Monday, August 10, 2009

My Education Wish List (partial)

Yahoo! Mother Board

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.


Natalie said...

I think I've told you that my guy only gets the six weeks off during the summer, but he gets three two week breaks during the school year. Those are tough financially because I have to cover full time care in addition to whatever monthly rate I'm paying for before/after school care, but educationally, I think it makes sense. They get some breathing room during the school year and the summer break isn't too long.

I'm all for a longer school day too, not just because it gives them the time they need, but because it would be more condusive to working parent schedules and there are all sorts of reasons that would be a good thing (you mentioned crime, and I'm sure there are more!). If I remember right, my school days were a lot longer than the school days around here.

I can't say much else just yet, but give me another year or two and I may have a lot more to say on the subject!

Shiona said...

Yeah when I was in school there was many a time I had to stay after either to do homework since I was focused on doing it at that point or because I could actrually get some one on one time (read further explanantion of the new concepts learned) I don't even know if many teachers even have that time what with trying to do mountains of paperwork for tests among other things...

This past week has been a nightmare for my mom. School starts here tomorrow and for some reason they decided that the week before school was a good time to train the employess on a brand new system. Wonder what administrtor thought that was a good idea?

MindyMom said...

Great post April. I would agree with many of the changes (advances) you propose. I did not have a good year with one of my daughter's schools this last year - I was actually appalled at some of the behavior from teachers and administration that had very negative consequences.

On the homework issue; it's always pissed me off, especially as a single mom of four kids, how much WE are expected to participate. I've always asked why the hell these teachers are giving ME homework when it should be for our children. Occasional interaction and guidance is one thing, but who has time for the excessive over-involvement? Our kids should be learning how to do homework themselves. My own parents NEVER helped me with my homework. Just sayin'.

Tara R. said...

I love the idea of teachers being available for questions in the evenings. If my kid has to be up until 9-10p with homework, then it only makes sense the teacher should be available too.

bernthis said...

here is the thing, I cannot agree with you more, the summer is way way too long expense wise but that being said, I'm having a blast with her this year.

jenn said...

You have some great points here. I especially love the idea of a website with homework and other things on it. Everyone is online. It only makes sense. It seems like it would be easier for the teachers too.

Living in the tiny, TN hick town that I do, I'm so stressing about Shiloh's future education (and she's only three). There really aren't any good schools here. A few good teachers, but that's it. Maybe this is part of the reason I'm going back to college and planning to work in the school system (teacher and then librarian). I know I can't change everything, but maybe if I'm behind the scenes, I'll have a little pull with Shiloh's teachers, etc.

Blue Shoe Farm said...

Your tale of (not) helping the right way with multiplication homework rings so true. My daughter got so frustrated with me when I tried to show her how I learned long mult. and long division when i was in school... and how the two are related. I had to go into school the next day, sit down with the math tutor and have her teach ME how to do the "New Math." We even had a person from the district administration come and teach all the parents how to do the math. So sad.

Jen said...

Amazing post, April. You managed to encapsulate the whole, sad thing.

Daria said...

My kids go to a great progressive charter school in the Valley (I'm sooo lucky), but it's hard to dream big when the money situation is so dire. But, if anything, it should be a time to rethink the traditional views and policies about our schools...which aren't working so well.

Donna said...

When my daughter was doing gymnastics, the thought of such a long day was anathema to me -- it would have prevented her from her training. Now... well, if you find a way to make your dream school a reality, call me so I can get her in there too!

FreedomFirst said...

I don't buy that whole "easier to let her stay" argument. They obviously had an interest in keeping her and getting rid of whoever was questioning her bookkeeping. I guarantee you that Board is skimming the books.

Anonymous said...

I gotta comment and I'm likely the only negative one, but I have to say this.

It is not the school's responsibility to be child care takers. It is the school's responsibility to provide a safe environment in which children can develop the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully become good citizens of the world.

Yes, the school day and year could be longer, but it should ONLY be done for educational reasons; not because it is too expensive to pay for child care during the summer months or during school breaks.

I actually believe there should be year round schooling with appropriate breaks between sessions.

As awful as it is, MONEY is a huge issue for all schools-public (especially), private, charter, parochial, cyber...there needs to be cost containment in education, just as we need it in health care. AND there needs to be equity in education, just a s we need it in health care. If you expect teachers (who have families like everyone else and some of whom are single moms themselves) to be available in the evenings for online tutoring or Q and A, then they need to be paid for that additional time. That is time they are losing from their own families...what is needed is a consortium of tutors who are available on a rotating basis to assist students.

Just as in every system, politics is played all of the time. PTA parents need to be astute observers and media saavy...they need to know when to put up and when to shut is all politics, it stinks, but it is what it is.

As a teacher in higher education, who also taught k-12 in public schools for 20 years and who had two children go through private kindergartens and public elementary/high schools...I have seen our educational system decline and take hit after hit. Parents and teachers TRULY need to work as a team to make things better. Teachers need to realize that nobody knows their child better than a parent and parents need to realize that teachers by and large do care deeply about helping their students do the best they can do...time for the blame game to stop.

Sorry, for having gone on so long!

April said...

I don't think your comment is negative at all. I think we do agree on a lot of this, but you're bringing up different (but no less valid) reasons. The reason I bring up child care is not because of the cost alone, but because it's a waste of money when they could be learning more effectively.

And I certainly agree that more money is needed. I'm disappointed that so much of that money is tied to test scores, which I'm still not convinced are the most effective barometers for how well students or teachers are doing.

I know that the teachers from Sylvia's charter school were not part of the regular union, but they were certainly informed of the job requirements, which at that school included answering phone calls at night. As I said, I don't expect every teacher to do this, but there should be some form of communication available for students and parents to get their questions answered in the evenings.

And your last two points are exactly why I joined the PTA at Riley's school and we changed our meeting so that we can attend the PTA meetings at the middle school level now, too. However, I have been disappointed to learn how little control the PTA has over the funds it raises. Even if we'd had a successful fundraiser to keep all of our teaching assistants this year, we would not have been allowed to use that money for human resources. The PTA's hands are tied on many fronts. Having said that, it's an excellent way to get involved and learn how and why parents can make a difference in their children's education.

And I couldn't agree more that all of us working together (and making sure we elect gov't officials who are also committed to working together) is the only way things will change!

Anonymous said...

The entire testing 'industry' is nothing more than a money-sucking machine bent on destroying anything good about teaching and teachers...of that, I am totally convinced and I have made it a personal mission to get NCLB overturned in every way possible...especially the testing part....

Your children's schools are indeed lucky to have you on board! And we are lucky to have you sharing your thoughts!