Tag Archives: Family

Question 2: A Conscious “No”

public-funds-for-public-schoolsThis weekend, the Parent Imperfect finally got out and knocked on peoples’ doors to talk to them about Question 2, the November referendum question that, if approved, will lead to a much bigger charter school sector in Massachusetts. I had hoped that Connie might accompany me on this walk with the Save Our Public Schools campaign, but she isn’t yet ready for that. I think she’s quite clear about what she thinks about Question 2, but the idea of going door-to-door with her father, for any reason, is not the way she wanted to celebrate her birthday.

My canvassing partner and myself knocked on fifty-five doors in the Neponset area of Dorchester. Most people weren’t home on Saturday morning (no surprise), and many who were home don’t answer their doors to strangers on Saturday mornings. Those who answered the doors and engaged with us agreed with us on the issue by a 3-1 margin. We found only one man who was undecided about Question 2. We even had two people pull their cars to the curb to tell us that they understood that more charter schools would take more money away from the public schools, which they saw as a bad thing. I didn’t sense that most of these people were “against” charters, they just saw that the way they are funded pits them against the public schools that are the only answer for the majority of kids. The “drain on public schools” argument was all they needed.

showing-upIn other parts of my life, I’ve been getting a slightly different argument. Many good people who consider themselves to be quite liberal are convinced that people of “conscience” should vote in favor of lifting the cap on charter schools. For these voters (and these are people who will vote), our public schools have denied children of color an equal education, so we need to do all we can to offer those children and their families options to get the education they need. According to this way of thinking, a “Yes” vote on Question 2 will see that children get those options.

Behind this opinion is the idea that the African-American community supports more charter schools. Some important African-American leaders, including President Obama, speak quite passionately in favor of charter schools. Charter advocates never miss an opportunity to show that many of their supporters are African-American students and parents who have apparently benefited from charter schools.

My friends of conscience are correct that public education has failed to provide adequate education to many children of color in this country. They are also correct that some charters have provided better education to some of the children of color they have served. But at what cost?

the-argument-againstThe argument against Question 2 is not an argument against charter schools, or a criticism of any family that has pursued that option for their children. Like public schools, charter schools are a mixed bag. Some of them have achieved very impressive results, while others aren’t doing their job. The argument against Question 2 is an argument against further expansion of an alternative private system of schools that is draining money out of the public schools that must educate all children, including the vast majority of African-American children. There are other issues with charters–discipline policies, high suspension rates, treatment of teachers, failure to serve Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners, lack of oversight, etc., etc., etc.–but the “financial drain” issue is the one that seems to upset most people about further charter expansion.

The African-American community (as well as the Latino community and the Asian community) holds different points of view on this issue, as it does on all issues. Boston City Councillor, Tito Jackson, has taken a strong position in favor of a “No” vote on question 2. This summer he and fellow councillor, Matt O’Malley proposed a City Council resolution on the issue, and all but two council members voted to make a public statement against Question 2 because of the financial drain it would represent for the City of Boston. At the national level, during its convention this summer, the NAACP membership voted to support a national “moratorium” on charter schools until a number of problems with the schools can be addressed. At a very local and personal level, almost half of the people who set aside a beautiful Saturday morning to knock on doors with me yesterday were African-Americans concerned about Question 2.

Of course, none of this means that “the African-American community is united against Question 2.” It means that the community, like all other communities, is of a mixed mind on the issue. It also means that there is no easy answer for people committed to racial justice who are trying to figure out how to vote on this issue. The desire to provide equal educational opportunity for all children is a great one. I share that ambition, but my own study of the charter school issue suggests that more charters–as promised by Question 2–will not further than noble goal.

Please take the time to look beyond the “optics” of this issue, as presented on TV,  to determine for yourself the likely impact of the charter school expansion on public school systems across the Commonwealth. If you take that time, I think you’ll see that there is every reason for a person of conscience, concerned about racial justice to color in the little box saying “No on Question 2.”

mel-kingDefeating Question 2 is important, but it will certainly not resolve the issue of Quality Education for Every Student. As veteran organizer and political leader, Mel King, said at a meeting last winter hosted by the NAACP at a church in Roxbury, “It isn’t enough to raise concerns about the charter schools. People want us to do something about the problems of the public schools, and they are right.” Amen.

 

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Back to School 2016: The Road Trip

keep calm and get backNo reason to keep denying it; Summer’s all but over and the back-to-school season is upon us. For the Parent Imperfect, this week is all about that transition and the mixed emotions that go with it. It all starts a little earlier once they finish high school. On Monday, Vince and I loaded his stuff into the car and headed to the Finger Lakes region for Year Two. It was to have been an end-of-the-summer road trip for the entire family, but Ms. Connie wasn’t having it. I drew the traveling straw.

Mountain shotSince it takes longer to get to Ithaca than it takes to get to San Francisco, Vince had lots of time for a pensive transition back to college life. The ride through western Mass and upstate New York was gorgeous, reminding me of how little time I spend in Vermont these days. After living intensely with a group of IC people for all of freshman year, he didn’t see any of them over the summer. He has a new roommate this year and the young woman with whom he spent a lot of the spring semester transferred to Syracuse. There was a lot on that mind surrounded by the headphones, and the Parent Imperfect was much more chauffeur than confidant. Vince needed the 6+ hours to get back into an Ithaca frame of mind.

He was actually scheduled to go back to school two weeks early to train with the rugby team, but he decided that his knee couldn’t take another year of that sport. I think  he was also quite enjoying himself in Boston, and didn’t look forward to spending the last two weeks of summer grunting and hurting in Ithaca. Summer was to have been a time of rehab for his MCL injury (not a tear), but, instead, he spent the summer lugging around other people’s furniture, which was anything but rehab for the knee. He’ll have moments of regret about that decision in the coming weeks, as rugby was a big part of becoming part of the college community last year.

I want my future backWe remain, as always, on a “need to know” basis with Vince, but from what we could tell the first year at college seemed to be a year of growth for him. He points to last January, when he worked for a month at the moving company with men in their 40s and 50s who make an uninsured living for their families (sort of) by moving heavy things from place to place. Many of them walk like his father walks, even though they are twenty years my junior. No other students, just Vince and perfectly intelligent guys of various races who’ve ended up on the wrong side of the rigged economy. I’m not sure what he learned from that, but something clicked.

I’m sure he was still being a full-on college boy when he went back to school, but he did well enough in his classes to get into Ithaca’s much-respected communications school for Year Two. They had passed on him when he applied as a first-year student.

Ithaca viewHe was visibly excited to get back to Ithaca, although he has also become aware that going to school there is costing money that other good schools wouldn’t necessarily cost. From the beginning, he had a sense of the privilege in that, but he didn’t always understand the cost of it in the same way.

He will not stay up at night worrying about this, but he knows it in a way that he didn’t, even last year. He says that he is exploring transferring in January. We’ll see. I feel the pain about the money, but, if he has found a passion at Ithaca it would be a shame to let it go for the unknown at another place.

It was great to have him here over the summer, but he now lives on South Street as a matter of convenience (for him). In essence, he treated the place like a flop-house over the summer. Who would turn down a flop house with food in the refrigerator? I remember the days when life was so much more fun in the 1-4AM period, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily want to live with someone who is living that dream. Then, when one of the parents (or the sister) was reaching a limit, he would be home for dinner for a couple of nights, make the time to go visit his grandparents, or spend an evening on the couch talking about the Republican convention or the problems with Bernie’s campaign.

After too many hours in the car, we rolled up to the beautiful dormitory  where he’ll spend the next few months. The move did not have that high energy of excitement and nervous anticipation that we all felt a year ago. This was more lugging his stuff up the back stairs into a room that his definitely a step up from the freshman digs. He was happy to have the help moving in, but then it was time to go. His roommate and friends were nowhere to be seen, forewarned via social media of my arrival. I barely had time to deliver my predictable departure speech, which he probably could have delivered, himself. His phone was buzzing with things to be done as soon as he could get rid of the rest of the family unit.

Much more quickly than I came, I was gone. And now, on South Street we are three…

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The Exam School Choice #16: #BlackAtBLS

Boston Latin GateThe Parent Imperfect has so far been silent about a student action at the nation’s oldest public school that has captured local and national attention. #BlackAtBLS is certainly on the minds of just about everyone now at the school and many of the hundreds of families thinking about sending a seventh or a ninth grader to the school next year.

On the evening of Martin Luther King Day, Connie should have been finishing the ridiculous amount of Math homework she was given for the holiday weekend, but, instead, she was glued to her phone.

“Everyone’s talking about this video about being black at BLS. It’s really interesting. People are going to wear all black to school tomorrow if they are supporting this.”

I admit it. My first reaction was, “That’s great, but is your homework done?” Even when she read out a particularly disturbing tweet written by a student at another school, I didn’t really understand what was going on.

The next day, Connie went off to school dressed in black, which is not her usual fashion choice. Her commitment to stand out (a fate worse than detention for a 14-year-old) led me to check out the first #BlackAtBLS video. The video is a direct and very provocative statement of what it is like to be #BlackAtBLS by two young black women. It isn’t slick, but the message is very clear: BLS has a problem with racism and the school administration is aware of the problem, but hasn’t done nearly enough about it.

Global ImageIn the three weeks since the video came out, local newspapers have written several stories about the campaign, its leaders have testified before the Boston School Committee and appeared on TV and radio. #BlackAtBLS has proven itself to be a master in the use of social media and other new communications. BLS has gained national attention from the campaign, but certainly not the sort of attention that it desires. And the attention isn’t just national. I have received e-mails or other social media messages from people in England, El Salvador, South Africa, Sweden, Costa Rica, Peru, Turkey and Nicaragua, all asking me what’s up with this supposedly outstanding school where I’ve sent my kids. If only good news traveled so quickly. Yes, I can be a snarky critic of BLS, but I care about the school it hurts to confront this side of a community that has played a huge role in my family life for the past seven years.

One week after the release of the #BlackAtBLS video, the Headmaster released a “Memo to the Boston Latin School Community.” The memo was promptly posted to the school website and distributed to students, parents, teachers and staff. I commend Ms. Mooney Teta for responding promptly to the campaign. Her response is frank and heartfelt, and makes several important statements, but it disappoints me in a couple of key ways.

auditorium 2First of all, it fails to validate the concerns of BLS B.L.A.C.K. by acknowledging that there is a problem of racism at the school. The statement lends itself to the soothing notion that these are isolated incidents in which students unfortunately feel that they are victims of racism. At least as importantly, while Ms. Mooney Teta’s memo emphasizes that, “We need to insure that hateful, intolerant, disrespectful speech or actions will not be considered acceptable anywhere at BLS,” it fails to acknowledge that students have brought evidence of such speech and actions to the administration and that the response of the administration has ranged from inadequate to nonexistent.

I fully understand the risks of validating the concerns of this campaign, and acknowledging the shortcomings of one’s own leadership in this regard, but the risks of not doing so are much greater. It seems clear that without such validation and acknowledgement, it will be hard to move forward as a community toward addressing this problem. The last few weeks of publicity have hurt the public image of the school in the Boston community and beyond. That damage can certainly be repaired, but only if the entire school community is convinced that BLS is committed to becoming a community that truly celebrates diversity and insists on mutual respect among all members.

TestimonyWhen the young women in the #BLackAtBLS video testified before the Boston School Committee, a Committee member asked them what sort of support they had received from parents at the school. The answer that they hadn’t yet received concrete actions of support from parents was a painful one for all parents in the audience to hear. Since that time, the Parent-to-Parent group, a subcommittee of the Parent Council, has discussed #BlackAtBLS and made plans to support it. Other parents have taken steps to form groups to support particular groups of students at the school, such as students of color and LGBT students. A group of parents even stayed at the school for 90 minutes after an exhausting Parent Open House this past Thursday to discuss engaging with the school administration over these issues. Now that students have taken the risks to get this discussion started, maybe we parents will find ways to take a few of our own risks to support them.

 

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Parenting the Beautiful Game, #1

Beautiful GameThe Parent Imperfect promotes a big lie by suggesting that his parenting is mostly about school assignment, charter school expansion, Advanced Work Class and the exam school choice, in short, the improvement and the defense of public education. In truth, my parenting is much more about managing the stress of young people attending the stress factory that is the nation’s oldest public school, and parenting soccer. I’ve somehow become a most unlikely soccer Dad.

Vince began playing soccer with JP Children’s Soccer in September 2001. You probably remember that month–especially its 11th day–for another reason. That was a busy month in our household. It was also the month that Vince began K-1 at the Rafael Hernández School, and the month in which his then little sister was born.

Vince didn’t immediately love soccer, but it grew on him. He tried several other sports, but soccer was the constant through ninth grade. He was not the kind of kid to be head over heels in love with a sport–it was all about doing something with his friends for Vince–but he came to really like soccer. As a result, we spent a fair amount of time getting him to practice and attending his games. Probably too much of dear Connie’s early life was conditioned by Vince’s soccer schedule. She attended dozens of games and endured many hours in the restraints of the car seat as her parents moved Vince through his appointed rounds.

Connie was curious about the game, but never really got into it. We often joke that she concluded that, if her brother could play soccer, than it probably wasn’t a game worthy of her attention. At her parents’ mild urging, she tried it a couple of times as a little kid, but it just wasn’t her thing. At that point, Jamaica Plain Children’s Soccer had adopted an “academy” format that focused on basic skills building in fluid groups of children, rather than the formation of set, competitive teams. Connie had no patience for that format, so she pursued other interests.

Sadly, soccer was one of the early casualties of Vince’s attendance at Boston Latin School. At the moment of his highest interest in the game, he was not playing, and not playing soccer meant disconnection from his most important group of friends. By the end of ninth grade, the interest in soccer was gone, and he had moved on to an entirely different social group at the school. He still does something with a soccer ball on the front porch almost every time he leaves our house, but he has never played soccer again. Perhaps he’ll pick it up again in the future, when it doesn’t matter quite as much.

IMG_0316For almost two years, there was very little soccer parenting at our house. Vince turned to basketball, and, then, volleyball. The work of keeping him in the school he refused to leave was plenty to keep us busy. Connie tired of spending her time at Vince’s soccer games, and developed her own strong interests in theater, music (piano), dance and, most of all, in becoming very acquainted with her body through gymnastics. Soon, Vince was going to as many of her meets, recitals, etc. as she was his. We, her parents, supported all of these interests, on the one hand, because we were/are nuts, and, on the other, because school did not take up a great deal of her time and attention during those years. Neither Liz nor I had ever played soccer or knew the least bit about the game, but, to each other, we admitted that we missed it. There was social connection in it for us, as well, and on the days when it wasn’t freezing cold, raining or (as in the case of a memorable day at Fort Devens) snowing like crazy, it could be very pleasant to sit outside and watch kids play.

But our soccer parenting days were over, or so we thought. What little did we know…

 

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What could be wrong with Unified School Enrollment?

UE FlyerThe Parent Imperfect has watched with concern the rapid rise of the idea of “Unified School Enrollment” in Boston. This idea is being presented as a proposal by the Boston School Compact (more about the Compact later). Overnight, this idea has gone from the big vat of ideas that get talked about, but never acted on, to one of Mayor Walsh’s main priorities. I wish it had continued to float in the vat. Marty did not support this idea in his campaign, but he is certainly behind it now. In fact, it feels as if he and his Education Advisor are driving it.

The idea is simply  to include Boston charter schools in the Boston Public Schools’ assignment lottery. Those schools would then appear in families’ “basket” of schools to which they are eligible to apply for their children. Rather than have to do a different application for each charter lottery, families could apply to charter schools through the BPS’s own Home-Based Assignment process.

What’s not to like? Rather than have to fill out a bunch of separate applications for their children, and then keep track of separate applications processes, parents can fill out a single application and then follow through on that one. Even an imperfect parent, has got to like that, right?

Wrong. My look below the spin on Unified Enrollment suggests that it’s something that is likely to cause more problems than it solves. When I see “Unified Enrollment,” I read,”Not really unified enrollment, based on a shaky foundation and mixing radically different schools together without giving the “customers” (us parents) the information we need to make such an important decision. ” Here’s why.

Is unified enrollment really “unified”?

First of all, charters will choose whether or not they want to be part of Unified Enrollment. Since the BPS Home-Based plan requires that access to schools be geographically restricted, charters will have to accept this “neighborhood” restriction in order to play. Because the law creating charters requires that they be either district-wide or regional, Unified Enrollment would require that the Massachusetts Legislature approve a “home rule” petition allowing Boston an exemption from this law. Assuming such a law could be passed (no sure thing), I would be willing to bet that some charters will say, “No, thank you. We quite like to be able to draw our students from the entire City of Boston. We don’t care to get entangled in the BPS lottery system, and limit who can apply to our school.”

So, what happens is some charters are in a Unified Enrollment system and some aren’t? Chaos. A chaos different than the current chaos, but chaos, nonetheless. For me, this could easily be more confusing for parents than the current system, where at least I know that if I want to apply for a charter school for my child, I must apply directly to that school. The only way that Unified Enrollment is truly “Unified” is if all charters decide to play, and this is not likely, at all.

Bad foundation, bad building

Home-based AssignmentBut let’s just suppose that by some near miracle, all charters decided to join the Unified Enrollment scheme. Then there would truly be one application for charters and public schools, but that system would be built on the foundation of the current Home-Based system. As part of getting this controversial system adopted, both the  BPS and Mayor Menino’s Education Advisory Committee assured the community that the new system would be carefully evaluated by some independent oversight group. This has never happened.

In the absence of any apparent assessment of how the Home-Based System is working, the parent group, QUEST, requested data on assignment results. That was 18 months ago, and no data has been forthcoming. Maybe the BPS knows very well that the new system is not working as advertised, so they prefer not to share the evidence. But no matter, it is unacceptable to talk about building a complex new system on top of a recently-implemented Home-Based plan that has never been evaluated. Let’s look at how the Home-Based system is working, and fix it, if necessary, before we build something on top of it.

Mixing apples and oranges…without telling anyone

But let’s say all charters are going to participate in the Unified Enrollment System AND the current system is working fine and makes just a fine foundation for the inclusion of charters. Even if those two unlikely things were true, there would still be many questions about Unified Enrollment. Many such questions center on the dangers of mixing very different kinds of schools in a choice “basket,” without really informing parents about those choices.

For example, a family from Hyde Park applying for the BPS would very likely have several charter schools in their “basket” of school choices. Those charters may include some of the Level One schools in their basket (schools with the highest test grades, at this point). The BPS currently does quite a poor job of communicating to parents the many differences between district schools. Parents who have the time and resources to tour multiple schools to find out the facts for themselves have a great advantage over the majority of parents who just can’t do that.

mixing fruitWill the BPS adequately communicate to our imaginary family that one of the charter schools has high test scores, but also has an incredibly strict discipline policy and suspension rates–especially for boys of color–that are off the charts? Will that family know that another Level One charter in its choice basket is poorly equipped to serve English Language Learners and, therefore, has a very small percentage of ELL students? This is only one of the many unforeseen problems that will arise as the BPS attempts to mix privately-managed charter schools with public schools in its assignment system.

A “Compact” solution?

One raising almost any question about Unified Enrollment is told that the originator of the proposal, The Boston School Compact, will take care of any bugs in the new system. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. The Boston School Compact is an unaccountable talk shop for representatives of the BPS, Boston charter schools and parochial schools. The idea was developed and is heavily funded by the Gates Foundation allegedly to promote collaboration and information exchange among different types of schools operating in Boston. Our city is one of several “Compact cities” around the country.

The Boston Compact is a private space that shares very little information with the public about what it is doing (hence, the lack of accountability). It has facilitated some interesting collaborations, but has never taken on anything even remotely as complex as Unified Enrollment. Please do not tell me that the Compact will fix whatever problems arise in this new system.

So, for me, Unified Enrollment” is deceptive advertising. But please don’t take my word for it. Attend one of the community meetings that the City (to its credit) is holding about Unified Enrollment. This could all be in the bag very quickly.

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The Charter School Press is On

Gov. Baker testifies on behalf of his charter school expansion bill before the Committee on Education. [Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS] 10/13/15

[Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS] 10/13/15

The Parent Imperfect had every intention of testifying at yesterday’s State House hearing on several charter school bills before the Legislature, but life intervened and the testimony went unspoken. Since I spent the time writing this up, I have to do something with it, so it is attached below. I’ll send it to the Education Committee, as well.

I did finally get to the State House at about 4PM, yesterday. At that time, a number of public education advocates were still waiting to speak about the various bills. They had been in the Gardiner Auditorium since before 10AM, and had to sit through not only the shower of bilge from Governor and the Secretary of Education, but then had to endure hours of pro-charter testimony before they even got a chance to speak. One witness, Karran Harper Royal, had come all the way from New Orleans to warn the Legislature about what happened in her city. The rest were BPS parents and students who persevered all day to explain why they want the Legislature to Keep the Cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. Waiting for hours to speak to several members of the Committee in an almost-empty auditorium, they were yesterday’s heroes.

anti charterThose heroes face a tougher path to victory this time. Having suffered a humiliating defeat last year, Team Charter is back with a vengeance. Now they have a Governor and a Secretary of Education that are firmly on their side. Boston’s Mayor Walsh says the Governor has gone overboard with his request to allow up to 12 new charters per year in a quarter of the State’s school districts. But Walsh’s own proposal  is more than Team Charter could have hoped for a year ago. I expect that even Team Charter is nervous about the growth projections in the Governor’s proposal, so they’re probably quite happy with Marty’s cave-in. And if the heavy hitters aren’t enough, Team Charter is collecting signatures for a possible pro-charter ballot initiative and three big-time downtown lawyers have filed a very shaky lawsuit (more a political negotiation than a serious lawsuit) claiming that the Commonwealth is violating Students’ rights by limiting their ability to attend charter schools.

It looks like a full court press, leading to a slam dunk in the Legislature, but supporters of public ed will play it out, anyway. Full court presses have been known to back-fire.

About those bills…

 I want to thank the Co-Chairs of the Education Committee, all Committee members and everyone present here today for the opportunity to testify before you.

My name is [Earl the Pearl]. I live in Roslindale, with my wife and two children, one of whom just graduated from a BPS school and is attending college in New York State. The other is still a ninth grader in the BPS.  I am also a member of the parent group, QUEST, and am employed at the human rights center at Northeastern University School of Law, where we have a program to study the implementation (or not) of the right to education of all children. My remarks here are my own.

I’m here to testify in favor of S.326. I believe that a continued pause in the creation of charter schools is the only prudent path until we fully understand the impact of further charter school expansion. I’d like to thank Sen. Pacheco and his co-sponsors for putting forward that legislation in a less than friendly climate toward such thinking.

Just over a year ago, a debate took place in the MA Senate concerning a possible lifting of the existing cap on charter school expansion in the Commonwealth. An important question surfaced in that debate, and I believe that the failure of proponents of lifting the cap to answer that question contributed to the defeat of the legislation. The question was, simply, “What is the end game?” That is, where is the continued expansion of these costly, publicly–funded, privately-governed alternatives to public schools taking us?

full court pressFriends, today the scales have fallen from our eyes and we have seen the endgame. What has been proposed by the Governor and Secretary Peyser is nothing less than the New Orleans Plan for Boston…without Hurricane Katrina. Team Charter has deployed a full court press and Governor Baker is on the point, with Sec’y Peyser on the wing.  You know the rest of the lineup. The endpoint is no mystery: The Governor and his allies wish to remove any meaningful restriction on charter school expansion and provide all kinds of incentives to accelerate that expansion, just as was done by Louisiana legislators in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We apparently want to do it here, without the storm as cover.

They say that they want the market to decide how many charter schools exist, but if they really believe they are talking about a market, I suggest that they sit in on an Econ class at one of our public high schools in Boston. I am not someone who believes the market should decide how we educate our children, but even high school economics demonstrates that charters are not operating in anything like a free market. The Commonwealth is paying the tuition for every charter student. Take away that enormous subsidy and charter schools will disappear quicker than the crowds on Yawkey Way when baseball season is over.

Far from a market, this is the plunder of a public resource for private use and, in some cases, private profit. Members of the Education Committee, if anything like the Governor’s proposals go forward, Boston, alone, will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in public education funds over the first few years. Our cherished Chapter 70 appropriation will quickly become exclusively a charter tuition fund. And don’t forget, committee members, that another law commits the Legislature to reimburse public school districts for a portion of those losses. The pressure on you to live up to this promise will increase as the Commonwealth implements open season on charter expansion. This reimbursement won’t be enough to compensate the losses to public schools, but it will become an increasingly large hot potato for all of you to deal with at budget time.

Yes, I know parents just like me who swear by charter schools. Some of those people are in the audience today. They had negative experiences in the BPS and believe that the schools “saved” their child, so they want more people to have that opportunity. I am happy that you have found what you see as a positive option for your child, and no one is talking about taking that option away from you. But I truly believe that expansion of that option at the expense of our public schools is not good for the much larger group of people, myself included, who rely on the BPS to educate our children. Your experience makes me want to work harder to fix the obvious problems with the BPS, but it does not make me a supporter of charter expansion in the Commonwealth.

I ask all members of the Committee to support S. 326, a bill to support the right of every child in the Commonwealth to equal access to quality education. Even if the philosophical arguments don’t persuade you, fiscal prudence should make you wonder about any further expansion of charter schools in the Commonwealth at this time.

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The Pressured Child, Take 2

The Pressured ChildThe Parent Imperfect just finished a week that was even a bit wilder than usual. Dear Liz started a new job in that city where “ya’ don’t come out the way you went in.” The entire family is in for a lot of adjustments. Always aware, I responded by organizing a week in which I needed to be out of the house for seven nights in a row. It all started with a trip to the nation’s oldest public school for a meeting of the exciting, new Parent-2-Parent group, followed by a lecture by the well-known child psychologist, Michael Thompson.

Thompson, author of The Pressured Child, spoke at the school almost exactly two years ago, and he really got my attention. With Vince in the throes of making a decision about college, and Connie in the throes of eighth grade, I felt like I needed another shot of Thompson’s wisdom. The last talk could have been called, “Seeing Your Highly Competitive School the Way Your Son/Daughter Sees It: A Strategy for Getting a Parental Life,” and this one way remarkably similar.

A very good crowd was on hand for the talk in the BLS library, which says to me that lots of parents feel that they could use a little (or a lot) of help. There is nothing like sitting in the BLS library for two hours to drive home the degree of privilege inherent in being part of that school community. It is an amazing school library, the kind of library that a society with our resources ought to be able to offer every high school student.

One of Thompson’s great strengths and one of his really limiting weaknesses is that he lives in the world of therapeutic interventions. He “sees” students, often when they are having some pretty serious trouble in school. Being in that role means that he also talks to quite a number of parents. His vocation is to help people, especially young people, survive one of the most important institutions that we as humans have created for ourselves..our schools. His experience has taught him that an important part of helping young people survive school is to get their parents to back off a bit.

Thomspon talkingThompson has discovered the ancient magic of stories. He heals groups like the one gathered at BLS by telling stories about how difficult it is to be a student today, and how often we well-meaning parents make things more difficult for our children. Many of the stories this time were the same as the stories of two years ago, but that didn’t seem to bother the large part of the crowd that made it to both talks.

Early in his talk, Thompson establishes that, not only has he been a school psychologist for decades, but he has also devoted many days of his life to following children through their school day, something that no one else in the room has ever done. This “hallway cred” and his gift as a storyteller make people pay attention to him. It’s easy to see why schools invite Thompson to speak all over the world, and the man reminds the audience at least twice that his is a global phenomenon. Nothing wrong with being a phenomenon, I suppose.

About in the middle of the talk, Thompson offers his image for the school experience of children. “I have come to see school as a thirteen year hike.” What’s the most important single accessory to a hiker? Their boots, of course. And for some percentage of kids, the school boots fit perfectly from day one. They never feel a bit of pain from their shoes. These are the easy through-hikers. Others, of course, are dealing with sore feet and blisters all along the way, but they find a way to keep going, despite it all. For some kids, however, the shoes of school attendance fit so badly and the pain is such that they just can’t keep going. Those hikers leave the trail. According to Thompson, 36% of the boys who begin high school in New York City do not finish. The hike is a brilliant metaphor that many in a crowd of BLS parents relate to with ease.

Perhaps the most powerful stories are the ones he tells about his own children. This time, Thompson talked about a daughter who suffered from serious dyslexia and had a very difficult time with the academic side of school. In school, she found a way to express herself through sports and other extra-curricular activities, got through school and has ended up as the highly-recognized manager of a high end restaurant. What could be a more hopeful fable?

Pressured parentsBut it’s another story that receives the most dramatic play from Thompson. The story plays on the regular tendency of many parents, including this one, to always ask kids how school was that day. To drive home his point, Thompson talks about a young kid who accompanied his parent to a Thompson talk. When the shrink sees the kid, he offers him a chance to speak to the crowd by asking if his parents always ask him how school was that day. The kid, almost too perfect to be true, says that his mother does always ask that stupid question and of course he doesn’t really tell her the truth of his day. Ready for the punch line, the psychologist asks the kid if he would share his reason for not telling his parents how his day was. The kid pauses for dramatic effect and finally says, “There’s not that much she can do about it!”

This is the key transformative moment in the talk, and the reason schools the world over line up to pay what I can imagine is a healthy fee to have this man speak in their community. In addition to getting us to see how hard life can be for kids in school, Thompson wants parents to realize that they have little control over the school environment. Much better to get out of the chopper and focus on trying to help your kid get three “simple” things: CONNECTION, RECOGNITION AND AN INCREASING SENSE OF MASTERY. It is these three things that kids need to get out of school to prepare them for what lies before them.

It has taken Thompson a while to get there, but this is the chase…the climax of the show. If you think about it, this is kind of a mixed message. “Back off, but help your kid achieve three things that that can be very difficult to achieve in a school like BLS (and even more so in other public schools).” If your kid happens to have an IEP, or is a Black or Latino male, then you face some special challenges getting Thompson’s big three, but I guess that’s another talk.

School cultureIf I get another chance to see Michael Thompson speak, I’ll go again, but I’ll go determined to ask him why he doesn’t talk much about the culture of schools. He describes school culture, but prefers not to use that term. If he buys the idea of “school culture,” I’ll ask him to say what that means to him, and I’ll ask him to tell a healing story about a time when he saw the same damaging thing (like anxiety to the point that a kid can’t go to school) happening over and over to kids to such an extreme that he decided that, in addition to helping the victims, he had to do something about the culture that was contributing to this outcome. He could then tell the story of how he worked with others (teachers, students, parents, administrators…whoever) to make the necessary change.

I know, he’s a therapist who deals with “cases,” but I insist that a story about changing school culture would be a bit more empowering to parents who feel that the culture of their school needs to change in order for their child to achieve CONNECTION, RECOGNITION AND AN INCREASING SENSE OF MASTERY. Without at least a nod to such stories, Thompson’s message is enlightening, extremely funny, but, in the end, quite disempowering.

 

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