Back to school | Derek Jennings | Indy Week
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Back to school 

Much as it was when I was a child, the summers still seem to fly by--the lazy, hazy days have yet again slipped through my hands like hot sand. I gaze at my now-empty palms, wondering what happened to all the time I thought I'd had on my hands, only scant weeks ago.

To be sure, my summers are now vicariously lived through my children. As such, I don't find myself lamenting not having built a fort or a robot, or indulging in a likewise grandiose adventure. Nonetheless the demands of the modern school year very much make summers a welcome and needed respite for harried parents. Well, that is, if your children are on a traditional calendar. Thankfully, ours still are, and will be, at least through the end of the 2006 school year, since Wake County Schools have ditched a controversial year-round school plan to remedy school overcrowding and under-funding in the face of significant public opposition.

We moved to a new house a month ago, and that means a new elementary school for our younger children. It will certainly take some adjustment for all of us. My wife was the PTA president of our former elementary school--we knew the staff very well and had a familiar and familial working relationship. Now we have to start from scratch. Amid the flurry of back-to-school activities, my wife and I will have to meet and build relationships with a whole new set of teachers and administrators.

That task has an added urgency for me, since one of the sundry summer to-dos of mine that went unaccomplished was "to plan and strategize to be a more effective advocate for the children and the schools." Last year, I worked some as a PTA legislative rep and, in that capacity, served on a countywide committee to help shape the PTA's legislative agenda. In the meetings we had, there were a range of individual concerns, but careful analysis revealed almost all of them to be rooted in the issue of school funding (or, rather, the lack thereof).

We resolved, therefore, to do more to educate the public--for instance, to make them aware that the county commissioners, and not the school board, hold the purse strings. We also resolved to let our fellow parents and concerned citizens know that the heart of the funding problems in the county was the inability of the schools to keep up with the relentless population growth we've experienced for over a decade. The relatively low tax rate makes it hard enough to keep up with "steady-state" expenses for education, but by definition, the addition of new students is a non-steady-state activity and requires up-front funds for construction of new classrooms and hiring new teachers. And since our county is ruled by real estate developers, who can basically put up housing tracts anywhere they want without regard for whether adequate educational infrastructure exists, the school administration perennially plays catch up. Failure to understand this fundamental problem can result in a lot of wasted time and misplaced ire on the part of those who would see improvement.

But, like I said, I didn't get a chance to work on any of that this summer, so I head into the first days of school feeling like the kid who forgot his times-tables over the break. At least I had the opportunity, though. Even less than the kids who attend year-round school, the school administrators and policy makers have had no time for a breather this summer. In addition to the aforementioned postponement of the plan to convert more schools to the year-round calendar (as a fairly desperate attempt to homebrew a solution to overcrowding), there have been a number of other issues on the table. The Remedial Math Tax (i.e., the proposed North Carolina State Lottery) was dealt another setback on Aug. 13, as Gov. Easley and his allies could not muster the required votes for it to pass in the state Senate. And since we know they won't pass a real tax, this means that, yet again, local school systems will be asked to make sizeable cuts.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners is again considering a bond issue--this time of up to $41 million (or two-thirds of a projected $63 million shortfall)--for school construction.

In the Dubois case, a very vocal minority of irate parents continue their battle against the school system, sparked by the reassignment of some well-to-do (and, coincidentally, white) students to a mobile school located in a not-so-well-to-do (and, coincidentally, black) neighborhood. Although a Superior Court judge recently threw out their lawsuit, they continue to press on, joining forces with a broader group of citizens long critical of Wake County's school assignment processes. The county's schools have garnered national acclaim, including the selection of Superintendent Bill McNeal as National Superintendent of the Year in 2004, due to their creativity in addressing major overcrowding issues while promoting diversity and improving academic performance. Nonetheless, this year's school board elections on Oct. 11 are shaping up to be a showdown, as many school system critics have declared their candidacy and are on the move.

One only hopes that this does not turn out like the fiasco of the Newt disciples who took over the previously non-partisan Board of Commissioners almost 10 years ago. They didn't have much of an agenda besides enacting sweeping tax cuts for tax cuts' sake, and set the stage for our current, perpetual school under-funding issues.

On one of the few positive notes, Wake County did very well, meeting 90 percent of its No Child Left Behind targets. That at least spares the system the insult to injury of having its public funds privatized. Still, a myriad of other issues remain for the upcoming year, including one dear to me, the bridging of the achievement gap. In addition to the general obligation I feel to advocate for children, I feel a particular responsibility to positively impact the classroom (and life) performance of black children. And that is a fight that must be fought on multiple fronts: individually, institutionally and communally. To that end, I have to be visible in my kids' and their peers' classrooms. And more importantly, I need to convince many, many others to do the same. Amway activism.

A local group, the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children ( is urging all men, particularly all black men, to take their child to school on the first day. It's symbolic, but hopefully that first step is followed by staying active in the school, joining the PTA, becoming aware of the issues, and working on behalf of the children and those who have their interests at heart. I can get with that.

As for me, now that it's back to school time (and I've, um, squandered the summer months), I am committing to use all means at my disposal, including my column, to help others stay informed and involved on the various issues surrounding education. If concerned parents can accomplish everything that we need to accomplish this school year, we'll have earned a break by next summer.

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