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