Tag Archives: Public Education

Five Not-So-Easy Pieces: The Sixie Family Survival Guide

The SculptureThe Parent Imperfect and family made it through Day Won of the new school year. When I asked Connie what was different this year, she said, “Everything’s different…I’m not a “sixie” any more.”

“Sixie” is the term affectionately given to seventh graders at the nation’s oldest public school. Now that we have twice been through the process of parenting a child living this unique experience, it’s time to suggest a few things that the parent of a sixie might have in mind as the shock of this transition begins to wear off. This started out as a “Sixie Parent’s Survival Guide,” but it’s really a family thing. I honestly don’t know if they use this retrograde idea of “sixies” at the other exam schools, but this is about BLS. I asked Vince if he had anything for me to put in a guide for the families of sixies. Without hesitation, he answered, “Yeah…put, ‘Don’t Read This!!!’ in huge letters at the top.” I’ve just realized that BLS publishes its own “Parent Survival Kit,” so its probably a good thing that I changed the name.

Many sixie parents/guardians have been through this before, either with an older student, or as a student, themselves. I’d bet that as many as one-fourth of the parents of incoming sixies are veterans of the process. That’s a lot of experience, but it leaves as many as 375 families who are going through this for the first time. This “guide” is for you and your families. Since many who will read this have been through it all before, I hope you’ll take the time to correct the ideas in here that just don’t make sense to you. These are in no particular order.

PIECE ONE: Think carefully about social media with your child. In the four years that passed between Child 1’s sixie year and that of Child 2, social media among seventh graders at BLS has gone from being silly and seriously problematic to being highly toxic and downright dangerous. It is the way that many sixies “connect” at a moment when they desperately need connection. Important and positive communication absolutely takes place among youth via social media, but it is also a place where they get to try on their darker sides. You know about that, right?

Bad GirlLast spring, a “friend” of Connie’s accessed her Twitter account and spewed out several really terrible tweets before Connie realized what was happening and shut the thing down. Connie is still dealing with the damage this caused to people hurt by those tweets, including herself. Two evenings ago, a tenth-grade friend of Connie’s had her account taken over by a truly deranged young male (probably a perfectly charming lad, if you met him walking down Centre St.). I assume that this was someone she knew, since he had her password. Sadly, kids do much worse than this out of their own accounts, using their own identities.

We (Liz, actually) contacted the school administration about this problem last year at the end of school, and got NO RESPONSE (get used to this…you’re just one of 3500 parents at the school). The administration may be doing something other than monitoring the internal wireless channel, but they are not doing enough to address cyber-bullying and the like at the school. By acting like clueless people of another generation, we/they are courting disaster, and I occasionally lose sleep about some of the things that I find out about. I know nothing…

This summer, I’ve been reading a book called, The Big Disconnectby Katherine Steiner-Adair and Theresa Barker. The book is only minimally preachy and it collects and presents valuable data on things that you already know, intuitively. What makes it stand out for me is that it forces me to face the ways that my own media/communication habits (this blog, for example) influence what our children do with social media and, especially, how they connect to me (or not). For that challenge, alone, the book was well worth what it cost me to take it out of the library.

PIECE TWO: Find a way to get to sixie parents’ night. This is the maddening evening when you drive to the school, can’t find a place to park, get into the school too late and spend the rest of the evening trying to catch up to your child’s schedule. It’s worth it, though. Take public transport, carpool or get there early enough to get a parking place (a half hour before the thing starts). Then you will go to your child’s homeroom and get their schedule for a mythical day. You’ll then go through the schedule for 8 minute classes. You’ll get to lay eyes on the teachers and introduce yourself to a few of them. They will give you a little syllabus and tell you the best way to contact them. WRITE THAT DOWN SOMEPLACE WHERE IT WON’T GO AWAY FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR! Most importantly, moving through the day in this way will begin to give you an idea of what you have subjected your child to. WARNING! They changed Parent’s Night last year in a way that made it much less useful. I hope they’ve changed it back this year. This year’s Class VI (and Class V) BLS Parents’ Night is on Tuesday, September 16 at 5:30PM in the cafeteria.

WolfpackPIECE THREE:  Join “The Village.” If you are reading this, you waste a good deal of time in front of a computer. Join the BLS community mail-list and waste a little more. Very many of the messages won’t be relevant to you. Others will be relevant, but infuriating. But ten per cent of the messages will have info that you need and can’t easily get, elsewhere. Despite the presence of many BLS parents and the list being called “BLS Parents,” this is not a parents’ list. Remember that when you post to the list. School administrators lurk incessantly, as do some teachers and some parents whose kids are long gone from the school. I think there needs to be an unofficial parents list that only contains parents (There’s a project for you….)  Given the wild stuff on “The Village” over the years, pretty much anything goes, but people draw the line at personal attacks on one another and direct references to specific teachers. If you want to communicate with someone directly, do so off the list. At least twice a year, a new parent on the list is humiliated by broadcasting something quite personal or inflammatory meant for a single person, to several hundred people. It does not seem possible to subscribe automatically to the list. You have to e-mail the list moderator, and I doubt he’d want me to put his e-mail on this blog. If you comment to this blog that you can’t get his address, I’ll send it to you.

PIECE FOUR: Be smart about homework. A couple of years ago, our neighbor’s girlfriend, who was about to graduate as one of those BLS superstars, gave Connie some advice. “You don’t have to be super-smart to do great at BLS. You just need to make the teachers like you, find out what the homework is and do it. The problem is that it’s very hard to do all those things, all the time.” “Very hard” is quite an understatement.

Yes, make sure your child has a comfy and quite place to do homework. Yes, come to some understanding about the rules around electronic distractions during homework time. Yes, occasionally check assignments. Yes, be available for your child to ask you questions about the homework (on the usually mistaken assumption that you can help him/her), but make sure that they do the homework, not you. And yes, let it be known when you think a teacher is breaking the most broken policy at BLS, the homework policy.

Do all those things, but also be smart about homework. Your seventh grader came home yesterday with the famous Agenda. They are trained to list all assignments in the agenda, but only a minority of them do so. Look at the agenda with him/her each night to be sure that this is happening. Be clear with them that, while it shouldn’t be this way, getting the homework assignment is one of the most important things they will do in each class. Each teacher gives the assignment differently, and at least half of them will do it in a way that is not good communication for your child. Many very intelligent children at the school do not thrive at BLS either because they don’t get the assignment, or don’t give a crap about it…or both. Working with your child on this simple transaction (getting the homework) will be MUCH more important than wasting your time, and theirs, breathing down their necks while they try to study the dictionary entry for that Latin verb. And make sure they have a homework buddy for each class…someone they can call on the off chance that they didn’t get the assignment. Make your own list of the buddies.

In seventh grade, there is an optimal percentage of the homework that each student should do. It’s different for each student. No student should think they can get away with doing 40% of their assignments, but nor should anyone feel that they must do 100%, either. There will be many nights when it is more important–for the entire family–that your child to do what they can and then get some sleep. Help them realize that.

Friends of ArtsPIECE FIVE:  Connect to the community. One of the things that both our seventh graders had in common is that they begged us to stay away from the school. What could be more embarrassing than having your older-than-usual parents hanging around your middle/high school? Many bones in my body agreed with them. I have too much to do already, and I was/am quite ambivalent of being part of a community around what I consider to be an elitist institution that reproduces many of the things that make me want to holler.

But at some point I realized that I was on a path to having my two kids in this school for a total of 12 years. For the kids, finding a way to connect to the place was going to be critical to their survival there, and was not going to be easy. Maybe the parents making an effort to connect to this quirky community was going to both help Vince and Connie in their struggles to connect, and it just might also give us a sense our own sense of connection that we also need if our kids are going to spend so much time at the school.

This is a work in progress. We still have too much to do and aren’t really connected. We still get frustrated by our efforts to engage with the school, but we try. Vince and Connie continue to redirect us away from BLS, at every turn, but they occasionally let it slip that they like us to be SORT OF connected to their lives.

Whoever you are, there is something going on at the school that you can connect to. They’ve got the Friends of the Arts, the Friends of Athletics, and even the Friends of People Who Are So Angry With the School That They Could Scream. Connect to help. Connect to meet others who share your experience. Connect to complain. Connect to survive.

Ugh! This is way too long. Do correct what seems wrong to you!

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

The dogs may bark…

Dogs barkThe Parent Imperfect made it to his fourth meeting about the project to create a 6-12 STEM Academy on the site of the Dearborn School in Roxbury. City Councillor, Tito Jackson, who represents Roxbury, hosted this one as a public hearing at Roxbury Community College. Attendance was less than at last week’s BPS-hosted meeting at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, but the discussion was no less lively.

The Bottom Line: The project faces fierce opposition from a cross-section of community and school stakeholders, but Acting BPS Superintendent, John McDonough, and his staff have their heels dug in on this and aren’t budging on their determination to demolish the Dearborn and shoe-horn a new building into the existing lot. In the meantime, the Dearborn students and teachers will decamp to the top floor of the Jeremiah Burke High School for three years. No disruption is too much to endure in the name of progress, especially if it’s just students and teachers who are enduring it.

Most of what was said last night was repetition of what was said at other meetings, but some new information (new for me, anyway) did emerge.

1. The financing of this project became a bit clearer. The City Council approved, at some point, $72 million for this project, half of which will come from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). $36 million of this will come from BPS funds. The MSBA approved its part of the project this past spring. Nobody answered the question of who now has the authority to reverse this authorization.

MSBA process2. According to Tito Jackson, the MSBA has made it clear to him that, if the BPS now decides to consider another location for this project, the deal is off. They’ve got lots of other projects in line for the money allocated to this one. So, if the threat of state receivership of the Dearborn wasn’t enough to scare you into submission, now you’ve got the threat that the MSBA will take away their ball and go home if the project doesn’t get built just as the BPS wants.

3. And I can’t leave out the young teacher from the Dearborn who stepped to the mike to challenge–softly, but with great strength and passion–the idea that hers is a “failed” school. Among other things, she sited the positive feedback received by the school after a site visit by examiners from the Dept. of Education (DESE). According to this teacher, the DESE visitors said that the Dearborn visit was the first time in memory that such a visit had not turned up any clear “areas of improvement” for the teaching staff. The speaker was under the impression that the site visit would be considered by the Commonwealth, along with test scores, in determining any course of action related to the Dearborn. I have now listened to BPS representatives speak publicly about the Dearborn for almost two hours, often sharing quite detailed reports on interactions with state officials, but I had not heard mention of said site visit before last night. Is the Dearborn failing, or are we failing the Dearborn?

4. A new 6-12 charter school would be governed by a private board, as in the case of any other charter. One courageous and articulate woman, who introduced herself as a volunteer at the Dearborn School, read out the composition of that Board at the meeting (no names, just affiliations). There were a couple of education people on there, but the Bank of America, Fidelity Investments and a couple of hedge-found-sounding operations were also prominent in the mix.

5. An impressive architect from Milton (via Dorchester) calmly asked the BPS Facilities Director four questions about the project, not a single one of which received a direct answer (0 for 4, that is). In the process, the architect made clear that this project is actually further along than a City official had led the crowd to believe at the Presby church meeting. This architect also established that the BPS person responsible for the building side of this project couldn’t say (after he got himself up off the floor) whether or not a structural engineer had done a structural assessment of the building or if that assessment and the rest of the plan had received the necessary peer review (The BPS guy doesn’t need to know all of these details, but he absolutely needs to have somebody there who does). If this goes like the school assignment discussion, the BPS will now try to hire this architect so that he’ll stop schooling them in these meetings.

I should say that one person got up and spoke in favor of the project, as proposed, which is a first at the  meetings I’ve attended…sort of the exception that proves the rule.

Winny on dogsThe threat that the MSBA will pull the money really caught my attention. So, you’re going to tell me that the BPS could switch it’s proposal from a renovation of the existing building to new construction on the same site and the MSBA didn’t bat an eyelash, right? Then, after the MSBA approved the proposal, the BPS could pull the last-minute bait-and-switch from a project to build a district school to a charter school, and that’s just fine with the MSBA. “No problem…we got your check for you…” But if, in the face of united and determined opposition to this project from abutters, students, teachers and many community members, the BPS decides to consider a new site for a Dearborn STEM Academy, THEN the MSBA is going to pull the funds and give them to some other project??? The BPS can make any change to this that they want, at any point in the process, but if they enter into a real process of consultation with the community over possible new sites, then money goes away. I smell something rodent-like…How about you?

The beat goes on…opposition to the Dearborn project grows, but the BPS continues with its, “the dogs may bark, but the caravan rolls along” attitude. In the process, they are missing a huge opportunity and really angering important constituencies in Roxbury, the neighborhood that the BPS is about to move into. This will come back to bite them.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any indication that the BPS sees either the opportunity or the serious danger in what they are doing. At some point in September, this will go before the Boston School Committee, and that may well be the last chance to stop it. Put September 17th on your calendar…(of course, they’ll probably change the date, but that won’t matter).

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools

Dear John

The Parent Imperfect isn’t breaking up with anyone. After last night’s meeting at the historic Roxbury Presbyterian Church, I feel the need to write a letter to Acting BPS Superintendent, John McDonough.

Dear John,

Roxbury PresbyterianI hope you are going into work late today. You had a tough night last night, and probably need a little rest this morning. I estimate that about 275 people jammed themselves into Rev. Walker’s Daddy’s House last night. I’m sure that some of those present fully support your plan to tear down the Dearborn School, move its students to the Burke for three years, build a new STEM Academy on the Dearborn site and turn that educational gem into a charter school. There were supportive people there, but none of them took a microphone to express that support. That’s a problem, no?

By my count, 28 people did take a mike and either question the plan or express strong disagreements with it. Some people were downright pissed off.

It’s quite remarkable. The BPS has managed to unite numbers of students, parents, community members, and abutters to the Dearborn site against its plan. Every speaker last night (with one possible exception) appeared to support the idea of a STEM Academy for Roxbury, but they have serious questions about the way you are going about it.

The BPS had a chance to identify the real stakeholders in this project (the ones listed above) and actively involve them in developing it, but as you have courageously admitted, the ball was dropped, big time. Somebody was apparently consulted, but too many important people were not. You say that all of that is going to change, but there is too much dirty water under the bridge. You remember the old Carole King song…“It’s Too Late Baby, Now It’s Too Late.” 

You want people to swallow this plan out of fear of the looming spectre of state takeover of the school. No one wants the Commish to put the squeeze on the school, but they don’t share your sense that it’s the “Worst that Could Happen.” (remember Johnny Maestro?)

Cape Verdean youthIs a state takeover worse than running the risk of losing (in the long run) SIFE, a program that has been important for the integration of Cabo Verde youth into Boston and the U.S.? It may be so for you, but the young people with the blue shirts didn’t seem to think so.

Is a state takeover worse than facing two years of neighborhood chaos, long-term uncertainty and the loss of a building that has been key element of the neighborhood’s architectural identity for over a century? It may be so for you, but the homeowners who live around the Dearborn didn’t seem to think so.

I could do a few more of those, but I think you get my drift. From where you sit, a state takeover of the Dearborn would be a humiliation that you (and the Mayor and the School Committee Chair) don’t wish to endure. You also quite legitimately fear what it might mean for the school community. No one is out to promote a state takeover, but there is a limit to what people are willing to endure to avoid that misfortune.

You were clear last night that you want the assignment of students to the eventual Dearborn STEM Academy to follow the same rules that apply to district schools. You know what? There is an easier way to do that than trying to try to change state law on this topic. Keep the school a district school! 

Last night, your BPS facilities man said something like, “This started as a project to create a STEM Academy on the Dearborn site, so, when it became clear that renovation wasn’t feasible, we moved to the plan to construct on this site. That’s why we didn’t consider other sites. This has always been a project for a STEM Academy on Greenville St.” As my middle school daughter would say, SERIOUSLY???

Dearborn SchoolI’m not an architect and certainly not a city planner, but if my renovation idea for the Dearborn proved to be too costly, I wouldn’t automatically default to knocking down the building and constructing on that site. If I needed to build a new building, instead of renovate, I’d look around to make sure that the site of the old building was the very best place to build my new building, no? How can it be true that none of the seven options considered for the new Academy involved looking at any other site in the Roxbury neighborhood?

John, I know it can be hard to admit that we’re on the wrong road and turn around. I remember well one Sunday missing the turn-off on Interstate 95 for the Delaware Memorial Bridge and then, despite the pleas of my passengers, refusing to get off the highway and retrace my steps back to the bridge. I knew I’d eventually get back to 95 further north. I did, but we all ended up getting stuck for four hours behind a major pileup near the airport in Philadelphia. I so wished that I’d just admitted my mistake and gone back to the right road.

Obviously, the stakes here are much, much higher. In this case, there is real risk in taking the right road, but it is still the right road. You need to go back to the School Committee and say that you need more time to come to a final decision on the best way to create a STEM Academy in Roxbury. You need to put that ground you broke back where it belongs and keep the kids in the Dearborn building for another year (with their new principal), while you find out for sure that there is no better place to build the new academy. During that year, you need to do intensive work with both the Dearborn neighborhood and the Dearborn school community (students, parents and teachers) as you make the decision on the best way forward. One possibility is that the current site is the only viable place for the Academy and the current project is the only project that can work, but you don’t know that yet.

And, yes, you need to go to the Commissioner, with a community united behind you, in the quest for a STEM Academy in Roxbury. Enlist the young man who spoke so eloquently in a language not his first one about “shuffling people around.” Enlist Chantal, the proud and impressive young Burke grad who pushed you on the real future of the SIFE program. Enlist Ms. Miller, the former teacher and school leader at the Dearborn who said, “Give us one more year to build and see where we can go.” Enlist the woman who worried aloud about youth from the Dearborn crossing lines that matter to get to the Burke. And enlist the homeowner who raised her voice in frustration to say, “WE WEREN’T THERE!”

Enlist all of the people at church last night to highlight the improvements being made at the Dearborn, and to support the development of a community plan to create a Dearborn STEM Academy. Awaken the Mayor from his silent slumber and get him solidly behind your change of course. And then make clear to the Commissioner what a tragedy it would be to break the momentum behind a STEM Academy at this critical moment by subjecting the Dearborn to state takeover. Dare to win this historic struggle for public education in Roxbury and all of Boston, rather than make bad decisions for fear of losing.

Yes, despite doing everything right, you might lose that discussion and, therefore, lose control of the Dearborn. But, in losing the right way, you would have helped create a momentum for a STEM Academy in Roxbury that might just overcome even state receivership. In this case, losing by doing the right thing would be a better, more courageous path than winning a STEM Academy in the wrong way and building this project, despite wide community opposition to it. The right choice is not easy, but it is in your power to make it.

I wish you luck…

The Parent Imperfect

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Boston Public Schools, Charter Schools

Dear, oh Dearborn

Dearborn KidsThe Boston Public Schools has a knack for creating controversy out of what should be the feel-good stories about public schools in Boston. The latest concerns the Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury. For the Parent Imperfect, the story is a perfect fable about the way things are going in the New Boston.

The Dearborn may not be an official historic structure, but it certainly qualifies as historic. The current building opened as a girls school 1912, what the Globe called a “banner year” for Boston. That same year, Fenway Park and the Franklin Park Zoo opened, and the Red Sox won the World Series after completing a year in which they won 105 games and lost only 47. Boston had a population of 700,000 in 1912, a full 100,000 more than live here today. Of course the City needed new schools, and the Dearborn was meant to show the commitment of Boston’s Brahmins to the education of the City’s swelling immigrant population.

But the Dearborn had been around for many years before the new building went up in 1912. None other than James Michael Curley graduated from the school in 1890 at age 16. The Curley connection may not make the Dearborn proud, but it certainly places the school at the center of Boston history.

No MCASFast forward to 2010, and the once proud school has fallen on hard times. When the Commonwealth designated 12 Boston schools as “turnaround” schools, that needed the District’s special attention, the Dearborn was among them. The school’s principal and many teachers received pink slips, and Federal money was pumped into the school to create new programs designed improve student outcomes. Of course, the one and only measure of “school performance” would be student scores on standardized tests, especially the MCAS. Behind the offer of new resources was a threat: If you don’t turn the school around, we (the Commonwealth) will take it over and you don’t want that.

Around the same time that the Dearborn received its turnaround designation, a group of activists was making progress in a long battle to establish a new school in Roxbury with a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. At an historic meeting in that same year of 2010, a packed meeting room heard several officials, including then Mayor Menino, the State Treasurer and the Chair of the board that approves school construction funding commit themselves to just such a school.

After all of the political posturing, the project once again faded from view and seemed to have been forgotten until April of this year, when the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MBSA) approved funds for the construction of a new school on the current Dearborn site, ending a seven-year moratorium on reimbursing local districts for school construction projects.

Doctors and EngineersIt’s the classic feel-good story, right? People who have been working to achieve a STEM academy in Roxbury should be celebrating a victory for that community and the entire city, right? Unfortunately, the BPS is doing its best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on the Dearborn story. Just a couple of days ago, 50 people filled a meeting room at a church near the Dearborn to voice their concerns about the project. Once again, controversy swirls around the BPS. How did this happen?

On the one hand, the City has done a poor job of consulting local residents about its plans for the Dearborn. The Globe reports that many residents question the need to tear down the old school and build a modern new facility in the middle of their neighborhood. They don’t believe that the City has done enough work with the community, and see many other possible sites for a new school. No one seems to be against a STEM Academy in Roxbury.

Right out of central casting, the City spokesperson asked about these questions told the Globe that the neighborhood got proper notice of meetings about the project, and that they would hear about demolition plans by mail before the bulldozers roll in. That wouldn’t be my idea of community involvement in such an important project.

Another concern raised at the meeting was the plan to turn the new STEM Academy into a charter school. Always the masters of timing, the BPS leaked this scheme to the Globe at the very moment that the Massachusetts Senate was debating and defeating an initiative to raise the cap on charter school growth in the state. The Senate voted to KeeptheCap, but it turns out the cap has a hole in it…a gaping hole large enough to drive a $70.7 million school building through it.

Having seen the test scores from the Dearborn, Acting Super McDonough is fearful that the state will put the school in receivership. This would be a huge embarrassment for him, the City and its new mayor. Ever clever, the BPS has a plan. Rather than negotiate with the State regarding exciting district plans for the Dearborn, we’ll make the new STEM Academy an in-district charter under the control of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). That way, the State won’t be able to execute a takeover. Not satisfied with giving away existing school buildings to charter schools, we are determined to give away one that isn’t even built!

DSNIIf there was a DSNI Fan Club, I’d be there. The organization has done wonderful things in the once desolate strip of Roxbury between Dudley Square and Upham’s Corner. But for me, that doesn’t qualify DSNI to run any school, and it certainly doesn’t qualify DSNI to take on the largest public school project ever undertaken in Boston. I love the Regan Youth Baseball League, which does a wonderful job bringing 100o families together to support sports for kids, but I wouldn’t put the league in charge of the health center where my kids get health care. I know, the BPS maintains “oversight” over in-district charter schools, but, I’m sorry, that doesn’t do it for me.

A few years ago, DSNI got into the charter school business by proposing to take over another struggling school in its neighborhood and run it as a K-5 school. For me, that was a major stretch, but I honestly didn’t know about the project until it was well underway. Then, last year, the Initiative proposed to expand that school to a K-8 school, even though it was not yet a fully functional K-5. In what seemed like a wise decision, the Boston School Committee declined the proposal, noting that the Initiative had not yet proven that it could effectively run a K-5. Now, a year later, we’re going to put the largest school project in the City’s history under DSNI control? Am I missing something here?

Obviously, the fix is in on this project, and we are not hearing even one-fifth of the real considerations behind it. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to connect the dots. Regardless of what’s behind it, this project would firmly establish the model of converting struggling schools into charters as the way Boston deals with its inability to support great schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It’s hard to imagine a slipperier slope for the BPS.

Having shared this idea with the press, the BPS brought it to the Boston School Committee who raised not a peep of concern. As I tell you, the fix is in. Luckily, some of the good people of Roxbury and their friends around the city seem to be insisting that we take a closer look at this before the bulldozers roll in. Thank you, Roxbury! Tito Jackson, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee, is quoted in the Globe admitting that somebody dropped the ball on the consultation with the community about the project, but there ought to be a way to get such an important project done.

Tito’s right. Boston’s schoolchildren deserve a modern STEM Academy and Roxbury would be a great place to put it. But for the City and the BPS, to acknowledge that our school district can’t run such a school sends the wrong message on so many different levels. Let’s talk to the people of Roxbury about where and how to do this project, and let’s talk to the State about the commitment of our Public School District to integrate a 21st century facility into a 21st century public school system. We are now on the path to making a sow’s ear out of a wonderful purse.

 

 

 

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The race from reading

keep calm and read a bookThe Parent Imperfect just received a web link that has led to this harried post. It is “21 young adult books for those who are “so over” dystopias.” This great list comes from Sarah Ang, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. I want to share that before I go off on another PI tangent.

The list came to me just after a long session of going over old photographs in hopes of collecting a few for dear Liz on Mother’s Day. Among them were a surprising number of images of Vince or Connie sitting or laying somewhere reading a book. Sadly, those feel a bit like my dog-eared photos of myself playing baseball or tennis…memories of a bygone era.

It’s hard to imagine that I ever took for granted the tendency of both kids to disappear into books for long periods of time. It wasn’t that long ago when Connie would quite often come to me saying, “!Papi…TIENES que leer este libro!”  I’d smile and say that I would surely read whatever book she had just devoured so that we could talk about it, but I seldom made the time to do so. (Too much time blogging…)
Want to hang out

What used to be a family of voracious readers-for-fun has become Liz, still reading a couple of books a week, mostly before going to sleep. While Liz must be careful that a book doesn’t keep her up all night, they have become the PI’s NyQuil. Vince and Connie still read quite a bit, but reading has become exclusively part of the ongoing torment of too much homework that stands at the center of the teaching philosophy at the nation’s oldest public school (Yes, we knew that the place worships at the altar of homework when we sent them there). At about 11PM one night this week, Connie said much too loudly (screamed, really), “I can’t stand it! They give me so much fricking (chosen advisedly) homework…why are they doing this? They take away from you any interest in learning or reading because all you have time to do is so much homework!”

Now, Connie’s protests happen in a context, a context in which she refuses to let go of interests that she developed when schoolwork was a minor irritation. Her insistence in continuing to pursue these interests means that she often doesn’t get to her homework until 8PM.

overscheduledAnd the parental guidance? The parents were clear that she was going to do less extra-curricular stuff this first year at BLS, but this past week she had a soccer game, two soccer practices, two softball games, softball practice, dance class, piano class and piano practice (another casualty). She somehow also found time to babysit once and spend a little time with friends. We often look longingly upon those families whose children have each decided that they are going to focus on doing one single thing outside of their schoolwork, and do it very well. Connie rebels against this idea and, to date, her parents have yet to be willing to storm the barricades.

The other factor in the race from reading is, of course, the turn to screens of all sorts. We vigilantly kept Vince out of this world well into his teen years, but his life is now fully backlit. The limits we fought for years to maintain have slowly faded away as he approaches the time when he, alone, will need to decide if he ever wants to stop playing that game or watching that movie.  Connie, the future litigator, has argued that allowing technological parity is the only just path for her beleaguered parents. We have not caved to that level, but she has access to much more of the wired world at age 12 than her dear brother had when he turned 16.

Soccer games and piano practice are not, therefore, the only reason that homework is delayed and books gather dust on cluttered shelves. Given even a few minutes of free time, both Vince and Connie turn to that bizarre world of “constant, but not quite” communication, in which a student this week made a “generic threat” against the nation’s oldest public school (After letting us know this troubling news, the Headmaster’s robo call went on to assure parents that “at no time was any member of the Boston Latin community in any danger…”). All in a week’s work…

And so it is that we continue to scatter books around the house and then pay library fines when the books slip beneath the piles. We continue to rage against the machine, even as more of them appear in our midst. What evil demon keeps bringing them in here?

Through it all, these kids get up at 6AM (almost) every day to, once again, drink from the fire hose. It doesn’t feel right, and complaints abound, but no one seems willing to force a discussion about making a real change.

 

 

 

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The School Culture Vulture Swoops

Hennigan School collageSince the identity of the Parent Imperfect is now well-known to many around the BPS, a good number of people contact me offline with questions about things. I seldom have the answers, but can occasionally connect people with someone who can answer their question.

Very occasionally, someone reaches out on the blog for help with something they are trying to deal with. Today, I got a comment in the “PI Reviews” section of the blog that contained just such a question (even though there was no question mark on it). “Virginia from Roslindale” said:

I need help creating healthy culture at the hennigan .
Virginia in Roslindale

Those few words have been the stuff of many conversations, over the years. This is, of course, THE question for parents who want to be engaged with our kids’ schools. It says that the culture, or the patterns in the way people live together (or don’t) within a school determines how our kids and everyone else will experience the place. Since we want our kids (and all others, presumably) to have a positive experience in their schools, we want to do what we can to contribute to a respectful and positive in-school culture at the schools our kids attend.

Hennigan MuralThat seems pretty straightforward, but it is anything but simple. The culture of a school reflects both the cultures that everyone (kids, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, etc.) brings to school with them, as well as the idiosyncratic patterns of behavior that the school community develops, all on its own. School leadership (the Principal and his/her administration) has a lot to do with the school culture, but they certainly don’t make it alone. Each of the groups in the school influences what goes on inside, and a pretty small group of people who really want to change school culture (the principal and his/her allies a the school, a determined group of teachers, an organized group of parents, etc.) can occasionally make that happen. Anyone who has been watching the Boston Public Schools has seen examples of schools whose cultures have changed pretty dramatically (for better or for worse, depending on your perspective) over a short period of time.

Changes in culture pretty quickly change the way the school gets talked about in the community, and, before you know it, the composition of the school community begins to change, too. A few years ago, something about the culture at the Hennigan began to send a message to the Somali community in Boston that it was a place to send their children, and one began to see more mothers and girls wearing head scarves in the school. In a school system with complex dynamics around race, ethnicity, gender and class, these changes in culture and community can come with lots of emotional baggage. They can also create tension in the school and the larger community. Whether or not I feel that the changes in my child’s school culture are “positive” depends a lot on my own culture and what I want for my child’s school.

Hennigan libraryWhen Connie went to the Hennigan, we hoped to be part of a school community like the one we had experienced at the Hernández, and to contribute what we could to that community. I started “showing up” at the school, trying to connect any way I could, and to find a way to contribute. Liz immediately volunteered to be on the School Site Council. Nobody ever said, “No, thanks,” but, even in our blissful cluelessness, we began to get the message that we were not going to be part of the social network that really influenced the way things happened at the school. Since we were very likely going to be at the school for one year, that reaction to our efforts to insert ourselves into the school community wasn’t that hard to understand.

There was definitely a school community at the Hennigan, but it was completely different than the one we experienced at the Hernández. The Hennigan community had its culture, some of which seemed quite positive, while other aspects of the culture seemed pretty negative to us. Other aspects of the way the school worked were completely mysterious to us, and we never figured them out. In any case, we came to focus on connecting to Connie’s teacher and some of the parents of her classmates, in an effort to make her own little world at the school a better place for her.

Hennigan AWCIn the two years since we were at the Hennigan, things seems to have changed quite a bit. The BPS website still says that the school is a K-5 school, but I understand that the BPS has decided to make it a K-8 school, which will include adding a Grade 6 Advanced Work Class. If implemented, this will mean a HUGE change in the school culture. Incorporating Grades 6, 7 and 8 into the school will make it a completely different place. The composition of the school has not changed a lot (still has large Somali, African American and English Language Learner populations), but the composition of the AWC class does seem to have changed as the program has become more popular among a broader group of West Zone parents.
Hennigan high five

Virginia is asking for the thoughts of others about how to contribute, as a parent, to building positive culture at the school. I know that some readers of the PI know a lot about the Hennigan, and others who don’t know the Hennigan have done a lot of thinking about changing school culture. Are you willing to share some ideas with Virginia? I’m sure she’d be happy to see comments from people here, on the blog, or to be in contact with people offline. I’m not going to share her contact info here, but I can probably facilitate contact if you have ideas about parents building school culture that you’d prefer to share privately. Just let me know, here or privately. I think the “contact form” below is set up to allow you to do that.

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Not just another April vacation

QuitoIt’s been some time since the Parent Imperfect answered a phone call with such anticipation. At 7:09 this morning, Vince called from the airport in Houston to check in. That was the first we have known of him since he boarded a United flight in Boston nine days ago for a trip to Ecuador organized by the Spanish program at the nation’s oldest public school. After saying hello, he immediately reported that he’s “still alive.” He must know what was on the mind of his always calm and confident father. Hearing his voice was reassuring, even though the first thing he told his mother was that the only problem on the trip was that he had caught malaria. Where did he get this sense of humor? Otovalo

He’s been away from home for extended periods several times before, but this one was different…really different. He was going to be in Quito, in Otovalo and then in the Ecuadorian Amazon, seeing sights and spending a few days helping to construct a school in a small, indigenous town. The school did this with an educational tour business that exists, first of all, to make a profit, but also to keep kids safe and stimulated doing travel that just might change their lives. This is a serious operation that gets paid serious $$$ (cause for parental pause) for what it does, but, having organized such trips in El Salvador for a couple of years, I’m too familiar with the dangers inherent in the best planned trips.

He still has to get from Houston to Boston, but it was very good to hear his voice. In the middle of the week, Liz’s phone rang one night at about 12:15AM. She arose from a sound sleep and got to the phone, but the Caller ID number was so strange that she hesitated, and then the call was gone. We still don’t know if the call had anything to do with Vince’s trip (he probably won’t tell us, if it did), but it certainly got my attention, as I skated through the week firmly resting on the “no news is good news” theory of travel communication.

It’s all about payback. We insisted that he heed the organizers’ warning not to bring a cellphone with him, which he thought was ridiculous. As we waved the rules at him, Vince assured us that, once again, he would be the only one whose parents paid attention to what the rules said. That seems to have been the case, as he called us from Logan on two different phones and his call from Houston was on a third friend’s phone.

THEN, FOUR DAYS LATER, WHEN I FINALLY GOT BACK TO THIS

Amazon villageSo, Vince did make it back, with a sun tan, a few less pounds and many stories about what seemed to be a really important trip for him. The trip took him from the modern capital city to a smaller, prosperous indigenous city to a tiny village in the Amazon. When asked what he’ll remember forever about the trip, he mentioned three things: the Ecuadorians who guided the trip (“they were so friendly and knowledgeable and you could tell they were people who really cared about their country”), the apparent happiness of the young people in the village living in what seemed to him to be impossibly difficult conditions and the cockroaches, which were at least four times the size of any insect he had ever seen. He also really enjoyed being “on a 10-day sleepover with 15 other kids (and NO parents).” In the midst of it all, he claims that Spanish came to him with surprising ease. The guides who “made the trip” for him spoke only Spanish and (in one case) Quechua.

And, just like that, he’s very quickly back into the pressurized environment of the school that made this trip possible, and now threatens to wipe it from his memory. The relaxed and slightly awestruck young man that stepped off the plane is still with us, but he’s looking more and more like a BLS junior who doesn’t know when he’ll have time to get it all done. I suppose it’s our job to keep that junior at bay, at least for a little while.

 

 

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