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If you live in the Heights, you’ve surely heard a lot about Reaching Musical Heights in the past twenty-four hours. And with all good reason. Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of attending this every-four-years event where 500 4th through 12th grade vocal and instrumental musicians from all the CHUH schools performed on the world-renowned Severance Hall stage. Each time I’ve gone to this show, I’ve been blown away by the dedication, passion and talent of our district’s young people and by the commitment, hard work and willingness to collaborate of our district’s teachers. This year was no different.

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There were many highlights, including watching Braedan and his elementary peers sing an adorable rendition of “Jump, Jive and Wail,” complete with a backward-leaning shoulder shimmy. But what really impressed me — and what was different from past RMH events — was the powerful and unanimous message sent from our music teachers. As the various groups moved about the stage between numbers, the teachers and Reaching Heights staff took the microphone to introduce songs and thank guests and ostensibly kill time while chairs and music stands were (noisily) shifted into place and students (quietly) filed in and out of risers. But this year, their speeches weren’t just time-fillers. They were heartfelt messages, poignant pleas to the audience members to 1) Continue to support — nay, to demand— strong arts and music programming for every child at every grade level in our schools (yes, please); 2) Take a firm stand against the excessive over-testing of our youth and the narrowing of the curriculum that inevitably attends such a short-sighted focus (yes, please!); and 3) Keep our community strong by protecting our Heights schools and approving necessary school levies (YES, PLEASE!).

Oh, I suppose there might have been some (a few?, this is the Heights we’re talking about) people in the audience who were there solely to listen to the music and didn’t want to hear anyone’s political agenda. But the reality is, there will be no music to listen to if we don’t do those three things. Our schools and our teachers and our children are under attack by forces so much larger (and so much better funded) than any of us would have dared to imagine just a few years ago. This is a dangerous time for public education, not just here where our schools have been long misunderstood and underestimated, but everywhere.

So, you know what we do? We stand up, together on a stage usually graced by world class musicians, and we sing and we play and we make beautiful music. And we do it together. In a way that says, loud and proud, “This is Tiger Nation.”

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One of my favorite moments was when 2012 graduate Geoffrey Golden, the recent winner of BET’s Sunday’s Best (“the gospel version of American Idol”) joined the current students on stage. He spoke of how meaningful and formative his early years in district music programs were, of overcoming adversity and not quitting after his first failed attempt at making it on the show, and of how necessary and important music and arts programs are to keeping kids fully engaged in school. This is a young man who you might assume would try to turn his obvious musical talent into a lucrative career, but is instead an econ major at Morehouse. Economics? Ha, I love that.

After he spoke, he accompanied the gospel choir on piano and then sang a rousing rendition of, well, let’s be honest here, I don’t know squat about gospel music, but he was damn good. As he backed off the stage to thunderous applause, he shouted something twice into the microphone. People were cheering wildly and I couldn’t hear a word he said, but was told by Dallas sitting behind me: “Your work is not in vain.”

And that, right there, those six little words, meant everything to me. This was a message to parents, who do more for their children than their children will ever realize, and who do it quietly and without seeking recognition. Your work is not in vain.  And a message for teachers, now blamed by conventional wisdom for all of society’s failings, who labor and love and bend over backwards for the students in their care. Your work is not in vain. And for those of us who do the volunteer work, the thankless PTA tasks and the equally thankless and sometimes reviled levy campaigning. Our work is not in vain.

We cannot give up on this, we cannot quit, even when the tide seems to turn dangerously against us. Even when public opinion is hell bent on using illegitimate test scores to measure our collective worth. Test scores that fail to adequately measure the quality of our teachers and the quality of our students. And that certainly — certainly! — don’t measure the quality of our music programs (among the best in the nation — why doesn’t that generate newspaper headlines, why doesn’t that count for getting kids “career ready”?).

I’ve closed out both of the two recent Heights Coalition for Public Education forums with the same words, the last in a list of ten action steps, and I think they bear repeating:

Stay. Stay engaged, stay informed, stay involved. Stay in our communities, stay in our public schools. These institutions are the cornerstones of our democracy. Moving away, pulling out, or otherwise giving up will not make these problems go away. Work with us to overcome the challenges and to celebrate our successes. Stay, stay, stay.

Your work, our work, is not in vain.

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This will be the final installment in my Why You Should Vote FOR Issue 81 series, followed — I hope! — by tomorrow’s Thank You message. I had a couple other posts drafted in my mind but Halloween and pumpkin carving, muffin baking, costume crafting followed by Mark’s birthday complete with a party got in the way.

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But I do feel like this campaign has covered every base we can think of, and I hope we have no regrets when those ballots are counted tomorrow evening. So, without further ado, my final plea:

In my last post, I wrote so much about the responsibility our school district has in educating poor children that it almost sounded like they are our only audience. Indeed, they are not. Our schools serve many children from highly educated, professional middle and upper middle class families. And they do it well.

The very thing that is our district’s greatest challenge is also its greatest strength: the extremely diverse range of backgrounds, cultures, abilities, needs, values, educational levels, priorities and perspectives of our students and their families. We are not just one thing to one group, pigeon-holed as a poor urban district or an affluent suburban one. We are a little of this and a little of that. And while that is difficult and expensive, it is also incredibly valuable. For every special ed teacher and guidance counselor, social worker, intervention program, or night school for teen moms, there is also an advanced science and math class, foreign languages starting in kindergarten, award-winning vocal and instrumental music programs, Power of the Pen, Model U.N., courses for college credit, and extra enrichment programming. And kids from all backgrounds participate in and benefit from those wide and varying opportunities. And it is this rich diversity, this microcosm of real world problems, challenges and achievements, that make our district so unique.

I am proud to send my children to these schools and I am proud to do it as a choice. I know many others who could afford to send their kids elsewhere but don’t because they know that they’re getting all they need and then some in CH-UH. I know families who have pulled their children out of the area’s most prestigious private schools precisely to access the academic rigor they’ve only found in the Heights Schools. Our district’s graduates go on to the nation’s top tier universities, state schools and community colleges. Some move straight into trades and others join the military. Some become or are already parents. These students represent the broad and varied world in which we live. And our schools are working hard every day to prepare them for it.

I sometimes wish the discussions around this bond issue focused solely on the physical realities of our buildings. But the conversations have veered, as they so often do, into the realm of what our children deserve. “Our” children, “their” children, “those” children. Blame has been placed on the shoulders of kids and especially teens who don’t always behave the way we want them to. I actually saw a comment on someone’s Facebook page that suggested that the district construct new buildings for the kids who “want to learn,” and use a GPA cut-off point to determine who gets to move into them and who has to stay behind. “Let the others earn their way to the nice stuff by improving their GPA in the existing spaces,” this woman said. And, because she just couldn’t help herself, she added, “They’ll only destroy the nice stuff anyway.”

Wow. Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be?

Let me tell you something about my own kids, who happen to be high achieving and well-behaved elementary students. If left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they would sit on the couch and play video games all day. They’re not hard-wired with some “want to learn” gene. They do their homework and practice their instruments because I make them! Because my husband and I model responsible behaviors every single day and have since they were born. Someday, by the time they’re in high school, I imagine they’ll be self-motivated and self-regulated enough to do what’s right without being told. But if and when they get there, it will only be because we laid the foundation here at home.

There are plenty of kids without that. Who are essentially going it alone, without the guidance or role models that are inextricably linked with success. Some of these kids will find something deep inside themselves and will thrive against all odds.  Others will squeak by, doing just the bare minimum. And some will be disruptive and even destructive, fighting back against a world that has always seemed unfair to them.

Leaving those kids in classrooms that are swelteringly hot, with leaky ceilings and moldy locker rooms, while waiting for them to “prove” themselves, is not the answer.

I believe that my two sons deserve physical spaces that are inspiring, comfortable, safe and healthy. I believe that they shouldn’t be subjected to wild swings of temperature or rusted, leaking roofs or over-stretched mechanical and electrical systems that are costing all of us way too much to maintain. I believe they deserve state-of-the-art science labs and modern technology, access to the best athletic, musical and performance spaces, and buildings they can be proud of. And I believe that the kid sitting next to them in class, the one whose mom works three low-wage jobs and may not have time to read to him or ensure his homework is completed, deserves the same kind of spaces. And even the kid next to that one, you know that kid? The one whose mother failed to show up at her scheduled conference — again — because she didn’t bother to read the reminder that came home because she doesn’t bother to read anything that comes home … I believe that kid deserves the best kind of spaces in which to learn. If we’re gonna make this issue about who deserves what, about how we value our children and the children of those around us, then so be it. I value all of them. Even the ones who are failing. Even the ones who screw up. And I believe that they all deserve safe, healthy, inspiring, comfortable and, yes, beautiful school buildings.

That’s why I will vote FOR Issue 81 tomorrow. And that’s why I’m asking you to join me.

You know I’m still here and I’m gonna keep posting on the Patch too. The naysayers (and that’s an awfully benign term to describe some of these people) are hurtful and nasty and not very smart-sounding and I’m trying hard to ignore them. Not that I’m unwilling to engage in conversation with people who have valid questions or concerns about the issue, but I certainly won’t engage with people like “Michael Schwartz” (who I’ve heard doesn’t even exist, but is simply some cold-hearted coward hiding behind an alias hurling insults). I actually haven’t read any of his comments since the first night, as I know it’ll only enrage me and I would much rather save my energy for this campaign than waste it on him.

So, to you, “my dears,” I say thank you for your support, thanks to those of you who’ve been brave enough to venture onto the barren editor-less wasteland that is the Patch and post your own pro-81 comments (although I strongly advise against addressing the usual suspects in any direct dialogue), and thank you for encouraging me to carry on. Carry on, I will. The opposition is loud, but they are few. We have right on our side and I do indeed believe that we will win this thing.

That being said, here is installment number 4 in my why-we-need-to-pass-Issue-81 series:

Section 8. Yup, that’s what we’re gonna talk about today, the latest in a long line of sub-groups blamed for all society’s ills. If poverty is the third rail of school conversations in this community, as Sam Bell said so beautifully in his piece, then Section 8 is the third rail of poverty conversations. Throughout this campaign, I have heard and seen comments time and again like, “If only our city would stop letting in those Section 8 people,” or “The schools’ problems would go away if we got rid of Section 8 housing.”

And it makes me wonder: Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be? Are we really the type of community that says, “We don’t want you here. Go away and take your problems with you”?  Should we build a wall up to keep the poor people out?

It happens to be illegal for a municipality such as Cleveland Heights to limit or prevent those people using Section 8 housing vouchers to move here or to prevent landlords from accepting them. We are required to allow their residence in our city.  Not only legally, but, in my opinion, morally.

We happen to be an inner-ring suburb, first stop on the way up the ladder out of the urban centers. Families move out of East Cleveland and Cleveland into Cleveland Heights precisely because they know our schools are good. Because we are seen as a land of opportunity, a safer place, a chance for them and their kids to have a better life.

I think this is a good thing. It’s not easy, I know that. We all know there’s a higher rate of crime committed by those living in Section 8 housing than by the rest of the general population; the city’s statistics prove it. But this is our role today. This is, I think, our job. And it may be a burden, as our social service agencies have more and more people in need of the help they provide, and as our schools become the receiving ground for hundreds of children with few of the skills they need to succeed. It means we have to work harder. Not to keep them out, but to bring them up. Our schools have to work harder, designing programs and hiring extra intervention specialists, socials workers, special education teachers, and psychologists to meet the many and varied needs of these children. And we all have to work harder, to adjust our expectations and find ways to learn from and with each other.

Now I realize this sounds very noblesse oblige, let-me-in-my-infinite-middle-class-wisdom-teach-you-how-to-be-a-better-member-of-our-so-called-shared-society, but so be it. I believe that Cleveland Heights and University Heights have a unique opportunity to actually make a difference in people’s lives, to provide their kids with an enriching educational experience and open up the world of opportunities that all children deserve. That is what we do. That is who we are.

Of course, this should have very little to do with the facilities discussion at all. The buildings and their needs should be evaluated separately from the children inside them. But some seem to think that because most of those kids are poor, they somehow deserve less.

And I think that’s bullshit.

I know I have readers spread out over the country and even (a few) over the world, so I apologize for the hyper-local nature of the upcoming blog posts, but home is what’s most important to me and this stuff needs to be said.  If you care about public education in your own community, keep reading and always feel free to take my insights and use them as you see fit in your own education-equity battles.

Our school district has a bond issue on the November ballot to fund much-needed renovation and repairs of the high school and two of the three current middle schools. This is Phase 1 of what will be a two-phase ten to twelve year project that will impact all eleven buildings and all 5,500 students in the district. I have worked on this issue for two years and believe it is deeply necessary.

As with all contentious political issues, confusion, misconceptions and misinformation abound.  I’ve been busily crafting a counter-argument to the most common concerns and have finally decided, in the interest of time and space and in order to get things published by our local media outlets, (most of whom have 200-word limits) to break this down and address them one by one. I will post every other day for the next week or so until I feel all angles have been addressed. And I ask you to please SHARE every one of these updates: Repost them on your Facebook page, tweet a link, email them to your undecided friends, colleagues and neighbors. Even if you don’t live within the CH-UH boundaries, if you know a single person who does, share share share. Information is our best weapon.

I do not claim to be the repository of all knowledge and facts regarding this issue, but as a member of the Lay Facilities Committee that recommended the plan that the school board ultimately approved and as an active member of the steering committee for Issue 81, I do know what I’m talking about. And I obviously care deeply about the future of our communities and especially our public schools.

So, with that long intro behind us, I present the first common complaint about this bond issue: Why are the buildings in such bad shape and whose fault is it? Has the administration ignored the needed upkeep, thus creating an ever-growing backlog of work?

The buildings are in bad shape because they are nearly one hundred years old, plain and simple. If anyone is to blame, we can only point the finger at Mother Nature and Father Time. Maintenance and upkeep is done every single day on every building by a team of dedicated custodians and laborers, whether they’re repairing a leaky roof or ensuring that classrooms are heated. The “backlog” list which is often referenced is not a static document, sitting untouched on a shelf. It is constantly changing and every single time an item is completed and moved off the list, another new item is added. The piece-meal, patch-work quilt of maintenance we’ve relied on for the past four decades simply isn’t enough anymore. It wastes tax-payer dollars on expensive and inefficient systems and doesn’t give us anything better for our efforts. We need a massive overhaul of our buildings and Issue 81 will give us that.

Most of us live in old homes and know that maintaining them is an unending process.  I am a good homeowner, but my house just turned 93 and we feel its age every day. We recently had a pipe burst in our second floor bathroom. Naturally, it leaked, causing damage to the wall and ceiling in the entryway below it. To replace the pipe, the original plaster and lathe walls and ceiling had to be broken into and then majorly repaired. This was both expensive and time-consuming. Did it happen because we were somehow irresponsible? Were we mismanaging our money, turning a blind eye to obvious needs?  No. It happened because my house is old. Period.

Our schools are old as well. The eroding and corroding electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems at the high school can no longer be subjected to band-aid repairs. The district has some funds, from a 2002 improvement levy, designated for the constant upkeep of its buildings. Any other discretionary funds the district has had over the past few years have been diverted away from maintenance to use for innovative and necessary academic programming.  That is why the so-called backlog never seems to shorten. Our crews are like gerbils on a treadmill, constantly running but never reaching their destination. The time is now to do one, big, bold renovation to fix these problems for the next fifty years.

Come to the high school this Wednesday, October 16 at 6:30pm for a tour and see the need with your own eyes. You’ll have the distinct pleasure of visiting the boiler room, which reaches 110 degrees in the winter, viewing the Pit of Death from which we pay someone to remove the pigeon carcasses twice each year, and braving the moldy, mildewy locker rooms below the pool. The buildings are old and they are falling apart, with no one to blame but time.

The need, my friends, is real.

I had an epiphany one afternoon back in October. I was over at Fairfax tutoring in a classroom that is nurturing, challenging, supportive, creative, . . . everything an elementary classroom should be (and what, unfortunately, too few are). And I realized: This is what I do. This is who I am.

I am a teacher.

So I went straight home and, after unflinching encouragement from Mark,  called the Ohio Department of Education and was dismayed to learn that I needed a whopping 12 credit hours to renew my license, which I had let completely expire during my years of caring for Austin. How on earth would I find the extra time to actually go to class in addition to all the other things I’m in charge of right now? Aaaahhh, enter the world of online education. And University of Phoenix. I had a rather funny phone call with the admissions guy whose initial question was, “Do you have a high school diploma or equivalent?” By the end of my list of degrees, he simply said, “Oh, that’s an impressive resume.” And suddenly, I was a student again, enrolled in what turned out to be a fascinating exploration of social studies instruction in the elementary classroom (my personal fave).

My first official day of class (Election Day) coincided nicely with that Facebook post from one of my old fourth graders, mentioned here, which further reinforced that I was doing the right thing. More recently, one of my old third graders from Compton posted a photo of our class, circa 1995, which resulted in a 134-comment-long conversation on Facebook where my “kids,” now twenty-somethings with jobs and children and spouses of their own, reminisced about the books we read, the field trips we went on, the school-wide Olympics we organized, the Multiplication Masters tests they all mastered.  They remembered things I had completely forgotten, like that we grew alfalfa sprouts and then I made them all try them in a sandwich (with very limited success, as evidenced by their still-disgusted-after-all-these-years comments!).

I love teaching. And, because of that love, I have completely overstepped my role as a PTA mom in the past few years, as I spend my time organizing and implementing academic initiatives instead of bake sales. (I don’t doubt that there is more than one teacher on that staff who has thought, “Get your own classroom, lady!”) Right now, the largest portion of my overflowing plate is Science Week, something I casually proposed at a PTA meeting over the summer and which i am now completely running. (Anyone interested in volunteering in any way, let me know.  It’s all day, every day, January 28 through February 1 at Fairfax, and you don’t have to be a scientist to help out.)

I am currently halfway through my second course and expect to be done by mid-May. And I am so thoroughly excited to have my own class again. But of course, I’ve never worked since having my own kids. I mean, I know people do it all the time; most of my girlfriends are working moms, at least part-time. But it scares me! My life right now is so easy. I can work out every morning while the kids are at school and can take off for vacation whenever the opportunity arises. I can volunteer for almost any cause I’m passionate about (well, that’s not quite true because I’m passionate about way more causes than there are hours in the day, but still…). Most of the hats I wear come from helping out the schools (district chair of Kindernet, coordinator of the Many Villages tutoring program, PTA vice-resident, Lay Facilities Committee member) and those would all naturally fall by the wayside if I was an actual employee. In order to maintain as much sanity in my life, and to be able to be as engaged in my own kids’ education as much (or more!) than I am right now, I would really really love to teach in their school. Of course, there are no openings there right now and no obvious retirements at the end of this year and I don’t even know if the district has a policy about parents teaching in the buildings their children attend, but one can hope.

All of this is actually a very long excuse for the pathetically scant blogging I’ve done over the past few months. I still have plenty to say (shocking, right?), but no time left to say it! But this does feed nicely into my next post, which will be about the value (or lack thereof) of homework in elementary school. Get your comments ready, folks . . . .

I certainly did not mean to insinuate that my child is not being exposed to literature in his current schooling. He absolutely is, and to a lot of it. His teacher has read them fabulous books, many of long-standing renown. She often (and wisely) reads the first in a series, without continuing on, which piques their interest and then allows the children to pursue the rest of the books on their own. That’s how Braedan was turned on to the Little House books, which I had never ever read until this year, and now with the Narnia books, which again I’d only ever read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Now, Braedan is reading them all on his own, plus I’m following along by reading them aloud at night.

Braedan has also had that wonderful experience of choosing a spot in the room, even under the desk, to enjoy a carefully chosen book. He has done this quite a lot in his English language arts class this year and it has fostered his love of reading in a way I had only dreamed possible a year ago. He absolutely totally loves reading and allows himself to get fully immersed in a story. He said recently that he finds it hard to go twenty-four hours without his book, even (he noted with some amazement) on the weekend, when reading is not so strictly enforced. He — and we together — have gotten to know the characters in some of these books so that we’ll refer to them in completely unrelated circumstances: “Wow, that reminded me of the way Pa always says….” and “I think if Digory were here, he’d ….”

Unfortunately, the reason Braedan has had such wonderful and free exposure to literature is because he’s in the highest reading class. (Of course, no one ever says these things aloud, but it’s true nonetheless…) I’ve seen, both as a teacher and now as a parent, that the lowest performing students (and those, one might argue, who most need exposure to high quality books) are the ones forced to do tedious and repetitive remedial work with little or no literary value. And that, in my mind, is unacceptable. Meaningful learning takes a long time and can be hard to measure, but it is still immensely important.

When I was teaching 6th grade language arts in Cleveland Municipal, I used to allow my students time to write, without specific guidelines, in their journals. I had created a list of possible topics for them to write about, unless they had their own pending issue. The list was stapled in the front cover of their notebooks and they could freely choose from among the nearly 50 topics.  Everything from “Do you think it’s better to be an adult or a child? Explain” to “If you could change one thing about your home life/school/neighborhood/world, what would it be?” Students had to truly think and then had to express their thoughts and opinions in writing in an effective and coherent manner.

The journal entries weren’t graded (gasp! today they’d have to come with a 4-point rubric) but I did indeed read them and often responded in writing right in the notebooks. It provided incredible insight into my students’ lives and minds and built a level of trust between us that served me well. But one day I sat in a meeting with some district administrators where we were discussing the various ways to teach reading and writing, and the woman in charge asked who used journal writing in their classrooms.  I proudly raised my hand (thinking, my god, who doesn’t?) and was completely shot down. She berated me and my methods because there was no measurable data generated from them and because they failed to correlate with any specific tested objective. Ummm, how about to think? To have ideas and opinions and actually express them?

The very students who most need opportunities to connect, either with literature or through writing, are the very ones whose educational experiences are being made narrower and narrower until the whole of what they “know” can be expressed by filling in a bubble.

And that, in my mind, is shameful.

Students across Ohio are taking their OAAs today. The Ohio Achievement Assessments. You know, the ones that “matter.”

My boys are still too young for these tests but one year from now, Braedan will be subjected to a special kind of pressure and strain the likes of which he’s never experienced. Not that he will struggle on any of the tests; he is an exemplary student and should pass them all with flying colors. But it will be impossible for him to overlook the extraordinary importance placed on these few days of testing by all around him.

I’m not blaming his particular teachers nor his particular school nor even his school district. But I am blaming society at large and the current system of assigning value to entire schools and districts based on the results of a few standardized tests. How can you possibly determine the overall quality of an individual or collective educational experience using the results of three days of tests? How can you capture the creative process or the ability to discover, try, make mistakes and try again? How can you capture the grand social experiment that exists in our local public schools, comprised as they are of children from dramatically different socio-economic, cultural and racial backgrounds? How can you measure the love teachers demonstrate for their students by filling in bubbles?

I was dismayed to read this article in the New York Times on Sunday about the lack of exposure to literature in English classes. What would my middle school education have been like without acting out Helena and Hermia from A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream? Or without the intense and timeless lessons taught by To Kill A Mockingbird? What insight would we be lacking about the human experience and human suffering if we hadn’t studied Greek Mythology or read Of Mice and Men? Or even those short stories taught by Mr Hirsh in 7th grade English like The Necklace and The Lottery (that one haunts me to this day).

Or what about the simple joy of finding a place to curl up on the floor (the freedom of lying under a desk instead of sitting at one!) to get lost in a novel of your own choosing. Or listening to your 3rd grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web aloud and witnessing that stunning moment at the end when her voice chokes up.

What about building three-dimensional replicas of historical times and events? I remember doing this in 4th grade for our Native American project. And again in 6th when we studied feudalism in Europe. (I do not, by the way, remember a single one of the many worksheets I completed in school.) Don’t even get me started on science experiments and hands-on math instruction.

None of those things can be tested using multiple choice or scan-tron sheets. Enough is enough is enough. If you agree with me, sign this national resolution against high-stakes testing. And then go get lost in a great book.

 

 

Well, it was a great day for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District in the pages of the trusty Sun Press.  There were eleven well written and passionate letters to the editor in support of the school levy (including two by the mother-daughter team of Nancy and Krissy) and two tired, repetitive letters against. Now if only we could guarantee those same odds on Election Day!

You would think that in the year 2011, it would be easy to access these letters online but I don’t seem able to.  So I’m copying mine below, which was (shockingly) printed in its entirety without one word of editing, despite being 55 words over their limit.  Please please please, if you live in these fine communities, PLEASE vote yes for Issue 6 on November 8.

Dear Editor,

Rita O’Connor’s attack on the Heights Schools is sadly misguided.  She seems to place blame for criminal activity and irresponsible behavior on the shoulders of the school district. It is true that both exist in our communities, as they exist in all inner-ring suburbs. But it is not true, nor even sensible, to think that such problems are the fault of the schools. 

Our district is doing an excellent job educating all of its students, including those whose parents may not meet O’Connor’s approval. The new programs at the Delisle Educational Options Center are helping to ease the transition of students from other districts, notably Cleveland and East Cleveland, so they are better prepared both academically and behaviorally for the high standards of CH-UH.

CH-UH also partners closely with Family Connections to engage parents of “at-risk” kindergarteners, both in the school and in their homes.  Such programs give parents specific skills and opportunities to interact with their young children in ways that promote early literacy.

But even with the district’s carefully planned interventions, there are and will continue to be students from families who, in O’Connor’s words, have “no idea how to support a child and no idea how to live responsible lives.” Many of these children, despite facing enormous obstacles, are excellent students. Sadly, O’Connor’s solution is to cut them off: We don’t like their parents’ behavior and therefore we shouldn’t offer them a high quality education   .

Nothing could be more short-sighted, or more reprehensible. Children from troubled backgrounds are punished for the mistakes of their parents every single day. A just and caring society would wrap their arms around these kids and give them the very best opportunities, even when it’s expensive, both to prevent the cycle of poverty from spiraling forward and because it is simply the right thing to do.

One of the best things about CH-UH is its commitment to every student who walks through its doors. This is not a “bad” district because it pours money and energy into educating children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Quite the opposite, in fact. That is one of the things that makes it great.

You know how once you start thinking hard about something, it seems to pop up everywhere?

Well, this kindergarten things seems to be popping up everywhere. Yesterday, I read this article from a recent Newsweek, which focuses on parents who hold their kids back from kindergarten (often upon the recommendation of the private schools to which they’re applying) in order to give them an advantage over their classmates, particularly when it comes to standardized test scores.  Reading stories like that make me absolutely want to send Austin “early” (on time) because I find it so frustrating that parents constantly push their kids to be the best best best.

Then today I read this (worth your time, I promise), not specifically about kindergarten but just about how we’ve turned childhood into some kind of race, a massive competition between the super-successful and those lagging behind, and about how we should return to a time when kids were allowed to be kids for as long as possible. It made me second guess sending him for a completely new reason, one that only a few people have mentioned thus far. Everyone keeps talking about how holding him back will give him advantages later — in his schooling, in his  social life, in his future. And so much of it smacks of having advantages over others — being the best, the brightest, the oldest.

But this little essay made me think about the advantage of just letting him be a kid, right now, less stress, less structure, fewer expectations, for an entire extra year. Like a freebie. Here, little Austin, you’ve had to do lots of grown-up things already (way too many way too grown-up things; you should hear my four-year-old talk about “bwood pwessure cuffs”), so here, take a break. Stay in preschool, build fantastic vehicles out of popsicle sticks, run on the playground, sing songs and do kiddie yoga, don’t fret your pretty little head about phonemic awareness and SmartBoards and Mandarin Chinese.

I’m not so concerned about my kids having advantages over other kids (although admittedly they do — parents who’ve read to them incessantly since birth being chief among them). But I am certainly all about them enjoying the advantages of well-rounded, old-fashioned childhood — freedom and exploration and creativity and self-expression.

Hmmmm, back to the drawing board.

Thank you for the many thoughtful comments. A few responses:

I have certainly talked this over with his preschool teacher, but that has still left me hovering between my two choices. She thinks that he is ready both academically and socially for kindergarten. Her concern is the much less predictable “What about when he’s 10 or 12 or 16?” I know he’d be fine academically, at least in the early grades (after that, how can any of us predict?). He’s very bright and, because of watching Breadan master reading, has excellent pre-literacy skills.

His social interactions are another matter entirely. How he acts around others when I’m present is drastically different from how he acts when I’m not present. If I’m there, he’s mommy’s little baby, wanting to be held and hanging on to me as I leave. On the days that I parent help, he refuses to talk to anyone, teacher or classmates. But when he’s on his own, without me, he’s just a normal little kid. Somewhat on the quiet side but he definitely has friends and participates in the group activities in an acceptable way.

So, in that regard, I almost think it would be good for him to start school on time (note I did not say “early,” because next year would not be early) because it would allow him to be his “big” self more often. I wouldn’t be around as much and he wouldn’t sink back into me. But of course (flipside), if he really needs that babying time from me, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t give it to him for as long as I can.

My dad said just yesterday, “Give this child every advantage you possibly can, he deserves it.” And there’s no doubt that if I really believed he would suffer by being the youngest, I would hold him back. But I don’t really believe that he’ll suffer — although I know he might suffer — hence my dilemma.

Mark also thinks we should wait. “Why not?” is his reason. And I do actually have an answer for that. In our district, there is an enormous acheivement gap between the lower income students and the higher income students, one that exists prior to school ever starting. Nearly half of the children in Braedan’s school qualify for free or reduced lunch based on national poverty standards. For those families, you send your child as soon as they’re able, late birthday or not. And I don’t mean to imply that these families use school as free, all-day childcare. But it IS free, all-day, high-quality education and why would they not take advantage of that as soon as possible? Austin will start school with many advantages over (some of) his classmates: he’s been read to every day of his life, he’s been exposed to a great many things, ideas and places, he attends a high quality preschool. I’m not entirely comfortable adding yet another advantage on top of that: an extra year of physical and emotional development. Not that I want to “dumb it down,” but it just seems to create unnecessary inequality.

Now many people have said to me that I shouldn’t sacrifice my own child for the sake of the common good. And again, I wouldn’t do it if I believed he was being sacrificed. But I also think that if everyone puts their own personal interests ahead of the common good, then there is no common good!

Hmmmmm, all this being said, I’ve already registered him in the pre-K class at his preschool for next year. And I will also register him for kindergarten next month, just to give us a little more time to decide. He is not much help in the matter — he claims he wants to go when one particular friend, seven months his senior, goes. But that friend’s parents have yet to decide whether he’ll attend our local public school or another parochial school where they attend church, so that certainly shouldn’t be our deciding factor.

And in terms of Austin’s health, there are reasons that go both ways there too. Obviously, if he were to be on dialysis in this next year, I’d keep him preschool so he could do that in the morning and head to the hospital in the afternoon. No point in enrolling him in kindergarten just to pull him out three days a week. But that doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue right now and hopefully won’t become one (knock on wood). We still expect that he’ll need a transplant at some point in the future but most parents schedule those over summer break (really, like instead of two weeks at camp). And if he’s older, he can easily see a hospital tutor to keep him on grade level. So I can’t make a decision based on such unknowns.

And then there’s my personal motivation, which in truth is only a tiny little piece of this. I remember with incredible clarity sitting in the hospital cafeteria with Mark, picking at my breakfast, two weeks before Austin’s first birthday, while he was beginning an eight-hour surgery. And Mark said to me, as gently as he possibly could, in an effort to prepare me for what might lie ahead (not that you can ever be prepared for such a thing), “Honey, you have to wrap your head around the idea that this child will probably not make it to kindergarten.”

I will not rush it for that reason, I promise, but come hell or high water, this child is making it to kindergarten.

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October 2017
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