Half the day is an in-out basket’

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Arline Hersh is principal of a huge, diverse school, George Armstrong Elementary in Rogers Park. More than 1,300 students who speak a total 32 languages are enrolled. Yet Hersh manages to find time for leading instruction, her teachers say. It isn’t easy, as Catalyst Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin saw in shadowing Hersh for a day.

Hersh, 58, arrived at Armstrong 13 years ago, following two years as principal of a South Side elementary school and 19 as an elementary teacher. She says the reality of her job is a far cry from her administrative training. “When I was in school, we learned management by objective. But unfortunately, too many days it’s management by crisis.”

Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2000 was one of those days.

8:15am Principal Arline Hersh arrived at her spacious office in George Armstrong Elementary School half an hour ago. Since then, she has helped a teacher schedule meetings for a teachers’ advisory committee and efficiently cleared one stack of paperwork from her desk. Assistant Principal Kimberly Bendig has been in to confer on a special education student. Now Hersh returns to her mail, an assortment of envelopes, flyers and folded note papers.

8:16am The phone rings. “Good morning, Dr. Hersh,” she answers in a pleasant sing-song. “Yes, Ms. ——. What’s happened?”

A mother is calling to report that her run-away daughter has been found and is now in a psychiatric hospital. She says the child was raped by two Armstrong boys. Concerned, Hersh presses for details. Half an hour later, she steps across the hall to the social worker’s office to fill her in. “This looks like it’s going to be a large part of our day,” says the principal as she turns to leave. “If you are paged, you’ll know why. Carry your walkie-talkie.”

Armstrong has a full-time social worker because it is willing to pay for one with its discretionary funds, an investment Hersh says is “worth every single penny.” The school also uses its own money for two full-time “beautifully organized” assistant principals. The extra staff eases an administrative load that Hersh found strangely difficult to surrender. “One of the hardest things I had to learn as principal [was] to trust the ability of my assistants and delegate to them.”

9:10am Hersh has just finished the morning announcements over the P.A. system from her office telephone. She emerges to find a tired-looking couple waiting in a corner by the clerk’s desk. Yesterday they stopped by to report that their young daughter was molested in a neighborhood grocery while they shopped in the next aisle. Hersh turns to the clerk, “Ask them what happened after they left here.”

The two answer quietly in Spanish, the clerk translating. It seems that the police didn’t take their complaint seriously. Hersh is indignant as she ushers them into her office. Seated, she dials the district station. “Better than a patrol man coming out, I want a sergeant,” she demands. “They didn’t give them a police report, nothing. This was not handled properly.”

Hersh routinely runs interference with the police. Advocating for parents in these situations builds their trust in the school, she feels, and is a major part of her job. “If they don’t have that trust, our ability to influence them is terribly weakened.”

9:29am A third emergency interrupts the morning paperwork. Three little girls are waiting on the bench in the outer office; the smallest is holding a wadded tissue to her nose. Her mother punched her on the way to school, the girl reports, and the others concur. After eliciting the details, Hersh offers comfort. “I get mad, too. But do you think I could punch Ms. Bendig in the nose? Of course not. You OK? You need a hug?”

Hersh will report the case herself to the Department of Children and Family Services. She usually delegates this responsibility to one of her assistant principals. But Bendig is swamped, and her other AP is at a required Region 1 meeting on lunch forms. This emergency will prove the most time-consuming of her day.

10:04am With a momentary lull in the action, Hersh strides out of the front office, walkie-talkie in hand, to make her morning rounds. She would like to do this daily, but with emergencies and unexpected visitors, she usually gets out only two to three times a week.

Today she spends 51 minutes surveying the whole building—basement to third floor–pausing for a minute or so in each classroom. Before lunch, she will fire off several notes to teachers who need to clear up clutter or to tack current work on their bulletin boards.

“This is just a general orientation, to make sure they are settled in,” she explains. In another week, she’ll spend more time in individual classrooms.

11:13am After helping Bendig select a teacher workshop vendor, Hersh returns to her paperwork. Now she fills in forms to reimburse teachers for professional development, a task she declines to delegate. “It’s too easy to lose track of what’s been spent,” she remarks. “All purchases, money transactions come through me.” Purchasing tasks will take 34 minutes today.

With school budgets on a centralized computer system, the board no longer requires paper records, but Hersh keeps them handy in her desk filing drawer. “Three times last year, someone [in central office] pressed the wrong button,” she explains. As a result, funds that belonged to Armstrong ended up in another school’s account. “If I didn’t keep my own record, I wouldn’t have known.”

11:58am Fourth-grade teacher Shirley Davis-Eves pokes her head in; Hersh smiles and offers her a seat. (Teachers stop by at their convenience to share their goals for the year, which will be used in end-of-year evaluations.)

“Children will be able to write in a full paragraph,” Hersh reads aloud. “Oh, Hallelujah! Oh, yes. Sometimes they get to 5th and 6th grade and still can’t do that.”

Hersh will spend an hour today in unplanned meetings with teachers. One involves a personal conflict between two colleagues. It’s important to clear away such distractions from teaching, she says. “People forget that teachers are human beings. We’ve had everything from ill parents, to broken engagements. Sometimes the teachers do need somebody just to talk to.”

12:03pm “Half the day is an in-and-out basket,” the principal remarks, returning briefly to the stack of mail on her desk. In fact, mail will occupy 70 minutes of her day, more than any other task.

The paperwork mailed from central office is light today, and Hersh has it completed. Typically it includes requests for information about the school “90 percent of [which] they could pull up on the computer themselves,” she notes.

The U.S. mail is 99 percent junk but worth wading through for the “freebies,” she says. Just yesterday she found an offer for two free assemblies from the International Music Foundation.

“Sometimes a beginning principal or administrator thinks they’re too important to do those kind of daily chores,” she adds. “I don’t pay for a lot of the things that are coming to the school now because I go through the mail. I don’t delegate that. Money is tight.”

12:17pm Hersh grabs a diet coke from the vending machine down the hall. This is her only break today. Three minutes later, just as the principal unwraps her ham salad sandwich, another teacher comes calling.

1:44pm A investigator from Department of Children and Family Services shows up in response to the hotline call about the girl with the bloody nose. Hersh escorts the woman into her office. The investigator, a friendly, middle-aged woman, will interview the injured girl and her three sisters who attend the school, one at a time with the principal present. “Often the children are traumatized,” Hersh explains. “They know me, I’m a security figure.”

The school reports a child abuse case every other month on average. Today’s incident will cost her an hour.

2:20pm Social worker Christine LaRue spent much of her day on the telephone tracking down the police report on the girl who was allegedly raped. Hersh drops in again to get an update. After a number of earlier conferences, the two agreed that the girl’s story seems questionable and that they will not contact the accused boys’ parents. “We will do everything we can to help [the girl],” LaRue assures, “but this has to be a police matter.”

3:00pm After supervising dismissal, Hersh settles back at her desk. “This is one of my favorite times of the day,” she says. “The morning used to be my time, but now everyone knows I’m here so the phone starts ringing at 7:30.”

The rest of the afternoon is packed with paperwork, staff conferences and a visit from a city workman planning to install speed bumps in the alley. There are no emergencies. At 4:30 p.m., Hersh drives home to cook a meatloaf dinner for herself and her husband. She will return at 6:30 p.m. to greet parents arriving for tonight’s local school council meeting, which will last until 9 p.m.

With three emergencies involving DCFS or the police, the day was unusual. These crises kept her from conferring with more teachers about their yearly goals and from putting in some text- book orders. “But a quiet day here is unheard of,” Hersh notes.

Reflecting on how her job has changed, the veteran principal says she spends more time solving problems for parents that occur outside the school. Ten years ago, parents rarely called. “Parents feel much more comfortable coming into the school, asking or telling, often insisting. This is what education is about now. It’s not a closed institution.”