11 Aug 2010

Hope or Hold Your Breath?

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When I first moved to the Hill I never dreamed of baby boom the neighborhood has experienced in recent years. I specifically remember thinking, “Well, I hear there’s a kinda crunchy Montessori program right around the block at Watkins but I better start saving now for private school if I want to have kids and stay in the city.” Parenthood was a long way off, and an abstract. And then, gradually, backyard bbq talk turned from shows at the Black Cat to day care providers – and I knew the moving trucks were on the way and the parade of friends moving to the suburbs began. Now, more and more young families are staying put and dinner party conversations have evolved from where to find shin guards for 3 year olds to playing the roulette wheel of school lotteries. These parents have traded in the cul de sac for City Select joggers and for many, the time they’d otherwise have spent in suburban traffic, they’ve dedicated to trying to transform local schools. I’ll soon join the constituency looking for changing tables in local restaurants, but the issue has been of interest for a long time. The implications of families staying and investing in all aspects of the neighborhood are multi-fold and go far beyond the parks,  libraries and schools where the rugrats hang out.

Sadly, it’s not often I feel optimistic about education; I’m married to a teacher who amazes me with his ability to get excited to teach day after day in the midst of discipline issues and what seems to be a void of parental and administrative leadership. But what I’m hearing here on the Hill does give me a glimmer of optimism.  Since the presentation “Building on Momentum” hosted by DCPS to the community on July 29, it seems people — ok, probably mostly parents — are excited.

Plans to expand Watkins’ Montessori program through 5th grade and relocate it to the Logan School at 215 G Street, NE means the infamous waiting lists might be a little less dire in coming years. A strategy to implement an International Baccalaureate Middle Years program at Jefferson and Eliot-Hine middle schools makes parents with mathletes on their hands more optimistic that their kids will be challenged. The promise of language classes for all middle schoolers with the chance for kids to earn high school credits has moms and dads thinking our local schools just might be the place to start building out the school transcript for the college admissions counselors.

These and the other issues of boundaries, feeder schools and grade configurations have been all the chatter for the last few weeks, and Hill residents, with and without kids owe the Capitol Hill Public School Parent Organization a debt.  This group has been working tirelessly to get the concerns of Hill parents on the radar of schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and while they celebrate the recent announcements, the parent activists seem poised to push the city to deliver more than lip service for the plan that promises a “rigorous” academic program.  Is it me, or does that expression make you wince? The presentation is quite a read, chock full of talk of talk of blitzes, modernization, interventions, educators for social responsibility and full service schools.

I’m left with a lot of questions, and am more than a little curious (and invested) about how this is all going to play out in the next few years. Is it reasonable for parents to get excited, or, should they continue to hold their breath? Doesn’t the success or failure of such a grand academic plan have implications for neighbors without children? Would the robust and economic health of the neighborhood be what it is today were it not for the gradual improvement of the local public schools? How many of the new businesses we’ve all come to take for granted could stay afloat without the parental set flocking to them,  navigating cumbersome strollers while they’re at it?

The vast majority of Gray and Fenty signs on my street are in front of houses with strollers on the porch. For how many of these families will the mayoral elections serve as a litmus test of support for or displeasure with Chancellor Rhee and her style and policies that have brought her to national attention? The question is, what’s it going to take for middle schools to win and keep parent’s enthusiasm as the programs at the elementary level have?

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5 responses to “Hope or Hold Your Breath?”

  1. anon says:

    I just cut out a long emotional vent based on other things you said and will go with the middle school question. A lot of the improvements at my son’s elementary school have been on the back of involved parents. There have been ups and downs and without some really committed parents who came before me all those gains and programs would be gone. A change in principals or administrations could wash that all a way.

    Middle school will gain my enthusiasm and commitment when I see that DCPS is making improvements to the school that aren’t on the back of involved and committed parents.

    Capitol Hill parents have done fabulous and impressive work in the areas of outdoor classrooms/school greening/food issues. But there are structural areas that we really can’t do much about. Staffing comes to mind – and in particular aides and how they are or aren’t trained to deal with child development. The way the bureaucracy drives out good people. High turnover. Etc. I can ride that out in elementary school and embrace the community of the school created by teachers and parents and other staff who are there long term or put their hearts in it. But, that’s because I fundamentally believe that the early years are about learning social skills and reading and that I read well so I can carry my son through.

    I can’t make that gamble for middle school, the stakes are higher and I can’t carry him through.

    I have great respect, admiration, and gratitude toward the people involved in the middle school initiative. I feel a little guilty that at this point in my life I can’t get more involved with that – I’m already vested enough in my son’s school that it’s hard to make objective decissions. I am a little concerned that DCPS presentation in response to those parents leans towards being all things to all people. I’d like to see the IB curriculum in place. I wonder more about what this social responsibility for teachers thing is but if it engages the students, that’s probably a good thing.

    I wish I could say what the thing that DCPS does that gives me faith is. The reports that came out are a first step, but it’s kind of like reading a brochure about a great vacation. How are we going to get there?

  2. Sandra says:

    Kate – thank you for writing about this. I think many parents are feeling cautiously excited about the middle school plan. I’m on the giddily (is that a word?) excited camp, but I am ever the optimist… I think ‘anon’ is right that a lot of the heavy lifting feels like it’s been done by the parents/community.

    My colleagues from MoCo or Fairfax Co (FACO?) often ask why parents would need to be so deeply involved in the day to day of DCPS. I’m guessing that if we weren’t, than the schools would probably improve on their own. But I’m also guessing these improvements would have taken A LOT longer and by then, our neighbors (and very likely ourselves) would have packed up and moved. I’m in awe of the explosion of success in Capitol Hill elementary schools and while things could always be better, the fact that there are waiting lists, engaged parent communities, and excitement at just about every school gives me faith that families are staying. The thing is that we are not a patient society (myself included) and we want to see things working now. Without parent intervention, I just don’t see how things would get done (quicklyish) if every issue were up to DCPS to resolve.

    Like ‘anon’, I look forward to a time when parents can relax a little. Not sure when this will be. However, I hope we never relax so much that we lose the amazing engagement and community feel that has developed in our schools.

    Speaking of engagement – each middle school is putting together a School Collaboration team will form for each middle school to implement the above plan. These teams are made up of reps from all feeder elementary schools, as well as the middle school – contact your principal by September 10, 2010 if you are interested in joining your designated middle school’s team.

    On a housekeeping note – I’d like to clarify that the jury is still out on whether Montessori will go through 5th or 8th grade. This to be decided by Jan 20 by the Montessori school committee/DCPS.

    Thanks again Kate and THIH.

  3. Marcus says:

    While we wait to see how this turns out some folks may assume private schools are more expensive than they actually are. It’s worth checking out Capitol Hill Day School and others before jumping to that conclusion.

  4. Awads says:

    marcus, are you serious? last i checked CHDS was around $20K a year. i think that’s more than i paid for an entire 4-year college education, though i went to a lowly state school. still, i can’t see blowing my kid’s college wad on middle school.

  5. Kim says:

    I’m with Awads on this one! I just checked and it’s actually $25,000/year for middle school students. That’s what my college cost yearly for tuition and room and board. (Although, in the five years since I’ve graduated, the cost has shot up to nearly $40,000, but that’s another discussion entirely.) I mean, if you have the money to spend or prefer to spend your kids there (or if you see it as the only viable option), all the more power to you! But, I doubt a lot of people “jump to the conclusion” that it’s much more than $25,000/year!

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