1.30.2010

College Scholarships

The Philadelphia Home and School Council General Membership meeting will take place on Tuesday, February 2nd at 6:00pm at 440 North Broad in room 1075.

Patty Conroy, Scholarship Manager of the Community College of Philadelphia will be speaking about college scholarships being offered for the fall 2010 semester.

Danielle Reavis from the CORE of Philadelphia will also be speaking about college opportunities for high school students.

If you have any questions, please call the Home and School Council Office at 215-400-4080.

1.23.2010

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

This week, I've spent a lot of time talking with other parents about discipline inside the classroom: when it makes sense and whether the "punishment" should fit the crime. I have enjoyed hearing other perspectives on this issue, as I think it's a really important part of the educational system that often gets pushed to the back burner.

For what it's worth, I don't have any answers. I'll tell you that up front. At my public school, we were often threatened with a paddling when we missed up. While I'm not an advocate for corporal punishment at all, I will say that it did work. We had the fear of God put in us from those teachers. Similarly, my friends who attended Catholic school don't remember the nuns with rulers fondly but do acknowledge that they were scared to screw up.

This is in clear contrast to my daughter's experience at private school. It was a Quaker school, so clearly there was no corporal punishment (a good thing). And initially, I was really impressed by the conflict resolution at the school - the "talking it out" stick is a great way to get kids to express themselves and talk through conflicts rather than escalate them. But, I quickly learned, that really doesn't prepare them for life outside of the school. My friend, a teacher in a suburban school outside of Philadelphia, agrees. The reality is that, as great an environment as the private school was for my daughter in terms of building some of her skill sets, it really didn't prepare her for life outside of private school: not at the art center in Center City; not at language classes; and not at swimming. It especially didn't prepare her for public school in Philadelphia.

My biggest disappointment this year with public school has been what I consider to be an inconsistent and uneven approach to discipline. Last year, my daughter's teacher had a very similar approach to discipline as me: I feel that, as much as possible, the punishment should be related to the "crime." So, when my daughter's teacher informed me that my daughter had been rude to another teacher, I promptly made her write an apology note - and she had to deliver it to the teacher. I wanted her to learn that her actions (being rude) had an effect on another person (the other teacher) and that she had to acknowledge that action (hence, the note). It worked. To be honest, my daughter isn't good with strangers - and the whole thing kind of freaked her out. But in a good way.

This year, however, disciplinary actions have not been consistent with the "crime." My daughter has been sent to the equivalent of detention - for 2nd graders - for not completing a spelling assignment and for failing to write down the name of a book that she read on her reading list. I'm not sure that I think these are appropriate responses to failing to complete homework. What kind of lesson is she learning from that punishment? Why not make her do it over? Or write an extra homework assignment? I think she would learn more from those punishments. Sitting in detention just gives her more time to stew - there's no real lesson learned.

To be fair, she's a good kid and consistently scores among the top in her class. And I feel very strongly that she has to do what she's told in class and complete her assignments on time. So, she doesn't get a free pass. But this "one size fits all" scheme of punishments this year isn't doing her any favors. I don't want her to be one of those kids who gets pegged as a bad kid early because she's scattered (and yes, as her mom, I can tell you that she's a bunch of wonderful things - but also scattered). I know that public school teachers can sometimes be so overwhelmed that this approach of leveling the same punishment for all offenses is easy - but the easy road isn't what's always best for the kids.

1.18.2010

MLK Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Schools in Philadelphia are closed in observance of the holiday. The School District has suggested that students and parents take the opportunity to give a day of service to the community... what are your plans?

1.15.2010

Neighborhood Schools

The high today is going to be in the upper 40s. We're in the middle of a warm up, albeit temporary, which is great. That means a nice walk to school.

Yes, my kids walk to school. We live less than a mile away from our local school.

And despite the reports touting how public schools are suddenly more attractive that private schools for economic reasons, I will say that location was our #1 initial consideration in choosing our public school. We were very interested in the idea of a neighborhood school.

My daughter started out at a private school that could not be called a neighborhood school. Not only was it a drive for us (albeit not a long drive), it was a drive for most of the students at the school - I think one parent rode her bike. So, every morning, we got up, got packed up and piled in the car to go to school. And every afternoon, I would get in the car to go get her.

There was no time for after school lessons or sports. We didn't get back in time to do the ones closest to our house and the ones nearest the school ended far too late (and our daughter didn't know anyone on those teams). Worst of all, scheduling play dates with friends was a hassle - some of the kids at the school lived more than an hour away.

While I loved the school, the routine was a bit odd. It felt more like my daughter was going to work, rather than kindergarten. There was very little social interaction outside of the school among the classmates and our neighborhood was quickly becoming segregated by school, even at the playground.

I had to believe that this wasn't the norm. It certainly wasn't how I grew up. And it wasn't how my husband grew up.

The funny thing was that we passed our neighborhood school every morning on the drive to the private school. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, just to drop her off here?

But we didn't stop. We kept driving by. We did it because we had been programmed to believe that Philadelphia schools are bad.

I had to believe that wasn't the case. So I did the same thing for the public school that I did for the private school: I checked it out. I talked to parents. I went on a tour (actually, I went on three tours). I researched test scores. I met with the principal. And (gasp) it was good.

We are now in the second year of our public school experiment. And almost every day, we now walk to the same school that we used to drive by. Our mornings are much less hectic - sometimes, even pleasant - since there's no frantic rush to get into the car and then maneuver through traffic or any pressure to get ready to catch a bus. We simply put on our backpacks and walk.

My kids now participate in after school clubs and local sports lessons. There's time to hang out on the playground and socialize after class, with no worries about an impending rush hour or missing the last bus home.

It's a huge change from before. It's how I think a school should be. There's something to be said for a neighborhood school.

1.13.2010

The MG Program

About this time last year, my oldest daughter's teacher approached me about the possibility of participating in the school's MG (mentally gifted) program. To be honest, I hadn't even considered it before I was approached. Sadly, I don't think I expected to have that kind of opportunity in the public school system in Philly.

I agreed to the testing and the interviews and then, more or less, forgot about it. We didn't hear anything further and I kind of put it out of my mind.

This year, my husband and I were advised that my daughter had been accepted into the program. Apparently, she tested well, especially in reading, and her teacher's recommendations were very good.

The MG teacher scheduled an appointment to discuss the results of the tests and the interview, as well as to discuss our interest in the program. I voted an enthusiastic "yes" and signed the paperwork. And just like that, she's in.

In the beginning, she'll leave her regular classroom one day per week for a couple of hours to go to the MG classroom. At MG, they'll do special projects (and have extra homework) meant to get their creative juices going.

This couldn't have come at a better time for my daughter. She's been struggling in class when it comes to behavior and I think it's because she's a bit lost. Last year, she had the opportunity to play "teacher" with some of the younger kids in her class; her teacher realized that she loved helping others and gave her some extra responsibilities. She really rose to the challenge. School was something that she looked forward to every day; she loved it.

This year isn't going as well as the last. I think she feels boxed in. She isn't quite sure how to react to "down time" in class and has made up for it by getting into trouble. This is not a direction that I'm thrilled about. But the MG program - which I had completely forgotten about - came about at the perfect time. I suspect that this "something extra" will keep her excited about going to school. She's already heard about her first project and started work on it immediately - this is a very good sign.

I know that there's a lot of debate about whether MG programs and other IEP-related services has a place in education. I've also heard parents grumble about putting resources towards MG programs - the whole "smart kids don't need extra services." But they're wrong. I know they're wrong because I've been that kid, floundering in class. And it took a great MG teacher to keep me on the right path.

I'm hopeful that my daughter will have a similar experience. I have my fingers crossed!

I figure that we have a year to see what happens and how she responds to the new arrangement. Students are evaluated each year to see if they meet the criteria to continue in the program, so we'll make up our minds at about the same time as the school will.

1.07.2010

"Extra" Services at School

We're about to find out about the number and quality of "extra" services at our school (fingers crossed).

I guess I never considered that my children would need extra services but then, that was me, not thinking outside of the box. I'm fairly impressed that the school identified that our kids might benefit from them before we did.

My youngest child was flagged for possible speech therapy. She doesn't lisp, stutter or otherwise struggle with speech. But she does sometimes speak quietly when she's nervous. And despite the fact that she was born here, she has this odd Boston accent. In Philly, I could see how that might be considered a speech problem.

At any rate, she was evaluated by a speech therapist and the determination was made that no further services were necessary. She just may grow up sounding like Madeleine Kahn.

My oldest child was recommended by her teacher last year as a candidate for the gifted program at her school. I wasn't sure how I felt about this (having grown up labeled as a "gifted" student myself) until this month. She's been struggling a bit in class this year because, quite frankly, I think she's both a bit bored and intimidated (this is not a commentary on the school, rather an observation of the differences in teaching styles between her teacher this year and last). I am now hopeful that she is accepted into the program because I think that something "extra" would be good for her. She's learning to do her work more quickly and to read easier books to blend in with her friends. I don't want that to be a long term response to being a bit ahead of some of her friends. Dumbing down is never the answer - but then, that's hard to understand at her age.

We've been asked to attend a meeting with the Gifted Teacher at the school to discuss her test scores and the next steps. I'll let you know how it goes.

It's interesting to me that my kids have had these experiences so early in their educational careers. One of the biggest criticisms that I've heard about the Philadelphia School District is the failure to address special needs of students - on both ends of the spectrum. I have to wonder where that criticism is really coming from, as it has not been my experience. In fact, I've been very impressed by the proactive nature of the teachers and the support staff with respect to these services. I'd be lying if I didn't say that it was quite unexpected.

There are a number of special services available to Philly school children from all walks of life. The District has a special department dedicated to these services: The Office of Specialized Instructional Services. If your child isn't receiving a service for which you believe he or she is eligible, don't just sit back and gossip on the playground with the other parents, ask the district to be heard.

1.06.2010

Why I Hate Awards Day

When I was a kid, I won a lot of awards. I was a smart kid and I was pretty well-behaved. So, awards day was a good day for me - the only award that I didn't get on a fairly regular basis was for perfect attendance (see my rant below on this one).

My brother struggled throughout school. He did not get honor roll and he didn't do particularly well in reading or math. Again, no perfect attendance. So while I got to stand on stage with lots of medals, ribbons and certificates, he rarely got anything.

When I was 12, I thought this was okay. After all, I figured, I worked hard.

It turns out that my brother worked hard, too. He and I were just wired differently. It took him awhile to figure it out (his teachers missed it completely) but he was not lazy and he was not stupid; his style of learning was not mainstream.

But he had years and years of being told that he wasn't as smart as other kids. And the one day that it was glaringly obvious to the whole school was on awards day.

Years later, as a parent, I am not a fan of awards day. I realize that it's important to recognize achievement but after sitting through my first one for my oldest child years ago, I realize that the awards don't mean anything. Everyone gets one now - you don't want to leave anyone out - so there are "fake" awards for "effort" and "attitude." I'm not sure what the value of the awards are if everyone gets one.

At the same time, I also think it's not constructive to withhold awards from kids who are struggling because I think it sends a message that they're not valued.

It's a problem, isn't it? On the one hand, giving out awards to everyone lessens the value of the awards in the first place. Let's be honest: only one kid is the "best" in a particular subject. But leaving out kids creates hard feelings and discouragement. So, why do the awards at all?

My kids are (knock wood) pretty smart kids. They do well in school. Today, one will get a slew of awards. The other, probably one of the top kids in her class, will get nothing (or if she gets anything, it will be some cheesy fake award). She and the teacher have butted heads this semester so, despite her academic achievements, she doesn't qualify for honor roll because of her "attitude." I'm not sure what kind of message this is supposed to send the two of them. And to be honest, I'd rather they both get nothing. They're good kids, they know that they're good kids, and no certificate is going to change that. But being singled out as the "bad" kid? How is that helpful?

Neither of them will likely get Perfect Attendance or what I like to call the "send your child to school while sick" award. I never got it as a kid, even though I was fairly healthy. My brother had a compromised immune system which meant that he got sick a lot. So, he never got it either.

There was one girl in my school who received Perfect Attendance from K-12. Yep, K-12. She went to school every day, sick or not. And she got an award for that. That's right, she received a pat on the back in public for bringing her germs to school rather than stay at home. What kind of message is that?

As adults, we are desperately trying to get co-workers who have the flu or worse, H1N1, to stay home. But as parents, we are publicly applauding children who straggle in anyway.

Perfect attendance is not an achievement. In most cases, the child (especially at the elementary school level) had nothing to do with it. Zero. But hey, let's give them a ribbon anyway.

The way I figure, achievements should be noted throughout the year on an individual level. If we're really supposed to be teaching life lessons to kids in school, why not start with awards day? Why not cut it out completely? Most adults don't have "awards day" in the workplace. And you don't have them in college (at least most schools that I've heard of): your award is called graduation - and it's a goal, really, and not an award.

At school, a teacher, a principal and a parent can pat individual students on the back all year long. There is value in simply saying "Great job!" when a kid does good work. And maybe by keeping it tied to the specific child and their actual effort, it means a little something more. My daughter gets to skip her weekly test if she aces her quiz through the week: she's never had to take the weekly test. That's a prize she'll gladly take, as it means more to her than a piece of paper.

We should think about the messages we're sending our kids. It's confusing for them and it's confusing for parents. Instead, we should focus on what our goals are: kids do understand the idea of goals. Why not make finishing first grade the goal, and not simply showing up for school? Why not make learning to read a goal, instead of some bogus and nebulous "extra effort" mark? Why not focus on the quality of books read instead of the quantity (don't get me started on the 100 Book Challenge, embraced by the City of Philadelphia)?

I realize that this is unpopular. As parents, we like the pomp and circumstance. But I don't think it's productive. I think, instead, we should focus on giving kids the tools they need to succeed. And perhaps, instead of a certificate once a year, it's just a little whisper in the ear, "Way to go, kid!"

1.04.2010

First Day of School! (Well, sort of)

It felt very "Nemo" at my house this morning as both kids were extremely excited about returning to school - until they walked out of the door, that is. It was cold in Philly today. Super cold. Some of that first day enthusiasm dampened a bit when some pretty frigid gusts hit them square in the face.

Drop off is never fun in bad weather. When it's cold or rainy, there's no outside play. It's straight indoors to assembly. As my oldest isn't a big fan of this method, it made for a pretty unhappy arrival.

But it was a new year with new folders, new books and new assignments. Let's hope it's a good one!