02 September 2010

Back To School

Last night was "Back To School Night" in many Denver Public Schools, including those of my children. Since our children attend different schools, my wife went to the elementary school and I went to the middle school.

"Back To School Night" is when parents meet their children's teachers, en masse, in their classrooms, and tell the parents what they think they need to know to do their part in the education of their children for the year.

New Expectations

Middle school is a definite break with the elementary school years that came before it. In line with the very big deal that DPS makes about choosing one, one of the teachers described the increased expectations that come with middle school as one of the two biggest jumps of a child's academic career, the other being the move from high school to college. Another explained that the leading cause of academic trouble in middle school is not failing to understand the material, but failing to stay organized enough to turn in all their assignments on time.

Their day is broken into nine different periods with different teachers to whom they migrate all over the school during each day, and their daily schedule is reshuffled several times each year. It could be worse. Some DPS schools have different schedules on alternate days.

After years of blissfully irregular homework assignments in elementary school, the kids now have homework in almost every class, almost every day. These they are expected to do in the afternoon or early evening, as middle school starts at an insanely early hour, and this also necessitates getting middle school kids to bed early. Once extra-curricular activities are considered, and those start to appear with a vengeance in middle school, their actual time actually at home when they aren't eating, sleeping, doing homework, practicing instruments, and doing chores undergoes a serious crunch compared to the previous year.

The Parental Duty To Ride Herd On Tweens

Worse yet, parents must make sure that this happens despite the fact that our middle school children, we were repeatedly advised by their teachers and administrators, will become increasingly surly and sulky. Somehow, we are expected to have some sense of what homework they are supposed to be doing, and to make sure that it happens. We are also expected to know week by week, rather than just at report card time, how their grades are progressing in each class.

Mission number one of "Back To School Night" was to school us in the mystical art of knowing what homework assignments our children are supposed to be doing and what their grades are looking like, despite the fact that we see their teachers far less often, have more teachers to keep track of, and increasingly do not get full and fair reports of the day's events directly from our children.

The art of parenting a middle school kid has apparently been transformed radically since I was a kid, through the gift and curse of technology. There are a multitude of teacher websites, there are e-mail addresses which parents are supposed to use to pose questions to teachers with, there are multiple online newsletters, there is a homework hot line, and there are secure data portals real time class by class assignment by assignment grade information.

When I was in middle school, you could get in trouble for snooping around school computers with personal information about your kid. Now, it is not just permitted, it is one of the basic expectations that schools have for every parent.

There are, of course, lower technology methods of keeping abreast of your middle schooler's progress. Teachers now have their own phones and voice mail accounts. There are paper communications from school, if you can pry them out of the bottom of your child's forty pound knapsack, and we were told when to expect them. Kids are also expected to keep track of these things in their planners, and one of a parent's other duties, these days, is to audit your child's planner regularly.

Dutiful good parents are still, as they always have been, expected to join the PTA (now called the PTSA to include students as well as parents and teachers), participate in school fund raising, impose early bed times, get kid to show up to school on time, and scowl miserably at them when the school calls to say that they have been misbehaving.

Different Faces

There are other differences between middle school and elementary school as well.

The chairs and bathroom fixtures are no longer so diminutive. The (shared) lockers are bigger; they just a little too small to hold a small beer keg.

There is a school "Moustache Club," a charming little counterpart to my days at school when facial hair was strictly forbidden in junior high, although I did have a beard for most of my time in high school and college.

There are only a few familiar faces from the tight group parents and kids you shared the cozy elementary school years with, and back then many of them were from your neighborhood. Middle schools have much larger geographic draws, and in DPS, middle school kids spread out to the four winds unbound by geography. A beginning of the year mental checklist we went through this year failed to identify a single classmate of my child who had gone to the neighborhood middle school, despite the fact that it is a really rather well run school with a go getter principal. Special programs and magnet schools, or departures to private schools and other districts, seem to have absorbed most of my children's peers.

It isn't always possible in the crowd to determine on sight who is a teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a student at the school, or an older sibling. Middle school kids come in an astonishing array of heights have a wide range of physical maturity. Nothing makes you feel old like realizing that you are quite a bit older than some of your children's teachers, or not being sure if that you person next to you is a student, an older sibling or a parent (or step-parent). The older teachers have been their long enough that some of their former students now have middle schoolers of their own and are returning as parents.

Adults charged with shepherding kids through the process often bear no physical resemblance to the children. Families have gotten so jumbled by the time that kids are in middle school, however, that teachers and administrators seem to have given up even trying to play the relationship game, perhaps because they aren't any better at it than anyone else. Any adult who shows up and takes responsibility for a child's well being, whatever the relationship may be, seems to be accepted more or less without question as a welcome source of assistance.

It make sense. Life has gotten more serious. Teachers and administrators have been charged with implementing a new school wide suicide prevention system complete with sessions for every sixth grader whose parents don't opt out. There isn't time in this hectic world to think about more trivial matters.

Fitting personal needs and differences into the schedule is possible, and the adults who run the show seem to be masters of that art. School calendars turn out to be one of the hot button diversity issues, after decades of being a ministerial and traditional chore, something I first learned in student government in college. Intimidated adults charged with fostering sixth graders at "Back To School Night" didn't have many questions, but a fair share of those that did have questions to be resolved involved managing anticipated days away from school for the Jewish holidays and Muslim religious holiday, Eid, that are this month, both of which were familiar concerns for most of the teachers.

The Politics Of Traffic Control

Another fascinating little twist was the interplay of a little episode regarding local government power. It turns out that having an elementary school and middle school next to each other in a residential neighborhood in an era of school choice, limited budgets for school buses, and highly involved parents, and large apartment complexes near by that allow many students to walk or bike to school, means that pick up and drop off times turn the neighborhood's streets into an absolute zoo. This year, their was a traffic accident involving a child pedestrian early in the school year, the first such accident in years.

Strictly speaking, traffic is the job of the city government and the police force. But, school administrators, while not having any formal power over the matter, have plenty of teachers, administrators and parent volunteers who can be deployed to supervise traffic, an abundance of orange cones from the PE department that they aren't afraid to use for traffic control purposes, and some form of authority over most of the people involved in the problem.

So, post-accident, the middle school principal (apparently, but probably not in fact, unilaterally), basically rerouted the entire neighborhood's traffic patterns at pick up and drop off times, not with new traffic signs or striping or police enforcement, but with new instructions to bus drivers, parents and kids regarding how they were to act, imposed via administrative memo and enforced by the school's army of warm bodies and orange cones. The transformation of the de facto traffic rules happened almost instantaneously, without hearings, public notices or committee votes, and has produced immense traffic calming as a result. The same policies will probably be in place a couple of decades from now, enforced by tradition that will have accumulated in favor of this newly established rule.

Lesser administrators might have simply thrown up their hands in futility, seeing the problem but thinking that they lacked the authority to solve it. But, those kinds of administrators aren't the ones who are put in charge of large urban schools, who act first, and see if anyone complains about it second. Real power has a strong tendency to migrate towards the people who have a need to exercise it to carry out their responsibilities, regardless of how it is formally allocated.

1 comment:

Dave Barnes said...

6-8 grades are THE most important in your child's life.
This is where he/she learns to:
* study
* write
* articulate (should have large
* increase in vocabulary)
what math (versus arithmetic) is
* play sports where not everyone wins
* smoke weed
* drink beer