Please Act RIGHT NOW – Middle School Students Deserve Better: #FixOurSchools

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It’s budget season. More importantly, it’s SCHOOL budget season. The time of year when DC parents wonder, “how is DC going to stick it to our school this time?”

Joking aside, the unfortunate reality is that when commitments are not met, or when there is a lack of continuity in support, the impact to school communities can be very damaging. On the ground, when school principals should be focusing on keeping up quality programming and thinking through strategies for growth, they are instead struggling to keep basic services and staff. Engaged parent and neighborhood communities go from thinking about how to support and grow enrichment programs in partnership with schools, to spending time drafting testimonies (again), to ensure the city’s commitments are kept.

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather spend my time engaging with my children’s class, chaperoning field trips, being present in their school community, then worrying about how to convince official X Y or Z to follow through on what was agreed to last year.

Last week, I joined a team to organize an event for Bike to School Day, I sent my children to their respective schools with goodies for teacher appreciation week, I helped my daughter pull of a bake sale with classmates in support of the Nepal earthquake(s) victims, and I also helped her enter a project into her school’s science fair. While I was all but in tears by Friday, I feel pretty confident that those are investments that my children will remember and appreciate. They will pay off.

Sadly, I don’t know that I feel the same about the ‘Groundhog Day’ -esque ‘investment’ of having to beg the city to adequately fund schools EVERY YEAR. While I’m extremely proud of how engaged DC parents are in our schools, I have to wonder whether our efforts are effective, when whatever we’ve agreed to with the city can change so radically from year to year.

It has been easy to become jaded, and given that my children are both “Fine, thank you very much” in their respective schools, I have enjoyed some time ignoring the drama.

And then, I saw the photos of the Eliot-Hine bathrooms tweeted by parent Heather Schoell and Ward 6 Board of Education representative, Joe Weedon.

bathroom2 bathroom

While it’s fair to say that there are likely more than one bathroom in the building, and certainly, classes are not held in the bathrooms, I couldn’t help but think about a Kenyan journalist who had discovered a relationship between student drop out rates and schools without proper sanitation facilities.

I think about how difficult it is to go through adolescence. As a woman, I know that if my workplace did not have the proper facilities, I would likely miss work on the days of the month when I’m menstruating. I think it’s safe to say I would certainly miss those days if I were an adolescent girl and the bathroom stalls were missing doors. Would that pave the road towards truancy?

How can we expect children to learn when we aren’t willing to invest in their environment?

What can you do? Right now?

Pick up the phone, send an email, tweet, spread the word. Below are helpful instructions and information from Joe Weedon’s website. While Joe represents Ward 6 schools, it’s important to note that the children in these schools come from Wards 6, 7, and 8. In fact, 49% of students enrolled in Eliot-Hine and 43% of students enrolled in Jefferson live in Wards 7 & 8.

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Please CALL and EMAIL the following Education Committee members asking them to support #Ward6 Schools.

  • CM Grosso, Chair of the Education Committee –

dgrosso@dccouncil.us;  @cmdgrosso;  Tel 202-724-8105

  • CM Anita Bonds, Education Committee Member –

abonds@dccouncil.us;  @anitabondsdc;  Tel: 202-724-8064

Please copy Ms. Bonds’ Chief of Staff, David Meadows, at dmeadows@dccouncil.us

The Message.

Please support amendments tomorrow during the Education Committee’s vote on the budget proposal to renovate #Ward6 schools that are in desperate need of repairs.

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Heuristics

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While looking at schools, my family is paying attention to the following (not necessarily in order of priority). Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas.

Community and Culture

– Behavior; how is bullying addressed? How is behavior addressed?

– Do teachers/ staff lead afterschool activities? (shows commitment to relationships w students and to community)

– How are students taught to love learning?

– Demographics of; cultural diversity among students/families?

– How are right and wrong discussed?addressed?taught?

– How does school collaborate w other schools? With high schools?

– What is the school’s philosophy and practice around testing? (standardized and general)

– Who do we know from the school from our community? Opportunities to carpool, get each other out of logistical binds, etc?

Academic

– Offer Languages?

– Advanced math?

– How are subjects (math, history, science, art, etc)  integrated? How do teachers collaborate and synchronize lessons?

– What/how are art, music, or performance arts offered? How often?

– What/how is PE offered! How often?

– What/how is science offered! How often?

– Does the school have a well-resourced library w/ full-time librarian?

– How do academics connect with destination high schools?

– Where do students go to HS?

– How does recess or free time fit into the schedules?

Activities/enrichment

– Any athletic offerings? Team sports?

– Any project activities? Newspaper, yearbook?

– Any community partnerships? Museums, technology, businesses, nonprofits?

Communication

– What is expectation of parents re fundraising?

– What else is required/expected of parents?

– How does school reach out to parents?

– Are grades/homework/assignments posted online?

Logistics

– How will kids get to school?

– How does lunch work?

– Aftercare details? Cost? Hours? Activities/electives?

– How much homework should families expect? Samples?

The Husband in the Room

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This one is short and a response to a very good question from a very good friend –> What does your husband think?

Though this blog is a documentation of my perspective, there is another perspective in the room. My husband’s. And thank goodness, because I certainly trust his judgement more than I trust mine. I never feel good about an important decision unless he and I see eye to eye. The good news is that on most (important) things, we DO see eye to eye.

That said (and again on most things), our perspectives are quite different, and in no way does this blog reflect his opinion or his thoughts. While I document my experience of looking at schools, I stay away from documenting our conversations, where he stands, or our decision-making. We’re sharing this experience together, but we are not sharing it here.

Same goes for the kid :).

Living Room Chat

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There are three schools in Ward 6 in the process of implementing International Baccalaureate (IB) – Eliot-Hine Middle School, Jefferson Middle School, and Eastern Senior High School.

There’s a lot to the story of why IB/IBMYP was pursued at these schools (Deal’s success, academic rigor, external (non-DCPS) accountability, languages, math), but in the end, the IB decisions at all of the schools were very loudly supported by the community (not sure about how the school educators themselves felt about these decisions).

In order to support the middle schools’ transition to IB, collaboration teams were formed comprised of principals and parents of the feeder elementary schools and destination middle schools. The collaboration teams have changed over time, but the goal remains to support the IB efforts in Ward 6 schools. Part of this effort involves giving families an opportunity to learn about IB, as well as how it is being implemented in the schools. This has played out via education nights in public venues and via living room chats in private homes.

I recently attended a living room chat (hosted by superparent Lillian) with Principal Young, of Eliot-Hine, for at parents of 4th graders. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as until that evening, I did not have a good sense of where Principal Young stood in terms of her support of IB, how she was managing the school, or how she felt about whatever it is that parents like me (prospective, without children currently enrolled in her school) brought to the community she is building.

I came out of the night completely impressed.

I arrived a little late, so I missed some of her prepared remarks, but in the end, I think it was in the Q/A where it became clear to me how the staff at Eliot-Hine are educating the children. Principal Young was light on buzz words, no vague answers. A lot of honesty and good descriptions of techniques.

She talked about differentiated learning (ok, one buzzword), but was clear that Eliot-Hine will not be ‘tracking’ (i.e., separating students into ‘smart kids’, ‘kids who need help’, etc). She talked about techniques she uses to integrate children across academic abilities, including integrating some of the children with intellectual disabilities into ‘mainstream’ classes (including art classes, recess, etc). BTW – Eliot-Hine has a large autism program.

I was excited to learn more about language offerings (Spanish and Mandarin) and the fact that students will take language classes every day (as it is part of IB). I thought this would be particularly important to students coming from Spanish immersion programs. The Spanish teacher sounds incredible, and it sounds like she receives a lot of support from Principal Young,

While I was disappointed that there has been no outreach (in either direction) between Eliot-Hine and my children’s school, Principal Young assured me that this is something on her agenda. I asked about how Eliot-Hine would help transition Montessori students (you know, kids who don’t do a lot of sitting down throughout the day), and while it was clear that their freedom would look different in her school, she made a very strong connection of the very important Montessori principle of ‘student choice’ and described how IB at Eliot-Hine supports this via stations (must follow up on this).

I am also intrigued by how the radio station came to be. Student driven, student organized, student run, with support from an expert. Music to my Montessori Mama ears. It’s the type of educational experience I value most – connected to the real world. Another detail that I found interesting was how the radio shows also served as opportunities for talking about culture and vernacular. The value of being respectful of the culture within which students are raised, while mindful of expectations across cultures, and how this experience serves as an opportunity for students to develop communication and listening skills. Important to note that I hadn’t made any of these connections on my own when I’d learned of the radio show. It’s a terrific selling point for the school and IB, but really needs to be more explicit to confused parents like me. 🙂

It was interesting to hear about how the school is managing behavior, including bullying. Suspensions are down by 82%, and the school has introduced varying interventions/support systems based on individual circumstances, focusing on incentives. Principal Young described the different types of bullying she sees (friend to friend, ‘making a name’) and how the dialogue around bullying is schoolwide (not just w/ offenders/victims).

She addressed tough questions around the likely changes to racial make up of the population, and the very real tensions that may arise (among students, but more interestingly, among parents). She focused on the need for educators to advocate for their schools and to also support communities and students in learning to advocate.

Principal Young talked about how she is coaching the staff to focus on… wait for it… Data! She supports innovation in the programs offered (ex: literacy nights), including productive extra-curricular opportunities (the radio station is both a school course and after school program).

**It was reassuring to learn that Eliot-Hine, Jefferson and Eastern are collaborating closely including around grant-writing, and programing. Parents in the chat offered ideas around how to bring the music programs at Eastern and Eliot-Hine together, and to support Eastern’s athletics, so that most talented MS students are not recruited to other high schools. This really does reinforce the importance of collaboration among the feeder lines. I really don’t understand why as a system, DCPS isn’t encouraging more of this. I have a sense that in this testing-crazed environment, it’s every school (and principal) out for themselves.

Finally, what I think I most appreciated, was what she shared as things parents should look for in a middle school:

– Students’ relationships with adults… Caring, don’t overreact, constantly looking for ways to communicate

– Extra curricular and co-curricular programs… Options to explore beyond the classroom – athletics, arts, filed trips

– Rigor around academic programs and how the middle school connects to high school. So students then have choices around high schools.

While I’ll miss the first open house – Thursday, November 29, 9-10:30 AM – I’ll definitely look forward to making the next one.

Principal Young also is open to unscheduled visits and encourages families to visit the school. Be mindful of (paced interim assessments) testing in December. Call in advance if your party is more than two. Ms Walker and Ms Lawrence can give tours.

So it’s come to this…

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I’m a proud DC public school parent. I love to brag about the incredible community our family has found within our children’s school and within the family of DC public schools in my neighborhood. If I can be honest, I have developed quite an ego about it. My kids are getting a world class education in a gem of a school, where the entire staff pitches in and clearly understands they are there to support and educate the children in that school, where a security guard teaches modern jazz on her days off and a custodian coaches track every day after school (for our school AND for the local high school). A school that is as much part of my life (and I suspect will always be) as it is part of my children’s lives.

As imperfect as things can get (you mean we have to buy books for the library? and raise funds for the fundamental school materials? and beg the city for a crossing guard? what?), it’s incredibly rewarding to pitch in, and hopefully have a positive impact on the small world my children share with their friends and educators. It’s been a bumpy ride, but I know it’s worth it. My children love their friends, teachers, school and I know it’s the right place for them (and for us). Unfortunately, all things (bad and good) must come to an end…

It all began 6 years ago, when we hit the ‘lottery’ and scored a coveted 3 year old spot in one of the local neighborhood schools. The waiting list boasted 100+ broken hearted families deep (it’s now +700). I walked into the school and knew immediately it was the right place for my son. Sunny hallways filled with happy, independent children, several of whom looked like my own multi-racial angel. We received word that he got in over the summer (on his birthday, no less) and met his amazing teacher later that summer (on my birthday, no less) – it was meant to be ;). He ran right into his classroom on the first day of school and (almost) never looked back. Over the years, we had ups and downs, but always knew this was the school for him (and later, for his little sister). Middle school was a question mark, but so far away, and SURELY things would resolve themselves before we needed to think about it.

Well, by the time my son turned 5, I started thinking about it. Happy with our family’s experience, and aware of the growing demand for quality public schools in the District (well, at least in my neighborhood), I joined an effort to expand the school in capacity, and to add grades through middle school. A team of parents and teachers worked for 3 months to draft a proposal (with DCPS’ encouragement), collect parent feedback via surveys, and get the word out to the school community. We had a great plan that was immediately shot down by DCPS without any explanation beyond – “in these uncertain economic times… ”

Deflated, I forgot about it until I connected with Suzanne Wells and an incredible group of parents and educators via the Capitol Hill Public Schools Parent Organization (CHPSPO), who after years of bringing cross-school initiatives to Capitol Hill pubic schools (like renovating 8 school libraries and supporting school gardens) had begun to think about the state of middle schools. Elementary schools were doing great, all with healthy waiting lists, but with only 1 ‘viable’ middle school in Ward 6, the group lamented that kids continued to leave the elementary schools after 2nd or 3rd grade.

I joined in the effort, representing our school, and after a year of ‘scraping’ enrollment data, circulating surveys, drafting proposals, setting up google groups, ning sites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts pushing DC public schools, running around spreading the word at PTA meetings (mine and others), ANCs, (anything to get the word out), and countless meetings (including a five hour session during ‘Snowmaggedon’ in the basement of Riverby books), we finally got audience with then-Chancellor, Michelle Rhee. She assigned resources to the Capitol Hill Middle School Initiative, DCPS embraced it and broadened it to a Ward 6 Middle School Initiative. We were well on our way to expanding our school!!!

A year later, on August 2011, Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan opened it’s doors, in a new building, with most of the staff, children and even the same principal. We were going to grow… but, *IRONY ALERT* we were not going to grow through middle school.

Not only would our school NOT go through middle school, but it would soon stop feeding into the only viable middle school that was our feeder school before the move. So while I had helped to make the program stronger, with added capacity so that more families could send their children to this school, for my own children, the middle school situation went from sub-optimal to, well, what’s worse than worse?

I’ve spent the past few years talking about middle schools, giving sympathetic looks to fellow parents with older children, and begging them not to leave DC, talking up the ‘promise’ of International Baccalaureate, of renewed museum magnet programs, and collaboration among schools. It was all easy to do when someone else was walking the road. I’m finding it’s not so easy walking the road myself.

So it’s come to this… I find myself today, with a 4th grader, once again facing the ‘lottery’ game. This time, though, the stakes are higher. Not only am I worrying about whether the school we choose will prepare my child academically, I am also worrying about, ahem, BJs in the bathroom (as so eloquently put by a shero of mine, Heather You-Know-Who-You-Are), bullying, and the ridiculous political circus that is public education in DC.

At the suggestion of school activist, Alice Speck, I’ve started this blog to document the process of ‘shopping’ for a middle school. It’s part therapy, but also hoping it becomes a way to raise awareness about how broken this system is. I’ve invited other parents also going through this to contribute. Hoping this leads to a variety of voices and perspectives. Striving to be honest, fair and respectful.