "Because if we start being a social agency and asking, 'Okay, who got fed,' then we're going to worry about having a breakfast, a lunch, about getting clothes, and then all of a sudden we've forgotten we're supposed to be teaching these kids algebra."

Like other educators who resist being social saviors, Dugan is convinced that "one of the problems in education is that we're trying to do it all."

"I know there are people out there who say the kids are hungry and this and that. But I say, yeah, that's true, but what are you going to do, be with them 365 days a year? I don't believe that's our job."

As a result, says Dugan, Glendale High School, which draws students from an area that had the sixth highest juvenile crime rate in the Valley last year, has no formal gang intervention program. But it does have extracurricular activities.

Pamela Jones, Murphy's curriculum director, wishes the Murphy district could afford to take that view.

"But we can't run our schools without taking care of the people who attend them. We can't. We wouldn't have a school."

Jose Leyba of the Isaac district says the reality is that increasing numbers of students are entering school with serious social problems.

Says Leyba, "We see so many who lack the basics not just in how to learn but also how to socialize with other children."

Jones points out that Murphy screens all of its kindergarten students. "What we're finding is we have kids who have never seen a pencil, who actually don't know how to pick up a pencil. We have kids who can't tell you what the cover of a book is. They can't even tell you if a book is upside down or not."

Leyba says those disturbing trends signify more than just an educational problem. "What they tell me is we have kids, young kids, who aren't getting the nurturing they need at home, who don't have parents spending time with them and helping them."

But Glendale's Dugan contends that those issues too easily become excuses for educators.

Even in the Murphy district, some educators are wary about the educational cost of balancing those harsh realities with the need to raise test scores.

"I'll be honest with you," says Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School. "We butt heads with Bob sometimes when it [extracurricular programs] starts to impede on instruction. Because we're of the philosophy that our job is to educate children."

A number of parents say the Murphy schools' academic achievements still aren't what they should be.

"I think we tended to hide behind excuses," says Kuban's assistant principal Dan Cooper. "There was a time that we felt that a reason we didn't do so well on test scores was the kids were in and out of school so much."

But the schools tracked the effect of mobility on test scores, he says, "and we found that kids coming in and out were doing about the same as kids who were here continuously."

But Donofrio and others say the real problem with transience for kids is that they aren't able to form lasting relationships with peers and teachers.

Those relationships are why Lisa Acosta brings her daughter, Victoria Hobein, to Kuban from their home across town at 16th Street and Baseline Road. Although she lives down the street from an elementary school in the Roosevelt School District, Acosta takes her children to Kuban because, she says, they're in better hands there.

"When they were at Roosevelt, I was getting calls from the school saying you have to come pick up your children, we've had a drive-by, or, we've had threats. We shouldn't be having problems like that."

One morning several years ago, she saw a jumble of kids roughing up a child in an open field beside the school. She got out of the car and yelled at them to stop. When the dust cleared, she saw that her son, an epileptic, was at the bottom of the heap.

"The kids were kicking him because he had caught the football and wouldn't throw it to someone else."

She says school officials didn't seem interested in dealing with matters like that.

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