One summer afternoon, my wife and I received an email from our son’s charter school teacher. My son was to be in kindergarten in less than a month, but it was only July. Was there a problem? Had we not enrolled properly? Were we denied entry? Perhaps, we hadn’t won the school lottery after all.
No, as luck would have it the call was for none of those reasons. It was just Ms. Morgan calling to let us know that she was so excited our child was in her class. Strange I thought, as my roster was handed to me usually on a Thursday, just days before the kids came in the door for their first day. You see there was a pre-kindergarten playdate at the park. Families were invited to come, to meet one another, have a potluck–to socialize while their children played.
After seven years in the classroom, and never once considering something like it, I hopped in the car and tagged along with my wife and son to the park that Saturday afternoon in August. While the parents around me socialized, occasionally being interrupted to talk to their child and remind them to share, or to use nice words, I sat, stared and googled at a spectacle that felt more like fantasy than real life.
What I saw that afternoon fundamentally changed my teaching, forever. While holding an uneaten plate of potato salad I stared open mouthed at the motion all around me. Parents scheduled new playdates with one another. They discussed programs that they could join in together with their children. They figured out carpools and shared tips about schedules. They bonded with the teacher, in ways that was obvious to the children who she would be serving. And they made friendships, some of which I am still a part of years and years later. Some of these are friendships that have now grown into adult friendships. Ms. Morgan developed a community that afternoon that is still present in our lives years later.
When kindergarten started, my son had numerous friends, we had shared and been shared with numerous resources and ideas and the school felt like a community already. Back to school night featured more “Good to see yous!” than “Nice to meet yous.” The school had created a community of like-minded people. Parents knew the names of children, and children knew the names of parents, many of whom would serve as volunteers.
Returning to my own classroom that year, I arrived early as usual. The week before reporting, as I so often did, I was in my classroom making sure my classroom library was well stocked, and well organized by level, my focus wall was clear, my planning contained strong pieces of text. And as usual, the work day before students arrived, I was handed a sheet of paper with a roster on it. My roster.
My students. Their ID numbers. Their gender. Their first and last name. A mark designated if they had asthma, another if they were second language learners. If my site kept records, I would have samples of their work, and grades and marks from former teachers. I could look into their cumulative folders to find additional details.
Saturday. Sunday, Labor Day Monday and in they came on Tuesday. Every minute counted so we got right to work. Three weeks later, I saw the parents, if they came, to open house held from 5-6:30 in the evening. Due to lack of attendance, our school had long moved to an open forum for back to school night, where parents simply walked in and said hello. Maybe they looked at some work. There was no presentation, no communal moment for parents to meet one another. Three months later, if they came, I would see them at the first parent teacher conference.
That was the last time I accepted my roster on the Thursday before school started.
As this moment of clarity sets in for me, I remember thinking about the functionality of both school experiences being fundamentally different. I remember beginning to see that the form of a school is not always the same as the function of a school. I wish I could say that even then I began to realize that I could empower myself to change that form, and therefore change that function.
But I wasn’t quite there yet.
This was the form of a Title 1 school. It was the new normal for teachers at my site and beyond. What pray tell was the purpose of us being in touch with parents before school started when every living breathing expert with a clipboard was telling us that they had no contribution to the achievement of their own children?
But it wouldn’t take the endless pile of cash thrown at NCLB to address our failure to form bonds with parents anyway. First, we tried to take the school to them.
During the NCLB era we had a fly rumbling in our bellies in Title 1 schools. We tried and spent money. In 2000 for example, I was a part of a group who lobbied at the California State Capitol for monies for the Nell Soto Grant. The grant recognized that parental involvement in Title 1 schools was far less than in other more affluent neighborhoods. How to fix such a thing? The Nell Soto Grant, which I believed was a powerful tool of my teaching, paid me over time to arrange for and visit with parents in their home. The idea was simple. Allow teachers to meet with parents in a safe place, a familiar place, on their turf. In turn, parents would turn out and join in our school community. The results at my site never improved I am sad to say. Owing to the fact, that there did not seem to be a lot of evidence it was working elsewhere either, the program was scrapped. It was a fine attempt to involve parents, and it was well intentioned in a form that just didn’t follow function.
Oh dear. After the Nell Soto Grant we were really in a pickle. Bringing parents to school in our inner city wasn’t working, and sending teachers out into their community with folders full of “fun things to talk about” wasn’t working either. What to do? And then, someone figured it all out! In the form of a veteran teacher who was credentialed and could have been in the classroom teaching children, reducing class size, we moved them out into an office. We gave them top pay and we coined a new super hero of the NCLB era, one that would bring parents and teachers together in a single bound—one that would solve each site’s parental engagement problem.
You see, parents in the inner city just needed something that affluent parents didn’t. All our parents needed was a PAL.
With NCLB at this time pumping money into our Title 1 school, it was suggested, and we approved use of over 100,000 dollars to hire a PAL. These “Parent Academic Liasons” were veteran teachers, credentialed, who would now serve outside the classroom walls, and who would serve as an intermediary, full time, for the parents and the teachers of our school. This person would be responsible for bringing parents into our school communities.
What could go wrong?
There is no official data or qualifier with the money spent on the PAL system in San Diego City Schools during this period. No records, that I could find, were kept of the number of parents and families supposedly transformed by these federally funded dollars.
What I saw with my own two eyes was a group of a dozen or so parents who were here already, and amongst the staff it was regarded as a failure.
How many library books could have been purchased with a single year of a PAL’s salary? How many after school programs could have been funded by the same? We’ll never know.
What I do know is that in my classroom, it didn’t take a PAL. It just took the example of Ms. Morgan.
As of this writing, I have met 25 of my 32 families before school began this year. Each came to my room, after I extended an invitation with plenty of time for them to arrange when they could make it. More than half of my families joined my daughter and I for Library and Ice Cream night, we had 27 families sitting in my classroom simultaneously for a presentation– nearly every child will come to Opera Night next week, and after Ice Skating Night, and Choice Night, and College Night, we usually throw an end of the year barbecue with just about everyone in attendance. For the last three years, I have not had one parent conference unattended although some had to be rescheduled due to conflicts.
After Ms. Morgan, the last day of school in my classroom went from a day when kids couldn’t wait to leave for summer to a tear filled day of excitement, but also of sadness. Students in Room 801 no longer leave the room saying goodbye to fellow pupils, they say goodbye to friends.
Our parents in the inner cities didn’t need PALs, and they didn’t need categorical funding for home visits. They just needed our respect.
The Kitchen is Burning
I would like to propose that in each classroom across America, the original function is still there, like seeds waiting for the right conditions. We teachers want to make a better world, through education. We want to build a caring, resilient society. There is in each of us a Harriet Beecher Stowe, a John Dewey, a John Amos Comenius. Like salmon swimming to their original spawning grounds, we still have in all of something that feels right.
We know when it’s wrong.
And it’s hard to write that the public function of operating a school, beyond the scope of each teacher, has lost sight of this. It saddens me to say that what I have seen is that the original intention and perhaps the enduring legacy of the great American public education system has withered like an artichoke plant down to it’s root. But after my decades here, I feel as though I must. For it is hard to see it’s remains above the soil in the modern era and it’s dangerously invisible in the inner city.
And yet, there, through the dry summers, it rests in the minds and hearts of the teachers who know the battle they will face come fall. In each class, it reaches out once more, grows new foliage and attempts to bear fruit.