Nothing can stir up the emotional energies of people like the cause of insuring a right to an education for our children; an equal education. In pursuit of this right we strive to create the best possible institutions for our children, we revamp our current practices, we slay and praise our teachers and our administrators, we make progress and we make mistakes. When we make progress we all benefit, and when mistakes are made we all suffer; some more notably than others. We look for insights from research and from success stories. We move forward with conviction and sometimes leave vulnerable children behind.
So what really does make a difference? What factors will help our students catch fire with the desire to learn? I’m writing this article, because Patrick Henry High has been a school that has reached national recognition for academic achievements and yet still falls short in making sure all students are successful. I’m writing this, because three weeks ago I heard that one of the pillars of Henry High School, Tom Murray, would have his position as Parent and Community Liaison eliminated by the next school year. I’m writing this, because the new Henry Principal, Corey Harris, passionately wants to engage his underachieving students. I’m writing this, because I believe that the individual people who come in contact with our children, day in and day out, make all the difference.
First, some of the good news: Tom Murray, the Henry Parent and Community Liaison, will remain at Henry High School next year, full-time. If you haven’t met Tom, well, it’s not his fault. He’s everywhere; at the same time. He is a champion of Henry High School, our community, and all of the students at Henry. He has worked for the Minneapolis Public School district for 27 years, and has only missed two days. He has worked at Henry for seven years and has not missed a day. Tom Murray is the voice that greets Henry High School families weekly on their home phones, insuring that they know of important events at the school. He is the principal communicator to the Camden Community News regarding positive press for Henry students. He is the point “man” for communicating and coordinating information with the Patrick Henry High School Foundation and alumni. As the technology coordinator, he has created a state-of-the-art webpage for Henry High. It stands out as the high standard for all Minneapolis Public Schools and lands on the desks of our mayor, state representatives, parents, students and countless others, five days a week. It lifts up student achievements, presents a daily school calendar, provides history lessons, includes elements of parent support and education, offers test prep questions, and informs readers of student and community needs.
When the rumor of the elimination of the liaison position got out last month, the rally cry to keep Tom Murray spread like wildfire. The Henry Site Council, the Patrick Henry High School Foundation, this newspaper, the student body, parents and teachers voiced their concerns to the school administration, members of the MPS School Board, and the MPS superintendent. As a result Principal Corey Harris, in conversation with the site council, reversed the decision to eliminate the parent and community liaison. Together in committee, Principal Harris and the Henry Site Council will rewrite the parent liaison position, reconciling it with what the parents, students, district and community stakeholders feel will best serve the students of Henry.
The question remains, why was this position slated for elimination in the first place? Some in positions of power may have missed Tom Murray’s impact on our students, families and community. Tom Murray is an educator first, and it appears that the particular brand of pedagogy that he ascribes to is one that draws the student out. Everything he does points to and draws out the students accomplishments, not his own. In this sense Murray could be considered a “master educator.”
Molded together is another reason: improved academic offerings and budget. Principal Harris, along with support from the district, has plans for improving the academic offerings, in order to improve the academic achievement of all the students at Henry. Some may argue that all is fine at Henry, but statistics show that while 90 percent of all IB students are passing the Grad Reading test, only 59 percent of the Creative and Fine Arts Program and 58 percent of the Open students are passing. The new initiative involves keeping the best of what is offered, while improving the offerings to all students. The intent of the initiative is to move towards a seven period day, which would lengthen the school day, by 25 minutes. This would help align the school with the expectations of the Middle Years Program (the 9th and 10th grade precursor to the IB program), the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program, and would allow teachers to teach five periods, have one prep hour and one hour for team preparation as Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The implementation of PLCs recognizes the need to reduce teacher isolation, in order to collaboratively focus on student learning and implement research-based strategies to improve student achievement. This is an element that Principal Harris supports, with the intention that this will help academically engage underachieving students, as well as insure a high academic bar for all students. There will be a move away from Small Learning Communities to Programs of Study. The Open and Fine Arts programs would be combined into a Liberals Arts program of study. The IB and Engineering programs would remain.
Other changes supported by the new initiatives include: less tracking and more academic freedom of choice by having more elective offerings, the addition of one music instructor in order to offer Junkyard Band, song writing through poetry, and choir, and the addition of two traditional counselors. This will provide a counselor at each grade who will be available for the academic, social, emotional, and college and career needs of Henry students. Principal Harris hopes to raise the expectations for everyone involved in the education of Henry students; the students themselves, the parents, the Henry staff and the community. Principal Harris acknowledged that changes of this magnitude will ultimately result in personnel changes and reallocation of funds to hire more teachers.
The future of Patrick Henry High School is pivotal to the health and welfare of our children and our community. It seems that for now Henry is moving in the right direction. We have an administration that is holding a high bar for the students, faculty and community. We have an engaged community of stakeholders who safeguard the best that Henry High School has to offer. And we have our advocate and communicator, Tom Murray.