Longish Introduction

July 16, 2006

Through one of Elisa’s post, How Are Our Public Schools, I got to the Brain, Child article by Andrea Cooper on the middle class and public schools. I am one of those moms that Cooper says has made “a second career” from school booster-ism. Thought I’d introduce myself with my story.

From 1982 on, my job has been making successful learning experiences for kids who are usually excluded: poor, non-white kids, particularly in urban areas–from teaching in Kenya and Harlem to working with teachers in California. My daughter was born in 1997 and before we knew it, it was time to make school choices for her. My husband and I agreed, with almost no discussion, on 3 essential criteria, in order of importance:

  1. Culturally and economically diverse student body.
  2. Something important we couldn’t provide for her ourselves.
  3. A start time of 8:30 or later.

Public school was just assumed; we didn’t even need to put it on our short list.

Using just the 1st and 3rd , we found over a dozen San Francisco Public Schools that looked promising. Many claimed a progressive orientation–project based work and integrated arts. Those buzzwords were already part of my professional vocabulary and were in line with my values.

The 2nd criterion was tricker. Early on, someone gave me this advice: choose your daughter’s caretakers so that they give her something you can’t. The “something” for her school years, we decided, would be fluency in a 2nd language. (We are both hopelessly monolingual.) And San Francisco Public Schools offered maybe 7 different “immersion” programs, including Spanish/English dual immersion, brining together Spanish and English speakers with the promise of bi-literacy for all.

At that time, San Francisco’s school assignment system, designed to further racial integration without assigning by race (I know, what a conundrum!), allowed us to choose 5 schools with a fairly good chance of being assigned to one on our list.  The system worked really well for our needs. We listed 5 Spanish-English dual immersion programs, from sought after schools to those less well known. Most of these were a 10- minute car ride from home.

We got assigned to the 2nd school on our list. I knew a couple of parents with kids already at the school and they liked it. I got a sense of a warm community. But I had NO IDEA how consuming a job it can be, parent of public school kid.

Right away, I found out that our PTA funded a PE teacher. And that almost no art was taught at the early grades, were teachers were struggling to get kids read to take state tests in English, regardless of our dual immersion model, where acquistition of each language proceeds at a slower pace. I joined the School Site Council, a team of parents and teachers who decide on school programs and the entire school budget. Facing a budget crisis, we were forced to choose between a librarian and a literacy coach for the lowest level readers.

There was just so much work to be done! And someone like me, who knew the ropes of the system a little –well, I could do a lot more than many of our parents.

The last 4 years have been a blur of advocacy and fundraising and program development. I’ve helped to ensure a skeletal library staff,  to build an arts program and to begin a system for  parent-tutors. It’s slow and often frustrating progress.

And my daughter–well, she has definitely learned some important lessons. She is biliterate, though her progress in reading in either language has probably been slowed. In 3rd grade, she gave an impromptu speech about the importance of the Civil Rights Act–and how much more work we have left to do. She pointed out that without this act she would not be sitting next to her friend Estrella–she wouldn’t even know her. And that she has seen first hand how recent-immigrant Latino families have more difficulties to face than in her family. When her teacher told us about this, we were all 3 in tears.

On the other hand, the rebel daughter of rebel parents has had a tough time complying with  fairly strict school rules and the expectation of continual progress in paper and pencil tasks. She complains that doing worksheets is meaningless and refuses to do most anything without immediately apparent and good reasons. She’s learned her home lessons, perhaps to a fault! But she is surrounded by adults who, though their cultural norms are not the same as hers, care for her and gently guide her along.

I want to make sure that I don’t sound like the lone crusader here. I am working within a well established group who contribute to our school in many ways, from moms who bring their kids to school and then spend the day there helping to virtuoso fundraisers who run a whole festival and silent auction every year bringing in a huge sum.  A dedicated staff works long hours and the principal is an inspiring leader. All within a school with 65% of kids qualifying for free lunch and test scores that are rising but not fast enough to meet federal requirements–and within a school system in dollar famine. Nor are we in melting pot heaven. But all that is for another post.