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‘Did You Grow Up Around Black People?’

My year working for “America’s Most Trusted Educator”

By Ebony Murphy-Root


Folks in the national media are just beginning to take note of Dr. Steve Perry’s colorfully threatening metaphors and heated ‘no excuses’ rhetoric, but during my year as a teacher at Capital Prep, the school Perry runs in Hartford, CT, I had some of them directed squarely at me.

I first heard of Dr. Steve Perry back in 2010 on the Black in America special hosted by Soledad O’Brien. I agreed with his message that urban kids of color deserved schools as great as the ones in the affluent suburbs. I believe deep thinking and experiential learning are critical to developing active citizens in a democracy. I believe innovative classrooms with skilled teachers are crucial to the kind of society where all kids can thrive.

At the time I was teaching middle school English at a progressive grade 6-12 prep school in Hartford. I also coached lacrosse and served as an advisor to a small group of students, trying my best to become the consummate prep school ‘triple threat.’ I’d recently completed my master’s in curriculum and instruction and was happy in my position on a beautiful campus with warm, encouraging colleagues, and wonderfully quirky students. I myself attended a girls’ school in Fairfield County, CT, for six years and that experience has shaped my view of education as the great equalizer.

I heard about an open position at Capital Prep from a college friend who had interviewed but had ultimately taken a job in the suburbs. I sent in my resume in the middle of June, 2011 and received a phone call right away to come in for an interview and bring a lesson plan. Within days, I’d happily accepted a position as the ninth grade English teacher. The six-week summer session was about to begin and I couldn’t wait to teach The Alchemist, Romeo and Juliet,The Outsiders, alliteration, the hero’s cycle motif, prepositions…

But within that six week period, six teachers disappeared. I didn’t yet know this but such sudden disappearances were a regular occurrence at Capital Prep. After the December break, one of the best teachers in the school simply failed to return. I never found out if she’d been fired or had just become disenchanted with the place. By that point the shine was already off for me. Dr. Perry was gone constantly, traveling the country on paid gigs even as he was accepting his sizable salary. Once we went almost a month without paper in the copy machine with no explanation.

The school lacked the warm, fuzzy, familial atmosphere of any of my previous schools—not even the lower school which served small children as young as three—but I figured this was part of the ‘no excuses’ package. In morning meetings, Perry often talked about “franchising” Capital Prep. He was fond of the ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’ language that President Bush had used. Once, in the spring, after the girls lacrosse team lost a game to Fairfield, Perry went on a tirade about how the girls on our team were ‘disgusting’ and ‘out of shape’ compared to the lithe, slender, mostly white girls from down state. I was livid at this attack on teenage girls’ bodies and as I looked around the ‘bull pen’ it was the first time I saw that others were also offended by Perry’s rhetoric.

Perry directed his insults toward members of the Hartford Board of Education, the Hartford Federation of Teachers, even other principals. I could never figure out Perry’s obsession with unions, and as the daughter of a Teamster it didn’t sit well with me. What sort of jobs did he envision for his students after college? I wondered. After all, Perry himself belonged to a union. If our poorest students had parents with union jobs, steady wages and paid time off, they might be able to support their kids better, both financially and emotionally. I wondered how Perry, if he’d ever been a classroom teacher himself, might teach about the history of the labor movement.

Still I knew I needed to work on my classroom management. The easy going yet firm style that had come naturally to me at other schools didn’t work with a segment of my students at Capital Prep. When I finally got up the courage to speak to my supervisor about the rampant use of the ‘n’ word and other racially abusive language, he chuckled smugly, asking: “Did you grow up around a lot of black people?” I was taken aback, unsure of what he meant.

I laugh now, but the thought that I, the daughter of a truck driver who grew up in the projects, was having my ‘blackness’ and working class bonafides questioned by a white man from suburbia was beyond infuriating. I knew firsthand what kids from tough backgrounds needed to succeed. When I was 17 I lost my mom to breast cancer, then helped my Dad raise my two much younger brothers. I took out loans (lots of them) to attend grad school. And unlike Perry who lives in a McMansion in the suburbs, I actually LIVED in Hartford. Yet I was viewed as some sort of suburban ‘oreo’ who didn’t fit into Perry’s urban boot camp.

I made lots of mistakes, as beginning teachers do. I frequently called my mother-in-law, an award-winning 20 year English teacher herself. Something just isn’t ‘right’ about the place, I’d say through tears, followed by: “The emperor has no clothes!” In late February of 2013, Perry and his vice principal called me in to say that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. Perry told me I could either ‘resign with dignity’ or be fired and I was presented with paperwork to sign on the spot. Perry said, “If you make this difficult, it will be very hard for you to ever work in this state again.” I know now that I could have requested union representation, but Perry made sure teachers in his building weren’t informed of their union rights, just as he made sure we were kept away from other teachers in the district. In fact, when I applied to work at another Hartford high school the next fall, the principal told me that he was ‘not allowed to hire’ me because I had resigned from Capital Prep. I am still not sure whether or not that is true.

I am not ‘disgruntled’; I have nothing to gain. Perhaps I’ll be attacked as incompetent for sharing my experiences. I don’t have Hollywood or media connections like Steve Perry. I won’t be invited on Melissa Harris-Perry or to the Essence Fest with Soledad O’Brien or Steve Harvey. P. Diddy will likely never attend my book party. What I do have is my truth and the experiences of other quality teachers who were treated shabbily by Perry and his inner circle.

After Perry made headlines for his controversial tweet, I began speaking out, responding to blogs and news articles. A former colleague contacted me to say that she’d seen my comments and that I was “hurting the kids.” She told me that unlike me, she stands “for all 732 kids there.” But as far as I’m concerned, I stand for all of the kids in Hartford, not just the ones ‘lucky’ enough to have a parent working at Capital Prep or for Central office, or ‘fortunate’ enough to be related to Perry or one of his close pals.

There are great kids at Capital Prep just as there are great kids at other Hartford schools. There are great teachers at Capital Prep just as there as great teachers at other Hartford schools—teachers who quietly give kids rides, buy them winter coats, snack food they will never be reimbursed for, yearbook money, and class parties—all without a national media platform to pat them on the back. These teachers reflect and keep on trying. And they don’t look down on the teachers in their district who work in schools entirely filled by kids from the neighborhood.

I’m back in the classroom now. I was hired at a progressive New York City prep school on the Upper West Side and began in August. My new head of school has been proclaimed a ‘hero educator’ by Diane Ravitch.

Ebony Murphy-Root is a humanities teacher on the middle school faculty of a progressive school on the Upper West Side in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @therealmsmurphy.

27 Comments

  1. Wow, that was powerful to read. Maybe it was powerful for me because I too worked in a similar school for a short period. It is a well-known charter school in Harlem that shall remain nameless; however, that CEO was also heralded with a movie and lots of TV time on sensational tv news programs. I just got tired of the lies and the tv cameras in my room and decided this is all for consumption. I completely understand what you are talking about and applaud your courage to speak out. I have always felt that you don’t need to talk and just let your work speak for you. These guys are just addicted to the media hype and have decided to be the representatives. Corporate America LOVES them! Thank you for sharing.

  2. This is simply the most pertinent and beautiful commentary written about this whole situation here in Hartford! Honest, direct, with personal experience AND commentary on the larger controversial picture!
    Every day now, parents and teachers are speaking eloquently on behalf of their children and in defense of the entire PUBLIC education system. They have exposed profit-seeking individuals and interests who are dismantling concepts of fair quality for all children (and adults) – versus those defending separate and UNEQUAL facilities, leading to weakened public systems in which many children are being left behind.
    We admire this writing by Ebony Murphy-Root (and her reference to Diane Ravitch defense of public school strengthening) – and look forward to further writing and even visits back here!
    –Larry Deutsch, MD, MPH
    Minority Leader (Working Families Party), Hartford City Council

  3. Ebony…. Kudos to you for speaking up!! I am a parent @ Capital Prep and please note that we as parent’s of Capital Prep have contacted the Hartford Board of Education numerous times on his harsh discipline tactics that our children have to endure ages pre-k children to the 12th grade. The City of Hartford has not done anything to this day!! We as parent’s have also sat back and watched OUR children & parent’s quietly told this isn’t the school for you and quietly ushered out. (Who is standing up for OUR children and parents who don’t know their rights)? Also we as parent’s would like to know why pictures of our minor children from Capital Prep are on his personal Twitter account for potential predators? We as parents have watched how Dr. Perry is condescending and show boats to America stating that he is an advocate for education reform but at his OWN school that is far from the truth. We as parents have watched his demoralizing tactics with our teacher’s and are tired of it. We as parent’s VALUE our teacher’s!!! We as parent’s are tired of the high turn over of the teacher’s which happens every year grade to to grade. We as parent’s want City of Hartford Principle Dr Perry treated just like any other City of Hartford principle; following city and State of CT regulations. We as parent’s are wondering why OUR voice isn’t heard???

    1. Please keep speaking out! Teachers and kids need parents like you! We ALL need to work together to take down monsters like this. They don’t care about kids. They don’t care about education. They care about the next press tour, the next book deal, the next photo op. Thank you for already speaking out!!!

  4. My children also attend this school and I am looking for an alternative..I am thoroughly disgusted with Dr. Perry and his cronies. The turn over rate is ridiculous. ..the discipline practices at the school are abusive…the man never returns an email but has time to be on Oprah calling young women as his school promiscuous. Unreal. I admit he fooled me, I thought that man was the greatest when I was researching schools..he talks a good game but that’s all it is. Anotherb parent I recently spoke to summed it up..she said “Dr. Perry is a media whore.”

    1. Capital Prep Parents:
      I am a current parent @ Capital Prep and If you are reading this and you too are unhappy w/ the quality of education at Capital Prep Magnet school it is time our VOICE be heard. We must band together so the Hartford Board of Education hears our VOICE. The media has heard Dr Perry’s untruths about his school. It is time they hear OUR voice and respond to his unethical practices and demoralizing discipline tactics to our pre-k to 12th grade students, high teacher turn over and high absenteeism of our principle Dr. Perry a City of Hartford employee. It is time they hear OUR VOICE!!

      Please join me in writing letters to:

      Pedro Segarra
      760 Prospect Avenue
      Hartford, 06105

      And don’t forget to mail

      Matt Poland
      One Gold Street
      Unit 6c
      Hartford, Ct 06103

      Thank you our children are entitled to a quality education!!!

      1. Why not send your kids to school with camera phones and get some video? Let the outside world see inside Capital Prep, unscripted, to see what it’s really like. Then we don’t have to take the supporters’ or critics’ word for anything. Post the vids on YouTube, and let the viewer be the judge.

        1. Or the HPS central office ( and there are many, many layers of admin) and the BOE could do their job and investigate this charlatan.

    2. Please make sure that you send the letters they can be anonymous. I think it is important for the BOE to hear us. It is such a shame that parent advocate from CT Gwen Samels has drank the koolaide and isn’t an advocate for ALL PARENTS and doesn’t really know what goes on behind closed doors @ Capital Prep w/ our children. @CTparentsunion P.S Perry and the Vice Principle don’t return parent phone calls I too have experienced this.

  5. Ebony, kudos to you for speaking out about Steve Perry, an arrogant self-promoter. For him to pretend he cares about the students at his school is hilarious–he spends all his time traveling around trying to gain credibility for himself. He epitomizes all that is wrong with the corporatization/ “de-form” of education, and the worst aspects of the charter school movement.

    I am a former Hartford teacher, long before your time (hint: Larry Deutsch, I taught two of your wonderful kids), and I laughed out loud at “the emperor has no clothes.” I was saying that back in the 90s about the leadership of the schools. Insecure principals are very threatened by intelligent, strong teachers, as I found out. They want people they can push around and bully into submission. Good for you for leaving, and finding a good position elsewhere, though it sounds like you are the kind of teacher Hartford should be working to hold onto.

    These principals need to give some thought to the idea that abusing and threatening teachers, resulting in constant turnover, will only result in the students in their schools being taught by rookie teachers, however initially qualified and well-intentioned, who never have a chance to gain experience, refine their pedagogy, or learn from veteran teachers–because there aren’t any. No parents in the suburbs would tolerate their children being taught by an ever-rotating cast of brand new teachers. Yet people like Steve Perry expect city parents to accept that. It’s shameful.

  6. Parents of kids’ pic on his twitter account need to go after him. I’m sure that this illegal, especially if the kids are not 13 or older.

  7. The Hartford Public Schools administrators method to their madness is to just ignore anything they don’t want to deal with… parents included… and then maybe it will just go away. So Parents: Make Some Noice ! These are YOUR KIDS that Perry is messing with. The Sand parents made noise and they got results! Nothing is more important than the kids. Steve Perry never got that memo.

  8. Ebony: You are made of sterner stuff than these tyrants, who must bully and bludgeon any sign of opposition or independent thinking. I applaud your frankness and bravery.

  9. Actually, you ARE “disgruntled.” It means “to be made angry.” It is something that is done TO you; it is not a personal fault of yours. However, calling the victim “disgruntled” is a tactic to discredit the victim; so anything the victim says after that is “tainted” as vindictive. It is so widely used that dropping that word poisons anything the victim might say. Or at least that’s how it has worked in the past. If we are labeled as “disgruntled,” throw it back. Yes, I have been made angry; you made me angry with your discriminatory behavior (idiot logic, whatever). Several friends have used that tactic; the bully is stunned and frequently speechless.

  10. I am a former student of Capital Prep. Though I never had the pleasure of knowing Ms. Murphy (I graduated in 2011), I can assure you that everything she is speaking of, in terms of the overall environment of the school and it clearly not being the institution that it’s all built up to be, is so very true. I never really liked Dr. Perry or admin as a whole, not because I was some angry teenager who didn’t like his principal, but because I along with many of my other classmates knew we were being taken along for a ride. I felt more like one of Perry’s guinea pigs than a student. If he even bothered to show up, it’d be with some sort of camera crew to show how great of a school c prep is, or he’d be in his office typing away on his phone (something that all admin LOVED to do, even during all school events or small meetings with students). His methods were and I’m sure still are very questionable, like making students do stairs for punishments, for example. The school was so unorganized and chaotic at times and we had a new staff every year. I think I can count on my hand how many of the teachers lasted from my 7th grade year to my senior year. So many necessary parts of a college prep program were missing and though I will be going into my final year of college next fall, I can honestly say I felt ridiculously unprepared going in as a freshman (and I was one of the better students in my class GPA and SAT wise). I could go on and on about how miserable of place it was, but I think you get the point.

    1. I posted several comments on Ebony’s amazing piece which discloses the inner realms of C Prep on “Wait What?”, Jon Pelto’s blog because I am a CT teacher. Several C Prep loyalists began to attack Ebony’s credibility and professionalism in the comments so I felt the need to respond in support of Ebony http://jonathanpelto.com/2013/11/25/powerful-haunting-report-former-capital-prep-teacher/.

      I read both Wait What? and EduShyster so now I must comment here as well.

      I want to thank Ebony for her courage and poignant piece. I also want to thank Jennifer Berkshire for giving Ebony a place to express her voice and experience so eloquently.

      I’m sure I speak for many teachers in expressing out gratitude for these blogs, which give educators an outlet to discuss what is happening within the halls of public schools, along with taking on the corporate ed reformers. It is the many bloggers who have exposed the truth and helped push back against the attack on public education, teachers, and most importantly, our students.

      Ebony clearly is a teacher every principal should highly value and seek to place in his/her school. I am glad she is in a school which embraces and supports her talents and ability to change students’ lives.

      Many people have been commenting on this piece, along with the other post regarding C Prep and Steve Perry. You are one of the first former students to comment, so I also commend you.

      I am curious about one issue, as you state you are now in your fourth year of college (congrats!) but college preparedness is an issue at C Prep. Several, former C Prep teachers alluded to the same concerns you write about in your comment.

      I have questioned many times on Jon’s blog why C Prep has chosen not go through the accreditation process (I theorize it may be due to outsiders coming in to scrutinize the program). I do have one question for you. Are you a Hartford resident or do you come from out of district through the lottery?

      If it is the latter, what made you decide to choose C Prep and stay? Just curious. No student should feel like as though they are “taken for a ride”. Instead, they should feel they are being challenged to reach their highest potential, encouraged in their gifts and talents, and supported by all.

  11. New Orleans has turned into a pool of privately run charter schools with leaders that don’t have a clue about educating children. Things go on in many of these schools that the public or parents don’t have a clue about. It’s all about keeping the face of the school looking good. The impact of the lack of leadership on the students is kept hidden. The turnover rate for teachers is unmatched. Test scores are not indicative of what is really going on. Behavior is out of control. There are millions of excuses for why things aren’t what they seem and teachers are blamed for anything that is unsuccessful. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

  12. I do not like to see educated AA people pimping our most valuable commodity…our African American students….They are victimized everyday by the system that has been designed to perpetuate itself for gain. Please continue to shout the pimping, no matter who is doing it…..that is the only way we can help to empower the parents of the students across the USA. The students do not have a voice!

  13. Ebony, you are heroic. Congratulations on the new job. New York City is fortunate to have another teacher who understands what is really happening with regard to reform. If you aren’t already involved with CORE, join them!

  14. Steve Perry is nothing more than a lackey for the power elite who want to privatize the public school system. I was sickened one day as watched him on CNN berate the teachers at one of the highest poverty schools in the country, telling them that they had failed. Something is very wrong with our nation when despicable characters like Perry are looked to as authorities on education.

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