For the SRC, she's a matter of principal

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What Marge Neff has going for her is her decades-long career as a Philadelphia public school teacher and principal of two high-performing schools - Samuel Powel Elementary School and Julia R. Masterman Middle and High School. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

I MIGHT AS WELL admit my bias right up front:

I think Marge Neff rocks.

She's the School Reform Commission member who just got promoted to chairman by new Gov. Tom Wolf.

I've got nothing against former chair Bill Green, who has been pushed aside by Neff's ascension. I disagree mightily with his over-zealous commitment to charter schools, but he deserves credit nonetheless for taking on a thankless job.

Green walked into the lion's den when he resigned City Council last year to head the SRC, a position that pays nothing in dollars but a king's ransom in migraines , sleepless nights and ears burned by the fiery vitriol of parents, teachers and politicians.

By everyone's accounts, Green has worked his ass off as chairman of the bipartisan commission whose members are appointed by the governor and mayor.

"Bill has been one of the most effective governance chairs I've ever had the opportunity to work with," schools Superintendent William Hite told my colleague William Bender.

And Neff herself praised him, saying, "Bill has shown himself to be an extremely capable and dedicated member of the SRC."

What Neff has going for her, though, is her decades-long career as a Philadelphia public school teacher and principal of two high-performing schools - Samuel Powel Elementary School and Julia R. Masterman Middle and High School.

She retired last year. About five minutes later, Mayor Nutter appointed her to the SRC.

It was in at Masterman that I got to know Neff. A public-school parent herself, she was principal during the same eight years that my daughter was a student at Masterman. She was a total pro - whip smart, capable, seasoned and respected - and she held students, teachers, staff, parents and herself to high standards.

There were occasional problems (every school has them) but she took care of them in ways that assured teachers she had their backs and parents that our kids were in good hands. She was no-nonsense, but kind, with the patience of Job (which my family tested a few times. We're sorry, Marge.).

But her last few years as principal tested Neff's patience beyond reason, as it does for every principal being asked to put dollars ahead of our kids' learning and well-being.

The invaluable perspective Neff brings to the SRC is that she knows the real-world consequences of the draconian budget cuts that are tying a principal's hands.

When a principal has to shutter a library, she knows she's doing more than shutting off kids' access to a quiet place to do research and homework. She's also taking away a comfortable place where shy and bookish kids feel like they belong.

When she loses a counselor, she knows the children will lose the attention of an adult trained to help them in ways their teachers and their own families cannot.

When she is forced to share her nurse with another school, she prays that the day a kid breaks his arm, chokes at lunch, suffers an asthma attack or falls down the stairs will be a day when the nurse is actually there to save his life.

These are not hypothetical situations to a principal. She actually knows the names and faces of each child being let down. And she watches her teachers burn out trying to close gaps that can't be bridged.

"Marge will be the first educator to sit in the district's leadership chair in decades," says Helen Gym, head of Parents United for Public Schools and current City Council candidate. "Anybody can balance a budget. But only she can understand what the real-world impact of the budget actually is and what budgeting poorly can do to children and school communities."

In her new role, Neff will set the agenda although, she told me yesterday, the SRC's members have been thoughtful and collaborative, each bringing important skills and perspectives to the table. So she can't see springing surprises on any of them-it's not her way.

Still, she says, she was glad to accept the chairman position because "the governor's vision for public education is about reinvestment in our school system, which I believe strongly in."

Indeed, last month she was the lone SRC member to vote against approving any new charter school applications - a move that clearly caught Wolf's eye.

Neff has yet to chair her first meeting, but her new position on the SRC is already giving hope to at least one veteran Philadelphia school teacher. AnnMarie Marranzini was an English teacher at University High School when Neff, as new principal at Masterman, asked her to join the staff there. Marranzini hadn't been looking to move, but Neff's passion won her over.

"It's very clear to anyone who knows Marge that she really cares about the kids," says Marranzini. "She fights for kids, and to have someone like that in a position of power gives me faith that things might get better. These days, it feels like everything around us is falling apart.

"The problems will always be about the money - I get that," she continues. "But why not give the leadership to someone who really knows our kids and has their best interests at heart?"

My money's on Marge.

 

 


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