Sundays at our house are generally pretty lazy — I spend several hours with the newspaper (and the NY Times crossword) and try to stay unplugged for most of the day. Sometimes, however, there’s something in the papers that gets me worked up — and today it’s two articles. The first, in the Chronicle’s Sunday Magazine, about anxious parents paying up to $400 an hour to “take the stress out of kindergarten admissions” deserves no further comment (except to point out that Parents for Public Schools-San Francisco, which provides a similar service for free, has clearly missed the boat!). I have more to say about the piece in the Chronicle’s Bay Area section about the Alta Vista School, a new private school opening up in the Mission District founded by Abdur Chowdhury, the chief scientist at Twitter:
(H)e decided he wanted his daughter to go to a school that encouraged her nightly desire to conduct science experiments on the kitchen counter, a fun place where art and math flourished in small classes. He couldn’t find that school, so the scientist decided he wanted to create one. [. . .]
Math, science and art will be an integral part of the school “every day in everything we do,” said Head of School Ed Walters, who Chowdhury recruited from his daughter’s former school in the city, Marin Day Schools.
An “adventure coordinator” will incorporate curriculum into field trips across the city.
The plan is to have a school with all those things – smaller class sizes, field trips, art every day, science experiments, Spanish language immersion on the playground – Chowdhury and the other families had hoped to find in their local public schools.
They looked and despite volunteering and donating to city schools, they decided to forge their own way.
“I don’t know if I have enough energy to move that mountain,” he said of the needs at the public school near his Potrero Hill home.
Let me first acknowledge that Mr. Chowdhury has every right to do what he thinks is best for his child(ren), and to bring the resources he personally has to bear on the task of creating the educational environment he wants. But it breaks my heart to see all of these resources and creativity and energy going to building something new (and — let’s be honest– out of reach of most San Francisco families) because “moving the mountain” of public schools seems too large a task.
Here’s the scenario: deciding that public education is too chaotic, too complex, too encumbered by conflicting interests and a byzantine finance system, well-meaning and well-heeled parents throw up their hands and opt out. I think this phenomenon results from the expectation that access and resources should bring you a measure of extra control over the educational environment of your child. What is overlooked is the effect that opting out has on everyone else.
The analogy that comes to mind for me is a sandbox in a public park. Sometimes you find safety hazards like cigarette butts or broken glass in the sand; other times there might be another child there whose caregiver lets him or her take toys away from other kids or throw sand. This isn’t the optimal environment you want for your child, so you have a few choices (most of which are not mutually-exclusive):
- Sponsor a weekly “park clean up” group with your neighbors to keep the sandbox clean and safe for everyone;
- Start an advocacy group with other parents to convince your city government to better maintain the park and lock it up at night;
- Raise money for your advocacy group to fund park improvements and maintenance;
- Voice concern to the other child’s caregiver or shoot disapproving looks in his or her direction;
- Have a conversation with your child about what to do when someone else’s behavior is upsetting;
- Build your own sandbox in your backyard and invite well-behaved kids over to play.
Choices 1 - 5 are probably familiar to anyone who has encountered a problem at their public school and tried to work with the system to solve it. Fixing these problems — whether it’s a safety issue, an instruction or staff issue, or an issue with another child — takes time and effort, and lots of listening to and working with other people who may or may not be in agreement with you. Working “with the system” means finding common ground; following policies and procedures; completing paperwork and waiting for a response that may never come. It’s frustrating and at times fruitless. Most often, however, it results in a better environment for everyone. Building your own sandbox and controlling who has access perhaps makes things a lot better for a few children, but leaves the rest behind.
All over San Francisco (especially in Potrero Hill, at schools like Starr King and Daniel Webster!) we have families who are opting in to create a system that works better for everyone, but it’s a work in progress. Sometimes that work isn’t finished before your child moves on, so someone else’s child benefits most from your family’s investment. In the end, though, our city is enriched by that investment.
There are so many “heavy lifts” in making our educational system better for everyone: adequately funding all schools; making sure there are enough highly-qualified teachers for all classrooms; providing classrooms that are well-equipped and buildings that are well maintained; and updating curriculum so that it is rich, relevant and aligned with 21st century expectations. I don’t know how to make those burdens lighter, other than taking my position as a school board member seriously and working every day to make the system better in that capacity. What I do know is that little by little, if everyone brings what they can to the effort and does what they can to move the system forward, we will get better. I wish Mr. Chowdhury luck in his “opt-out” strategy — if it doesn’t work out, we’ll still be here, eager to welcome him, his creativity and his dollars back.
In the comments, tell me what you’re doing to make the “heavy lift” a bit lighter.