Administrator Magazine: Leadership
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Patrick Murphy, Superintendent, Arlington (VA) Public Schools

Leadership Profile: Patrick Murphy

Superintendent, Arlington Public Schools, Virginia

Patrick K. Murphy was so prepared for his first superintendency, running the already high-performing Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, that he left little to chance. A finely honed entry plan laid out a litany of tasks he would complete in just his first four months. The three-part plan ended up including 250-plus classroom visits, six retreats with the school board or senior staff, and 10 meetings with teachers and staff advisory groups, with communication the theme for every meeting.

But of all this work, an unscheduled chat with a parent who raved about his accomplishment in a specific area ended up making one of the biggest impressions on Murphy. The praise wasn't about how he had deftly handled the budget in these tight economic times, his goal to increase the district's graduation rate, or even his commitment to streamline back-office procedures. The praise instead was for how Murphy handled the unexpected amount of snow Virginia had last winter. The message was simple: You did a great job with the snow; I'm going to think everything else you do is okay.

The comment surprised Murphy, but it also reminded him that a superintendent really is judged on a myriad of tasks. It also proved the importance of his heavy emphasis on communicating clearly with the entire community.

Murphy's communication didn't end with his entry plan. Each week he composes a message to his administrative leaders, a letter to his board, and a weekly cable segment that highlights different district accomplishments.

Building Support
The northern Virginia native's commitment to communication permeated his work as assistant superintendent in nearby Fairfax County Public Schools, too. In his opening remarks to the Arlington School Board, he said: "My success has been built on establishing relationships, collaborating with all segments of the community, communicating with clarity, and remaining open to all possibilities by seeing through the eyes of others." These skills will be even more important now because while the community has amply supported education in the past (86 percent said money for schools was well spent, and the latest bond issue got 75 percent support), only 12 percent of the residents in the district's densely populated area have children in schools.

Starting Strong
There's no question that Murphy inherits a district in good shape. All three of its high schools were listed in the top 0.5 percent in the U.S. in the 2009 Newsweek/Washington Post Challenge Index for the fourth year in a row. Parents approve, too; 94 percent of them rated their children's school an A or a B. AP and IB testing has tripled since 1998. Four schools offer
English/Spanish Language immersion programs and each school has five lead teachers and resource teachers to support gifted children.

Moving Forward
As expected, Murphy has mapped out the next goals he hopes to achieve in the 20,000-student district, with specifics in student achievement, communications, gifted services, and business efficiencies. The answers he heard during his time spent listening to various groups helped inform not only his first budget, but also laid the work for the district's 2011-17 Strategic Plan. For instance, the district's second-language learners still lag behind their peers in both graduation and college acceptance. Murphy says the district is aiming to "eliminate" this gap by finding out what this group needs and seeing that it is delivered. "When we close the achievement gap, we will know that we have arrived," he told his board.

College Readiness Should Be Elementary
While the district already sends nearly 90 percent of its graduates to post-secondary schools, Murphy wants to reexamine student services to make sure college is top of mind, even for elementary-age children. Students should think about what career they may want, and make sure their courses align with that goal. He hopes to create comprehen sive preK-12 road maps for each student, including a cohesive graduation plan.

Sharing Information
Arlington's commitment to communication didn't start with Murphy. Each year the district shares information with nine other Virginia districts. This year's 53-page document compares student costs, teacher salaries, ESL student percentages, and class sizes.

Debating Class Size
Even with per-pupil expenditures at $17,322, Arlington is faced with balancing priorities against budget realities. This led to a debate familiar to many school districts around the country, trying to ascertain the optimal class size. While the district has relatively low class sizes (it averages fewer than 20 students per classroom teacher K-12), it does have a growing student enrollment. To help move forward in other areas, Arlington decided to agree to increase class size by one student per grade for the upcoming year. This doesn't mean that each class will have more students, just that the threshold for adding another section will now be slightly higher.

Starting Early
College readiness isn't the only early-starting program Murphy wants to bolster. The former physical education teacher wants to begin a breakfast program in each of the district's 31 schools. While some parents found the proposal unnecessary, Murphy says results in even his highest-achieving schools prove that a proper meal at the start of each day remains key.

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