What’s for Lunch, CHM@L?

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DCPS’ Food and Nutrition Services have put out a call for parent feedback on school meals, which will serve as input into an upcoming RFP for a new (or not) vendor.

CHM@L students heard the call and with a little help from parents, provided an opportunity for kids themselves (as well as adults) to weigh in.

On Halloween eve, they put up a banner in the lobby, asking questions like: What is your favorite food currently served at school? What food or dish do you wish was served? What should be banned? What are your favorite veggies? Is your lunch peaceful?

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The banner was left up for a week. Here’s what the community said…

Pizza, followed by chicken nuggets are the favorite foods served today.

Sushi (like by a landslide), ice-cream and popcorn should find their way into menus.

Kids like veggies and have opinions about how to prepare them! The favorites are kale chips and broccoli (steamed might be the winner there).

What should be banned? Fish! (Mexican fish seemed specifically offensive), PIZZA (huh?) and beans! Broccoli, too, made it on to this ‘naughty’ list…

Also interesting, what kids consider to be the healthiest food currently served at school… Carrots, “cold broccoli” and beans seem sensible, but pizza? I guess it must really be a veggie… (I bet CHM@L’s health and wellness club has recipes for a healthy version!)

Finally, there was telling feedback about the lunch experience beyond food. Most of it pointed to too loud and too short, but somehow, it’s hard to overlook the words disorganized and unorganized.

And there you have it! Statistically sound? Not quite, but I think it’s safe to say that there are plenty of opinions out there about school lunch. I spent about 30 mins (over the course of 2-3 drop off/pick ups) observing kids and parents weighing in. Quite often, parents mentioned that they did not respond to the DCPS survey because their children did not participate in school meals services.

I suggested they respond anyway, as they know what their children like to eat and this information is useful when vendors are planning meals.

While many of us have the option to participate, there are also many children who don’t. In some cases, all their meals come from school. Those meals should be as healthy and tasty as the meals parents pack.

Thanks to the parents, educators, policymakers, and students who work to ensure school meals are the best possible, and to everyone (especially the kids!) who planned and participated in this small ‘offline’ survey. The original banner will be sent to DCPS’ Food and Nutrition Services team, as well as the digitized results.

(Be sure to check out the bloopers – there are some jokers out there… especially those who suggested ‘dry farts’ should be banned from school lunch. Better out than in, I say!)

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Not a sprint, but a marathon relay

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Holy s.

This week, as part of DCPS’ final school consolidation plan, the Chancellor announced that Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan would become a Preschool through 8th grade school. Holy s!

The implementation will start by adding 6th grade in the Fall (SY13-14). Montessori elementary teachers are trained to teach 1st to 6th grade, so year one would be seamless and give time to plan Erdkinder (in CHM@L’s case, grades 7-8). Holy…

  • “Capitol Hill Montessori @ Logan (Ward 6) will convert from a pre-K to grade 5 school to a pre-K to grade 8 school and add more early childhood education seats.”

This simple bullet, buried in the press release means SO MUCH. It represents at least 20 years of work by Waduda Henderson, the heart and soul of the school, dozens (hundreds?) of educators, parents, and central office staff. It represents 23 years of cohorts of students who have benefited from this fantastic program, and it represents the many more children that will have the opportunity to experience this school and its community.

I have to wonder whether the person who typed that bullet understands. Whoever you are, welcome to this very large, ‘unexclusive’ (or inclusive) team of relay racers!

When I posted the announcement to FB, several friends, aware of my role in the process, congratulated me. I’m grateful for the recognition, but more grateful for the experience and what it has taught me about the opportunities that come when ‘average people’ collaborate with ‘official people’. I’ve learned important lessons through this process, especially the value of tenacity, being inclusive, and the value of transparency.

My time on this road (7 years with children in the program and 5 ‘short’ years of actively supporting expansion) was full of disappointment. I heard a lot of “Nos”, “Not this time,” or worse, nothing. It’s pretty easy to want to give up under those circumstances, for a year, most of us did, but the quality of the education the children received during the school day, inspired a constant flow of parents to pick up the cause (there is a lot to be said about fresh energy). Given that DCPS was more likely to listen to parents (customers) than they were to teachers and principals, I do feel parents (‘average people’) played an important role in this effort. I’m grateful for the tenacity of the teachers and principal who weathered the disappointments (and changing DCPS leadership) for many more years than I can imagine.

My (incredible) mother quoted Friedensreich Hundertwasser yesterday, “When we dream alone it is only a dream, but when many dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.” This pretty much sums up my perspective of the CHM@L experience. This truly has been a team effort. A team that will probably never be fully accounted for, as many of the players have long since moved on, but their contributions certainly pushed this along. How to name everyone? I can’t. But I can talk about the teams who passed the baton to each other (note that others may remember things differently – I hope I’m doing everyone justice).

  1. There was the team (team 1) who, seeing an opportunity with new leadership, reached out to Michelle Rhee via a letter signed by many in the school community. This kicked off a relationship between DCPS and parents committed to expanding the program to a space where it could grow in capacity and through middle school.
  2. Team 2 worked on surveying families to gather data around demand for Montessori middle school, then at DCPS’ invitation drafted a proposal that in the end, got no response, but served as the foundation for the next team.
  3. Team 3 went beyond the school and joined forces with 8 other schools, supporting each other in a shared vision for middle schools on Capitol Hill. With broader community support, this multi-school team got the seal of approval from Chancellor Rhee to move the Montessori program to it’s own space, but not the middle school piece.
  4. Team 4, became a Montessori-DCPS partnership and kicked off the all hands on deck approach. These folks planned gardens, designed the playground, inventoried classrooms, renovated the building, worked with DDOT to plan for changes to traffic patterns, went to ANC meetings and reached out to neighbors, designed a pilot food services program to reflect Montessori values, planned for after school care, set up a PTSO, 501c3 and raised funds, helped get the school ready for the big move, and communicated the status at every step of the way.
  5. Team 5 lived through the move and survived, while still managing to build an incredible PTSO with strong leadership. They built up our library, equipped new classrooms, worked miracles w/ a very difficult after school care situation, transformed our gardens and built relationships with the community.
  6. Once finding stability, Team 6 seized the opportunity, picked up the middle school conversation, surveyed families and VOILA, convinced Chancellor Henderson to pursue the middle school!

Each team built upon the work of its predecessors and managed to move conversation a little further at each stage. I believe that what makes us strong is the inclusive nature of our community. We welcome and accept each other and we ask for help. Our finest moments are those when everyone has the opportunity to contribute. What keeps us together is our highly imperfect, but strong commitment to communication.

And what about transparency? Transparency is what saved us from getting lost during DCPS’ shifts in priorities, or getting tossed aside during the change of administration. I recall a conversation with a DCPS employee the day that Michelle Rhee resigned. I wanted to cry, certain that while we were approved for the move, the interim Chancellor would choose to hold off on implementing changes approved by someone else. The DCPS employee reminded me that this plan was not a report on someone’s desk that had not seen the light of day. This plan had been built via community engagement, posted on DCPS (and many other) websites, picked up by the press, and not something likely to be cast aside. The fact that our process had been transparent, one where folks who supported (or hated) it could weigh in, ask questions, and shape it, gave me confidence. It was difficult to hold numerous town halls, answer tough questions, duplicate communication via email, list-servs, websites, social media, posters on walls, flyers in backpacks, you name it, but it was an incredible education about what it means to reach a diverse (sometimes divided) community and how to manage the needs of multiple stakeholders. I learned that you can’t reach everyone w/ a single sweep and you have to meet folks where they are. And you have to repeat. A lot. And after all that, you’ll still get folks who had no idea… And that while folks complain about too much information, trust me, they will be much more upset if they are in the dark.

Transparency is crucial. It not only builds trust, but opens the opportunity for folks to participate, take ownership, and make good things better. To borrow from my ‘day job’ for a moment, it’s why I believe so strongly in open government and open data. In my community, I am the ‘average person’, not the official. And it is through my ‘unofficial’ duties that I (and the teams) have been able to accomplish things that have had direct positive impact on the lives of hundreds of families. In order to get to the point of impact, our ‘average people’ team needed data, and collected and analyzed a lot of data the hard way, from PDFs or static websites, wishing we could just have access to the source, if for any reason, to save time. I realize that I looked for open data years before I learned what it was. And if I was looking for it, I can bet many ‘average people’ around the world are doing the same right now… but more on that later.

So what now? The dream of a Montessori program, with the ability to accommodate hundreds of families through 8th grade is in effect a reality, so I can safely drop the middle school search, right? More on that later

Erdkinder – The Elephant in the Room

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The first time I gave serious thought to middle school was when my son was 5 years old,and I joined a teacher/parent effort to grow his school through middle school. I learned about Erdkinder (Montessori for ages 12-18) and was mesmerized by the idea of children working through the hormonal rollercoaster of adolescence by ‘working the land‘. Erdkinder seems to help children become independent, self reliant, and able to tackle practical, real world challenges. Also, I am kind of useless when it comes to practical life skills and want to make sure my children are capable of changing their own car batteries, replacing stems on a faucet, or building a mini pop-up library for their neighborhood (yep, this is on my bucket list… for my children to implement, of course).

In 2009, at DCPS’ invitation, I worked on a team of teachers/parents/principal to submit a proposal to DCPS (April, 2009) which described the vision behind Montessori expansion (which was met w/ disappointing silence). In 2011, a more detailed proposal (again, at DCPS’ request) around Erdkinder was developed and submitted to DCPS (thanks to a lot of hard work by Superparent Susan) elaborating on the middle school piece.  Sadly, early summer of 2011 DCPS announced that they did not have enough information on how Montessori middle school would work out. At the time, it made sense. DCPS was supporting the move of the Montessori school to a new building, new teachers (and a new a new team, not to mention, 40 new families)  – this was going to be a huge effort. And it was.

If this were a “How Montessori Learned to Fly” blog, I would get into what it took to move the program on the part of parents, teachers, the principals and incredibly committed staff from DCPS’ central office (Claudia and Anthony are particularly notable). Even with this intensely collaborative effort, things were all but smooth.  When the doors opened in August 2011, we (parents) discovered that while classrooms had been beautifully renovated, they were not adequately equipped with materials. The classrooms of the four new teachers looked barren those first months and we (parents/educators) found ourselves writing letters to DCPS begging for additional funding, and digging into our own pockets to furnish our children’s classrooms, the library and more. I honestly don’t know where things went wrong on this front, but at the end of the day, it was clear that the program had not been adequately resourced. I did wonder whether it was a conscious decision on the part of the school or DCPS to rely on parents to make up the difference. While DCPS did come through with some additional funding, I certainly never envisioned being expected to buy or raise funds for materials (the equivalent of what would be considered textbooks in a traditional school) or to furnish our then barren library.

Suffice to say that it made for a tumultous opening year. Add on the reality of kinks to be worked out when bringing a new team together in a new space, many members of our community did not stick it out. Three of the four new teachers did not return for a second year and many families also bailed. Pretty grim, no? Not really. Not for my family. My children’s teachers stayed put and my kids had a terrific experience (and continue to thrive). At the end of the day, the school really is amazing and warts and all, I know my children are getting a world class education in a supportive environment. We’re all really happy, but knowing it would come to an end, I resolved to look at existing middle school options and leave Montessori behind after elementary.

Funny thing about resolve… as it turns out, the Erdkinder conversation is not dead. In fact, my children’s principal has kicked off this school year energized about pursuing expanding Montessori to middle school and a survey has been floated to families to get a sense of commitment from parents. The results have not been made public, but the anecdotal consensus is that families of younger children are gung ho and families of older children are hesitant (much the way things were when we surveyed parents about this in 2009). In the context of my quest for a middle school, Erdkinder has become the elephant in the room (or the pink tower in the room).

What do I think? I’m supportive of the program and believe Erdkinder will be an incredible opportunity for the school and for DCPS to break new ground in urban education. This program is also receiving a lot of attention from the North American Montessori Teachers Association, which could mean for even greater visibility for the school and good stuff for DCPS. On the ‘good for kids’ front, thinking back to Eliot-Hine Principal Young’s advice on what to look for in middle schools, I was struck by what she said about looking at “Students’ relationships with adults… (who are) Caring, don’t overreact, constantly looking for ways to communicate”. I look at the teachers in my children’s school and see this quality very clearly. If this translates to the middle school environment, then it certainly meets one of my key requirements.

That said, I personally don’t have the stomach for breaking ground myself or for subjecting my family to another adventure, especially since DC’s education system is adventure enough. If the implementation of the Ward 6 Middle School Initiative is any indication, I also don’t have much confidence that the program would receive adequate support from DCPS on the implementation front. Add to this the reality of proposed closures, including five or so middle schools, I can’t imagine DCPS willing to invest the political capital to make Erdkinder happen without a lot of heavy lifting by parents.  Whatever the end result, I hope decisions are made quickly. Our school has been in limbo vis a vis middle school for too many years, and it would be nice to see the elementary teachers and the administration get on board with supporting children in transitioning to their destination school, regardless of what that school is. It would also be nice to see families staying through 5th grade benefitting from Montessori another year, and because they have a good middle school option to look forward to. (But note, this ‘scarcity of 5th graders’ issue is not unique to my children’s school).

So sadly, all things considered, I don’t think Erdkinder is in my son’s future. BUT… I will keep my eye on it for my daughter… So goodbye, elephant!

**this post has been edited to make up for poor judgement on my part, as it occurred to me that in the original version, my ‘honest’ was not ‘fair’ nor ‘respectful’.