The “heavy lift” of supporting public schools

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):

  1. Sponsor a weekly “park clean up” group with your neighbors to keep the sandbox clean and safe for everyone;
  2. Start an advocacy group with other parents to convince your city government to better maintain the park and lock it up at night;
  3. Raise money for your advocacy group to fund park improvements and maintenance;
  4. Voice concern to the other child’s caregiver or shoot disapproving looks in his or her direction;
  5. Have a conversation with your child about what to do when someone else’s behavior is upsetting;
  6. 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.

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16 responses to “The “heavy lift” of supporting public schools

  1. Antun Karlovac

    Hi Rachel,

    You called out Potrero Hill schools like Starr King and Daniel Webster in particular as ones where parents are opting-in:

    (especially in Potrero Hill, at schools like Starr King and Daniel Webster!) we have families who are opting in

    I assume that you were talking about the Spanish Immersion program at Daniel Webster and the Mandarin Immersion program at Starr King. I doubt very much that you were referring to the General Education programs at those two schools.

    I live a couple of blocks from Daniel Webster school, and my 4-year-old will be entering kindergarden in 2011. I know parents whose children are at the preschool attached to Daniel Webster, and they are keen to have their children attend the Spanish Immersion program there. We’ve already toured the school, and liked what we saw.

    However, we have no idea whether our child will be even be entitled to attend the Spanish Immersion program at this school. We won’t know until SFUSD announces whether the program will be a citywide program – rumors suggest that it will – on August 18th.

    The fact is, that for us, getting our son into a good public school in SF does seem like moving a mountain; there’s nothing that we can do to actually move the mountain, short of hoping for an earthquake to do so at the very moment we we lean against it. The fate of our child will (most likely) lie in some opaque lottery system we have no influence over.

    -Antun

  2. public education in India, according to Wiki, focuses on primary education but critics say it’s a system based on rote learning…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_India#Primary_education

  3. RE: “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.”

    It’s a nice idea, but most families are not willing to sacrifice their own children’s education in the hopes that maybe someday the school system will be better. It’s like Muni — how many years have we been talking about fixing Muni? And after all that talk, they cut service and raise fares.

  4. I’m sort of a fact-checking nerd when it comes to things like claims about the superiority of other nations’ educational systems, except that in this case I really don’t have the wherewithal to research India’s educational system today. Does India even have free public education for all, or are we talking about private schools and/or education only for the elite? Based on truly parallel measures, does India genuinely kick our butts in science and engineering?

  5. As an update, I wanted to let everyone know that I had a very cordial email exchange with Mr. Chowdhury today, and he and I are meeting soon to discuss SF education topics. I give him a lot of credit for still wanting to engage after I (kind of) called out his project in public. That wasn’t my intent but this post could have been taken that way. Luckily, he’s much more interested in discussing solutions!

  6. Bernal Mom,
    I more than most people understand your concerns about your child being bored. My son has an eidetic memory and could read anything before he was 2. If your kid is like that, boredom will be an issue at any school, public or private.

  7. Rachel – My guess, just a guess, is that schools in Bombay are doing better because their parents care, are aware of a global economy, and are engaged, like the ones starting Alta Vista. You and I have already been over the parental engagement issue being the main reason for disadvantaged kids. We agree on that. I haven’t steered away from that in my comment.

    I was careful to make note that the ability to focus a child is our issue, and in schools where disadvantaged #s “rule”, attention from a teacher is the “offering.”

    Katy, whatever your personal concern is about my concerns lowering a kid’s IQ was well, a peculiar stretch. Although, if you would like me to brag about my child’s intellect I can do that for you, but since I stay at home with my children, they are considered “advantaged.” I want my child to enjoy education, first and foremost. If he’s bored, he will lose momentum. end of that story.

    I am aware that all 5 year olds are the same – they are all kids and will all catch up in a decent system – but if catching up means holding some back, well, there is a problem.

    The difference is that the middle-class kids are more likely to get their homework done because a daddy or mommy stays home, or someone equivalent. So, those “disadvantaged” kids who come to school having not done their homework get the attention that the kids who need the challenge need. There is the “sacrifice.”

  8. Love this statement, Katy! Being in public school exposes my child to the kind of people who are in the real world that I live in, with the kind of values that I have also. These are the people I want my son to grow up with, not those whose reality is limited by their social circle.

  9. Sending your child to public school is not damaging them or sacrificing them for the benefit of the “disadvantaged”. Middle and upper class kids do well in almost any school they go to. Being around children less advantaged will not make your child “less smart”, it will not lower their IQs. (Where do people get these silly ideas?)

  10. @Bernal Mom, I take issue with the idea that our public schools “sacrifice middle and upper-class children for the disadvantaged.” True, it sometimes feels like a tug of war because there is not enough for all. But really, isn’t it possible for students to learn to be scientists without a full-time “adventure coordinator?” India is kicking our butts when it comes to producing scientists and engineers, and I’ll be willing to bet their schools don’t have full-time adventure coordinators and the like. Actually, I’d really like to see what the typical school in Bombay does in terms of “extras.” Anyway, I’m trying to walk the line between acknowledging that parents have every right to seek out the best educational opportunities for their children, and pay for them if they feel they must, AND saying that perhaps what looks shabby and somewhat chaotic on the outside is still not a bad place for children to learn. At some point, the “what’s the best school for my kid” question becomes about the parent’s values and beliefs and less about the child’s needs.

  11. Unfortunately, I have a similar view to brandon with a son going into public school in just 2 weeks. We all want what is best for SFUSD schools, BUT with kids starting NOW, the pressure to supply a child with an fulfilling, challenging education is immediate. Asking the school’s founder to pour all that money into SFUSD schools is silly. If anything like us, Mr Chowdhurry already pays enough in property taxes to pay for a years private school.

    Although our school has a decent show of hands when it comes to parental support, I am certain it is not enough. There is only so much a small number of parents can do to influence others. It’s a fact you can’t force caring.

    For us, SFUSD kindergarten is an experiment. If we feel our child is not getting the guidance needed to focus, well, we will pull out and look elsewhere. Sacrificing middle, upper class children for the disadvantaged is just as unfair as the other way around.

  12. In response to Brandon’s statement: “You can’t expect people to sacrifice their children on the altar of their politics.”
    Your notion that those of us who send our children to public school are “sacrificing them for our politics” is just plain ignorant.
    The teachers my son has had during his 5 years in public school in SF have been stellar, I’d match my son’s education and his test scores up against any of the private schools around. Oh wait, private schools don’t release their test scores, so there is no way to know how well the kids attending them are doing or not. It’s all hype.
    Parents like you aren’t really interested in quality schooling, you simply want to keep your kids away from other children you don’t want your children to be around.
    You of course, may do whatever you want to, but at least admit WHY you are doing it.

  13. My son’s classroom for next year looked very shabby, so yesterday, my husband and I, along with another child’s parents, and the fantastic teacher (who does not get paid for this extra time) spent all day yesterday painting the classroom. I wish more parents from our class would show up for these work days, but at least some do. In the upper grades, people burn out and stop volunteering; it’s a problem. Anyway – the classroom is starting to look lovely.
    Other parents from other classrooms, and other staff who were also donating their time, rented vans to get free furniture and lockers from Craig’s lists ads, and indeed did do “heavy lifting.”
    Last year, the weekend before school started, over 100 parents showed up to clean up the school and get it ready for the new school year. I hope the turnout will be as good this year. The school building is ugly, but we do the best we can to make it look as nice as possible.
    I suppose I could pay 25K a year to not scrape gum off the floors, but I think having your kid be around families who will scrape gum off the floor, but who cannot afford to pay 25K a year for schooling is important, it is the real world, not a sterile, insulated, warped view of the world and the people in it.

  14. Sandra Halladey

    Love the sandbox analogy
    reposting my comments from fb
    yes this made me think that the sfusd really needs to showcase how parents can be more involved and that when you work for a great public school for your kid it has a huge ripple that makes positive change for so many – these families could really make huge differences in our schools and their kids would have a much healthier outlook on life – they would have an understanding of the commom good and have friends from all walks of life, and they would get a great education. Re julian guthrie article on the $400 an hour school applicant coaches – where was the mention of PPS? we really need some proactive aggressive media around what IS working and how we can all be involved not just a one off campaign – also if the school board behaved a little better ie not using sfusd credit cards for their own use etc maybe folks would have more trust! Thanks for all you do!

  15. Discussion on the blog TheSFKFiles tells us that Alta Vista is being started by families whose children attended another new private school, Marin Prep, for a year; then those families left in dissatisfaction, hiring away Marin Prep’s headmaster. That indicates a pretty high level of turmoil, conflict and stress — for which these families are paying, what, $18K a year? So they suffer through what must have been a terrible year at one private school, and then go through the immense effort of starting their own private school — and they think public school is too problematic for them? Holy ****.

  16. We’re opting in, but the presumption that those who have the means to provide their children with a good education should forego that for the benefit of someone else’s children is ludicrous. In order for the well-to-do to participate in public schools, there’s a fundamental level of quality required, and SF schools are falling below that line. You can’t expect people to sacrifice their children on the altar of their politics.

    To some extent we’re subject to the limitations of Prop 13 and the broken state government, but SFUSD doesn’t do itself any favors with its ridiculously opaque school assignment system which punishes the middle class families who would otherwise form the backbone for the district. The whole system is broken.