Monday, August 10, 2009
This month, the Yahoo motherboard has asked us to talk about our dream schools for our children.
For a year, we had what would be very close to the dream in Sylvia's charter school (until everything fell apart - long-time readers will know all about this already). I'll take the snippets of what I really liked about that and what I would have liked to see happen that would've prevented the dream from coming to an end:
Longer school hours. Sylvia attended school from 7:20 am to 5 pm her fifth grade year, Monday - Thursday, and Fridays from 7:20 to noon. While that sounds like too long of a day, there were many benefits gained with this arrangement. First of all, the actual classes were longer so the teachers had more time with the students. A common complaint I hear is that there's not enough time. Some schools have even banned recess and lunch to make more time, which I don't think is a good solution. As much as our students need more time to learn, they need breaks in their day. So why not make more time? It also helped me as a working parent that she was in school longer. Study after study has shown that the rate of juvenile crime is at its highest in the hours between the time school lets out and parents come home from work.
It also allowed for more of the "extra-curriculars" to be a part of their regular school day. Sylvia had various electives, some taught Mondays and Wednesdays, and others on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Her electives included music, technology, P.E., and art - all classes that helped her grow both as a student and as a person.
I wasn't crazy about the short day on Fridays, particularly as a working parent, but came to appreciate the lighter school day as the year went on.
Longer school year. Our school year is still stuck on the agricultural calendar that allowed students to help on the farm back in the day. These days, such work would violate child labor laws, so why do we still have such a long break in between grades? I've practically gone broke this summer paying for summer child care that quadruples what I pay during the school year. And I'm in the majority as a working parent (that doesn't get 2-3 months off during the summer). And, as we discussed last month, the long summer break can be detrimental to our students with the summer slide. I think 6 weeks would be a sufficient summer break.
Sensible homework policies. I learned in reading The Case Against Homework that many school districts don't even have a homework policy in place. And I'm not just talking about the fact that some teachers pile on 50 math problems when 5 will do, or the "projects" that are simply something to hang up for Open House (which we "ooh" and "aah" over, even though we were most likely there with our kids the entire time they put it together), but also the lack of resources available for both parents and students.
I read somewhere recently that if the assignment is to read the chapter, that's not the entire assignment. The students are also expected to make a study guide to go with the chapter. Well, if that's not told to the student, how are they supposed to know that? Most parents have discovered that unless you are very, very specific with your children, things that may appear to be common sense to us will not happen. For instance, it's not enough to say "get everything off the floor." They'll get it off the floor and pile everything onto their bed unless you say, "and put it away where it belongs."
And while many of us are perfectly willing to help our children with the homework assignment, the willingness is not always enough. I still have nightmares about when my oldest daughter was learning how to multiply, and while I know how to multiply, I wasn't using the same words as her teacher, so she kept telling me, "no! That's not right!!" I used to wish for a nanny cam to be placed in her 3rd grade class so that I knew exactly how her teacher said it.
At Sylvia's charter school, the teachers were required to answer questions from their students up to 9 pm on homework. It ended up being a resource that we only used a few times, but it was so comforting to know it was there and available to us to keep from having such disagreements.
They also had class buddies to call if the question were as simple as, what's the homework assignment?
I understand that most teachers would balk at the thought of having to answer questions from their students every night, but other resources could also be helpful. For instance, a website where we could not only look up our students' grades, but the homework assignment, with maybe a sample of the problem for those of us that don't quite remember how to divide fractions. (And also, of how the teacher is teaching it, since there are some varieties of methodologies.) Some textbooks now come with cds and/or websites, and I've used those to assist the girls.
School officials that live in the 21st century. I had quite the nightmare experience trying to get a hold of someone that could answer my question about summer school two days after the regular school year had ended. The woman I spoke with at the District office when I couldn't get a hold of anyone at the school acted like I was being totally unreasonable by trying to talk to someone who could tell me the summer school hours that were supposed to start the following week when I called on Friday. She tried to explain away the ringing phone at the school with, "they're probably having a party." Well, really, how nice for them. I don't begrudge them their party, but, like a lot of working Americans these days, I still have my Blackberry and my cell phone when I'm not in my office, and I've been known to answer work-related emails on Saturdays and at night, and even during vacations. Is it really so unreasonable to expect to get an answer to my question at 2 pm on a Friday?!?
Teachers, administrations, school boards being held responsible. The LA Times did a series of articles recently on the amount of teachers being paid for years while awaiting decisions on misconduct charges. I am all for thorough examinations of such charges, but some of those teachers were paid for as many as seven years while awaiting verdicts. That's just ridiculous.
In one school district, parents were informed the last week of school that someone had made an error in calculating the number of hours required for school, and that all students had to go to summer school for at least a month. There was quite an uproar about that, as there should have been. I think most students ended up being able to take home a packet to complete during their summer, but it was beyond ridiculous that this even happened in the first place!
I was dissuaded from my attempt to opt my daughter out of standardized testing one year at one school by the principal. It was not only unlawful, it was just plain wrong. That year in particular, Sylvia was suffering enormous amounts of stress about the testing. It was not only detrimental to her health as she had stomach pains from her anxiety, and was literally losing sleep, it was absolutely the wrong message to be sending to her as a student. I want her to love learning. That's why I didn't want her to do the testing that year. The principal told me that she would be the "only one" not doing the testing and that she would feel "left out." I told her I was all right with that, but she basically said, "no." I knew even then that I could have fought her, but I didn't want to risk pissing her off.
Our dream year at Sylvia's charter school was shattered when we found out the Principal was leaving. As long-time readers will remember, I fought for weeks and months, and took my fight to the Board of Directors (being a charter school, it has a different chain of command than a regular public school). They basically chose money over the Principal. He was a fantastic Principal who welcomed the entire family as Team Members. He hired incredible teachers that went far beyond their duties. He implemented policies that made sense. Sylvia stressed not at all about standardized testing that year. She ended the year as a straight A student on the Honor Roll. However, there were politics involved between the Principal and a certain staff member that happened to be in charge of accounting. The Board decided it was easier to find a new principal than another accounting person. I did not trust the new principal (and have learned since that some of my greater concerns became a reality), and so I pulled Sylvia the next year.
My heart still breaks over that. The Principal that we fought for is now one of our dearest family friends. He came to the talent show that the girls had at the end of the year at the Club, and we've done various things together throughout the last year. I am so glad that he's still a part of our lives, but when he talks about the school he runs now (a high school), I still get jealous of those students and parents that have such an amazing leader.
Our dream year should not have ended the way it did. It should not have come down to someone holding the books. While I understand that the Board of Directors were mainly picked for their ability to raise money for the school, they should've given more consideration to what the parents were saying. I was not the only parent standing up. Parents and students signed petitions. Sylvia cried when she found out, as did many students. Many of us parents cried during the meetings held on the subject. And the worst part was, the school wouldn't have been losing money by keeping the Principal - they'd just have to hand over the accounting books to someone else. The person in question had kept everything so close to the vest that no one else knew the numbers. That should never have been allowed to happen in the first place (and it was one of the reasons the Principal couldn't work with her - the Principal of the school deserved to know the financial information associated with his school).
The Board handled it by just continuing to tell us that everything would be fine, and patting us on the head. Then summer came, and we all dispersed.
And we're back in public schools. We're actually very lucky to be in good schools, and I'm doing my best to stay involved. I'm on the PTA of Riley's school, and like it there a lot. Sylvia's middle school is okay - could be a lot worse but is far from a dream school.
When I went to register Sylvia for the coming school year, as we were waiting in line to go in, we were told that everyone helping us that day was a volunteer and how the word of the day would be patience. I couldn't help thinking, "well, I'm not here voluntarily! I have to be here to get my kid registered for school!" I was also trying to get everything done in an efficient manner to get to work in time for a conference call - another less than voluntary thing on my plate! It was so frustrating to be treated that way. And it's quite normal, which is even more frustrating.
Is it so wrong for all of us to come in with a sense of team and family? A sense that we all want what's best for the kids? I was there, doing my part, why did I have to be chastised before I even walked in the door? Is it so wrong to assume that maybe I didn't plan on being a bitch that day?
Okay, this post has seriously gotten out of hand. Clearly, I have a lot to say on the subject!
Fellow Yahoo motherboard posts on the subject: from Kim, and from Donna. (Other members, please feel free to share your links in the comments.
Posted by April at 10:35 AM