Friday, October 13, 2006

Public School Parent

by Meryl Neiman

I left the practice of law to raise my children and write. Little did I know that the job of public school parent is almost as time consuming as the law.

My son began kindergarden and my daughter pre-K at a public Montessori school. I knew that the school had moved to a bad neighborhood in order to expand, but I didn't think my chidren would be in danger in the middle of the day. The school got off to a rocky start because the new teachers at the school were not montessori trained and lacked any montessori materials. This struck me as crazy so I began pushing the school district to provide training and materials. A few weeks into the school year, the dynamic, wonderful principal of the school was brutally murdered by her husband. The same woman who had turned my son upside down and tickled his tears away was gone. Meanwhile, gunshots were going off during the day and people were being killed not far from the school.

One day my son came home and announced he was worried about his coat. When I asked why, he explained that when they blew three short whistles at recess, he was to run to the nearest door to get into the school and leave his coat outside. That was it. My little kids weren't going to go to a school where they had to have gunshot avoidance drills. We pulled our children from the school.

Still wedded to the public school experience, we transferred my son to another city elementary school (that, in itself, was not without its travails -- but that's a story for another day). We loved the principal, the teachers, the program. All seemed good. In fact, the school was evolving into a K - 8. Even better, we would avoid the dreaded middle school problem.

But then there was the small matter of the size of the school. The district expanded the school, but hadn't fully committed to the addition necessary to house those extra children. We had kids in trailers (learning cottages, as the principal fondly called them), Spanish being taught off of carts, and a gym and cafeteria that were grossly inadequate. It was basic math. Add children to building -- need to add more classrooms. But, apparently, the school board wasn't as committed to basic math as they were to other political issues. Once again, I felt compelled to act and devoted much of last year to ensuring that the school district and the city moved the project forward.

This year, with the addition behind me, I focused on my true passion -- converting the barren asphalt lot behind the school into a playground and sports field. It was a huge endeavor, but motivated and talented parents began emerging from the woodwork to help out. One woman wrote a kick-ass letter to foundations, another spearheaded solicitation lists, etc. etc. All was going well.

Meanwhile, Monday morning was the official groundbreaking ceremony for the addition. I was asked to speak on behalf of the parents. I was to receive my golden shovel and hard hat in honor of the occasion. I decided not to attend. Sunday night I received a letter from the superintendent that suggested that the school district was going to make it onerous for us to donate a $175,000 playground to the school. Our virtually maintenance free playground would require a PTO funded maintenance program of about $25,000 a year. I couldn't stomach smiling nicely at these people who made my life miserable the year before and now apparently intended to do it again.

Yesterday's message from the district is that it was all a misunderstanding. I'm not sure. What I am sure of, however, is that being a public school parent is a full time job.

In case you're wondering, another parent picked up my golden shovel and my hard hat. The shovel is propped against the wall of my living room. Come by and check it out. That's my full payment for a year's worth of work.

9 comments:

mary alice said...

Meryl,
It is so-o-o-o-o worth it in the long run. Our kids, in this same district, got mucho college credits for International Baccalauriat and AP courses. In addition, they were the floor trainers at American, Sarah lawrence and Georgetown in parallel parking, use on public transportation and on street savvy.

Thanks for your efforts on behalf of all city school supporters!

mary alice

Joyce said...

I feel for you, Meryl! My youngest graduated in June from public school and it was, at times, a full time job, especially elementary school. The school district is lucky to have someone as dedicated as you are!

Nancy said...

My daughter Cassie attended an Ivy League college & was struck by how well she could compete with her many east coast prep school classmates---all because she attended a public school where parents, teachers, administrators and students worked really hard to create a quality school district. You're doing great work Meryl. Who knew parents needed to be so hands-on?? Don't give up the fight!

Working Stiffs said...

Thanks for your support everyone! I'm a product of public schools myself, but I grew up in suburban New York and my parents didn't face the same challenges.

I know it's wroth the struggle. My kids are seeing the world as it really is, with children of all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and learning abilities. You just can't find that in private school.

Rebecca Drake said...

The school district is so lucky to have you, Meryl! We couldn't do the public school route because we were in the process of moving back to the city, and didn't have an address yet, when our son started school.

We chose a well-respected parochial school with the same socioeconomic, ethnic and racial diversity as the surrounding public schools and have been engaged in the same struggles to make the school the best it can be.

Involved parents are the life-blood of any school--something that the people in the top strata of every school district would do well to remember.

Kristine said...

My hat goes off to you, Meryl. Your hard work will make the public schools a better place for our children.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

How weird that you posted this on the same day that I got a phone call: my kid essentially got beat up at recess. The kid who instigated it got in-school suspension (he's in either first or second grade; not sure which but apparently has ongoing issues). The other kid involved was disciplined, but this was his first offense, so to speak.

Which brings me to this point: it's worth fighting for a better school. I can't say how any other district would have dealt with this, but I'm quite comfortable and pleased with the outcome, at least thus far. They did more than talk the talk today; they acted to protect my son. They are working with the troubled kid, and there will be extra attention paid to the other kid, too, so that he doesn't follow his new not-so-great friend.

If your PFA now needs to raise a bunch of money, Meryl, look into Prepaid Shopping Cards. I'll get you in touch with our people, if you need me to. One of the easiest, most convenient ways to raise money that I've ever seen.

Keep on fighting the good fight. Remember who you're fighting for.

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