Incoming Arlington Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy Is Known as a Motivator

Robert G. Smith, left, the longtime Arlington County school superintendent who is retiring this year, talks with Patrick K. Murphy, who will succeed him. Murphy, 50, has worked for several Virginia schools and is currently the assistant superintendent of accountability for Fairfax County schools.
Robert G. Smith, left, the longtime Arlington County school superintendent who is retiring this year, talks with Patrick K. Murphy, who will succeed him. Murphy, 50, has worked for several Virginia schools and is currently the assistant superintendent of accountability for Fairfax County schools. (Richard A. Lipski - The Washington Post)
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By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009

Luis Ruiz was a shy custodian at a Fairfax County secondary school, not much older than the students, when the new principal called him into his office.

"He was very formal, a very educated person. I was afraid to even say something to him," Ruiz said. Then 20 years old, Ruiz had left El Salvador only a few years earlier and was still struggling with English. But Patrick K. Murphy did the talking. "He saw the kind of work I was doing, and he said he was happy. He said he saw some potential in me, and he said, 'I want you to do better in life.' "

Ruiz, now 35 and an electrician for the school system, said that was the first moment someone in the United States encouraged him to do more. Before landing the custodial job, he had worked as a dishwasher in a burger joint for $3.25 an hour without benefits. Suddenly, he said, Murphy had him enrolled in management courses.

"He said, 'I know you're going to become a good supervisor one day,' " Ruiz said. "And believe it or not, back in those days, I told him, 'I know you're going to be a superintendent one day.' "

This month, Murphy, the son of a kindergarten teacher and federal worker, was named the next superintendent of Arlington County schools, beating out about 60 applicants from as far away as Texas and Arizona. People familiar with his career say his leadership style is rooted not only in self-motivation, which helped propel a physical education teacher to become the leader of a nationally recognized school system, but also the ability to encourage those around him to strive for more.

"It is creating scenarios and opportunities for everyone to be successful," said Murphy, an educator for 21 years who has a doctorate in the subject. "I always have these conversations with people -- 'Where do you want to be . . . and how are you going to get there?' "

In the Washington area, there seem to be two kinds of superintendent. Some are under intense scrutiny in jobs with high turnover. Others are positioned to lead a school system for the long haul. William R. Hite Jr., recently named superintendent in Prince George's County, is seeking to shake the fast-turnover trend in that system. Murphy is taking over from a longtime superintendent. Robert G. Smith, retiring this year, has led Arlington schools for a dozen years. (Loudoun County Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III, in office since 1991, is the dean of local school leaders.)

Murphy, 50, started his career in 1988 as a health and physical education teacher at Francis Scott Key Middle School in Springfield. By 1991, he was assistant director of student activities at Mount Vernon High School, and seven years after that, principal at Washington Irving Middle School. For the past 4 1/2 years, he has been assistant superintendent of accountability for Fairfax schools, responsible for testing, program evaluation and strategic planning.

"There's sort of three positions that I see in life," Murphy said. "The first is leaning back or lying back and relaxing. The other is sitting up and maybe paying attention. And the third is leaning forward and looking for the next step. And I think as long as you're leaning forward, then you continue to move forward."

Arlington's superintendent position is among the most desirable and challenging, said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the Arlington-based American Association of School Administrators. Under Smith, achievement in the 19,600-student Arlington school system has risen across the board.

"School systems like Arlington and Fairfax and Montgomery County, they have great reputations," Domenech said. "But don't let anyone be fooled into thinking they are easy school systems. They are not. The system has already set a very high standard, a very high bar."

Domenech, a former Fairfax superintendent, promoted Murphy to principal at Washington Irving.

"He's bright, he's personable, he's articulate," Domenech said. "He cares about education and kids and has all the necessary qualities for being an outstanding educational leader."

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale described Murphy as a strong analytical thinker and said he looks forward to having him as a colleague nearby. Dennis Kellison, the superintendent in Winchester, Va., where Murphy worked for two years, said Murphy holds the right beliefs.

"His approach was always, if kids are not doing well, there has to be something we can do to make it happen," Kellison said.

Trevalyn Wilson was PTA president at Washington Irving when Murphy started a summer orientation for seventh-graders planning to enter Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Her daughter Jackie, who was in the program, is now a senior at James Madison University, preparing to teach middle school math.

Wilson said Murphy paid attention to the entire school community. Whenever the bell rang, she said, Murphy would excuse himself from a meeting, walk into the hallway and greet passing students.

"He was a visual presence, right out in front in the main hall," she said, adding that he was equally as attentive to parents. "I do not remember a single time that I was in that building working on a project of some kind that he didn't stick his head in the door and say 'Thank you for coming' and acknowledge everyone who was there. As a parent, you felt very valued."

In recent months, Murphy was the point man for Fairfax schools in a high-profile debate over the county's grading scale. Parents argued that the scale, which required 94 percent or higher for an A, rather than the 90 percent minimum in many other school systems, put students at a disadvantage in college admissions and scholarship awards. Murphy met frequently with parents to hear their concerns. The school system is switching to a 90 percent standard.

"I'm disappointed that Fairfax is losing him," said Megan McLaughlin, co-founder of the parent group Fairgrade. "He's one of those rare school officials that understands the school system is that much stronger by giving value to the parent voice instead of ignoring it."

Murphy, who lives in Arlington, will begin his four-year contract July 1 and will have a base salary of $195,000. Until then, he said, he plans to visit schools, meet with the community and focus on learning.

Ruiz, meanwhile, is already thinking ahead.

"I won't be surprised one day if he comes back to Fairfax County and becomes our superintendent," Ruiz said. "Believe me, he can do it."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company