(First, an incident that might be slightly off-topic but which I found amusing: ) Last night I get in my car to drive to the local high school seven blocks away for a town hall style meeting with the superintendent of our enormous school system. As I drive up our block, a car turns out onto the street directly in front of me – our new neighbor (at-home father of three young children). He turns, I follow. He turns again, I follow. (This reminded me of the intro segment of that TV series Weeds, if you’ve seen it.) It becomes increasingly obvious that we are going to the same place, and we end up parking across from each other. I lost him in the parking lot and we didn’t sit next to each other at the meeting, but I talked to him on our way out and I caravanned directly behind his car on my return trip home.
Would have been nice if we both were aware beforehand that each of us planned to go to the meeting, but even in our little engaged neighborhood there’s little community talk about school beyond our elementary school. I think much of it tends to be among parents with children in the same cohort. Maybe this is because after elementary school kids are much more scattered about where they attend school, with many going on to private schools. Maybe it’s because the high schools are located outside our immediate neighborhood, so there are fewer neighbors involved. This meeting, designed for parents to express to the superintendent concerns about our ever-changing and financially stressed school system, especially high school issues, was poorly attended by parents. I’m as guilty as anyone else – I have only gone to school system meeting one other time, and that only when I had a specific grievance.
But now, as my sixth grader approaches the end of her tenure in our small, family-style elementary school and we start the transition to a large middle school, I’m scared not just for the transition (which also weighs heavy on my daughter’s mind) but for frustration of increased difficulty of pulling together scattered communities to make schools work well.
In our county-wide public school district, there are a few excellent programs sprinkled amongst many poorer quality schools, and I have always rather naively counted on those good programs being available to apply to when we got to that stage. But school systems are funny, dynamic things – if there is one predictable thing about ours it is that you can’t count on anything staying the same. These successful programs are now shrinking and crumbling as a result of funding issues. They are also so in demand that many applicants are turned away. Furthermore, boundary change decisions (the personal worry that prompted me to I attended last night’s meeting) can make or break a family’s schooling plan. I wish I had been involved and aware of this sooner.
I’ve been thinking more and more about how the few outstanding public school programs in our area have been hand grown by the greater communities in which they are located. Families, communities, businesses, were integrally involved and invested in building the success of these programs right from the very beginning and pass the care of these programs on to subsequent generations. It takes a lot of time and effort by a lot of individuals, and a lot of forward thought. What we really need are more of these in demand programs, but when the school system tries to replicate this kind of program by, for example, plunking down a duplicate “Science and Technology magnet” in a prescribed location, it’s a fish out of water and it doesn’t work. The community needs to be on board.
The time it takes to energize a school and build up a terrific learning program (which our kids deserve!) is daunting. It’s understandable that there is usually not enough community involvement – our lives are so filled as they are by working and raising families and all the activities this entails. We often expect schools to run themselves. It need not only be parents who participate, others certainly benefit from excellent schools, but parents are probably the most immediately motivated to do so, especially parents that value education. Can we find ways to encourage more and broader involvement in the education of this generation? Can we work together so we’re not just driving around in our cars on parallel journeys? Maybe some of you have success stories to share with us about communities working together to build the caliber of your public schools – right now I’m a bit discouraged by our prospects.
Although last night, as I passed my neighbor to continue the three houses further to my own home I did roll down my window to say, “Let’s carpool next time!”
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