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A farewell to Philly schools: 'I've loved every day'

By Eileen DiFranco on Feb 27, 2015 11:52 AM

I had never thought about school nursing until a friend told me about an opening at Germantown Academy, the prestigious private school where she worked. I had four children, and working in labor and delivery during the night and on weekends in a hospital had become a nightmare. As a school nurse, I would have the same schedule as my children. An added perk: They could attend the school tuition-free. I was psyched.

I didn’t get the job. At first, I was disappointed. The specter of endless night shifts loomed again. But then another friend told me about public school nursing in Philadelphia. Since I lived in the city, I took the test in the fall of 1989 and began work the following January.

It was the best career choice I ever made. I've loved every day I spent as a school nurse.

Before I retire at the end of the school year, over the next several months, I will share the experiences I've had with children, fellow staff members, school administration, community agencies like the Department of Human Services, and the various superintendents who built, bought, and hawked expensive programs. For the most part, these programs fell far short of their cost.

In my 25 years of working in public education, I’ve learned things I would never have learned had I worked in an elite private school -- things about class, poverty and racism that have made me a much wiser and more empathetic human being. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I’ve also seen how bureaucracy, politics, elitism, and prejudice can hijack even the best-laid plans and intentions, leading to disaster rather than reform. I have seen superintendents like David Hornbeck, Paul Vallas, Arlene Ackerman, and William Hite ride into the city on their white horses, promising the sun, the moon, and the stars. Many of them skulked out of town in the dark a few years later. I have seen agencies that are responsible for the welfare of children instead tear huge holes in the proverbial safety net. I’ve seen a few bad teachers and an entire host of dedicated ones who manage to teach in spite of the obstacles placed in front of them by the pet reformer of the day. I’ve seen great principals who build up schools, and I've seen terrible ones who run the school into the ground in just a few short weeks.

When I walked into Olney Elementary on a cold January day in 1990, I had no idea what to expect. I had spent 12 years in Catholic school in Philadelphia and had my own prejudices about what we used to call back in the day “the publics.”

Those prejudices were quickly dashed. At Olney Elementary, I worked with talented, dedicated, intelligent teachers who toiled away in an old building with a tiny nurse's office, one staff bathroom, and a basement lunchroom that looked like something from the movie Annie.

Olney's enrollment was diverse. At one time, we figured out that 77 different languages were spoken by students. The students came from Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India, Thailand, and Pakistan. There was an Afghan family, a Palestinian family. Several came from the former Yugoslavia and Russia, and a couple from Portugal. There were students from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Colombia, Guyana, Mexico, Bolivia, and Brazil.

The teachers somehow made it all work.

A family from India had been in Bhopal during a chemical disaster in 1984. The girls remembered seeing a white powder covering the area outside their home, almost like the snow they later came to see in Philadelphia.

A Cambodian girl told me of her family’s long march to a refugee camp during the terrorist regime of Pol Pot.

In 1993, I transferred to Stetson Middle School, because I believed that a school-based clinic would solve the health issues I saw treated with difficulty at Olney Elementary, where most of the children did not have health insurance. The clinic was begun with good intentions but without the crucial input of parents, who chose instead to send their children to the many doctors and clinics that existed in Kensington. The clinic closed from lack of use.

Very significant numbers of students at Stetson did not speak English. Neither did their parents. I learned to speak a very rudimentary form of nurse’s Spanish. “Tiene dolor in la garganta?” (Do you have a sore throat?) Or I could write to the parents on a nursing form, "Su hija está mala. No escuela mañana." (Your daughter is sick. No school tomorrow.)

From Stetson, I transferred to Roxborough High School in 1999. In high school, the little-kid problems often become big problems, as kids flex the muscles of pre-adulthood. As in many schools, most of the students do the right thing and somehow manage to graduate. Unfortunately, some get pregnant and some get involved in drugs. One terrible year, two of our students were murdered.

In 25 years, I’ve heard stories from students and seen things that broke my heart: child abuse, little girls with venereal disease in their throats, incest, dead parents, mental illness, intractable poverty, invincible ignorance, and throw-away children who made their way from couch to couch yet still managed to get to school.

I’ve met mostly stellar people who do their job to the best of their ability and a few slugs. The slugs were always in the minority.

I also saw multiple administrations ride roughshod over the opinions and input of those who worked in the trenches. Big Brother and Big Sister always seemed to have a better idea. Those with their boots on the ground were forced to follow orders, even if the orders didn’t make any sense.

When I retire in June, I’ll miss the students and my fellow workers in the commendable field of education. What I won’t miss is the politics and the underlying disrespect for those of us who work in dirty, overheated or underheated, poorly staffed buildings with little to no resources with children who are crying out for more help.


Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (15)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 27, 2015 1:27 pm

Thank you Eileen. Please always remember that in your life in schools, you have made a difference in so many lives and helped so many students and colleagues in so many ways. That is what matters. Those memories and your knowledge that those whose lives you have touched really do remember and appreciate what you have done for them. Cherish those memories. That is the greatest reward of our profession. It really is.

You have just said so many important things in your "Farewell." We should all listen.

Submitted by Lisa Haver on February 27, 2015 2:32 pm


In addition to being a great school nurse, you have become a great advocate for students and educators by writing important, incisive articles about the state of the district today.  Your heartbreaking article on what students in our comprehensive high schools have lost was one of the best.  But the greatest by far, and my favorite:  The Six Lowest Performing Seats in the District--those occupied by the SRC and the Superintendent.

I wish you the best.

Submitted by jane (not verified) on February 27, 2015 4:18 pm

Eileen, I don't know you, but I love what you have written and how you have displayed your love for our kids, our city, and our schools by not only working hard for all of these years, but sharing your warm heart with us. Thank you for your service. 

-a Phila public school student [many years ago] and parent!

Submitted by Frank Murphy on February 27, 2015 8:27 pm


It is so easy to say I care.  Many who claim to be reformers of our educational institutions do so as proof of their concern for other people’s children.  But their words are simply words.  The actions or more often the lack action of these pontificators betray them.

In our city so many children live in dire need.

Who cares for them?

Parents and caregivers who struggle every step of the way to provide for their children do.  Many teachers, nurses, aides, facility staff, cafeteria workers, counselors, librarians, and principals do.

These are the people who are faithfully and tirelessly “for the children”.

They don’t talk using the hyper charged rhetoric that has come to characterize the school reform debate.  They are not disrupters.  They are simply ordinary people doing extraordinary work.  Every single day through the best and worst of times their actions shout I care.  

Thank you Eileen for so many years of service to our children.

Your actions have defined you as a real public education advocate.





Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 28, 2015 11:22 am

Well said Frank. May I add -- You are well known as an effective principal in your time who really did care, and you still do. My study and observation of the common qualities of effective prinicpals as well as effective teachers, etc., is simply -- they care.



Submitted by Gloria Endres (not verified) on February 28, 2015 12:50 am

Eileen, congratulations on  retiring from an outstanding career meeting the physical and emotional needs of suffering children. You will never know how many lives you have saved or how many burdens you have eased.

Thanks also for pointing out the often heroic work done by those who are "in the trenches".This commentary should be an op-ed also, just to show the odds against children such as you describe being successful in the age of one size fits all standardized testing.

Best of luck and God bless you.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 28, 2015 6:00 am

I only have ten years in but this much I know to be true: 440 sits white and gleaming while my school is crumbling apart. 

Submitted by P. Pendleton (not verified) on February 28, 2015 7:35 am


Well said! You have dedicated your career to caring for those who need us the most. I wish you the best!

Submitted by Maida Aviad (not verified) on February 28, 2015 10:23 am

Thank you for stating so eloquently what is in the hearts of all of us who have served the children of Philadelphia and done our best while working under such difficult conditions.  You can retire knowing you have made a difference in the lives of many of those children. I for one, am proud to have worked closely with you for many years in our nursing capacity and wish you a joyful next stage in life. 

Submitted by Deborah Grill (not verified) on February 28, 2015 4:39 pm

Congratulations on your retirement.  I know the students at Roxborough will sorely miss you.  As Lisa has already stated, you are a tireless advocate for the students and educators of Philadelphia.  I am looking  forward to your  commentaries in the next months, and  I hope you continue to write them after your retirement. 

Submitted by Carol W. Heinsdorf, M.S.L.S., N.B.C.T. (not verified) on February 28, 2015 6:18 pm


Your empathy and eloquence have been inspirational.

Thank you.

Best wishes on your retirement.

Carol Heinsdorf

Submitted by Carol McCarthy (not verified) on February 28, 2015 8:43 pm


Your article certainly resonates with me. Thank you for writing it, and for all you have done for children.

Submitted by Kathy Wetzel (not verified) on March 3, 2015 10:38 am
How well I know what you are talking about. Both happy and sad that you are leaving us. You have been such a wonderful and vocal advocate for both the children of Philadelphia and school nurses.
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