Parental homework isn't enough | Derek Jennings | Indy Week
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Parental homework isn't enough 

Some things in life are just a whole lot harder than they seem. Being an active and involved parent of school-aged children has got to be near the top of that list.

Before we had kids, and before our children were school-aged, my wife and I were probably as likely as the next folks to join the chorus of "Where are the parents?" when reading articles or watching a news coverage decrying the bleak state of public education, declining test scores, etcetera. Surely, we thought, it was just a matter of telling the kids to do their homework, providing them with a solid academic and social foundation, and being visible and active in their schools. Piece of cake, right?

Sometimes that piece of cake is almost more than we can chew. That's not a complaint. Just a realization. With my eldest daughter in middle school, my three sons (no sitcom) in elementary school, and my 2-year-old daughter talking and threatening to start school any minute, I've developed a much deeper appreciation of just what is involved.

We've been blessed in that our kids do very well academically. Even our foster son, who didn't benefit from growing up in a household where he was read to constantly and intellectually stimulated, has made tremendous strides in the few short months that he's been with us, and even more so since the school year started. He has a natural thirst for knowledge and a desire to please. Despite having started off somewhat behind, after his first quarter conference, we learned that he has more than halfway satisfied his year-end requirements in reading, where he had the most difficulty. He's on a pace to finish his first year of school above grade level.

Still, even with kids who do well in school, there are significant challenges. My oldest two have already come home with work that has mom and dad scratching their heads and really having to think when helping them. Its not at all uncommon for my second-grader to come home with assignments that require him to research information on the Internet, and that's a given for his older brother and sister. Now, I can Google my behind off, and, being employed as a geek, have tricked my kids into understanding and enjoying working on the computer. But whenever they come home with those kinds of assignments I can only imagine the hardship of those parents and students who don't have computers in the home. We ask my daughter, the middle-schooler, what her peers who don't have computers do in these circumstances. She replies that they must either get to school early, stay late, or rush to complete their work during classroom time.

Now there's a classic Catch-66: 22 for the school system, 22 for the student, and 22 for the parents. The schools have to teach technology, or else they risk leaving their students unprepared for the 21st century work force, and yet, by doing so, they potentially disadvantage the students most in need of that preparation. For parents, particularly the working poor, who tend to hold down jobs with rigid work schedules, and for whom transportation can be an issue, regularly breaking the routine to give your kid time to do computer homework has to be beyond a hassle. And for the kids, I'm sure there must be some stigma to having to use the computer lab in school at odd times because your family doesn't own one, and considerable pressure to rush through work that you don't understand just for the sake of completing it during school hours and not having to inconvenience mom or dad.

My wife has now been a "stay-at-home-mom" for the last two years, although that's a major misnomer. Her calendar is more busy now, between the kids' school, extracurricular activities, church and community involvement, than when she was working 60 hour weeks as a manager in corporate America, responsible for multi-millions of other people's money. Again, it's a blessing that we're financially able to have our children be the primary benefactors of her energies. Even with her being "home," however, the pace and demands of parenting are daunting.

A good deal of her time is spent playing taxi. My 11-year-old daughter standing outside on the corner at six-something in the morning? Ain't happening. We're just not feeling the "send her out there and hope for the best" routine. Particularly when my wife tells me that she's spotted an older middle school-aged boy from the next development over, walking around at 7 a.m. drinking from a beer bottle.

For our boys, there's about a 20-30 minute ride in the van to and from their school, depending upon traffic. That part of the hectic routine is self-inflicted. The year before last, we moved all of our kids from the school across the street to a magnet elementary school that we thought would serve their academic, social and creative needs much better than their base school had been.

That was no minor undertaking. I have always had, let's say, significant reservations about the philosophical underpinning of magnet schools: Essentially, the school system provides "extras" to the curricula of a school where there is an imbalance, or a higher than desired proportion of (insert black, Hispanic or other nonwhite) children. The idea is that these enhanced offerings would "attract" (hence the "magnetic" allusion) white students from outlying areas, reducing the imbalance. The goal, here, is integration, or, in modern parlance, diversity.

Let me state, categorically, that I am in favor of diversity, and think that there are significant benefits to be reaped by everyone from the exposure to students and teachers from a variety of racial, social, and economic backgrounds. What rankles me, however, is that while the schools valiantly attempt to achieve balance, the root causes--the most significant contributing factors to imbalance--are almost completely out of their control.

We are becoming increasingly segregated economically, and consequently, residentially, trumping the best intentions of our beleaguered school systems that bear the burden of diversifying American society almost single-handedly. The existence of "white flight" (or the expanding suburban universe theory) brings with it a reality--that people with the means are moving outward.

Within the magnet idea, I detect a backhanded, even if unintentional insult--the creative and rigorous curricular perquisites provided by these schools are only available to the extent that the school board is attempting to attract white students to majority non-white districts. More pointedly, if the school were all-black, or all-Hispanic, with no hope of attracting a solitary white student, due to economic and geographic segregation, would it still be worthy of a magnet curriculum? Nonetheless, I tabled my cynicism, while looking for a new school for my children. This may not have been necessarily set up for "us," I reasoned, but we had every right to take advantage of it... we do pay taxes, after all.

Long before my oldest child had even entered school, my wife and I had kept our ears open, learning about the school system and its ins and outs little by little as the years passed. What we had heard was not too encouraging. Conversations with teachers in magnet and AG (academically gifted) schools painted a somewhat bleak picture, one in which there were sharp distinctions between the magnet and base populations, promulgating a modernized "separate but equal" situation, in which the children who were bused in to "magnetize" the school would go down one hallway while the base population would go down another, and rarely the twain should meet.

That was particularly troubling to us. Based upon our values and academic pasts, we had reason to assume that our children would be the ones making the right turn down the hallway, reaping whatever magnetic goodies that awaited the progeny of active and attentive parents. But having our children be "special" was not good enough for us. (As a black man, I can say that this is almost a detriment, as it sets the stage for unnecessary future peer group conflict).

After making the rounds at the Wake County Magnet School Fair, and several schools' open houses, we came to what was, for us, an obvious choice. The school we chose had AG studies available, a strong arts program, practical inclusion of technology, foreign languages, cultural studies and a theme of social responsibility in its curriculum. Even more, it offered a vast array of electives, which allow the teachers to exercise their creativity and give children a sense of control over their education. More important than any of that, though, was the fact that there was no distinction made between the magnet and base populations--all the children got the goodies.

Ever since we enrolled, we've literally worn out our friends' and relatives' ears, raving about the school, and how, with all it had to offer, that it should be a model for all public education. My wife became an officer in the PTA and a regular volunteer. While I couldn't be there as often as I'd have liked, I managed to spend a good amount of time in my kids' classes, accompany them on field trips, develop a rapport with their teachers. Picking that school and seeing our kids flourish there made us feel, despite the sacrifices, that we were doing pretty good at the educational part of this parenting thing.

So much so that the annual and incessant Wake County school drama was mostly background noise to us. We remained surrounded by it, to be sure. Our neighbors up the street have two daughters who should be in high school together, but have different base school assignments. Another girl we knew was reassigned out of her high school while halfway through.

Despite all that, there was no need for our family to be overly worried about neighborhood schools and reassignment, we surmised, since we'd taken things into our own hands and opted out of our neighborhood schools while exercising this wonderful parental "choice" that right-wingers always want to talk about but never want to fund.

Well, that was the idea. It was good while it lasted, I guess. When school began this year, we found out that our kids' principal was leaving and that the magnet theme would be changed. "What part of the game is this?" we thought. After all of our deliberation over what school to choose, and having done so on the strength of that school's particular magnet theme, we were told during the year's first PTA meeting that the theme could and would be changed (this in the face of very vocal and heartfelt parental opposition). As it turns out, magnet schools are funded largely through federal grants that must be re-applied for periodically, every three years or so. They can be changed. Or they can fail to be renewed. The parents were told that there was a dedicated group of teachers and administrators working feverishly on writing the new grant application, the new theme, and that we had to trust that they would stay true to the spirit of the school which we were all so heavily invested in.

And if that weren't enough uncertainty clouding our children's immediate academic future, I just found out, while out of town on business, that another item on the table being considered for the school is a modified school calendar. If our school converts to a year-round curriculum, we'll have the headache of ensuring that our boys are all on the same track, and reconciling the certain conflict with my daughters' traditional calendar school year. In practical terms, this means that when the boys are on a break, they'll be staying up later, and we'll have to work extra hard to keep some semblance of peace and quiet during my daughter's homework time (since they won't have any to keep them busy).

That's just an inconvenience, though, compared to what the impact will be to other families. I can't imagine, for example, the burden that will be felt by parents trying to secure daycare arrangements for their children for three weeks at a time. Nor the fates of those so pissed off by the whole thing that they opt out (what if, for example, you no longer find your "de-magnetized" school suitable, but your base school is already severely overcrowded). The frustrating thing is that I feel like I'm in the dark, even though my wife is on the PTA board. How much more involved can you get than that? In a couple of months time we've gone from active participants in our kids' education, cheerleaders for their school, and strong advocates for the public school system to feeling just as jerked around as those folks who wake up and find that their kids are zoned for a different school from their neighbors.

Things are not making a lot of sense from where I sit. It's supremely tempting to go to the school board meetings and verbally blast some folks, like I always see on the news around reassignment time. But, as with parenting, I get the feeling that the school board thing isn't anywhere as easy or simple as it seems from the outside. I don't think they'd be stupid enough to go out of their way to intentionally vex a couple hundred of their happiest customers. They're trying desperately to meet the ABC's, Goal 2008, No Child Left Behind, and avoid following in the footsteps of Charlotte-Mecklenberg. To get to the bottom of these problems would take more than sitting in on school board meetings. One also would have to be a constant presence at county commissioners' meetings, and pepper them with questions about what they are doing to promote sane growth policies which do not overly favor real estate developers at the expense of creating an overcrowded and ever far-flung school district. And then, one would also have to camp out at the legislature, to insist that funding be provided to keep up with the needs of our burgeoning student population.

That's a lot of work, and a lot of time. And I can't lie, it's certainly beyond my wife's and my abilities to pick up on top of our existing commitments and interests. Although we'll do what we can, that level of involvement is as far out of our reach as some of the things that we are fortunate enough to do in our kid's schools are out of the reach of single parents who have to punch a timeclock every day. Suffice it to say, we don't chime in on those "where are the parents?" comments anymore. EndBlock

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