Dystopia Comes Home

Teen and young adult dystopian literature has been around for a while but it’s darkly fascinating to see how the notion that something’s just not quite right is percolating through society.  So it was when I was chatting with Youngest one evening about his school day and found that he had an essay due along with the rest of his middle school English class.  The topic was both surprising and more than a little disturbing:  each student was to describe the one skill that they’d most prize should the economy collapse and things go to hell (my term, not his). 

We’ve known for a while that teens are feeling stress as acutely as adults and that their stress is timed to the school year.  The push for good grades and to ascertain what their career goals – not to mention getting into and funding the right school – make their teen years significantly more tense than it probably was two or three generations ago.  But throw in the refrain that a college degree has now supplanted the high school diploma as the baseline paper for some degree of financial success and the understanding that they’re likely to graduate with the equivalent car loan around their neck for a barista’s position, and they get it.  The question that it begs afterwards is how long this condition can last; more importantly, what happens to society afterwards?  So their literature has come to mirror adult literature with authors tapping into the zeitgeist to work through the issues.  Teens have seen their fictional societies ravaged by despotic regimes (Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), aliens (Rick Yancey’s The Fifth Wave), nuclear post-apocolyptic societies (Veronica Roth’s Divergent series), and zombies (James Dashner’s Maze Runner and Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series).  Having seen each of these series come through the household with one child or another, I can only ask myself what else could possibly go wrong? 

But this particular essay assignment doesn’t have the Shakespearean suspend your disbelief quality that all of the previously mentioned series share.  This has an immediacy that touches them deeply.  Youngest’s generation is a group that has seen parents downsized and has seen a suburban school district host clothing drives each year, an event that didn’t exist until just a few years ago.  A nearby city school district has a Friday power-pack program that hands out hundreds of food-filled backpacks to students so that they have food for the weekend and don’t return to school the following Monday suffering from hunger.  This isn’t fiction and this isn’t unbelievable.  For them, this is real.  I don’t know what the teacher’s thought process was behind the assignment and I don’t know if that individual is a closet doomer or just looking to spur thought; I frankly don’t plan to bother finding out.  But it’s still an eye-opening assignment.

So as Youngest and I spoke, I inquired as to what his response was and after sharing it with me, we talked further about it.  My own comments afterwards were to what I myself would consider the most important skill set and not surprisingly, it had to do with the ability to determine what holds value for people and then knowing how to negotiate and barter.  Because if the s*&^ hits the fan as the phrase goes, money will rapidly disappear and we’ll be working on a barter basis.  The conversation ranged to the highly practical – and cynical – view of human nature and that perhaps the family’s stash of alcohol could be divvied into smaller containers for trade or supplemented with airline bottles.  It might even be of benefit to further supplement the stash with a supply of cartons of cigarettes for trade.  Is it an optimal outlook?  No.  But this type of scenario is going to require a pragmatic and clear view of the world around us, very different from what out youngsters have come to expect in their politically correct school cocoons. 

It’s been an interesting thought experiment in the days since that conversation.  If there is an economic collapse – and the constant 24/7 newscycle feeds that fear – what should you expect?  What do you believe that would resemble and more importantly, what is your plan?  How would you plan to handle the first several weeks if there’s a Greek/Cypriot style clampdown on bank ATMs or even a wholesale bank holiday?  Who is in your network of close friends upon whom you rely and in turn rely upon you?  Most importantly, what and how do you teach your children so that they can make their way as self-reliant and capable adults in such a world?  It’s not a theoretical question but goes to the heart of being a parent since our primary job is to raise the children to become self-reliant, productive and moral adults capable of making their way in the world

I doubt that my conversation about bartering booze and smokes necessarily fits into the category of moral, but it can help get through the immediate crisis period while we work on the other skills that would serve them better in the long-haul.  And it’s also part of our parental purview to help them determine what those skills are and how to foster them along.  So make an effort to prompt them on their days and their assignments.  The results can be more revealing than another piece of classwork designed solely to get them through the next standardized test.  And a note to myself – get a final copy of Youngest’s essay from his teacher.  It’s going to be an interesting read.

When School Technology Programs Affect Family Policy

The letter from the local high school came in the mail two weeks before first day of classes, amidst an assortment of administrative odds and ends, and I frankly didn’t catch it’s significance until after the new school year began.  What prompted me to go back and review it again was a comment from Middle, who’s now in high school; he remarked that he’d be getting a laptop in January and when I responded that it was unlikely, he told me that it was being given to all high school students as the start of a new “1 to 1” program.  This news was problematic since we’ve made it a point to not provide the kids with their own laptops until going off to college and this was what happened with Eldest, who received a laptop as a graduation present in May of her senior year.  This was compounded a day later by Youngest’s comment that they – his sixth grade class – had been told that they could now bring in their smartphones, laptops and iThingies starting in the Fall in order to also access the web with their teachers.  Because we do try to control the level of access and amount of screen time, Youngest has none of these devices.  So…what to do when the family technology policy collides squarely with the policy initiatives of the local school district?

This initiative revolves around grant money that can be used to purchase inexpensive laptops for the high school students.  In January, 2014, each district high school student will receive a new laptop, to be used throughout their secondary education period and afterwards, each class of incoming freshmen will receive the same for their four year period.  The rationale for this program is the letter’s reference to the opportunity for students to now take full advantage of all that technology offers in terms of educational opportunity and there are certainly good reasons for such an investment.  The presence of the laptops permits faculty to direct their students to a much broader scope of information available through the internet, potentially opening more young minds to possibilities.  Likewise, it’s “green” and there is far fewer paper used and far more trees saved.  A more prosaic reason is that with more resources available online, even textbooks, the school has less cost for school supplies.  Wow, someone else’s money for a one-time investment and X% of our own costs go away…For The Win, Baby!

While it’s a win for the school district, it’s both a question and just one more thing to monitor within the household.  We’re not Amish by any means and there’s certainly screen time going on within the household, but it’s been a conscious decision and ongoing effort to create family guidelines, monitor activity and enforce limits regarding electronics.  The remaining two kids in the household – Middle and Youngest – are definitely behind the curve from an electronics standpoint as there are no game systems, iThingies or smartphones although Middle now possesses a cell phone to match his driver’s permit.  There are families for whom this particular policy initiative would be a dealbreaker, family policy now ostensibly being dictated by a public entity; there are some – admittedly a very few – who would opt instead for a different route of education and pursue either a private institution or else homeschooling.  The irony in this situation would be that a considerable amount of homeschooling is now done via cyberschool, in which case a separate computer might also have to be purchased for the student.

So, what to do?  Homeschooling isn’t an option here since we do find great value in public education, apart from the academics alone; although I’m annoyed from reading the letter that this program was taken on after considerable reflection by staff and faculty with no mention of parental involvement.  The best that we can do, if we’re to stay within the system, is to simply shoulder the burden of amending the house rules and continuing to uphold them as best we’re able.  In Middle’s case, the laptop will have to be used in common areas and out of the bedroom; free surfing will have to occur on the family computer as before and I’ll wind up having to check more often to assure that the technology isn’t being overused.  Youngest’s case is different however.  We’ve known that many more of his friends have unfettered access to the web, both in terms of their personal devices as well as parental oversight and we aren’t willing to provide him with a device despite what the school is now offering for the nascent middle-schoolers.  It’s bad enough that I’m now going to have to add one more piece of technology to the list, but adding another for Youngest is unacceptable>  What Youngest’s teacher did advise was that any device with a wireless capability would work, including a Nook HD or Amazon’s Kindle Fire and that presents an option; not that we’re going to purchase one for him but one for the family that could be taken to school during the day but would be returned to the kitchen upon returning home…in other words, mine.

This initiative isn’t something that’s going to break our relationship with the school district, and the simple truth is that it will probably be of value.  But it’s not an innocuous change and has a direct bearing upon how we’ve heretofore chosen to raise the kids and run the household.  There are plenty of other changes that school districts roll out and the cumulative effect of some of these programs has been to push parents into disaffection with the public system, sometimes to the extent that they simply withdraw their children and seek other educational alternatives.  I can intellectually understand their discomfort but there hasn’t been anything to date that has actually made me sit back and say hmmm… and while this one isn’t a dealbreaker, the understanding has now shifted from the academic and intellectual realm to that of the real world, the one that we inhabit each day.

When Does the Academic Push Become Too Much?

We’re old enough to remember the academically over-achieving character from John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, played by Anthony Michael Hall.  As the various stereotypes spend the Saturday detention together, he responds to the razzing by breaking down about the pressure that he’s under to perform academically and gain the grades.  I’ve seen similar – but less dramatic – scenarios first hand as the local state university permits qualifying high school students to take college level courses; these grades are included in the calculation of the student Grade Point Averages as the courses carry a higher weight than the standard high school class.  The upshot is that there are kids who take the courses knowing that not only can they earn transferrable college credits, but are able to pad the GPA so that they can graduate with a number higher than the previously perfect 4.0 of earlier generations.  Eldest was a student in this category as she took college courses during her junior year of high school.  But is there a point at which the academic push becomes too much and is actually detrimental to the child?

This was the situation faced by several children in Youngest’s elementary school.  Each of the kids had been identified in second grade as having advanced math skills and were accordingly allowed to take math with the class at the next grade level, so that when in third grade, they took fourth grade math and so on.  But the group is now entering sixth grade – the last year of elementary school in our district – and have already completed the elementary school math curriculum; what’s to be done for these kids?  The true sixth graders who are moving on to middle school are required to take a placement test during the spring of their year to ascertain at what level of math they’re to be placed in seventh grade: some will move on to Algebra I while others take the basic Math 7; the majority will wind up in Pre-Algebra.  The school district understood that these kids were in a different category and the decision was made that they should also take the placement test for middle school with the understanding that simply repeating that sixth grade math curriculum wasn’t an option in anybody’s best interest.  If the child scored high enough, then the placement would be made as though they were rising seventh-graders with the option to attend the middle-school for the first period with a bus returning them to elementary school for the remainder of the day.

This arrangement is workable in theory and the parents are appreciative of the district’s efforts to accommodate the kids.  But good intentions run headlong into physical reality in the details of the plan.  The elementary school begins the day at 9 AM and ends at 3:30 PM while the middle school begins at 7:30 and ends at 2:30; asking the sixth graders to attend the first period of middle school means that their school day is effectively 90 minutes longer than anybody else’s.  It might sound like sour grapes but it’s not a fairness issue at all since these kids are all at the edge of puberty, a time when the body’s chemistry generally begins to also alter their sleep schedules so that the body’s natural inclination is to go to sleep later and awaken later.  It doesn’t mean that things won’t work out alright, but the stage is set for a year of crankiness and angst as the kids are propelled into an entirely different – and sometimes unpleasant – world a year earlier than their classmates and doing so on less sleep than they’re probably going to need.  On an aggregate basis, the extra 90 minutes means that they’ll be attending an additional full day of school each week or about 36 days per year.  That’s an additional seven weeks of school.

Because I was familiar with the situation, I spoke independently with my older two kids – Eldest and Middle – who’ve already been through that level and their comments were identical: it’s just not worth it since taking Algebra I a year early isn’t worth the lost sleep.  That was something that I hadn’t considered either; Algebra I was – when I was in school – not something that was even considered until at least the eighth grade.  In our desire to push the kids, at least those who are willing to be pushed, we’ve made more available at an earlier age with the expectations that following this track will challenge the kids and help them play the GPA game, setting themselves up for college and potential scholarships.  It’s an understandable goal but we have to continuously try to balance that against the physical realities of childhood growth and development.

I don’t know how it went for all of the kids, but I do know that the school district has made arrangements for a gifted education instructor to provide a specific Pre-Algebra course at the elementary school for the students in question.  It’s an interim measure but one that’s greatly appreciated, reflective of the lengths to which this particular district will go to accommodate the kids.  It also means that even if the student did qualify for the middle-school Algebra I course, the parents have an additional option that makes their child’s life far more bearable for the coming year.  We want our kids to succeed and it’s our responsibility to prepare them for the great, wide world; but it’s also our responsibility to understand that they’re also still children with the physical parameters of a growing, changing body.

Helicoptering the Kids with School Software

Education is certainly different today from what I knew, and that’s especially in terms of the technology.  Elementary classrooms have Macs, the middle schoolers have classes in using programs like Word and interested high schoolers can learn how to use Flash animation; most of the local high school classrooms now use Smartboards that are frankly light years ahead of what I had.  But the schools – locally, the middle and high schools – also now have online programs that allow you to access all of Junior’s grades on a real time basis; at the middle school level, when the kids are literally the walking dead, there’s also a program to keep the parents up to date on the daily assignments.  But how often and to what extent should I utilize them?

The grades program is entitled Sapphire, a product of K12 Systems, an educational software firm.  The package is comprehensive for the using district; teachers can enter grades and make comments on the system; students and parents can check their grades as often as they wish and even the school nurse has a tracking module.  From the time that Eldest entered middle school – and she’s now a college freshman – the parents were advised to check Sapphire regularly in order to know how the kids are doing.  Depending upon the adminstrator or teacher, the advice was to do so daily.  Parents were likewise told at the outset of middle school to regularly keep tabs on the daily homework assignments via Moodle, a separate package upon which teacers can handle online quizzes and homework assignments, not to mention a readily available platform upon which to list the present assignments and projects due.  Depending upon the teacher and grade level, Moodle can even be used as a teaching platform for assignments in elementary school; I was surprised to find that Youngest was recently doing an extra credit quiz on Moodle over the past weekend.

There are certainly advantages to Moodle.  While I’m uncertain as to the package cost of the platform for the district, it certainly fits in well as a worthwhile investment despite the austerity that’s continuing to work through the local school systems.  There’s less need for the use of paper and the waste that especially hits the younger kids homework sheets are mangled or lost either enroute to or from the home.  It has likewise cut down on the cost of the planners that many schools have handed out to students at the onset of the new school year.  Our local district has given each student a planner for years but the quality and size of the planner has diminished considerably in the past two years as this line item has fallen to the budget necessities.  Parents can continue to check the provided planner, especially for the younger students, but Youngest’s teacher actually suggested that the parents provide a larger planner for use.  In the local district, Moodle is especially effective for the middle school parents as this is how the teachers post homework assignments and projects for the students; it’s at this age that the child’s ability to organize and think clearly is particularly hard hit.  By the time that the kids hit high school however, that aspect of Moodle is finished and it really is up to the student’s ability to keep and maintain a planner…and the parent’s ability to keep up with that as well.

But if our job is to raise them and prepare them to make their way in the world, does this technology ultimately help or hinder?  For all of the school system’s commentary about the need to keep tabs, what sank in for me came from a high school math teacher with teens of her own.  As a parent, she only touched base in the system herself but once every two weeks; how were the kids doing and what were there any issues that seemed to be cropping up, such as recurrent missed homework?  As we spoke, her thinking mirrored mine – and I felt like a terrible parent because I wasn’t checking every night – in that the kids weren’t really learning consequences if they weren’t allowed to screw up (as kids and teens can do in such combustibly magnificent fashion).  Gee, you got a D because the homework wasn’t turned in…there goes that particular privilege.  Likewise, the kids gain a sense that the ‘rents will also be there to backstop them and they don’t pay attention to the time management and organizational skills that life requires.  On a personal level, my own kids hate Sapphire and Moodle because it creates – for them – a sense that they have no independence and are forever tied to the apron.  In a small way for them, it retards their belief that they’re moving onwards to adulthood and still require constant supervision.

There’s no tried and true approach to the technology since no two children are alike.  In this household, one teen’s ability to organize and manage work meant that these were rarely utilized while a sibling’s lack of structure led to greater use (and bloodshed).  It’s taken time to reach a balance so that the child doesn’t feel as though independence is retarded while I’m comfortable with what’s going on with the schoolwork.  There have been repeated conversations about expectations and consequences and this child seems to understand that if the performance – matching the abilities – isn’t there, then privileges will disappear and consequences will occur.  Welcome to adulthood.


Dumbing Down Parenthood:  Kudos for Attending Meet the Teacher Night

Almost all school districts host a "Meet the Teacher" night at the beginning of the school year and ours occurred two weeks ago.  The purpose of these events is an opportunity for parents to meet the teachers and put a face to a name on the schedule.  It’s also there for teachers to provide parents and guardians with a background on some of what’s upcoming during the year; the curriculum that’s being used and what their expectations are for the students.  This in and of itself is refreshing since there’s typically a gaping disconnect between what the kids report and the reality of things.  At our district, the elementary events are scheduled in the late afternoon through early evening with a short interval until the beginning of the high school event, a courtesy extended to parents with kids at both levels.

I raced from Youngest’s event at one school to Middle’s event at the other and while missing the Principal’s opening remarks at the latter, I made it to Middle’s First Block class in time to get the appropriate paperwork and hear the teacher.  What struck me at this session – and through later sessions with other teachers – was the verbal kudos given by the teachers for taking the time from our busy schedules to attend.  While not every teacher mentioned it, I heard it more than once that evening and I’d lay odds that the Principal said something similar in his remarks.  You’re giving me kudos for attending Meet the Teacher night?  Seriously?  While there are some who deserve such because they’ve had to miss second shift work, they’re in the minority.  The rest of us are there because it’s in our best interests as parents and taxpayers to get a gander at what’s in store for the year with our kids; indeed, it’s my expectation to attend unless death or distance keeps me otherwise occupied. 

We live in a district where the parents apparently do give a damn since the parking lot at both schools was full and parents and grandparents flooded the hallways between sessions.  But even then, it was jarring to think that the educators felt it important to recognize us for something that’s as necessary and part of our parental responsibilities as coming to meet the teachers.  Parents have basic elemental responsibilities for the kids – food, shelter, clothing and assuring an education.  While we don’t homeschool the kids, we still have to assure that things are proceeding apace and these sessions are part and parcel of providing that responsibility.  Parents shouldn’t be so dumbed down and out of touch that we have to receive strokes for something as simple as attending a Meet the Teacher event and I can only wonder, what’s being said amongst the educational community that educators need to praise us for something so simple.

Withhold the High School Diploma?  Yep, You Betcha

Eldest graduated from high school the other evening, ending thirteen years of public education before moving on to the next stage.  So there’s a vested interest to read that a high school actually withheld the diplomas of four graduates because of their families excessive celebrating.  Were the superintendent and principal correct in their action?

Let’s set the stage for the personal event.  Eldest was one of 461 students to graduate in her class and the ceremony was held in the air-conditioned gym of a local university; the district shifted the ceremony there after multiple attendees fainted in the high school facility two years ago due to the heat.  There’s a decent sound system and the event occurred in an orderly process as the graduates received their diplomas in two separate lines entering from opposite sides of the stage.  Cameras set up opposite each line allowed a video feed of each graduate to one of two separate large screens so that the thousands of people there were able to see their kid receive their diploma.  The ceremony was so smoothly handled that the 461 graduates received their diplomas in the span of approximately fifteen and the entire ceremony was completed in 90 minutes.

At the outset of the ceremony, the principal spoke and as part of his remarks, asked that parents and guests refrain from any applause or cheering until the end so that all of the families there were able to hear the name of their own child being announced.  It was only a few minutes into the actual awarding of diplomas that the first family began to cheer and then, multiple other families yelled vociferously and in one instance, the family blew noisemakers.  The large majority of the guests followed the request, but a small minority refused.  Sure enough, in each instance of celebration, the names of at least one or more subsequent graduates were rendered unintelligible in the din and those families might have seen the child on the screen, but never heard the name being announced.  Despite the noise and intermittent hoopla, the ceremony occurred without interruption and those that couldn’t hear their graduate’s name called were simply out of luck.

Based upon the linked article, the Cincinnati school district is several years ahead of ours in terms of the issue.  Eldest’s class was frankly warned by the administration that any misbehavior or excessive display on their part could imperil the receipt of the diploma.  I have little doubt that the Cincinnati administration did the same and managed to bring the graduates under control – assuming that they actually followed through on their threat.  But it became apparent that the issue wasn’t with the graduates but with the families themselves and after multiple efforts to request mutual respect of one another over the course of several years – and heated complaints from other parents – they settled upon a policy of holding the diploma pending appropriate behavior by all parties.  This policy was announced in writing and disseminated with the tickets that were distributed to the families so no one can say that they shouldn’t have known.  The only remaining question would be whether the school administration would actually follow through on the new policy. 

When the event occurred, multiple families celebrated and according to the article, it wasn’t the noise level so much as the duration.  This meant that the families immediately following their own kids weren’t able to hear the names called and the school responded as had been promised.  Be clear on something here:  the only thing withheld is the actual paper diploma and the four graduates were able to participate with their class in the ceremony.  Their names were announced and they walked up and – if there school is like Eldest’s – received the leather folder which was actually empty as the diplomas themselves were disseminated at the end of the ceremony after the class had filed out to whatever tune was played. 

Let’s be frank.  The public culmination of thirteen years of public education is the graduation ceremony.  Critics can say that public education has been dumbed down enough so as to render the achievement meaningless but there are plenty of kids for whom it is an achievement and the same goes for their families.  Together, many have weathered whatever challenges might have arisen in that period.  Families have been affected by lost jobs and foreclosed houses, the dissolution of families caused by divorce or the difficulties arising from substance abuse.  The ceremony is, for many, the public capstone to their thirteen year experience and is as important for them as for others.  I understand how important it is to the families to hear their child’s name publicly proclaimed and I suspect that any of these four families would be hurt to find that their graduate’s name was omitted.  So here’s the trade-off that the school has put forward:  go ahead if you want to cheer so lustily that the following names are unintelligible but expect that the diploma will be withheld as a small token to the graduates who receive their diploma but whose recognition has been virtually erased by your own noise.

My sympathies lie with the graduates, both those with names drowned out and those celebrated.  These kids have a common bond not shared by the families and I suspect that there’s some loyalty to one another that the families don’t understand.  Many kids tend to be easily embarrassed by their family’s actions and if these four are like mine, the discipline is doubled as the withholding of the diploma is matched by the embarrassment at their parents’ behavior.

If my own school district should decide to pursue such a policy, I will support it and I know of about five other families who will as well.


PracticalDad and School:  Austerity Comes Home, Part Two

Despite all of the talk of recovery and normalization, the new normal – austerity – ripples through the real economy.  As the public sector sheds jobs, this includes the educational system across the country.  While everybody can claim a share of the pie, the reality in Pennsylvania is particularly acute since state law requires that school districts fully fund their teacher pension plans and in the next several years, this contribution will rise from approximately 7% of school district budget to about 18% and if taxes aren’t going to rise proportionately, the money has to come from somewhere.  But where?  And just how good is the information that you’re hearing?

What I’ve concluded is that the kids are paying attention – at some level – but that information is either third hand or badly misconstrued.  Eldest came home several months ago with the observation that the district’s music program was on the chopping block as the school administrators were suddenly hanging around and talking to the kids and "asking questions."  She followed this up with the synopsis of another conversation that she had with a teacher, in which it was said that the wave of the future was to cross-teach so that music would be rolled into the physical education program.  I politely listened and then promptly filed it in my mental uh-huh drawer.  But the other day, I came across an article that discusses another school district discussing cuts in the music and arts in order to strengthen the core academic programs.

My home state, Pennsylvania, instituted the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment – PSSA – tests in response to Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation; the intent is to monitor how kids are performing and rating the schools accordingly.  Schools with poor performance are forced to institute remedial action plans and if they don’t work, I assume that they wind up in administrative detention.  The reality of the PSSA is that the schools have universally found themselves teaching to a test and it’s grating to a parent’s nerves to only hear from little Johnny that they spent half the day doing review work for topics that about two-thirds of the students already know and a small fraction will never know because they were whacked in the head with the stupid stick.  Like the comedian Ron White once said, you can’t fix stupid. 

The state however, is moving beyond the PSSA tests and is in the process of implementing the Keystone Tests, which commence for students in the class of 2015.  These exams will cover a variety of topic areas – Algebra 1 & 2, Geometry, Civics, Science, US and World History amongst others – and seniors will have to pass a certain number of them in order to graduate.  Those who don’t pass the requisite amounts will not graduate.  The difficulty for the districts however is that the state continues to alter the requirements and thus presents the local educators a moving target that must be hit starting in 2015; the districts are left trying to plan to meet a goal that might yet change again.  A local school district, considered to be one of the wealthier ones, is now actively considering how to cut the arts programs in order to put the money into the core academic courses mandated under the Keystone Test Program.

Our educational system’s priorities are reverting to a period predating America’s economic golden-age, which began after the end of the Second World War.  These priorities are assuring that the mass of youth are able to handle the most important aspects while leaving the non-essentials – and that’s what the coming debate is going to cover – to those who find them interesting.

What else are the local districts doing to handle the austerity crunch?

  • Three local districts, each with strong academic programs, are pooling resources to offer combined higher-level courses to their students.  The classes, such as Advanced Placement Physics, would be held at one central campus location and the students from the three districts would travel to that site for the course. 
  • One rural district is actively cutting back the athletic program and is shifting to a pay-to-play model, in which the students must pay a fee to play a particular sport.  The Athletic Director’s position has been eliminated and that work is now handled by a vice-principal and the district is trying to herd cats by getting the various sport booster clubs to merge into one sports booster club to fundraise for all sports.
  • Report cards are no longer mailed to the home, but are given to the students to give to the parents.  The reality however, is that any parent with a computer is now able to access their child’s grades via the school district website.




Another Look at the Report Card

The marking period is just ended and when the report card comes home from elementary school, I’ll think twice about which segment my eyes run to first – the grades or the social development/class behavior comments.  This is on the heels of a conversation that I had with another father as our boys got ready for a Fall baseball game, and the father, Scott,  presented me with a viewpoint on an issue that I never truly considered before.

Although the format might differ, almost all elementary schools break out their report cards into two sections.  The one section pertains to the grades that were earned while the second covers the social development and behavioral aspects of Junior’s time at school.  The teacher usually also provides a brief written synopsis of how Junior’s developing and interacting with the teachers and peers.  I can’t speak for other districts, but our elementary report card lists the grades on the left hand side of the page, which are then followed by the development/behavior aspects in the remainder; the teacher’s assessment paragraph is written on a separate sheet of paper.  As we read from left to right, and the grades are placed on the left side, they are naturally the first thing to be seen.

Scott’s take on the report card was that he really went right past the grades and focused on the developmental/behavioral aspects of his son’s school experience.  In his view, the more important aspect at this level of school was how his son was developing and interacting with his peers; grades certainly mattered, but a poor grade could flow from simply not understanding the material or else from something that was discussed in the development/behavior section.  In the case of the former, measures could be taken to help the child understand the material better and bring the grade up.  In the case of the latter, then it didn’t matter what you did with assistance and remedial work, but would still require more intentional – and usually more difficult – work on the question of behavior and development.  Drilling a kid on the multiplication tables to improve performance is far easier than trying to parse through why Junior behaves a certain way or whether there’s something else coming into play in development.

This viewpoint was simply something that I’ve never considered.  Ours is a grades first household – You want to try this?  Then show me the grades, first. – and while the other aspects are indeed just as important, they were something that I went to after I’d satisfied myself that the grades were in order.  The father has a legitimate point in his comments.  Grades are frequently symptoms of a deeper, underlying issue and even if the immediate issue of the grade is corrected, the developmental side can fester until it erupts much later if it isn’t addressed early.

When the report card comes out of the backpack in about a week, I’ll be remembering his comments before I read the report.


PracticalDad and School:  Austerity Comes Home

Our present reality is simple:  too many promises and too few resources.  It’s been coming for years and is finally now rippling through the heart of our neighborhoods, only I doubt that everyone fully grasps what it means.  A case in point is the neighborhood bus stop.

I live in a geographically large school district, one of the biggest in our county, and like other districts, it’s responsible for providing bus transportation to the various schools.  Like other districts as well, it’s being pinched by declining tax revenues and state grants on one hand and the rise in fuel and other costs and the result is an ongoing search for ways to close the gap.  There have been numerous measures over the past two years but they’ve largely been unseen and now they’re becoming more obvious.  Several weeks before the start of school, the district transportation coordinator sent out the obligatory "bus stop" letters detailing where each child would be able to atch their respective bus; Youngest’s moved to a more distant corner.  However, it wasn’t until everybody showed up on the first day of school that the full extent of the change became clear. 

It helps to understand our neighborhood’s geography.  We live in a relatively new development with only one entry road within almost a full mile from an adjoining entry road.  When you enter the development, the road has a left turn within 150 yards of the entrance (we’ll call it road ‘A’) and if you continue to go straight, the entry road makes a giant loop of approximately one mile before terminating at road ‘A’, only about 100 yards from where it begins at the original entry road.  In simpler terms, envision a fish hook with a straight line running from the barbed end of the hook back to the hook itself, and that’s the neighborhood.  Previously, there were three separate bus stops on this loop.  With the new bus routes, our neighborhood’s stops have been slashed from five to two stops.  The loop road has been removed from the route and all of the kids now have to walk from their homes on the loop to the first bus stop at the beginning of the loop. 

On that first morning, Youngest and I walked to the assigned stop, the one furthest from our house – the one located at the hypothetical barbed end of the fishhook while all of the kids from the loop gathered at the stop at the entry road to the development; there were 17 children along with accompanying parents and siblings at this particular stop.  As I walked back after Youngest got onto the bus, I fell into conversation with some of the parents from that stop and again later in the day when the kids were to be dropped off.  Several had contacted the school district to complain and request that the loop stops be reinstated for multiple reasons:  distance from the house (less than a half mile); nowhere to stand in inclement weather (true) and danger of the intersection.  To his credit, the district superintendant actually drove by the stop this morning and spent a few minutes talking with the waiting parents.  Frankly, I said nothing since – as I told my wife later – we haven’t got a dog in that hunt and I let someone else carry the conversation.  In our view, if the school district moved the bus stop further away in an entirely different direction to save money, then we would’ve considered it as the cost of doing business.  The superintendant commiserated since he lives in the district as well and his own three kids are affected along with everyone else’s, but the point was made that cutting that mile loop saves two miles daily and with an entire fleet of buses, the cumulative savings are considerable. 

This is an open change that confronts parents directly, since many of them don’t see the other changes that confront the kids.  I neither know nor care what the response is going to be, but if this is some of the reaction from simply altering bus routes, then I can’t fathom what some of the reaction is going to be for the changes that are down the road as this ebbing tide of resources recedes further over time.

Kindergarten:  Ready?  Get Set, Go

It’s midwinter and the school signs have started appearing, reminding you that it’s time to enroll your little girl for kindergarten.  You glance at her and you ask yourself the questions.  She’s five years old now, but is she ready?  Is it the same as when I went through Kindergarten?  What can I do to help prepare her for the experience?  It’s a big step for both of you and you want to assure that she’s ready.

The fact that a child is five years of age is solely a baseline established by states as the minimal age at which a child should be able to start the mandatory educational process.  States set a certain date in the Fall – September 1 or October 1, for example – as the cutoff date by which a child must have reached the age of five to even enroll in kindergarten.  If the cutoff date is September 1 and the child turns five on September 8, then kindergarten almost always waits another year.  When most parents become concerned is when the child’s birth date is in the several month period prior to the mandated cutoff date, and the question becomes whether or not the child is ready for the experience.

What are the considerations for kindergarten readiness?  John Berry is an accomplished educator with more than 25 years of experience as a kindergarten teacher and was kind enough to share his observations.  In Berry’s experience, there are multiple areas that indicate that a child is ready for kindergarten. 

  • Foremost is that she should be able to listen to directions and focus for a sustained period of time.  What is meant by sustained?  According to Berry, the rule of thumb is that an appropriate time frame is three times the child’s age.  Remember that this is only a general rule and a child’s shorter attention span isn’t necessarily an indicator of future problems.
  • The child should be able to separate from the parents.  Children are naturally apprehensive and nervous before kindergarten but must be able to spend time away from parents for the period of the school day, trusting that they’ll be getting home.  Kindergarten teachers are skilled in handling the children who are distraught on the first several days of school but if there are too many in a single classroom, those first days will be difficult for everybody there – students, teachers and aides alike.
  • There should be an appropriate level of trust of strangers.  We scrupulously teach our children not to speak with strangers in order to help protect them from predators who might approach.  But kindergarten is a time for encountering all manner of strangers that range from teachers and aides to bus drivers, custodians and even other children. Children should be able to learn to trust adults that they’re only just meeting, yet still remember the stranger rules that they’ve been taught.
  • Children should have an ability to care for themselves in terms of personal hygiene, particularly with toilet habits.  Accidents will happen but the norm should be that the child can routinely clean herself after using the toilet.
  • She should have age-appropriate motor skills, such as the ability to cut with scissors and hold and use pencil or crayon.  According to Berry, one of the changes wrought by the No Child Left Behind legislation is an increased focus in school on readiness for reading and writing to the exclusion of the fine motor skills activities that would have occurred previously, such as playing with clay, for example.  There simply isn’t the amount of time available to do those activities that were done before.
  • There is an expectation that she also have a grasp of basic information such as shapes and colors, knowledge that can be learned in a good pre-school program.

There are questions as to whether to send a child simply because she’s reached the age of five and kindergarten educators have an axiom:  when in doubt, keep them out.  While it can apply to all children, there is an acknowledged tendency amongst parents to hold boys out a little longer because of slower maturation and emotional development.  There are no real issues with having a child wait a little longer, although it can creep up years later if the latter-start child is getting a driver license ahead of his peers.  Frankly, there can be far more issues that arise when a child is enrolled in kindergarten before she or he is prepared and those issues will cluster about issues of maturity and emotional development.

If you aren’t entirely certain about readiness for kindergarten, find out if your school district has an evaluation program.  If the district doesn’t evaluate the students, you can have a conversation about readiness with your child’s preschool teacher or other parents who interact with her.  Regardless of whether there’s a formal evaluation or not, most kindergarten teachers would be happy to provide guidance on determining readiness for upcoming children.  Conversations with the schools and kindergarten teachers also help to determine what students might require additional assistance.  Schools are obligated to provide special assistance to children who might require it, so you shouldn’t be surprised if you find that special needs children are in the class along with the adult aide.

Perhaps the key difference between your kindergarten experience and your child’s is due to the No Child Left Behind legislation.  Kindergarten is no longer viewed as an almost free-standing experience prior to the beginning of the "real" school of first grade, but instead as a gateway to school.  Consequently, there is a greater emphasis placed upon reading preparation, writing and numbers than in the past and your prospective kindergartener will be expected to master more than would have been expected of you. 

As the months pass and September approaches, there are things that you can do to help prepare her for the big day.  Certainly, talk to her repeatedly and positively to help alleviate her concerns.  Take her to play at the school’s playground in the evening  or on the weekend so that she can become familiar and comfortable with the school.  If the school has any summer activities for the incoming kindergarteners, make it a point to attend so she can meet her new classmates and teacher.  More school districts are starting brief on-site  programs for preschoolers – such as school library story times – and if you have the opportunity to take her, attend one so that she can see what the inside of the school looks like.  Likewise, spend more time working with her on her fine motor skills with such play activities as modeling with Play-doh, coloring with crayons, using connect-the-dot pictures and cutting with scissors.

She’s entering a new world and you should understand that she’s not going to be the only one learning as the year progresses.  While you might be nervous, as I was, know that there’s considerable expert assistance to help your child adjust and have a great year.

Thanks, John.