As Printed in my blog in the Democrat and Chronicle
I’ve had my fair share of my complaints about Rochester City Schools and the failings of the district. Years of budget cuts and tens of millions of dollars in budget deficits have left most, if not all the schools in our city without many resources and often leave then understaffed and student needs not being met. Teachers are under-appreciated, if not by choice, then certainly because pats on the back don’t come around often enough when kids are failing to meet grade standards in droves. Students aren’t being provided with many adequate materials or even able to get extra support to meet state requirements. Or on the other end of the spectrum able to advance to higher levels simply because advanced or gifted programs aren’t in the budget when over 40% of the school’s students aren’t able to read at grade level; taking any extra resources so gifted children who are already excelling and sitting around bored in a class forced to be taught down the middle aren’t top priority.
Many parents are swamped with their own issues; poverty, single parenthood, lacking resources of their own, many under-educated themselves. Maybe products of a floundering city district themselves, a place where a small percentage of kids graduate as college ready, and an overwhelming number of students don’t even make it to graduation day at all. And if they do make it that far, “extras” like advanced math or foreign languages or AP courses or music and band didn’t make the last round of budget cuts.
Parents are often criticized as being the missing link to urban student’s success. Parent involvement is little to none in many schools. Communication from schools to home suffers and kids are left without guidance when they leave the double doors in the afternoon. There are certainly a handful of impediments to parent involvement in our schools. Neighborhood schools are a thing of the past and some say that this causes schools to lose their “sense of community.” It’s easier for parents to wave goodbye to their kids out the front door as they get on a bus and ride off to a school 20 minutes away than worry about finding a way to get them in the door to a school that’s a mile and a half or even a block away from home. Then when there is a problem, it’s an issue to find a ride across town for a parent teacher conference Another issue is: in today’s age of super security lock down, parents are often not allowed in the building past the front door and might not even meet their child’s teacher all year long. It’s easy to ignore what you don’t see. The other day I saw a man come into our school and drop off something for his child in the front office and he didn’t even know her teacher’s name. For me, that’s unimaginable, for some it just becomes easy.
For the past several months I’ve become very involved with the PTO at my child’s school. I’ve seen and heard probably more than a parent is supposed to. There’s been quite a bit of eye-opening situations. Some of my preconceived notions have proved true; others are things I didn’t even know were happening. There are things I can criticize and things I see that need improvement. But even through all the criticism, through all the things lacking and needing help: I’ve unexpectedly found my sense of community. Something that’s supposedly not anywhere to be found in a city school, but very much there underneath it all. A sense of community doesn’t just happen because you are in close proximity to certain people every day. We aren’t connected to our own next door neighbors without putting in the extra effort of stopping by regularly and making the initiative to get to know them. So to think that a community feel will happen just because you are paired with folks just like you in a closer radius isn’t automatically going to happen anyway. The community is there for you, but you also have to be the one to reach out and grab it.
I’m at the school every day dropping my kids off at their classrooms, then working on a handful of tasks. Collecting fundraiser money, planning events, meeting with teachers or staff, greeting other parents and recruiting them for help with events or personally thanking or inviting them to meetings. I walk through the halls with my kids while the principal greets them by name, teachers give them high fives and complements. My daughter giving hugs to teachers in every grade, my 2-year-old is greeted by staff and recently been called our little mascot. A receptionist plays with my toddler while I count fundraiser money, another parent colors pictures with him while I help pull off a teacher appreciation lunch. I’ve made friends and connections, and yes, in a place where it wasn’t supposed to happen, have found my community. A place that I now have mixed feelings about leaving if we do get accepted into a local charter school that I have applied for unsuccessfully for the past three years. And when you have community you get two things: 1.) Power (because let’s face it, you get special treatment when you have friends in high places and 2.) Extra help/hands (remember it really does take a village).
For several reasons there’s been a tumultuous history of the PTA and then the PTO in our elementary school. This year we have a whole board of fresh blood so to speak; all of us brand new members that have not seen first-hand the problems of the past. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re determined as a team to put our school on the map. We’ve hosted a few fundraisers and events that we’ve been told this school has never seen the likes of. We just held an open meeting where we were told had the highest attendance and was better run and more productive than so many have seen in a very long time. One teacher told me in her 22 years of teaching she had never seen such a crowd, as we filled the library with over 30 people in attendance plus 5 members from the city’s district offices (the big guns). When we recently helped organize an event for Jump Rope For Heart, a representative from the American Heart Association said she had never seen such a well put on event in all the Rochester city schools she has visited. The reason I’m patting myself and our school on the back so much is to say it really is possible to pull off great events and possible to bring community to a city school. No, you’re never going to reach everyone. Not even in a suburb school can you please everyone and eliminate all issues. Things like budget cuts and bullying and poor resources are everywhere. Maybe different issues are seen in Pittsford or Brighton, but I bet they are not without problems and issues of their own. If this entire country wasn’t in dire straits when it comes to education, then we wouldn’t be having the conversation of education reform and falling behind other countries in our standards of education. I went into the group (The PTO) on the first day with ideas about pulling in people to be involved that might otherwise not ever be involved in school functions. To a certain extent, that is still my goal. But a new goal of mine is to make things great without saying they are “good for a city school.” That’s like saying “you throw good for a girl” or that you don’t even have to earn your low expectations, that they are already given unto you as a standard of normalcy. I just want us to be good, not in spite of something terrible, but prove that city schools can be great and can have a strong sense of community, period. We never hear the good stuff that happens in city schools and I can’t even imagine that ours is the only one who can make great things happen with little to nothing at our fingertips. It’s easy to complain about the long list of bad things, not as easy to see the good things that emerge like a diamond in the rough.