Elisa Murphy of New York City Charter School of the Arts: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve…

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Elisa Murphy of New York City Charter School of the Arts: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

Free full-day PreK programs in some places, like NYC. Research has shown decisively that PreK programs help students develop “‘non-cognitive skills,’ like emotional and social intelligence, grit and respect for the rules” which translates into increased graduation rates, better behavioral outcomes, and an increased likelihood of attending college. It also gives the time and space for parents, especially mothers, to work outside the home, which helps the entire family.

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Elisa Murphy.

Elisa Murphy is the current Director of Teaching and Learning at the New York City Charter School of the Arts, located in Lower Manhattan. She is an experienced manager, curriculum developer, and teaching specialist with a demonstrated history of working in middle and high schools. With exceptional skills in educational leadership, math and science, Elisa was awarded the Phebe and Zephaniah Swift Moore Teaching Award from Amherst College in 2017, and the Margaret Duckett Award for Outstanding Teaching from the Spence School in 2014. Elisa graduated from Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and Amherst College.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Both of my parents are teachers and I loved going to school with them and being pampered by their students. This obviously dates me, but my favorite part about visiting was being able to work the purple mimeograph machine.

After I graduated from college, I worked a few years as a teacher while I finished my course work to go to medical school. During medical school I had two children and upon graduation realized that it was exceptionally difficult to raise them and continue with my residency so I returned to my teaching position at The Spence School and stayed there over 12 years. I was exceptionally lucky to be able to teach there and have a wonderful group of colleagues and students, but the best part about it was being able to be at the same school as my daughter while she was there for middle and high school.

After she went to college I wanted to provide the same caliber of teaching and opportunities to those who weren’t in private school. A former alumnae from Spence had opened a charter school and asked me to help with the curriculum. I was so enthralled by the school because besides wanting to provide rigorous academics, it had a phenomenal arts program. That’s how I ended up at New York City Charter School of the Arts (CSA). During my first year I was asked to be the Head of School and have been here now four years. It has been the most grueling but enlightening experience I’ve ever had in my entire life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Unfortunately, our school, which is on the twelfth floor, is served by only one elevator. Even though two other banks of elevators come to our floor, we are unable to utilize them because of arrangements I inherited, which I have not been able to change.

An elevator doesn’t seem like much, but what I have learned is how an operational component beyond one’s control, can determine how a school functions, not necessarily for the best interests of students and staff. For us, our school runs a staggered schedule, and our 6th grade staff and students have to arrive extremely early, at 7:20; someone has to be on the elevator for over an hour in the morning and afternoon; and coming up the stairs after a fire drill is an ordeal for everyone involved. However, despite these limitations, another lesson I’ve learned is that the proverb, “every cloud has a silver lining” can even apply in this situation. Because of this elevator, I know every students’ name. I have a “dad” joke ready for them every morning, and although they said that they hated them, I know secretly they love them because they ask for them if I didn’t recite it immediately after the doors closed. It is in this elevator that kids also talk about what is happening in their lives, oblivious to my presence, so I am able to piece together what might be happening behind the scenes which many of us adults would have otherwise not known about.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our school follows a “Create, Learn, Thrive” model, in which our three programs, academic, artistic, and socioemotional, are interdependent and each as important as the other. Our students are doing amazing things in each of these domains, which are not captured by a state exam score at the end of the year. That’s why I have been working with my teachers in having students catalogue their work in a digital portfolio, so that they have a record of their growth throughout their three years here, can share their progress with families, fellow students, other teachers, and high schools, and at the end of each project entered, reflect on the process of learning that took place as they created their finished work. Much of the learning that happens at school is lost and not captured so now with these portfolios one can review and assess the trajectory of learning.

It will help us as a school to be able to evaluate our program more holistically. Staff and administrators can look at the totality of work that is being completed in all of the domains and evaluate which students have been successful, and why, whether we are accomplishing our goals, what can be improved and how, and also share the amazing work that has been completed with families.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

For the majority of my life, I have been a teacher. Even as head of school here at CSA, I’ve taught numerous classes. To really understand the educational field, you have to know how difficult it is to teach; it’s not only about being an expert in your subject matter as well as being the consummate entertainer, but you have to know how to present the material in a dynamic relatable, and digestible manner, manage student behavior, differentiate material, consistently give feedback to students so that they can use your corrections to improve, be in close contact with parents and guardians, counsel students who are having difficulties either with their friends or at home… the list goes on and on.

I relatively recently have become an administrator, and you can only have a successful school if you have talented, competent teachers who feel supported. I think authorities in the education field should know what it is like to be a teacher and then have the ability to hire, train, and support qualified, motivated teachers who will then push our students to be the best that they can possibly be.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

  1. Free full-day PreK programs in some places, like NYC. Research has shown decisively that PreK programs help students develop “‘non-cognitive skills,’ like emotional and social intelligence, grit and respect for the rules” which translates into increased graduation rates, better behavioral outcomes, and an increased likelihood of attending college. It also gives the time and space for parents, especially mothers, to work outside the home, which helps the entire family.
  2. Compared to when I was young, students with disabilities are more integrated into mainstream classrooms. Since the passage of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 1990, students with disabilities are guaranteed the right to a free, public education with services tailored to their individual needs. In CSA, we aim to provide the least restrictive environment for our learners and provide support within the classroom so that all of our students, despite learning differences, can succeed. However, it still is not at a point in which students with IEPs are excelling to the same degree as their peers, so much more work needs to be done.
  3. Commitment to understanding the material and making connections between new knowledge to prior knowledge. The US education system prioritizes critical thinking instead of rote memorization.
  4. Increased resources with ESSR funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds). We were able to make sure that while remote, students had the technology, materials, and even art supplies to continue learning while at home. Since school has returned, we have been able to utilize these funds to provide for tutoring and math intervention, and to help students catch up what was missed while remote in elementary school.
  5. Recognition that COVID has negatively impacted our youth and that schools need to provide significant mental health services for students who were isolated for too long.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  1. We don’t have enough experienced teachers, especially in math and science. People aren’t becoming teachers because of the low pay, lack of respect, and lack of training (teachers leave the profession quickly because they haven’t been given the tools and mentoring needed). Just as we have a rigorous training system for doctors, with residency programs to get hands-on experience, we need the same for teachers. Once out of training, teachers need to be paid well. Our children are the future, why are the people in charge of molding them not given the same respect, pay and prestige as other professionals?
  2. Too much emphasis is placed on test preparation, with not enough time being spent on art, music, civics, history, fitness/sports, and health. You want students to be motivated to come to school every day, and be well-rounded individuals by the time they finish high school. We aren’t providing enough exposure to other experiences because of the emphasis on test prep, so that they have a deeper understanding of the world around them. I taught at a private school which provided an exceptional comprehensive educational program; all students deserve to have this type of schooling.
  3. Regular use of actionable data to support student growth. The focus, and definition of success, should always be on growth, given that students come from a variety of school experiences. Teachers need to be trained on data interpretation. There needs to be time in the schedule for grade-teams and departments to review student work and data sets. You can’t determine whether students are mastering the material if you aren’t monitoring progress.
  4. As recent test scores have shown, COVID disproportionately affected low-income students and students of color. We must prioritize that our teachers have all the resources and supports needed to make sure that these students don’t fall further behind.
  5. Higher education costs too much. Going to college should not be reserved for the privileged. Many students face crippling debts when they graduate from universities.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

We aren’t engaging with enough young people in STEM. Part of the problem is that we don’t have enough qualified instructors, engaging curriculum, and resources to have innovative courses and programs in elementary and middle schools.

In particular, engineering and computer science professions are heavily male dominated.

  1. Start STEAM (with art) earlier. There should be fun and frequent opportunities for engineering, coding, robotics, math and science competitions, gardening, agriculture, environmental clubs, ….starting in elementary and middle school. Children are curious — they want to learn about the world, but first must be able to have exposure so that they know that all of these possibilities exist. For example, when at Spence, I founded the middle and upper school robotics teams. I really didn’t have any experience with coding and robotics but was able to find the resources to teach myself enough to start the girls with the challenges. They then figured out, once they realized how fun it was, how to teach themselves even more advanced concepts.
  2. Coding should be considered a required language and should be taught starting in elementary school. I’ve noticed that students are especially engaged when integrated with art and gaming.
  3. Why don’t tech and engineering companies have more robust internship departments in which teenagers, especially those from underserved communities, can be taught and mentored by professionals?

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

We need to engage girls and women in STEM subjects so that they go into STEM fields, in which they are underrepresented.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

US recognizes that we need to engage girls and women, which is the first step.

We need to increase the exposure to courses, experiences, and mentoring opportunities for young girls, especially in engineering and technology, so that they understand what these fields are about, are able to learn foundational concepts and skills, and have a support system to cheer them on.

  1. Have after school and summer clubs and programs to have the time and space to have fun experiences exploring STEM questions and completing projects and challenges.
  2. For underserved communities, have paid high school internships for girls to see how laboratories function, engineers complete projects, and tech companies function; during these experiences girls will develop relationships with mentors and potential future employers.
  3. In Spence, we had an amazing ISR (Independent Science Research) program. Students are selected in their freshman year to investigate a branch of research from tenth grade to graduation, mentored by a specialist in that particular field. Students showcase their work at a Symposium at the end of their senior year. These types of programs for girls should be available in most schools.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Wouldn’t this be related to the question you asked before about improvement?

  1. Create a subsidized teaching training system in which all teachers are highly respected professionals with Master’s degrees.
  2. Expand what is taught in school so that it includes the arts.
  3. Provide systematic professional development on how to utilize actionable data.
  4. Expand counseling services for students and families in all schools.
  5. Reduce college costs. Community colleges should be free.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I have in my own fashion, learned the lesson that life is effort, unremittingly repeated.” Henry James

Obviously a wordy, but powerful way of saying, that one has to repeatedly continue to try, in every facet of one’s life. While being Head of School here at CSA, there were some exceptionally difficult times, trying to get renewed despite being closed for COVID, keeping a school running while remote, and most excruciating, having students whose loved ones died during the pandemic.

And, when the alarm went off at 4:30 in the morning during that time, and I felt that it was impossible to keep going, I would convince myself that if I just did one thing, then that would be enough. Once I accomplished that task, I would go to the next little one. By continuing to try, I was able to get to a time in which school went back to a new normal, and we were able to be a community that could support one another in person again.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have a conversation with Dr. Miguel Cardona, the US Secretary of Education, to have a better sense of how work on the federal level can start transforming how teachers are taught, trained, placed, and compensated so as to have a transformative effect on the US education system, particularly in STEAM fields.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Elisa Murphy of New York City Charter School of the Arts: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.