Principal Month Tribute: Carlene Murray

Unusually upbeat and optimistic even in dark times, Dr. E. Carlene Murray, principal of Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, credits luck, and an outstanding staff and students, for all that is good about her Title I school.

She arrived at Northwestern in 2014 as a first-time principal, in charge of one of the largest schools in Maryland. The student population consisted of predominantly African American and Latino students. Bolstered by her experience as a veteran Spanish teacher from schools in Silver Spring and Largo, Maryland, Carlene felt well suited for meeting the needs of her student population.

“Northwestern is an amazing building and we have been fortunate to have adequate PPE for everyone throughout the pandemic,” she said.

It is characteristic of her to take little personal credit. She attributes these successes in large part to her business manager, Aljeana Pratt, secretary, Jocita Deal, and building services manager James Green, and chief executive officer Dr. Monica Goldson. 

“I have an incredible staff of teachers, administrators and supporting services teams as well who make the work of running a large high school possible,” she said. 

And she gives a nod to the Association of Supervisory & Administrative School Personnel (ASASP), AFSA Local 109: “I tell everyone, you don’t know how lucky we are to belong to this union. Our executive director, Doris Reed, has been a fantastic labor partner. I couldn’t have gotten this far without her.”  

“We also happen to have one of two high school visual and performing arts programs in the county, the Jim Henson visual and performing arts program,” she said. “My daughter attends this program, not because she wants to be with me, but because she wants to be an actress. We’re all very grateful to the Jim Hensen estate.”

Jim Hensen, the world-renowned creator of The Muppets, graduated from Northwestern High School in 1954.  Henson’s estate has funded the program at the school since 2013.  The Jim Henson Academy For The Visual and Performing Arts  is a magnet for aspiring visual and performing artists in Prince George’s County. 

Nearly everything about the school suddenly changed in March 2020. 

The pandemic was becoming a common topic on the nightly news. Murray said, “I had a strong intuition that things might quickly grow more dire and, on the Tuesday before we were closed, I started training people how to use Google Classroom.” 

The school buildings were closed the next Thursday. Her staff quickly had to quickly pivot to online education. As always, her husband of the past 23 years, Andrew Murray, was her “rock,” her main support.

During the pandemic, however, adaptability wasn’t so simple.  

“We lost two beloved people to COVID, early,” she said.  The school closed on March 13, and Terrence Burke, one of the senior professional school counselors and the varsity basketball coach, passed later that month. A few days after his death, Spanish teacher Annis Creese died. “We were devastated,” Carlene said. “We were afraid for everyone else. We knew so little.” 

Grief counselors and employee assistance program staff were brought in. Murray quickly organized a virtual meeting with the basketball team.

“I just wanted to see their faces and see for myself how they were doing,” she remembered. “Some of the students spoke up and others just stayed on camera. We were all still in shock. We talked about what a great person Mr. Burke was and how much he cared about our students and how happy they were to be coached by him. I said no matter what happened, they were still his team.”

Because it was early and they all had a sense of unreality, she believes they were able to suppress much of their emotion. She holds on to the memory of the team’s own innate leadership: “These are nice young men who come from different backgrounds socioeconomically, racially and ethnically. What I remember most is the leadership the captains demonstrated when they asked me if I was OK.”

Today, she says the most challenging thing is to encourage staff to accept and understand the uncertainty that is still with them. “I tell them I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” she said. “But I see them taking the time to dig deep down into their roots for strength and continue to pivot.”

Roots are profoundly important to Carlene Murray. She comes from an old St. Mary’s County, Maryland, family and identifies intensely with the tidal communities along the Chesapeake Bay in Southern Maryland. Her ancestors were mostly from Uganda and Cameroon, with many transported to Maryland aboard slave ships centuries ago. Although her sister, Julie, researches their genealogical roots, she said, “Most of it comes down to us orally. My maternal grandfather was a great storyteller and he was a great repository of our past.” 

Carlene and her sister were raised mainly by their “awesome grandparents,” Combs Cornelius and Mary Theda Toney who, she is proud to add, were married for 72 years. “They had a huge influence on us and spoiled us in a good way,” she said.  

Murray feels fortunate to have had her mother, Gertrude Roberta Hawkins, father Charles Hawkins and aunts and uncles guide her toward becoming the person she is today. It was her uncle, homicide detective Charles Fobbs, who came up with the idea that Carlene should be an educator. One day when she was barely 22, lazing around his swimming pool, Uncle Charles said, “You need a job. Go on down to the district office and see what they’ve got for you.”  

He changed her life. She began teaching Spanish that fall at Largo High School. “To be honest, I loved teaching from Day One,” she said.     

Carlene majored in political science in college but did not discover her passion until she shifted to education, quickly earning a master’s degree at Bowie State and later a doctorate at Drexel University. As for her doctorate, she totally credits her grandparents for making that happen.  

“They told me to go for it.”  While they did not live to see her graduate with her doctorate in educational leadership and management, Carlene feels their pride in her accomplishment. 

Along the way, she has been blessed with professional champions as well. Fred Evans has been an enduring mentor over the past 18 years. He supported her throughout her administrative career by sharing his wisdom about school leadership and personal growth. Earlier on, Sherwood High School Principal Jim Fish, now retired, pushed her to become an administrator. And George Arlotto, now the superintendent of Anne Arundel County (Maryland) Public Schools, gave her “the room to be the kind of assistant principal [I] wanted to be.”