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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