How a superintendent aims for excellence and equity
HOOVER, Alabama—Hoover City Schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy, leader of a high-performing and affluent district in the suburbs of Birmingham, continues her work under a decades-old desegregation of schools order.
Since taking over the district in 2015, Murphy has been leading her team to convince a federal judge to lift the order that her district inherited when it broke away from the larger Jefferson County school system in the 1980s.
The Hoover City Schools superintendent and her team have worked on several fronts, from school boundaries to AP enrollment to discipline.
“We are constantly focused on how to do the work of equity better,” says Murphy, who also served as superintendent of Alabama’s Monroe County Schools. “We’re asking ourselves what are we doing that may be a barrier to the education of children based on race.”
‘I got my feelings hurt’
Murphy grew up in the 1970s in the small town of Greenville, Alabama, with fleeting visions of being a gymnast or a runner, or maybe an athletic trainer or sports psychologist.
But even though she grew up in a loving and supportive family, girls back then were not so readily encouraged to participate in sports or purse athletic careers.
Also, gymnastic studios and similar facilities were scarce in rural Alabama. “I was the kid who always took my glove and threw my rubber ball against the house and got into trouble,” she laughs. “And I could do backflips with the best of them.”
Early on, she also came to prefer the outdoors and mechanical devices to, say, more traditionally domestic endeavors.
“If my parents said ‘I need you to put this chain on this chainsaw or prepare this soufflé,’ I put the chain on the chainsaw,” Murphy says. “I still tend to come to work on Mondays with some tractor grease under my fingernails.”
When it came time to choose a career, she followed another path that she had been passionate about since childhood. “I had such a deep regard and respect for my teachers,” she says. “At a young age I realized how important they were to me, and saw that as such a worthy way to spend one’s life.”
Murphy earned her undergraduate degree in physical education from Troy University in Alabama, and her masters and doctorate degrees from Auburn University at Montgomery.
Hoover City Schools by the numbers
- Schools: 18 including RC3 (Career Center) and Crossroads (Alternative Center)
- Students: 14,085
- Employees: 2,080
- Per-child expenditure: $12,000
- Annual budget: $168 million
- Students on free/reduced-price lunch: 3,430
- English language learners: 894 receiving services/1,929 identified
- Graduation rate: 93.75%
- Teacher retention rate: 91%
She took her first job—as a PE teacher—at Auburn High School in Alabama. She then shifted to higher education, instructing student PE teachers at West Georgia College (now, the University of West Georgia).
She got her first job as a principal at Greenville Middle School, back in her hometown, and spent nine years there. She later became principal at Greenville High School and then moved to the central office of the district, Butler County Schools, with her sights set on the superintendency. But when the job came open, she was not selected.
“I was so disappointed. It was my home town, my community,” Murphy says. “I had invested time and energy in making the schools a better place and I got my feelings hurt.”
Crowbars and connectivity
If she had stayed in Greenville, Murphy says, she would have grown bitter, so she left her hometown again and, in 2011, landed the top spot in 3,000-student Monroe County Schools in Alabama, a diverse district where vestiges of segregation remained in place.
More from DA: How Superintendent Kathy Murphy stays energized
For instance, she had to travel for more than an hour through two other counties to reach one of her buildings—a high-poverty school in remote Packards Bend, Alabama. All 66 of the school’s students were African American.
One big challenge was keeping that school connected to the internet.
“We were starting to make the transition to using computer-generated tests for some high-stakes tests,” she says. “Imagine the frustration for those children when they would get on a computer and be in the process of taking a test, and having that connectivity go down and having to start over.”
Hoover City Schools Superintendent Kathy Murphy’s favorite things
Teacher: I had so many favorite teachers that it’s hard to narrow this down. I can tell you the special sauce for making a teacher a favorite: My favorite teachers always knew me, cared about me, advocated for me, believed in me, and pushed me to do better and be better.
Childhood aspiration: I loved physical activity: Climbing trees, swinging on vines, riding my bike, and throwing/hitting/catching balls. From a young age, I wanted to teach physical education and coach sports.
Pastime/hobby: I have 40 acres complete with a small cabin, which is my happy place. I enjoy working the land and enjoy the wildlife that has made my little spot of earth their little spot of earth.
Dessert: Mama’s fudge chocolate icing on a white layer cake. The important ingredient is mama’s love.
Book: With no hesitation, my favorite book is The Bible. It is from this book, I have learned how to live with purpose and meaning, to love and to forgive people and myself, and to know I have been called for such a time as this.
Music/song: ’70s music all the way.
Sports/recreation: I love sports, notably football, and particularly Hoover High Bucs, Spain Park High Jaguars, Auburn University Tigers and Troy University Trojan football.
Heroes/sheroes: I am beyond blessed to have been reared by two of my heroes—my dad, who is now deceased, and my sweet mother, who gets more beautiful by the day.
Quote: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
—William Arthur Ward
Murphy also was struck by the fact that when she became superintendent in Hoover, she could enter any building in the district, at any time of day, with her electronic badge. At one of her prior districts, she actually had to use keys and a crowbar to open a school door, she says.
These technological dilemmas reflect the pockets of poverty—and the lack of educational resources—that continue to exist in Alabama. For example, some districts still struggle to keep one month’s operating revenue in the bank, while others have nearly a year of funds in reserve, she adds.
“The education of children in this state in great measure is defined by zip code,” she says.
How struggling can enrich students
Equity remains top of mind for Murphy as the Hoover City Schools superintendent works to move her district past the desegregation of schools order. She and her team must convince the government that all children are receiving an equal education.
Administrators are currently working to ensure all students have equal access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, gifted and talented classes, and other enrichment activities.
The biggest change: Students no longer need a teacher’s recommendation to get into an AP course. They can simply request a spot in the class, Murphy says.
“We know that a student who gets into an AP class, even though he or she might struggle, that challenge of thinking deeper and working at a richer level is so important,” she says.
Teachers now provide tutoring and other before- and after-school support for AP and IB students. “It’s a whole paradigm shift when you say not only are we going to embrace your walking through this door, but we are going to help you be successful,” she says.
The district also is shifting its disciplinary approach, using positive behavioral supports in an effort to ensure that students of color are not punished disproportionately. Of particular focus has been looking more closely at why students end up in the district’s alternative school—with an eye toward preventing disruptive behaviors before they occur, she says.
Murphy has placed a full-time counselor at the alternative center, and has hired more mental health specialists to work with troubled students and connect them with outside medical providers.
More teachers than are required
As the leader of a high-performing district, the Hoover City Schools superintendent must also work to maintain the high academic standards to which her community has become accustomed.
Recently, Hoover opened the $20 million River Chase Career Connection Center to provide students with professional credentials so they can go to work right after graduation or enter more advanced vocational pathways in college. The center offers tracks in culinary arts, cybersecurity, health sciences, and firefighting and emergency response, among other programs.
Murphy has also used $600,000 in grant funds to dramatically expand preschool programs to several elementary schools. Previously, the district had only offered pre-K services in special education. The preschool waiting list of about 250 students now has sparked plans to create an early-learning center in the district.
Of course, high-performing districts need high-performing teachers. The district pays its educators at a higher rate than the state’s salary schedule. And when the Alabama legislature enacted a 4% teacher pay increase for Oct. 1, 2019, Murphy allocated $2.4 million to make the raise retroactive to July 1.
She also pays supplements to teachers who lead extracurricular activities and academic trips. Finally, to keep class sizes small, Hoover employs 230 more teachers than the state requires for a district its size, Murphy says.
“Our parents want us to offer as much as we can, and there is an eye of scrutiny on us to get this work right,” she says. “High expectations and high demands make us a better school district, make us better administrators and make us better teachers.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.