The word used most to describe Karen Cahill, as of July the new principal at the Richard J. Murphy School in Dorchester, is “no-nonsense.” The second-most used word is “fun.” Staffers and teachers at the Worrell Street school say the new administrator lays out high expectations, and sometimes breaks into song and dance.
“It’s a unique blend that is not very often mastered by administrators,” said Chuck Gilliam, who teaches seventh and eighth grade science. “She marries the two very well.”
Gilliam, who has worked for a dozen years at the Murphy School, said Cahill, a former math coach, is “approachable at all times.”
Cahill’s appointment comes after the popular school, which has about 1,000 students and 200 staff teaching kindergarten through eighth grade, has seen two different principals in two years. Vera Johnson served as principal for a year, before heading off to the Office of English Language Learning.
She was replaced for a year by Albert Taylor, an assistant academic superintendent for elementary schools.
The school has a waiting list of nearly 1,000 students.
The Murphy School, named for a local civic leader, is as close as public school students get to a private school setting, staffers say. Uniforms are mandatory, with khaki pants or skirts and a light blue collared shirt for kindergarten through fifth grade, and blue or black jeans and a maroon collared shirt for sixth grade through eighth grade.
Cahill, who served as principal of the Ellis Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury for two years before coming to the Murphy School this summer, said the school has lost some momentum because of the changes in leadership.
“We’re on our way to getting it back,” she said.
Under previous principals, the school had more of a low-key atmosphere, teachers say. “With her personality, there’s this infusion of energy,” said Sherri Neasman, who teaches fifth grade for students learning English as a second language (ESL). “She will occasionally burst into song. She had my kids Cabbage Patchin’.”
A WBUR 90.9 FM report on her tenure at the Mendell School described Cahill as a “catalyst” for a turnaround of the school, while also comparing her to a “middle-aged cheerleader.”
But there is also a serious side: Suspensions at the school are already up, four so far in this school year, which is four more than at the same point last year. “My teachers are not babysitters,” she said. “I think that set a tone for the rest of the year.” She added later: “We’re taking no prisoners.”
Cahill grew up in Braintree and lives in Hanover. Her parents are from Dorchester: Her father was a detective in South Boston for 36 years, while her mother stayed home to take care of her and her four siblings.
The mother of twins, Cahill has a bachelor’s degree from Eastern New Mexico University and a master’s degree from Bridgewater State College.
The school offers a preview for interested families for the 2011-2012 academic year on Nov. 2.
More information about the school is available at rjmurphyschool.com.