Friday, December 31, 2010

let's fix this now: transportation for education in Providence

Please take a moment right now, today, this minute, to read Youth4Change Alliance's recent blog post, "Why Winter is a Nightmare for Providence Youth and How You Can Help." The deal is this: because high school students don't qualify for the school bus unless they live more than 3 miles from their high school, most high school students need to use RIPTA to get to school, and there's no reduced fare for youth. Without it, it's prohibitively expensive for many kids to take the bus, so at this time of year, kids need to face real freezing misery as they walk. That's an obstacle that's clearly keeping many young people from getting to school on time or at all. Unacceptable. This has got to change. We can fix it.

Now take another moment to vote here for Youth4Change's proposal to launch an advocacy campaign for accessible transportation for young people to get to school. Voting ends tomorrow, 1/1! You can also text your vote. Text 104586 to 73774. Do it now.

For those of us who were not clued into this challenge because we don't have high school age kids and/or were otherwise not focused on this issue, Youth4Change's transportation for education initiative is a jolting wake-up call. As we work toward improving schools, we face many ugly, thorny problems. This is not one of them, so do your part now, by voting in the Pepsi Challenge to fund the campaign to raise public awareness. Spread the word--get everyone you know to vote. And keep this issue on your radar as we move through awareness of the issue toward discussion and implementation of a solution so that all Providence students have access to their schools.

Should for some reason need more convincing, this video should do the trick.

And a final final note: I am not taking the time right now to drill down into the public transportation systems of a good-sized sample of cities in the United States to validate my hunch that most offer youth fares. However, I'll share that the first 5 cities I thought of and checked on do indeed offer discounted fares in one form or another for youth (the first 5 cities my brain lit on: San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York City, Miami). If you take a couple of cities and find out what the situation is there, post what you find in the comments. Not that we should need examples of how most other places have figured out how to deal with this most basic need to know that fixing it ASAP is the only option.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

This is not a vacation. It's a business trip.

The recent disappearance of Providence Schools blog posts corresponds directly to the onset of school vacation A great line from Modern Family (which you should watch, and if you already do, you're agreeing with me) keeps flashing into my mind. On a family vacation, Claire, mom of three kids, can't chill out and explains her wound-up-ed-ness by saying, "For me, this is not a vacation. It's a business trip."

Since I am "on vacation" this week, it's pretty much all business around here with 24/7 kid action. We're actually having a great time, but blogging? Not so much this week. Monday's snow brought sledding. Yesterday, duckpin bowling. Today, with cousins visiting, doubleheader of snow tubing* and laser tag. Totally epic. Tomorrow, probably ice skating downtown. And Friday, New Year's Eve party action with small kids. Break out the Martinelli's!!!

As an example in action of what this week is like, I wrote the two preceding paragraphs 24 hours ago and only now have had a moment to finish. And finish I will, before something else happens. More soon!


*Snow tubing update: shockingly, we were not the only people who thought that school vacation + boingingly energetic kids + recent big snow = go to Yawgoo! Go we did but it was sold out for the morning. So we explored the wilds of Rhode Island, ended up lunching at Middle of Nowhere Diner in Exeter, which was excellent, fantastic clear clam chowder, everyone else's food looked great, and wicked cheap. Then laser tag, which someday I want to play for real, not as the palace escort/guard/monitor for King Bosser Leader Dude Guy (our 4 year old's self-proclaimed and honestly accurate title). Fun was had by all. And I got to play skeeball!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How Teachers Teach Us about Our Kids

Today, Valerie Strauss' fabulous Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet, features a guest post from Daniel Willingham--professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and excellent education advice-giver--that is worth sharing and discussing. Willingham's post, "When Teachers Speak Unwelcome Truths about Your Child," describes a situation that, if you have had kids in school for any length of time, you've likely already faced yourself--and if you haven't, you will soon enough.

Willingham makes three excellent points. First, he notes that as parents, we're passionate about our own kids. Teachers are more likely to be more neutral and therefore more objective about what's going on with them.

Second, kids often behave differently at school than at home. This rang true for me. I often feel that I don't know my kids' school selves very well. That's as it should be, to some extent. School is a place for kids to develop secure identities, grounded in but distinct from the ways they are at home. Usually, I find that my kids tend to be more together and with it at school than they are at home, which makes sense. Home is the place where they come to relax and chill out, and where they will always be loved and accepted. I don't necessarily always love what they do or say, but I always love them, and they know it, and that allows them to let their guard down a bit. At school, they're front-and-center in the role of student, and given the relentless nature of the school day, their sense that they are being evaluated at nearly every minute is completely accurate. We expect a lot at home, but the atmosphere here is different both by happenstance and design.

That said, earlier this year, we experienced the reverse when we heard from a teacher that one of our kids was exhibiting significant anxiety in class. This was a shocker, because I've always seen my child as confident and secure. A meeting with the teacher with the kid in question present in which we thought out loud together about what was going on in class, and what we could do to decrease his anxiety and the interruptions that were resulting, was fairly successful. But it wasn't easy to hear that my kid wasn't his best self in class. It happens, of course, and I'm grateful to his teacher for calling me when she noticed what was going on and for the years she'd spent teaching so many kids. She'd seen this before--she's seen everything before and was able to take the long view that I, in the grip of worry for my kid's happiness, could not.

This connects to Willingham's third point, which is that as parents, most of us have a small data set from which to draw when we're understanding typical behavior, abilities, temperament, and other characteristics. We tend to think that what is normal for us--our own kids--is the norm. But of course it's not. When you're able to draw on the experience and expertise of a teacher who has seen a much wider range of kids, you are able to know something about your kid you might never otherwise know, especially if you're able to accept the possibility of validity in the teacher's comments. When I heard my son described as anxious and, in fact, causing a fair amount of disruption as a result, I was perplexed. This just did not seem like typical behavior for my son, and it wasn't. His teacher agreed, and was able to convey to me that anxiety like that wasn't typical behavior for any kid that age, in her experience--but it was behavior she'd seen before, and rather than labeling my son as disruptive, she was able to see some of the triggers that were causing his distress in ways that I just could not, due to my lack of context, experience, and professional judgment.

Communication between family members and educators can be easy, and it can be painfully difficult. For us to be able to hear feedback about our kids, unwelcome or otherwise, requires appropriate systems and structures for home-school communication. Due to a wide variety of factors that affect teachers and family members, those systems and structures don't exist in all situations. We need to change policies and conditions so that all families get regular, clear, and appropriate opportunities for communication, and so that all teachers feel supported and acknowledged as professionals when they take the time to reach out to families as often as necessary. And there are times when for whatever set of reasons, teachers do not characterize our kids fairly, and we do what we need to do as parents to advocate for them.

That said, thus far, I've been thankful for the insights I've gained about my children from their teachers. What I've learned hasn't always been easy to hear at first, but it has allowed me to see struggles and challenges more clearly and, most of the time, allowed us to benefit from teachers' expertise and understanding.

I'll be featuring more on Willingham soon; his book, Why Don't Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answer Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom is on deck on my read-and-blog-about book pile. Anne T. Henderson, et al's Beyond the Bake Sale: The Essential Guide to Family-School Partnerships is at bat, post to go up this week. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hi! Come on in.

Many thanks to the Linda Borg and the ProJo for pointing out this blog today. For those of you who have arrived here as a result, welcome! This post is just that, a welcome mat and an invitation in for a cup of coffee to suggest ideas, topics, and questions appropriate to this blog, or just to say hi. The comments are open below for just that (click on the link at the end of this post that indicates the number of comments that have been made, and have at it).

A couple of notes:

1. A slight clarification: the ProJo article says, "Davidson joined the PTO, which became instrumental in bringing additional resources to the school and bringing more parents into the fold." Actually, the PTO was very much already, for many years prior to the day that I showed up and asked what I could do, very much instrumental and integral to King's successes. The school benefits from a PTO that's been established for a long time, at least 25 years. Someday, I really need to take some time to understand this particular organization's history. I've met lots of people who were active in the PTO whose kids are in high school, college, and beyond, and along with the whole MLK community, I am grateful for all they did to establish a strong school-family partnership. If you want to know more about King's PTO or contact its current leadership, please visit

2. Tuttle SVC, written by Tom Hoffman, also focuses on public schools in Providence and Rhode Island. Definitely check it out for another perspective. How about others? Am I missing other blogs focused the the schools and school systems that serve young people and their communities in Providence and Rhode Island? Tell me and I'll link to them over on the right.

Welcome, tell me what you think, and please stay a while.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Powers and Limits of Cookies

Today, in one of those random chitchats on the way to school, I said to my kids, "There are two things I know really well: education and cookies." Actually, there's a third thing I know fairly well: my limits. So I'm going to focus on cookies today--especially today, when many education opinionators from near and far are spouting off about Central Falls High School. I am not going to do that, other than to say that I want desperately for all of Central Falls' young people to get the education and support that they need and deserve, and that I wish the community of Central Falls the grace, strength, good will, commitment and determination to make that happen. I'll leave it at that, and write about cookies instead.

Yesterday, I wrote about how my kids and I are going to make holiday cookies to give as gifts to teachers and others. Tonight we're getting started, and as it turns out, there's a lot of thinking involved with cookie-making. Today, we're focusing on the mathematical properties of cookie baking. The guys are figuring out:
  1. how many plates of cookies we're going to give as gifts (bonus extra: thinking about who is important in your life requires a focus on interpersonal relations)
  2. how many cookies will go on each plate
  3. how many total cookies we will need
  4. how many different kinds of cookies we're going to make (bonus extras: this requires much intense cookbook scrutiny--reading!--and collaborative decision making--communication and learning to work in a group!)
  5. what are the ingredient totals, so that we know how much butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and other components to buy
  6. how much time we will need for each batch of cookies
  7. when we will make the cookies over the course of the coming week (bonus extra: time management!)
(Yes, I we're actually charting all of this. On chart paper. In the kitchen. What I really want is a kitchen with walls of whiteboard, but until then, this will have to do.)

Including the kids in the planning, before we even fire up the KitchenAid, is a key part of the process; it's the kind of informal, context-based, real-world teaching that many families take advantage of all the time, and for which we always need to be on the lookout. Yes, it would be easier to do most of the planning myself, but the kids would miss an awesome authentic learning opportunity and would be far less invested in the process.

The math ought to be fairly accessible to my kids--at least the older two--but the collaborative decision making? Oy. Not so easy. But all the more reason to brave it. They need to figure out ways to work together across differences, even if those differences extend only to the relative merits/horrors of walnuts, coconut, and raisins.

I have a mighty faith in the power of cookies, but even I know their limits. It's going to take a lot more than cookies to break through the barriers that students, teachers, families, and administrators are facing in Central Falls and in other troubled districts. But it would help, we would bake cookies for Central Falls' education and community stakeholders every day as a gesture of sweetness and belief in adults to overcome differences to do the right thing for young people and their community in a troubled and bitter situation.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holiday Gift Giving to Teachers from Families

Last year, I shared some thoughts on Kidoinfo about holiday gift-giving for teachers. My kids and are starting to think about what we plan to give teachers this year, so I went back to reread it, and thought it might be useful for others! So here's Holiday Gift Giving to Teachers: Notes from the Field.

Definitely read the comments, too--great ideas there, especially the reminder to remember school staff members beyond classroom teachers. We usually bring in big plates of cookies for the kitchen staff, custodial staff, bus monitors, and office staff.

I have contemplated organizing class gifts to teachers, asking families to give what they can. This is what the very competent Early Childhood Committee does at the JCC, where all of my boys went or currently go to preschool. At King, neither I nor most other family members have been able to achieve anything close to the necessary level of organization to get this done.

Even if we did use our capacities for organizing and persuasion to their fullest potential for the purpose of collecting donations for a class gift,  I have hesitation on two fronts. First, donating money for a big gift has the potential to detract from the personal effort and thoughtfulness that means a lot to teachers and families. Second, I am frankly reluctant to hit up families yet again for money for something school related, even if it's option, especially at this time of year when money is always tight. I am bothered, as always, by the equity issues. Experience tells me that while many cannot give, or might give even if it really hurts, others will give big, according to their means, and it all works out. But I am resistant to creating yet another circumstance when we're asking families for money, even if it's optional and even when it's for such a clearly useful reason.

So collecting money from class families for a group gift hasn't happened at King, at least not initiated by me. I'd love to hear about what your family does to recognize teachers at this time of year, and teachers - tell us what you appreciate!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

NEASC Accreditation for 2 Providence High Schools

Congratulations to Providence Academy of International Studies (PAIS) and E-3 Academy for receiving accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, known as NEASC. Here's the Pro Jo coverage. PAIS and E-3 join Hope High School, Mt. Pleasant High School, and Classical High School as NEASC accredited schools in the district.

NEASC accreditation is a big deal, as outlined here on its website, requiring intense scrutiny through self-study and visits from NEASC committee members to determine what's happening in all aspects of school design, pedagogy, outcomes, culture, and other elements of school life. It's intended to demonstrate that the school meets high standards and to give school staff members tools and structures to continually assess and improve to maintain quality programs.

While I haven't yet visited E-3, I've spent a bit of time at PAIS; I'm working in the school with Rhode Island After School Plus Allinace to support the planning and implementation of Expanded Learning Opportunities (this links to a PDF description of Expanded Learning Opportunities in Rhode Island). I think that its principal, Janelle Clarke--now also principal of Cooley Health and Science Technology High School, which shares a facility with PAIS--is a powerful leader, super-smart and visionary. The staff members that I've met are focused and dedicated, and the students that I've spent time with are thoughtful, clear about their purpose as learners, and excited about PAIS's curriculum and what they're learning. 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tours/Info Sessions at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School

Here's the schedule of tours/info sessions that we've planned at Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School. Click on the flier below for a bigger version.
Here are the dates/times:

Friday, 12/17, 9:30am
Friday, 1/7, 9:30am
Friday, 1/21, 9:30am
Friday, 2/4, 9:30am
Tuesday, 2/15, 6:30pm
Friday, 3/4, 9:30am
Friday, 3/18, 9:30am

Please call 456-9398 or email to RSVP.

The tour will be led by parents (often me!) and students, followed by an information session with MLK principal Derrick Ciesla. We hope you join us--all are welcome, even if your children are not about to enter kindergarten; we are often joined by families with younger children who wish to know more about King. Please join us and please help spread the word.

If you want to know more about the process of registering your child as a Providence Public Schools student, including the registration schedule, see today's earlier Providence Schools post on the subject and visit PPSD's registration page.

PS - Other elementary schools: send me info about your upcoming tours/open houses and I'll share it here!

PPSD Elementary School Registration Calendar for 2011

Providence Public Schools has released the elementary school registration calendar for students planning to enter the system in 2011. Here it is, below--click to get a bigger version, or click here to download the PDF from PPSD's website (the PDF also includes a Spanish version).

PPSD's registration page has links to school choice and student policies, the documents you need to register your child, and much more. There's contact info there for your questions; I'll repeat the advice I offered on Friday to families in the midst of middle school registration:
Note to those who call: have this page handy on your web browser in case you get the automated voice mail that asks you to dial an extension. My experience is that it takes quite a while to get an actual live human on the line. Keep trying. Try them all if the person you think you want isn't reachable. Don't give up!
And here's a link to a guide to registering your child in the Providence Public Schools that PPSD parent Kira Greene and I wrote last year for Kidoinfo. It holds up well as a good overview of the process.

As the weeks go on, I'll be posting much more about elementary school registration, both out of the desire to be helpful and because I am enrolling my youngest son in kindergarten next year. I'd love to hear in the comments from other families with incoming kindergartners. What schools are you looking at? Where have you visited (related to that: see the next post for a calendar of tours/info sessions at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. If the school you're involved with has tours scheduled, let me know so I can share the info!) How's your research/information gathering going? What questions or concerns do you have? Let's talk!

Children's Union?

Education Week's State Ed Watch blog reports that Deborah Gist, RI's state education commissioner, has joined with her peers from Florida, Virginia, Louisiana, and Indiana to form "Chiefs for Change" to focus on advocating for policies that support their mutual agendas, namely school choice (decoded: increased charters) and performance-based evaluations for principals and teachers. Here's a bit more from the Ed Watch blog:
Unveiling the new group, "Chiefs for Change," were its founding members: Tony Bennett, of Indiana; Deborah Gist, of Rhode Island; Paul Pastorek, of Louisiana; Gerard Robinson, of Virginia; and Eric Smith, of Florida. They were gathered here in Washington for the national summit of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the reform group headed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The new chiefs group came together in conversation with Gov. Bush, who has agreed to provide it with financial and staffing support.

The five chiefs said that even though they work on important policy issues through the Council of Chief State School Officers, they felt the need to push a subset of policies through a separate group. Pastorek said the five want to "set ourselves apart and pursue a much more aggressive path toward success." It's not a partisan agenda, he said, but a "cutting-edge, pushing-the-envelope way of putting children at the top of all of our decisions." Bennett said the five have "kind of started our own union, a children's union," in which the interests of students trump those of adults.
Leaving aside several temptingly discussable details, I want to focus on this "children's union" notion, a phrase that Indiana's Tony Bennett has used before, as a quick Google search reveals. I wonder if Indiana's commitment toward a children's union has involved any actual children and their families. I am thinking, nope, not so much--though any Indianan reading this, please let me know if, in fact, I am wrong! Such news would be delightful, and I want to know what such meaningful family partnerships and respectful attention to young people's voices looks like.

Now that Rhode Island is a part of this direction, I wish to ask Commissioner Gist to avoid repeating Bennet's "children's union" reference--unless, of course, she intends to work systematically within communities to have children's needs and demands drive the discussion and work toward changing our education policies and practices. That would be a powerful and remarkable effort--but it is clearly not what's happening. What seems to be happening with Chiefs for Change is one more step toward aggressive promotion of charter schools not for the betterment of all schools but for the privatization of our public school systems. Don't attempt to harness the political will of my kids to justify that unless they, and I, demand it.

In Friday's Huffington Post, Sam Chaltain made a similar argument in relation to Michelle Rhee's new Students First venture, which similarly claims to stand for children's interests in the service of particular policies and practices that have a clear political agenda that don't clearly correspond to what students and their families may want. Sam's point:
To this end, Rhee intends to build an army of one million supporters and raise a total of one billion dollars -- in a year. Clearly, this is not someone unwilling to think big and in that sense, all of us need to match her sense of urgency and passion.

The danger, however, is if that urgency, passion and power gets deployed in the service of a myopic set of well-intentioned, misaligned ends. And based on what I can see from the website and gauge from her interviews, Michelle Rhee still believes the current way we're evaluating the success of our students, teachers and schools is sufficient for the brave new world of education she hopes to help usher in.
Adults in education leadership positions need to align their decision-making toward what's best for young people, and because historically, some have not done so, all now need to justify their direction in terms of what's best for kids. That the Michelle Rhee or the Chiefs for Change group are doing so isn't remarkable. But moving from that stance to claiming to directly represent the will of the majority of kids without doing the real work of determining what they want is disturbingly disingenuous, insulting to the very idea of a union, and a manipulative way of promoting dubious policies and positions.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Providence Public Schools Middle School Open Houses/Registration

File under better late than never! Here's the basic information about PPSD Middle School Open Houses and registration for next year's 6th graders (and 7th graders coming from any elementary schools that still have 6th grade). In order to choose a middle school, families must complete and return a middle school choice form, which--for students already in a district school--was sent home just after Thanksgiving break. It's due back to your child's school by 12/20. Click here for a link to PPSD's school choice/student assignment policy.

Open Houses already have or will soon take place at all PPSD middle schools, as follows (I've included the dates that already happened this week for your info; if you want to see these schools, give them a call and see if it's possible to visit):

Monday, December 6
Gilbert Stuart Middle School
188 Princeton Avenue
456-9340 or 456-9341

Tuesday, December 7
Roger Williams Middle School
278 Thurbers Avenue
456-9355 or 456-9357

Wednesday, December 8
Nathan Bishop Middle School
101 Sessions Street
Thursday, December 9
Esek Hopkins Middle School
480 Charles Street
456-9203 or 456-9459

Tuesday, December 14
DelSesto Middle School
152 Springfield Street
278-0557 or 278-0558

Wednesday, December 15
Samuel W. Bridgham Middle School
1655 Westminster Street
456-9360 or 456-9361

Thursday, December 16
Nathanael Greene Middle School
721 Chalkstone Avenue
456-9347 or 456-9348

For more information, you can visit or call the Student Registration Center at 456-9297. Note to those who call: have this page handy on your web browser in case you get the automated voice mail that asks you to dial an extension. My experience is that it takes quite a while to get an actual live human on the line. Keep trying. Try them all if the person you think you want isn't reachable. Don't give up. Good luck. And here's hoping that next year, it's easier for families to make a simple phone call to get basic information about school registration and assignment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What Happened at School Today? A question and an introduction

This column originally ran in December 2010's East Side Monthly.
What Happened at School Today?

“So, what happened at school today?” It’s a habitual question if you regularly sit at a dinner table with school-aged kids, and it’s the inquiry that drives me personally and professionally. I write about education, analyze policy and research, and collaborate with educators, students, and community members within schools as a facilitator and organizer for new initiatives. I’m always wondering: what really did happen at school today? What does it mean? How do we know? How can we sustain effective practices and policies? How can we identify and challenge the obstacles that stand in the way? And how can we bridge differences to create great educational options for all young people?

After nearly a decade of employment with the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national education reform and restructuring organization with East Side roots, founded at Brown in 1984 and now located in Oakland, California, I am focusing my enthusiasm and experience here at home, joining educators, administrators, community leaders, families, students, scholars, and activists, and others who have rolled up their sleeves to work for what’s best for our city, state, and region’s schools.

To be closer to East Coast family, we—my husband Kevin, sons Elias and Leo, and I—moved to Providence’s East Side from San Francisco in the final weeks of 2004. (Note to fellow settlers coming here from more temperate climes: do not underestimate the shock to the system that a sudden entry into a New England winter can produce. And remember to be generous with the heating oil estimate when planning your family budget.)

My oldest son Elias was gearing up to enter kindergarten in 2005, so as soon as we refamiliarized ourselves with snow shovels and ice scrapers, I introduced myself to our new friends and neighbors with school-aged kids. “Hi! New in town! Talk to me about the school your kid goes to.” I queried kids about what they thought of their schools. I listened, asked questions, and listened some more. Unfortunately, the timing of our arrival was all wrong for what I describe as the “playground phenomenon”—that is, often as not, at the playground or park, when you see a cluster of parents with young kids, they’re deep in discussion about their kids’ actual or possible future schools. Despite the deep freeze, birthday parties, trips to the Providence Children’s Museum, and other community events provided plenty of opportunities to listen and ask yet more questions. (Online extra! Click here for an article I wrote for Kidoinfo about choosing schools.)

We balanced what we learned from those chats with visits to our community’s schools, including the charter schools, independent schools, and the two Providence public schools that were designated as our neighborhood schools: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School and Vartan Gregorian Elementary School. We sought an appropriate learning environment for our particular kid, and felt fortunate that several choices emerged as sound options. Ultimately, King best matched our family priorities and my son’s needs. Elias is now in fifth grade at King, getting fired up about enrolling at Nathan Bishop Middle School next fall. His brother Leo is also at King, in second grade.

Since moving to Providence, a third son, Henry, joined our family. He’s four and a half, just the age Elias was when we first arrived, preparing to enter kindergarten. Again, I am in “playground phenomenon” mode, learning about families’ experiences and visiting schools. My two other kids are thriving at King, and I suspect Henry will as well, if that’s the choice we make. However, we owe it to him to understand the options now, not as they were three or six years ago during our previous journeys through this parenting rite of passage. And we need to acknowledge that we’re grateful to have options; that’s not something that all families can say, and that needs to change.

Since that cold winter of our arrival, I’ve connected with hundreds of parents on similar paths at community meetings, during tours at King, during those inevitable playground conversations, at baseball and soccer games, in the aisles of Stop & Shop, pretty much everywhere. Many East Side families ask me to explain why we chose King. It’s a reasonable question to which there is no “right answer.” We chose King for a few specific reasons. We had become friendly with other families with kids thriving at the school. It had a long-established and thriving PTO. I connected well with teachers there. It was fairly close to our house. A belief seems to persist that there is a dire scarcity among public school choices. There must, many seem to think, be the best pick, the right answer. I suggest that parents’ responsibility is not to find the platonic ideal of the “best” school according to anyone else. Our responsibility is to examine the options available and make the best choice for our particular kids. At the same time, I feel compelled to warn against complacency in any form. It’s great that my own kids—and yours, I hope—are learning and thriving, but I will not be happy until all families in all parts of Providence and beyond can feel similarly about their kids’ schools. None of us should be.

I’m grateful for East Side Monthly assistant editor John Taraborelli for tapping me to share my thoughts on education in these pages. Thanks also to Sam Zurier for years of informative, balanced, well-researched columns that ranged far and wide on issues that affect education in Providence and beyond. Congratulations, Sam, and thank you for taking your passion for great schools for all kids into your new role on the Providence City Council as Ward 2’s representative.

Jill Davidson can be reached at, @dazzlingbetty on Twitter, and here at her blog, To make “What Happened in School Today?” the best it can be, please in touch with your thoughts, ideas, comments, criticism, and ideas.

What Happened at School Today? in East Side Monthly

I'm delighted to share that East Side Monthly is running a monthly education column that I'm writing, called "What Happened at School Today?" It started in December and is online here, on page 42, and available in coffeeshops, stores, and, if you're a resident of the East Side of Providence, in your mail delivery of a couple of weeks ago. And I'll repost columns here. The next post features December's debut, in which I introduce myself and discuss the process of sorting through education options to find a good fit between kid and school.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Back to School on!

Hope everyone is set to enjoy the second week of school. It's a short one for our family; yesterday off for Labor Day (which we spent delightfully at Goosewing Beach) and then Thursday out of school for Rosh Hashana. See this recent Providence Schools blog post for more on that, and Providence Public Schools' decision to keep schools open during the Jewish High Holy Days this year.

With so much focus on getting the kids back into their school routine--and on everything else! busy times lately--that I am only now posting a note here about a new piece from me, "Back to School Advice," which ran on last week. Featuring tips for easing kids back into their school routines from Learning Community teacher Maureen Nosal, I think it helped a few of us shift from la-ti-da summer mode to a more structured routine. Helped our family, at least! Thanks, again, Maureen, for speaking with me and sharing your thoughts.

"Back to School Advice" is infused with assumptions about the ways kids and their families spend time in the summer. Because of that, I turned to a teacher working with a population of kids that's not quite the same as my own, and while that alternate--and professional--perspective serves the short article just fine, I've been left wondering about the variety of ways Providence kids experience summer. Sadly, I don't have time to research that now, so am putting it out there as a flag for future exploration and understanding.

In the meantime, what are you tips and thoughts for getting your kids transitioned from summer to school? Has it been a big deal or an easy shift? What's working, what's challenging, and what changes will you be making to get your kids off to school with their--and your--sanity more or less intact?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Teach for America: benefit for Rhode Island?

Earlier this week, the ProJo reported on Teach for America's Rhode Island debut, including 20 TFA-ers in the Providence Public Schools. Here's a link to Linda Borg's article, "R.I. Opens Doors to Teach for America," that includes a glamour shot of an incoming TFA-er. (Note to ProJo: make sure ongoing coverage of Rhode Island's teachers includes similar photography standards; not that our teachers are not beautiful and stunning on their own, but a little makeup and good lighting goes a long way after a long day in the classroom.)

Borg's article cites research demonstrating the effectiveness of TFA-trained teachers. True--and there's more to it. This Washington Post piece, also published this week, takes a more balanced approach, citing extensive reseach out of the University of Texas and California State University that finds that TFA teachers deliver mixed results for kids and create extra costs for districts. 

I am not here to bash TFA per se. However, I am here to ask questions about its benefits in our city's schools. As a Providence Public Schools parent, I'd like to see clear statements from the district and the Rhode Island Department of Education describing the anticipated impact of TFA on students' learning and well being. If we are using precious additional resources to establish a TFA presence here, why? What's the upside? The ProJo article emphasized what TFA can do for the young people enrolled in its program and about to be in front of our classrooms. Less clear are the ways our own, slightly younger, kids will benefit, and the ways our district--including those teachers who have been there before the TFA recruits arrived, who will be there long after they leave, and who will be spending time formally and informally mentoring the TFA-ers--will benefit. How does TFA fit into the overall strategic plan to deliver the best public education tp all students in all schools? How does this improve teaching and learning? Absent clear communication, I can imagine all kinds of ways TFA will bring sunshine, laughter, and learning to our students, and I can easily spin out a morass of gloomy scenarios. You can too--please have at it in the comments.

Bottom line: how will this addition help us? I'd like to understand the district and state's sense of how TFA helps our kids learn and thrive. I'd like to understand how TFA fits into plans for professional development and creating the best conditions for the kind of teaching that leads to professional satisfaction and student success.

A final note: the questions I ask about TFA don't apply solely to TFA. This is the shiny new object of the week (rather, it was, before the news of Rhode Island's Race to the Top award, which is indeed quite super-sparkly) about what's happening inside our kids' classrooms, so I'm paying attention, and asking questions on behalf of thousands of parents who want to know more about the adults our kids interact with every day at school, how those adults are helping our kids use their minds well. Clear communication and opportunties for understanding help us support our kids, and their educators.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Providence Public Schools: Jewish Holidays No More (for now)

Mario Hilario, the rhymingest reporter in Providence television news, recently reported this story on Providence Public Schools' discontinuation of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as school holidays (well, Rosh Hashana, anyway, as Yom Kippur doesn't begin until sundown on Friday, September 18). Here's the ProJo's take on the story, with some added perspective from Providence district staff; I'm happy to note that both versions feature our rabbi, Emanu-El's Wayne Franklin.

Providence Public Schools have been off for RH and YK for 30+ years; reasons why they won't be this year, according to the above reports, include the early dates for the holidays this year (RH is on 9/8, a week after school starts), the declining Jewish public school student and teacher population, the ongoing challenges of accommodating holidays observed by diverse religious groups. and the pressure not to lose any days for needed instructional time (I'd love to know more about the percentage of PPSD Jewish kids and teachers/staff, as well as the ways that other major religious are/aren't acknowledged in various ways in school, investigations that will need to wait for another day).

All valid, and I was glad to hear that this decision is a trial and may not be repeated next year (though I would not put any money on its reversal). Likely, this issue wouldn't even be on my mind if my own Jewish children weren't going to be missing school just as school gets rolling. Do I think they're going to miss key learning that will penalize them thereafter? No, not so much. Though I do hope, perversely, that they miss something meaningful--otherwise, what was the point of this calendar change? Do I think that they will become more conscious that, as Jews, they're different than many of their peers? Yes, I do. Whether that's good, bad, or indifferent, only time will tell.

I suspect, as well, that Jewish kids may feel evaluated in some real way by this change. Every other year, the major holidays of their religion were recognized by school--one of the other key institutions in their lives. Now, no, and I think they and other kids, Jewish and not, will take note of that change and perceive that what was important isn't anymore.

When I think broadly about what's best for all kids, keeping school open for the Jewish holidays makes sense. Here's hoping that PPSD does great things with the extra time. Still, I worry about the loss, both for actual Jewish children who miss learning and bonding with their peers so early in the school year, and for all of the kids, who get the message that what was important last year isn't anymore.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Recess Shunned in Favor of the Popular Kid, Physical Education

Today's ProJo reports that East Providence is banning recess, as defined by 10-15 minutes of aide-supervised post-lunch running around, in favor of optional in-class breaks and additional formal physical education opportunities. All well-intentioned, and now East Providence is now meeting Rhode Island's basic education plan requirements for physical education.  Kids have more time to eat lunch, too, which is all to the good in my book--if that time sitting were followed by time running (and yes, sometimes falling, an event that the head of the East Providence School Committee, paraphrased in the ProJo article) is eager for children to avoid, along with recess' potential for fights and hurt feelings).

But formal physical education is not the same as unstructured time, which children (and adults) need during the day. Increasing the opportunities for formal physical education means increasing opportunities to supervise, evaluate, and control kids. Eliminating time for kids simply to be and interact, without judgment or structure or expectations during an otherwise highly regulated school day means that the joys (and sorrows) of play are now subject to the inevitable angst of a grade. There may be good in what's being implemented in East Providence, but the costs are high.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Choosing Schools: Ways to get advice from other adults

Two weeks ago, Kidoinfo ran a piece I wrote up ideas about talking with other parents/adults about the schools in your area and the ways their experiences and ideas have such a strong influence on us. It's here. I was pleased with the result and especially with the comments, one of which suggested we needed a local online forum at which parents can ask questions about and discuss schools. At this stage, I don't have the bandwidth or tools to create that on this site, though that was and in some ways still is the aim of this highly intermittent blog project.

I think of San Francisco's Parents for Public Schools site and organization when I think of such an endeavor, and of course the amazing Inside Schools in New York City. Here's what I just belatedly added as a comment to the Kidoinfo piece:

I just noticed as I reread this piece to prepare for writing my next Kidoinfo piece that the long comment I submitted on 2/5 never posted! So sorry--I didn't mean to be silent in the presence of such thoughtful and useful comments. I wish I could recall the specifics of that comment, and do want to add that gut feeling does count for a lot, absolutely, and underscores the necessity of going to see for yourself.

Sarah and Beth, I often think about ways to create discussion within communities about school options. Some communities do have such a thing: I think of San Francisco's Parents for Public Schools website ( which has a ton of resources that offer ways for parents to support public schools, be better advocates, and a members-only listserv with discussions about schools. There's another listserv on Yahoo called sfschools which serves this purpose (I think that many cities have this, I just happen to be dialed into that one because I used to live in SF). NYC has Inside Schools, ( which offers comprehensive reviews of and opportunities for online discussion about NYC's public schools.

We don't have a similar resource. This makes me think again about ways we could create one.
In order to figure out ways to make this happen, the steps are:
- Research what else is out there, what other cities have, talk with their founders and organizers
- Determine its utility: seems like it needs to be both an independent information resource and advocacy organization (advocating parental involvement, offering strategies and tools for parental/family involvement, pushing for a family/community-driven reform initiative).
- Get a grassroots initiative going
- Find sponsors/raise money.