Turnaround Time

If last week’s open house at Boston Latin was a bizarre bazaar, what was the one that happened the next day at the Hennigan School? Both Liz and the Parent Imperfect attended the 4-6PM event at Connie’s new school. It was the first such event that they had been to at that school.

Is it possible to imagine a more difficult time for working parents than 4-6PM? The only reason that Liz and the PI were both able to be there was that Liz is not working right now and the PI’s work offers him more flexibility than most people enjoy.They found out about the event only via a flyer brought home by Connie a few days before.

Since the Hennigan School day ends at 3:30PM, the open house took place immediately after dismissal. The PI arrived early, and sat down outside of the principal’s office to wait until the chaos of buses, etc. was over. Two students arrived near the front door to greet entering adults and tell them that, if they were there for the Open House, they should head to the cafeteria. The PI saw this as a very good sign. Since the school has no auditorium, the cafeteria, with a stage in one corner, is the place where the school assembles.

When Liz, the PI and Connie got to the cafeteria, there were at least twice as many children there as parents, and it stayed that way through the entire meeting. Along one wall, tables had been put together with snacks (including fresh fruit), drinks and a stack of pizzas. Before the formal meeting started, people lined up to be served something to eat. No perky students selling snacks for soccer here.

By the time Mrs. Cordón, the Principal was ready to speak, there were about 50 parents (something less than 10% of the total) present. To the PI’s surprise, the crowd quieted quickly when the Principal sought the room’s attention. The first-year principal introduced herself to the school community (or that part of it that heard about this event and could be there at 4PM).

She then apologized for the confusion caused by the delay in the opening of the school, but assured parents that she was happy for the improvements in the school, even if the timing created problems for everyone. Her talk proceeded for 30 minutes in both English and her native Spanish. The PI noticed that the woman sitting across from him spoke more Spanish than English and so probably appreciated the dual language presentation. She emphasized her long experience in the schools and the fact that she had “turned around” every school where she had worked as principal before. “I know what to do to make things better here and you are going to see changes at your school.” This was encouraging to the PI, but he wished she had said more about what those changes might be. The crowd listened politely, but people weren’t ready to stand and cheer, just yet.

After the Principal finished, the young woman who works as Parent Coordinator stood and asked for volunteers to site on the School Site Council (a body that actually makes some decisions) and for the officers of the Parent Council (a less influential group within the school). This surprised the PI somewhat, as these elections happened very differently at the Hernández School, the only other elementary school he knows. In a school where a large core group of parents are quite active, it was possible to fill these roles by informal encouragement of leaders. In the Hennigan, anyone willing to step forward was immediately in a leadership role. A few women (including Liz) signed up for the School Site Council, but the PI saw no takers for the Parent Council.

Volunteers secured, the Principal released the group to go to classrooms to meet the teachers. For some reason, the PI expected that the Advanced Work Class would have a high number of parents present, but only four of the 15 families in the class were present for the meeting with the fifth-grade teacher. The teacher was very gracious and welcoming, but also was the bearer of bad news. If fifth graders at the Hennigan are excited about anything, it is the class trip (to Philadelphia and Washington, DC, in alternating years) that happens at the end of the year. As the school budget has tightened and more families are without jobs, fewer children have been able to cover the cost of the trip. This year, the school has decided to cancel the trip in favor of less ambitious activities that all students can participate in.

Connie was clearly crushed, as were the other students present. “I almost cried, right there.,” she said later when asked how she felt after the announcement. When pushed by some of the parents present, the teacher agreed to see if it might be possible to reconsider the decision, but making the trip happen for all fifth graders would require a huge fundraising effort on behalf of a very unorganized group of parents. It is not clear that the school is even in contact with many of the school’s families. It seems that the famous Hennigan graduation trip might well become one more casualty of an economy that has hit families like many of those at the Hennigan very hard.

After a few more minutes of information about the very interesting fifth grade curriculum, the Hennigan open house closed. Just as the PI was leaving, one more mother burst into the room, breathless, carrying a baby in a car seat and with her fifth grader trailing behind. “She didn’t tell me about this until this afternoon. I didn’t even know until today.” Her frustration was palpable as she fell into a chair to watch her fellow parents file out the door. The teacher made her feel a bit better with assurances that she’d be happy to talk to her separately.

Are Boston Latin and the Hennigan in the same system? They certainly are, but they serve very different groups of students in very different ways. Boston Latin is a public school with lots of parent participation and an endowment that allows it to function, in some ways like a super-sized private school. Working with limited resources, the Hennigan serves many struggling families and, hence, it struggles. With one foot in both places, the PI faces his own struggle to maintain his balance…with or without the turnaround.

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