It was Grandparents and Special Friends Day at my grandson's lovely charter school last spring, a day so significant to the gent sitting next to me on one of the classroom's cozy couches, dapper in tassel loafers and a golf shirt, that he confessed he'd flown all the way from California to be there.
I love this school. I love its feel, its tiny classes, the room with its reading nook and its turtle aquarium, the emotionally literate teachers, the rainbow mix of kids from every conceivable kind of family. But it also makes me uncomfortable.
I was reminded of this discomfort again last month as President Obama addressed the NAACP, defending his educational theme song, the one about parental responsibility. Felix's school is all about parental responsibility. It encourages — demands — parental participation. Each family has to volunteer 20 hours at the school, or the kid gets kicked out. Most families are happy to do this, of course, and most of the students wouldn't be at that school if their parents didn't want that sort of involvement. But that's part of the problem.
The president and a whole coterie of educational reformers point to these schools as beacons for the future. And I'd love to see a future where all kids could have what my grandson has. So where's the discomfort?
Well, it goes back to that parental participation thing. Public education, in my mind, is supposed to be about opportunity — for all kids. My kids went to public schools, and I learned a lot from their friends: the kid who struggled to do her homework at the kitchen table while her crackhead mom played with the apartment's noisy population of rats; the kid who came over to our house when his parents were attacking each other with kitchen knives; and the kid who, along with her sisters, was being raised by grandma since mom was in prison for various drug crimes.
Parental involvement? Please. Yet these were all good kids, no less deserving than my own. Had there been a charter school like Felix's half a block away, it wouldn't have helped.
As for me, I muddled through. A single parent of four, I worked long hours, often commuting two hours a day. My parental involvement might not have drawn the president's approval. I read to my children, I sang with them, I ate dinner with them most nights, I loved them passionately, but I didn't often show up at school. We might not have survived at Felix's school, with its high expectations of parents.
Georgia is now vying for funds from the president's Race to the Top initiative. The states compete according to a scoring system with a total of 500 points: Great Teachers and Leaders gets you 138 points, State Success Factors (whatever that means) nets 125 points, and so on.
Turning Around the Lowest Achieving Schools is worth only 50 points.
That's backward, I reckon. It's the kids in those schools — the kids whose parents wouldn't have the knowledge or the motivation to put them in a charter school, the kids whose parents work four jobs, the kids who just have deadbeat parents through no fault of their own, who need the most help.
The kids with the grandparents who can fly across the country to participate in their education — they're going to make it anyway.
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