It's a Week Off!

Okay, I'll be totally honest: I thought this week was going to suck. A couple of days off from school can be fun but two weeks? I was sure that the kids would implode from boredom.

And here's the weird thing: they didn't.

It's actually been a great break so far. Rather than plan days and days of nonstop activities (our regular plan), we've scheduled our fun in small doses. We've taken a few trips into Center City and stopped by the arboretum. But other than that? It's been home with friends and family - and even some snowball fights with the neighbors. We've played some games, read some books and yes, even watched some TV (I can admit it).

I've learned something from all of this. Kids don't need to be "on" all of the time. A little down time is a good thing. And it's possible (gasp) that this means that my kids will be well rested come next week and ready for school.


Last Day Before the Break

Wednesday is the last day before the holiday break. It couldn't come at a better time.

I have one child who is out sick this week. I have another who is struggling in her class.

We need a break in the biggest way.


School Open on Tuesday

I just received the following notice:

All School District of Philadelphia schools will be OPEN on Tuesday,
December 22, 2009 at their regular times.

The opening of schools means the District's Office of Transportation
Services will provide yellow bus service to public, charter, private
and parochial schools on December 22, but parents should be prepared
for delays in morning pick-up and afternoon drop-offs as a result of
traffic conditions throughout the Philadelphia region.

All School District of Philadelphia after-school activities,
including sporting events, scheduled to take place on December 22
will go on as scheduled.

Employees are expected to report to work at their regular times. All
Regional Offices and the School District of Philadelphia's Education
Center (440 North Broad Street) will also be open on December 22 at
their regular times.

No School Today

Due to the weather, there's no school today. Schools will be open on tomorrow.


No School Tomorrow

KYW is reporting that there will be no school in Philadelphia tomorrow.

It's actually good news. SEPTA is a mess.


There's Music in the Air!

I've been so busy that I forgot to mention how excited I was about my kids' holiday concert! In a word: awesome.

Our school cannot afford a full time art teacher but has managed to hire a full time music teacher. I can't stress enough how wonderful I think this is.

My kids love music. Heck, I think all kids love music. And every school should have a music program.

Music reaches across cultures. It reaches across races and economics and religions. My daughter, who is not Jewish, knows more about Hanukkah than I do - because of music. She has now performed two Hanukkah songs in concert. She has also learned songs about Kwanzaa, as well as Christmas (no Eid songs, but then she already knows about Eid from family).

The thing that struck me most about the concert, though, wasn't the variety of songs - or even the level of performance (which was terrific). It was that every kid on that stage, no matter what age, seemed to be really, really enjoying what they were doing. There was such joy, such excitement, from all of the kids. It was really inspiring.

My good friend who came along, who doesn't have kids, dabbed at her eyes and said to me, "Okay, now I'm seriously going to cry."

Me too. It was that wonderful.

Let's do everything that we can to keep arts and music in our schools.

Parent Teacher Conferences and Report Cards

This week was Parent-Teacher Conference week at school. During conferences, report cards are distributed and you have a few minutes to talk with your child's teacher about the year.

A few minutes.

Conferences are scheduled 10 minutes apart. Just 10 minutes to talk about the entire year so far. It's not much time.

One of my girls had terrific marks and excellent behavior. The conference was a breeze.

The other had terrific marks - but a behavior issue. And 10 minutes isn't much time to have that conversation.

I'm conflicted because I understand that the time that teachers have to discuss issues with parents is limited. But I also understand that communication is so important. 10 minutes just isn't much time.

Another parent standing outside of the school had the same experience. Literally grabbed a report card and got a "he's doing great!" from one teacher. But her other child had some serious issues that needed to be addressed. And she only had 10 minutes.

You're supposed to be able to discuss your kids outside of those times by making appointments to see teachers. But not all teachers are as accessible as others. And so far, it's been my experience that the ones that make themselves the most accessible aren't the ones that I need to see.

We're trying to sort out all of the information that we received (as limited as it is) and make some decisions over the break. I just wish we felt like we had more time to talk with the teacher.

(BTW, the principal is a whole other story. At our school, the principal is always available.)


Are My Kids Safe?

I've always said that my biggest concern about moving my kids from private school to public school was whether they would be safe. That's it. I don't think they need Latin in the 1st grade or the college level Calculus classes in the 5th grade. And while they need an attractive campus, the lack of an oak tree or two (while more would certainly be desirable) doesn't mean that they are learning any less.

But I won't budge on the safety issue.

Last week, on December 3, at South Philadelphia High School, all hell broke loose. There were reports of at least five separate attacks inside the school, resulting in at least seven students being taken to the hospital.

The reported reason? Racially motivated attacks. Only probably not what you're thinking. It was actually African American violence on Asian students.

District spokeman Fernando Gallard says that the district has increased the number of school and city police at the school and around it.

But students and parents don't think that is enough. They claim that there is a history of violence and racial tension at the school. As a result, this week, about fifty Asian students have boycotted school.

The response from the School District has been disappointing. I am extremely concerned about how much time has passed since the attacks and Dr. Ackerman's public comments on the matter. It gives the impression, fair or not, that this incident is not a priority for her - or that perhaps they're hoping that this will just all fade away.

As a parent, that gives me serious pause.

When kids go to school, they should expect to feel safe every single day. No exceptions.

And teachers and administrators should clearly send the message to kids and parents that it's what's supposed to happen every single day. No exceptions.

But that's not the message that we're getting here. We're getting conflicting messages about violence statistics at the school (from "but really, it's better!" to "er, maybe not") - statistics that, at the end of the day, won't explain away bruises on a high school kid. We're hearing racial platitudes but no indication that there's a real commitment to ending the hate (don't get me started on how it's clearly been lost that our community is a mix of races).

I am looking forward to Dr. Ackerman's statement today - I hope that it goes beyond the planned "diversity committee" and reflects an action plan. Without action, committees and speeches are worthless. And our children don't deserve that.


The Infamous Take-Home Folder

I'm a big fan of the take-home folder. At our school, and I assume district-wide, students take home a folder midweek. On one side, there are papers to be reviewed, usually signed, and returned. On the other side, there are papers for parents.

It's a great system, when it works.

Today, a parent complained to me that the teacher in her child's classroom had not sent home the folder in more than a month. Since it is a weekly occurrence in both classrooms for my girls, I found this a bit surprising. I would think that a parent would have asked the teacher at some point, but I guess that didn't happen.

What that did drive home for me, though, was how much I rely on those weekly folders. While I do subscribe to school and district email (but not the robo-calls), the folders do a better job of keeping me up to date about what's happening this week. It helps us stay a bit organized. And it helps avoid episodes like today when other parents were under the misimpression that it was an early dismissal - an older calendar had never been replaced in some classrooms.

I'm sure the district spends millions of dollars trying to improve its communications with parents. And I do love email and web updates - they're quick and convenient.

But a take-home folder? Brilliant in its simplicity.


Scheduling Shake Up

There's been a scheduling shake up at my kids' school. Gym days are no longer gym days. Extra computer days. Music has been moved around... Gah! I can't keep it straight.

At the house, we had to buy - and I'm not kidding - a white board/calendar just for writing the kids' schedules down. And they're in elementary school.

It's insane.

When I was a kid, we didn't have special days. We just went to school. And some days were more exciting than others.

I'm pretty sure that there was a rhythm to when our music teacher came to the classroom (she travelled) or when we had art (also travelled). I'm also reasonably sure that we didn't have an idea what that schedule was.

And while I am glad to have the information about scheduling, I also find it a little intimidating. School is more complicated than work these days. *sigh*



I'll admit it: I am not a fan of the robo-calls.

Trent Cole of the Eagles robo-called me today to leave a message about the free eye exams offered by the School System. I'm enthusiastic about the eye exams but I'm not sure about the effectiveness of the message when calling parents during the "getting ready for school" hour.

Ditto the calls at night. While I'm trying to get the kids ready for bed, taking care of homework and getting baths, I don't need to be rushing to the phone to find out when the next Home and School meeting is going to be.

I realize that this isn't a terribly popular concept but what about email? I know that all parents don't have access to the internet at all hours (apparently less than 50% of Philadelphians have daily internet access) - but why not offer it as an option: email or calls?

And with all due respect to those who rely on the phone, what percentage of parents do you think actually sit through such lengthy messages? I would venture to say less than a handful. I think most hang-up midway through the call. How effective is that in terms of communications?

I do listen when my school principal calls with short messages. But combined with those from the district, there are simply too many calls.

More effective communication needs to be a top priority in the district. There's no question. And robo-calls are not the solution.


Give Kids Sight Day

Get a free eye check and free glasses on "Give Kids Sight Day": Saturday, November 21, from 8am to 2pm. Participating locations are at Wills Eye Institute, 9th & Walnut, Center City and Eye Institute, 12th & Godfrey, Oak Lane.

No appointments necessary and no insurance needed.

For more information about "Give Kids Sight Day" contact PCCY at 215.563.5848 or visit www.pccy.org/sightday

** Information courtesy of flyer sent home with Philadelphia public school students.


November: Month Full of Holidays

November is a funny month. It feels like there's only the one big holiday: Thanksgiving. But in reality, there's practically a holiday from school every week. There's Election Day, Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving - three of the four weeks have days off. The only week without a holiday is the week of the 16th.

I'm lucky in that I have a job which allows me a great deal of flexibility. But I can't imagine how other parents do it. So I'm curious:

How do you manage to take a day off per week to watch your children? Or do you hire additional child care? Or, as some parents do, just go to work and hope for the best?



At school today, the kids celebrated Halloween with a parade at school.

It was interesting because my youngest child also had a Halloween party (parents were asked to bring in snacks and treats for the party) but my oldest child did not. I understand the reasoning (the teacher in my oldest child's classroom does not celebrate) but it was still odd.

I was really pleased, though, that there was some "to do" made over the holiday. I have a fairly ethically broad circle of family and friends, so my children have grown up celebrating everything from Easter to Passover to Eid and more. I love that my children get a wide view of the world and learn to celebrate in all kinds of ways.

So far, the public school has done a much better job of exposing my children to a wide variety of cultures than my daughter's former private school. In fact, it felt like the private school went out of its way to stress cultures other than our own - and in the process, completely negated my daughter's own culture. It was one of the biggest disappointments at the school (a Friends school) which was otherwise a wonderful place.

I realize it's a big world. And I realize that we're in the majority when it comes to race and religion and ethnicity in our little corner of Pennsylvania. And I do want my kids to embrace all cultures. But I don't want it at the complete expense of our own culture.

So that's why I was so happy to see the kids in Halloween costumes today. Holidays are fun expressions of all kinds of cultures. Let's hope that Philly public schools continue to embrace a number of them.


BRT and the School District

The following is taken, verbatim, from an email that I received yesterday. I may have some follow-up thoughts later (have to get the kiddos up shortly):

What should $4.5 million
of school cash buy?


THIS . . . . .

80 employees of the Bureau of Revision of Taxes whom the Mayor's Task Force said were perceived as "patronage hires who do not add value"

OR THIS . . . . .

Reduce class size by one-third in elementary schools citywide;

  • Hire 50 music teachers;
  • Employ 50 new librarians for schools that don't have them;
  • Give 500 spots to students on a wait list to return to alternative high school degree programs;
  • Ensure that more than 800 sports teams citywide remain in place;
  • More full-time nurses for every school



What are 80 employees of the Bureau of Revision of Taxes doing on the School District's payroll? That's a question Parents United has been asking for over a year.

This month, the School District of Philadelphia, the Mayor and parent and education advocacy groups called for an end to a practice where city kids are forced to pay $4.5 million for 80 BRT employees who are neither hired nor supervised by the District.

With the District seeking to cover a $200 million shortfall by taking $4 million directly out of school budgets, this cost becomes even more clear.

What's the problem? City Council apparently disagrees. A new Council bill leaves all BRT jobs at the School District, eating up precious dollars that our kids need for school based funds. Our kids - their politics!

Will you give us
5 minutes for $4.5 million?

Sign the petition here!


Councilman Bill Green: 215-686-3420
His council bill keeps the BRT jobs at the School District.

Councilwoman Marian Tasco: 215-686-3454
"I don't think it's an issue for any of the Council members, just for the mayor." Tasco, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 8th.

Councilman Darrell Clarke: 215-686-3442
Clarke dodged the issue of whether school kids should pay for the workers and said instead that "he did not believe in a political ban for any city employees" and that "it's wrong to assume that patronage workers cannot be effective." Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 23.

Councilman Frank DiCicco: 215-686-3458
"The patronage employees become a good scapegoat . . . because they don't have the skills that are necessary to do the job correctly, through no fault of their own." DiCicco, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 23.

Council President Anna Verna: 215-686-3412
She says she'll address the BRT's problems but declines to comment on the patronage workers. Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 23.

Please take a moment to call upon Education Chair Jannie Blackwell (215-686-3418) to support the BRT call. She has withheld initial support for Green's bill.

Please thank Councilman Frank Rizzo (215-686-3440) who is the first councilman to openly support the removal of BRT workers from the District payroll!
"If you're going to just cherry-pick and not take on the tough part, the political part, you're going to have another bureaucracy with a different name." Rizzo, Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 9th.



How Many Charlennis Are Out There?

Like many other parents across the greater Philadelphia area, I was both saddened and shocked to hear about the death of Feltonville's Charlenni Ferreira.

Charlenni would have been 11 years old this week, only she didn't make it to her birthday. Those entrusted with her care, her father and her stepmother, killed her. Only, they didn't kill her immediately. First, they killed her spirit and then, little by little, they beat her and abused her until she died of a lung infection.

In September, Charlenni was examined by a school nurse. The nurse had noted that she had difficulty walking and six unexcused absences during the last school year due to "parental neglect/noncompliance." The nurse asked for her medical records and told Charlenni's parents to take her to a doctor. The doctor found that there were old and new injuries that included broken bones and a severe head gash.

This wasn't the first time that a school official had noticed a problem. Three years ago, a nurse at Clara Barton Elementary school reportedly alerted DHS that she suspected abuse. The case was closed in early 2007.

Schools are required to reported instances of suspected child abuse to DHS. The district then notes on the child's file if DHS becomes involved.

While the school district won't comment on the specifics of Charlenni's case, you would hope that they followed procedures. Because it's not really clear in this situation where things fell apart but it is clear that it did, in fact, fall apart in a horrible, terrible manner.

I can't fathom how a parent could hurt their own child. I also can't imagine any reasonable adult that suspects abuse just walking away from this case. Neighbors reported that Charlenni walked with a funny gait, had bruises and a swollen face and wore a wig. A wig. I just don't understand how you can see that and not want to do everything that you can to find out what you can do to help.

That said, I've heard a lot of criticisms about the roles of school officials in this case. I don't think it's fair for society to assume that schools can be solely responsible for saving our children. There were so many potential players in what could have been the race to save Charlenni, and not the march to bury her.

But I hope that the school district really pays attention to this case. From the press, it sounds like the school nurses were really involved - and I want to believe it. I've been really impressed with the school nurse at our school. However, not every school has a nurse. And even in a school with a nurse, there's only so much that can be done at the school level.

Because while our schools can't necessarily save every child that walks through their doors, they can certainly do everything possible to make children feel safe and respected and valued. Let's remember that.


And Click! Picture Day.

I hate school photo day. Is it just me?

For one, there's the whole "what is my kid going to wear?" thing. There's no consistency anymore. I was looking out over the playground on picture day and I saw everything from football jerseys to party dresses that resembled prom dresses.

And then, there's the expense. The packages for photos are incredibly expensive. I know that the H&S makes every effort to keep prices down but the cheapest package starts at $10 and rockets from there. There are surcharges for everything from retouching to "premium" background. Considering that there are a number of school children in Philadelphia who come from low income homes, you'd think that there would be more (and better) options.

But here's my biggest beef: the forms. About a week or so before picture day, the forms come home. Of course, the idea behind the forms is that you're supposed to fill them out to place an order. But here's the catch: even if you're not ordering, if you don't bring the forms back, you're not allowed to be in the class picture. Think I'm kidding? Last year, my daughter forgot her form. I thought about it too late, but then remembered that there was a retake day (which I confirmed with the school office) and didn't worry - until my daughter told me that she was forced to sit out the class picture.

I get that you need an incentive to have parents return the forms. And clearly, it's the hope of the photographers that you'll buy the photos. But to deny a student the right to sit in on the class picture for not turning in some paperwork? Ridiculous.

Of course, I guess it works. This year, I had my forms in (grumbling all the way).

But I can't be the only parent who somehow forgets the paperwork once in awhile.

And, in fact, it's not even always the parents. My daughter brought her form and her check back home this year. They took her picture but failed to keep the form. I guess we can't win for losing.

It just seems so much more complicated than I remember. But then, isn't everything?


You Are What Your Students Eat: Principals On the Hook for School Breakfast

It's a real struggle to get my kids to eat breakfast at home before school. I'll be the first to admit that I don't have a real excuse. For me, it's not about money or having to leave for work obscenely early. It's totally all about lack of organization. Trying to get three kids dressed, at the table and eating, while I make lunches and get myself ready for work is no mean feat. And I am miserable at it.

That's why I was intrigued by the new push at our school to eat breakfast in the cafeteria before class starts. Our principal sent a note advising us that our children were encouraged to eat in the cafeteria before school - there was no mention of an income requirement.

And then I saw this article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I urge you to read the article but the gist of it is this: principals are now accountable for the number of student breakfasts eaten in each school. It actually affects their performance rating.

The reasons for this are kind of complicated but revolve around two basic concepts:

  1. Children who eat a good breakfast tend to perform better in school.
  2. The previous USDA policy of asking parents to fill out forms to qualify for free breakfast was met with great opposition.

Now, as I understand it, if a majority of students qualify for free breakfast and lunch, the entire school is eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch, no forms required. That part kind of feels okay - because I'd hate for a kid not to be able to ate because of paperwork. But making free breakfast available to everyone with a kind of "use it or lose it" slant doesn't feel right.

Even worse, if we're going to judge on numbers, I think we're looking at the wrong ones. While I realize that many children don't get a good breakfast because of a host of factors, I agree with Michael Lerner, president of Teamsters Local 502, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, that it's not realistic to hold the principal accountable for the number of children who eat at school. What if, for example, a high performing school has a number of kids who eat at home? Should the principal be blamed for this?

I find it all a bit disturbing. And I'm not in the minority here. A Philly Inquirer poll showed that 95% of those who voted were opposed to the new the District policy.

Philadelphia school principals have a lot on their plates already. Let's not add sausage and eggs to it, too.

H1N1 Flu Vaccinations Available for Philadelphia Students

The Philadelphia School District sent home a notice last Friday about upcoming H1N1 (swine) flu vaccinations. The notice, which has to be returned by Tuesday, advised that Philadelphia public school students in grades K through 12 would be offered the vaccine. Parents must approve the vaccines in writing by Tuesday, October 20, in order for their children to be eligible.

The vaccinations will be administered as a nasal spray, sometimes called Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV). The vaccination cannot be given to pregnant students and it is not recommended for students with asthma, sickle cell anemia, diabetes or other serious medical problems.

The vaccine is free.

Children 10 years of age or older will likely need only one dose of the vaccine, according to the notice, while those under the age of ten are expected to need two doses.

For more information about H1N1 (swine) flu, check out this web page from the CDC.


Happy Columbus Day!

It was a day off for Philly public schools for Columbus Day. I hope you enjoyed it.


Who Makes the Rules, Anyway?

I recently had an interesting discussion with a parent who was angry because a teacher at her child's school had a very different style of discipline than the parent. The parent felt that the teacher should make more of an effort to support the parent's discipline efforts instead of the other way around.

My friend who teaches said that this is a remarkably common school of thought, this idea that parents set the standards and schools should make an effort to work around those standards. Another friend agreed saying that teachers and schools are merely "borrowing" our kids and shouldn't endeavor to change them.

I'm not sure how I feel about all of this. I certainly don't expect the teachers at my kids' school to attempt to grasp my personal parenting style - and that of 20 other sets of parents. But I do understand the idea that, at the end of the day, the parent is the parent.

For the record, the principal at our school has been very adamant that the school sets the rules and the children (and parents) must follow them, no exceptions.

What do you think?


Early Dismissal

I have extremely mixed feelings on early dismissals. On the one hand, I totally appreciate that parents need time to make doctor's appointments and such - and that the schools don't want you doing those things on "their" time. Early dismissals are planned (about once a month, it seems) so that things that need to happen during "normal" school hours don't interfere with learning. Fair enough.

Except that workplaces don't offer early dismissals. And schools that siblings attend don't necessarily offer early dismissal. So, as parents, we're often left scrambling to arrange pick up and alternate child care and the like.

Tomorrow's early dismissal, like most, happens at 12:24 p.m. That's three hours earlier than normal. To accommodate the early dismissal, lunches are moved up. That means that, tomorrow, my youngest daughter eats lunch at 10:00 a.m. No, that's not a typo. It's not lunch, it's brunch.

The whole day is out of whack as a result. What I can't figure is why they don't combine more early dismissals into a full day out. Quite frankly, it's easier to manage a day out of school than a half day. At least for working parents.

(And no, this is not your cue to start screeching about how stay at home parents work, too. That's not what I mean. I mean that early dismissal can be disproportionately difficult for parents who have to arrange for alternate childcare during work hours, when they are not normally at home.)

But it is what it is. And so, tomorrow, I have to make arrangements for early dismissal. Wonderful.


All Schools Are Not Created Equal

I have a lot of good things to say about the school that my children attend. I also get defensive fairly quickly.

Over the last year or so, the school has garnered some good (local) press. It has been hard fought. But the inevitable snark and meanspiritedness that has occasionally followed has been tough to take.

In a nutshell, there's been a lot of "that's what happens in mostly white schools" and mutterings about rich, privileged kids. There has also been whisperings that some of the good things that are happening somehow aren't fair or deserved.

Let me take a deep breath.

First, to clarify, the school that my children attend is like many, many schools in Philadelphia. It's culturally diverse. In truth, by percentage there are more black children than white children. And about 5% of the school is classed as Hispanic.

Terms like "rich" and "privileged" also aren't fair. The majority of kids at the school qualify for free lunch. The remainder is mostly solidly middle and working class. There are a few professionals but nobody with the kind of "Gossip Girl" flair that would catch your eye.

You want to know the secret to our success? It's not a race thing and it's not a money thing. Nobody's in our pocket and we aren't pulling any strings. The real secret is... get ready... we have the perfect combination of staff and parents who care.

I know, you're disappointed. You were hoping for something more dramatic. But that's all there is, really. The parents at this school wanted something more for their kids and they went out and got it. Long meetings, lots of letters, planning committees, begging for funds, starting our own programs... And teachers and administration who care and won't accept just "okay" for an answer.

And that's our dirty secret.


School Nurses in Philadelphia

This week, the school nurse had to call me on two occasions to talk to me about my kids. On one of those occasions, I had to go pick up my daughter who had been sick at school. When I got to the school, she was sitting in the nurse's office, calming down, and waiting for me. Not in the hallway, not in her classroom, not in the school office. In a quiet corner office with the nurse.

As a parent, I have to say that there is something very comforting about having a nurse at my kids' school. My one daughter has some - we'll call them issues - and it makes me feel much better knowing that there is someone at the school who is watching out for her.

But that's not the case as a whole in Philadelphia. In fact, there are many schools which don't have a nurse at all. In response, Superintendent Ackerman has stated, as one of her goals:

At the school level, our immediate goal is to restore 27 nursing positions and eventually to have one fulltime nurse in every school building.

I just feel that this is absolutely mandatory. I grew up in one of the poorest counties in the country and our school had a full time nurse. It was a priority. Why not here? Why not now?

It's a fact that kids who aren't feeling well can't perform well in school. And it's a fact that kids who aren't feeling well can make other kids sick.

Our teachers have far too much going on to have to make these kinds of determinations on their own: Is the kid really sick? Should I call the parent? Is he or she contagious?

You really need a health care professional making these kinds of calls. I hope that Philadelphia gets its act together on this issue. School health is just so important - especially now with instances of flu, swine flu and occasional outbreaks of other scary diseases. We can't afford to skimp.


To Hoodie or Not To Hoodie

I am a big fan of school uniforms in Philadelphia. Quite frankly, it makes my life much easier in the morning. My kids know the drill - and now, they've even gotten their gym days down (on gym days, you must wear pants and sneaks - no dressy shoes or skirts for girls).

But the big question now is: to hoodie or not to hoodie?

Hoodies are not allowed in school. I think it's all very "gangsta" which the schools try to discourage (also on the no list from the "gangsta" culture are baggy pants, pants which are belted below the waist and showing your underwear or boxers).

But sometimes these absolutes aren't absolutes. And that's one of the frustrating parts of being a parent in a large school district - it can be hard to find answers.

You see, it's nearly impossible to find a light fall jacket for kids that doesn't have a hood. So, I bought my kids a few hoodies - not gangsta-hoodies but nice, school color specific hoodies from the Gap and Lands End. A couple of them are actually cable knit sweaters with hoods on them.

And you know where this is going... My daughter came home from school and said that her teacher said no more hoodies at school. I told her that I understood that she couldn't wear them inside the school but it should be fine on the playground. According to her teacher, still not allowed.

I asked a few other parents about this and apparently, there is much confusion. Some teachers are reporting to parents that you cannot wear a hoodie on school property under any circumstances while others say it's fine outside. Now, we have to ask the principal.

This can't be the first year that this question has come up. You'd think there would be some very clear cut instructions on the point. In the meantime, it's confusing and frustrating - my kids went to school yesterday without jackets of any sort (and it was quite cool out). Hopefully, we'll figure this mess out shortly.


It's a Holiday!

Schools were closed in Philadelphia today in observance of the Jewish high holiday. While I'm not Jewish, to those of my friends who celebrated today: Shanah Tovah!


So Mom, What's For Lunch?

I grew up as a lunchbox kid. My mom made my lunch every single day. For us, it was a financial decision. I think lunches were $1 (or perhaps 75 cents) and that was a lot of money for three kids five days per week. So, we packed our bologna sandwiches in Tupperware lunch boxes (remember those?) and our hot soups in Thermoses and headed off every morning to school - until about the 10th grade when I think the whining got to be too much for my mom. Then, it was fruit punch and chicken sandwiches, courtesy of the lunch ladies.

My kids take their lunch to school. I'm not 100% sure why - it actually just feels easier for me to do it myself than to worry about giving small children lunch money. Plus, that way I know exactly what they're eating.

I also know what the other kids are eating. I get the skinny from my oldest child, who is quite the "lunch swapper" in her class. I am trying to discourage it but I have to say, she has a little bit of the Donald Trump thing going on. She gets some pretty good stuff.

My kids have soft sided lunch boxes, much like soft sided luggage. They're insulated so that the food stays cold - unlike the private school that my daughter previously attended (and preschool), there is no refrigerator for lunches.

A typical lunch is a sandwich on homemade bread or in a pita (don't get too excited - I have a breadmaker and breadmaking is kind of my "thing"). It's usually salami, a favorite for my children, and cheese or PB&J. They also get a juice box, a piece of fruit, something salty like chips or crackers, a protein (usually a cheese stick or a BabyBel) and occasionally, a sweet (like a cookie or granola bar - Clif bars are also popular in my house). Sometimes, I'll also throw in carrot sticks or pickles. Lunch for the younger kids is ridiculously early - my daughter's teacher calls it "brunch" since it starts before 11 a.m. - so they also need a snack for the afternoon. I don't pack a separate snack. Since their packed lunch is plenty big, I tell them to eat whatever they don't eat at lunch for their snack. It works, they never come home hungry.

I realize that my children are fortunate because we can afford to give them a good lunch every day. They also get breakfast. I hesitate to call it a good breakfast because amid the chaos in the morning, one or more of them often eat better than others... But I usually try to give them cereal or yogurt with granola; every now and then, they manage some boiled eggs and bacon.

But what about those kids whose parents can't afford to feed them a good breakfast or lunch? Fortunately for students in Philadelphia, the Universal Feeding Program, a partnership initiative of the School District of Philadelphia and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides low-income students with a free breakfast and/or lunch. According to the District's web site, the program serves 200 of the District's 280 schools and provides an estimated 121,000 of the District's 167,000 students with breakfast and/or lunch - if you're doing the math, that's about 72% of Philly students.

The future of that program is a bit uncertain. The program has been threatened with closure a number of times, the most recent termination authorized in 2008. A number of politicians, including our Mayor and our Governor, spoke out against ending the program and US Rep Chaka Fattah was able to work out an extension. New bills are in the works, so keep watching to see what happens. You can follow school policies relating to school lunches, including updates to Philly's school food policies, at the School Lunch Talk blog.


What Are All These Black Kids Doing Here?

Those are the words allegedly uttered by Michelle Flynn, a Philadelphia public school teacher at Laura H. Carnell Elementary, when minority campers showed up at her private swim club.

According to a report by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Flynn later sent an email that said: "I personally know these kids because I teach at their school. . . . I don't feel comfortable with my children even going to the bathroom" while they're there.

As of tonight, Flynn still has a job at her Philadelphia public school, teaching the very children that she was apparently horrified to be around. What kind of message does that send to the children at that school? Flynn's superiors are throwing around words like "alleged" (despite the fact that some of Flynn's comments were in writing) and "free speech."

Hmm. Free speech. There's a civic lesson for our school children.

To be clear, I believe in free speech. And I believe in not rushing to judgement. And I believe in giving folks the benefit of the doubt.

But I also believe in role models and authority figures, as well as kindness, tolerance and decency.

Ms. Flynn apparently doesn't think those things are that important.

However, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission does. The Commission found that the club had racially discriminated against a Northeast Philadelphia day camp this summer. And a prominent figure in that saga was Ms. Flynn.

I'm not saying our teachers should be perfect. And I'm not saying that they should be held to a higher standard than other professionals. But I do think they should be held to a reasonable standard and what Ms. Flynn said wasn't reasonable. And it wasn't appropriate. And no child should ever have to experience that kind of hate - especially from their teacher.


H1N1 (Swine) Flu Shots

Parents just received word today that the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health will be administering the H1N1 (Swine) Flu vaccine free in every public school in Philadelphia. The vaccinations will be voluntary, not mandatory.

The vaccine will most likely be in October and parents will be notified beforehand. Parents will be asked to sign a consent form in order for their child(ren) to receive the vaccine.

I'll post more info as it becomes available.


School Libraries in Philly

In the midst of the noise surrounding the potential City shutdown due to the budget, I was pretty distressed to read on the Philadelphia Free Library's site that most public schools do not have a full service library. According to Young Philly Politics, "out of 281 public schools, there are 77 full-time librarians, 31 of which are in the high schools. At the elementary level, when literacy skills are most likely to increase the fastest, more than three-quarters and possibly as high as 80% lack a full-time librarian." Yowza.

And here's more detailed information, as reported by the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians:

  • 78% of schools in Central East Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 63% of schools in Central Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 70.3% of schools in East Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 15% of comprehensive high schools in the school district have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 71% of schools in North Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 30% of schools in Northeast Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 62.5% of schools in Northwest Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 61% of schools in South Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 59% of schools in Southwest Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

  • 63% of schools in West Region have NO LIBRARY STAFF.

That's some pretty sobering stuff.

The library at the school my children attend has a great library. That is tremendously important to me as library day is my oldest daughter's favorite part of the school week. Books to her, as for me, are like old friends. But perhaps Clarence Day said it best:

The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man:
nothing else that he builds ever lasts monuments fall;
nations perish;
civilization grow old and die out;
new races build others.
But in the world of books are volumes that have seen
this happen again and again and yet live on.
Still young, still as fresh as the day they were written,
still telling men's hearts, of the hearts of men centuries dead.


The First Week, A Recap.

The first week of kindergarten is officially over. Thank goodness!

As I noted before, the schedule for the first week of kindergarten is a little bit different in Philadelphia than what I was expecting. The whole idea is to ease your child into the whole school experience but depending upon your child's personality, that can be a good thing or a bad thing.

For my daughter, it was a bad thing. To be quite honest, I would have preferred that she start school on the first day as the big kids. She's an anxious child and all of that waiting for something to happen was really just freaking her out. Once school started, however, she loved it.

The class sizes this year are much larger than I anticipated. Whereas I was used to tiny classes at private school (which is not necessarily better from a social and other perspective), the classes at the public school have grown. I think this is a mix of things:

  • Catholic schools shutting down
  • Private school tuition on the rise
  • Economy hitting middle class families
  • Public schools getting better

You can't underestimate that last bit. As the word spreads that neighborhood schools are getting better, the schools are becoming more popular. It's kind of an odd paradigm because on the one hand, as the school gets better and grows more popular, you'd hope that it continues to improve. On the other hand, as the school grows, the potential for problems increases and struggles for "control" over the future of the school are to be expected. I can already sense some of the latter happening. I've been hearing the "why don't we..." chatter even as the school is trying to complete existing projects. I'm glad that we have many forward thinking parents on board but I hope that they can be flexible enough to understand timing and school district politics and those other intangibles that can't be controlled like you'd expect them to be. I say this because I've seen other schools implode over these issues. But I'm hopeful that our school can manage expectations and limitations a little better.

All of that said, my daughter's kindergarten has nearly 20 students. I know, not a lot compared to many other schools. But again, more than I anticipated. I think that they can have up to 30 in the class under the current union rules (I'm not completely sure). The reason I know there's a cap is because historically, Philly schools have had some issues with overcrowding inside the classrooms. A good friend yanked her child from school a few years back after her child was attacked inside the classroom - a classroom that was simply too crowded to be properly monitored. I'll admit that kind of thing gives me pause.

It's something I'll have to come to terms with because it's happening. The total number of kindergarteners in the school has increased markedly. This year, the school added another kindergarten class to keep up with the growth and classes were added in other grades, too.

To its credit, the school seems to be adjusting well to the growth. There are no "emergency" trailers outside the buildings as there are in other schools or staggered closing times to deal with the overflow of kids. It all seems to be going well. There has been some confusion over gym days and school lunch money, but that's to be expected.

Despite a few blips, the first week was a success. My daughter managed to meet some new friends and steal some time at lunch time to spend with her "old" friends from preschool. Perhaps the best sign? When I asked her how things were going, without putting down her book bag, she did a pirouette around the living room and yelled, "Great!"


Let's Get Physical

The Center for Disease Control claims that "children and adolescents should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of physical activity each day." Despite this recommendation, studies show that nearly 40% of all children watch more than 3 hours of TV per day. Combined with school, homework and sleep, that doesn't leave much time in the day for physical activity. As a result, children are moving less, eating more and becoming unhealthy.

The Philadelphia School District, like many other school districts, are taking steps to combat this problem. The 2008 Philadelphia School Health Profiles found that, among middle and high school schools in the district, 44% required students to take two or more health education courses and 92% taught a required physical education course in all grades in the school. This is encouraging news.

At my daughter's school, gym is offered two times per week. On those days, the dress code is a bit more relaxed (sweats are okay) in order to accommodate physical activity.

To be honest, gym was my daughter's worst subject last year. She's not a "joiner" and tends to better in sports like swimming, where she can be content to be by herself. I'm thrilled, however, that gym is required and enforced at the school - not only does she need the physical activity, she needs the interaction with other kids, too (I happen to be a big believer that team sports build character).

Healthy initiatives for the rest of the school - including healthy snacks and help in making good meal choices - are also in the works. With health concerns for children on the rise, I'm glad to see that Philly schools are addressing the issue.


Philadelphia Schools Tackle Swine Flu

Swine flu (pandemic influenza A/H1N1) is expected to be a problem in schools across the world this year. Here's how Philly schools are handling it...

A letter was sent to all students and parents advising that the schools are aware of the flu strain and outlined a few guidelines:

  1. Students with the flu will be asked to stay home until they are fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications, generally 3-5 days.

  2. Frequent hand washing is encouraged.

  3. Surfaces that are frequently touched or handled will be regularly cleaned and disinfected.

  4. Children who are sick at school will be moved to a sick room and parents will be asked to pick them up.

  5. School closings will remain an option, though "current recommendations are to take such an action only if there is evidence that other measures are not working."

The seasonal (regular) flu vaccine is recommended for all school-aged children, especially those with underlying health problems. This vaccine will not protect against the swine flu.

For more info on the flu, the School District encourages you to check out www.health.state.pa.us, www.cdc.gov and www.flu.gov - you can also contact the Pennsylvania Department of Health (1.877.PA.HEALTH).

"Are You A Teacher?"

The day before school started, the school supply aisles at Target were widely empty. I wheeled my cart up and down, noting a few remaining boxes of crayons and some pretty sad looking book bags. I picked up exactly two pairs of school scissors and moved on. As it turns out, school scissors weren't even on my list.

After meeting with the teacher for my daughter's kindergarten class, I set off for Staples with two back to school lists in hand. The lists were incredibly specific (down to the color of the folders) and I managed to fill an entire shopping cart at Staples with markers (Crayola original colors, broad tip); sharpened #2 pencils with latex-free erasers; 2 pocket folders; composition books; pencil sharpeners (covered); tissues; hand sanitizers; soft pencil cases; and more. The final "damage"? More than $100.

As I was checking out, my cashier said, "Are you a teacher?"

"Nah," I said, "Just a mom." I flashed the two school supplies lists at him. "School supplies list," I mumbled.

"They're crazy this year," he said to me.

Yes, yes, they are.

Notwithstanding the issue that everyone is clearly freaked out about swine flu (I had a hard time finding a display of hand sanitizers that had any bottles left - and the boxes of tissues left were the ugly ones with the roses on them), the school supplies lists feel like they're getting more complicated. My cashier said that he had seen a couple that included dry erase boards - really? For grade school? That feels very over the top.

I paid for my school supplies and went home to separate and label them. All of the school supplies have to be labeled with your child's name - even the community boxes of tissues. So, there I was, Sharpie in hand, trying to figure out how to fit my kids' names onto ridiculously small items (ever try writing a full name on a pencil sharpener?). The whole process - from starting to shop to finally packing up - took hours.

I guess gone are the days when you just showed up with a pencil and a tablet...


Tony Danza Goes to School

In case you missed it, there was a great piece in the Inquirer today about Tony Danza's teaching stint at Northeast High for a reality show.

It will be interesting to see how it turns out, how real it actually is, how the kids end up being portrayed on TV. Cameras are not always kind to Philadelphia kids - I remember the episode of MTV's "Real World" when the Philadelphia Soul and the Real World kids teamed up to build a playground at Northern Home in northwest Philly. There was a lot of editing to make the neighborhood around the home look very "urban" and one of the cast mentioned something about the lack of green space, which couldn't have been further from the truth. Editing is important and I hope the show portrays our kids in a fair manner.


First Day of School

Today was the first day of school for Philly public schools.

Fortunately, we managed to get our daughter off to school without a hitch. Her very, very best friend from last year isn't in the same class but she is, nonetheless, really happy.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when she came home. When I asked how school was, she said, "GREAT!"

She also proceeded to advise - at around 7:00 p.m. - that she needed a certain number of school supplies by the morning. Needless to say, that's not going to happen.


Buying School Uniforms

Yes, I am that mom that was running around at the last minute, looking for school uniforms... But I did manage to get them.

If you're looking, some good places to try in the City or online:

Those, of course, are department stores. There are also a number of smaller stores that specialize in school uniforms. I haven't tried any of them but I've heard from other parents that have. You might want to give these a look:

If you know of any other stores, feel free to add them in the comments.

School uniforms vary from school to school in the City. Generally, the rules involve some kind of collared shirt in white or a school color plus pants or skirts in navy or khaki. No jeans, no sweats.

I didn't think I would like relying on school uniforms but they've turned out to be great. There is no drama in the morning, no worries about what to wear, no crying because my daughter's favorite dress is in the wash or that her best friend has better jeans than she does. It's all, more or less, the same. And that's a good thing. Trust me.



School starts in a few days and we have yet to buy back to school clothes. It's been that kind of summer.

Fortunately, back to school clothes are pretty straightforward since Philadelphia public schools require uniforms. The colors vary from school to school but usually take on some variation of blue or khaki pants for boys and girls, with girls having the option of a jumper or skirt. Shirts must be collared. Most kids wear polo shirt type shirts and some schools even have "official" shirts that you can buy if you want (those usually have the logo or school name embroidered on the shirts).

I love school uniforms. I expected resistance from my oldest daughter who had been allowed to wear whatever she wanted at her private school. There was no resistance at all. In fact, I think she liked the idea of not having to make choices that early in the morning... And so did I.

This year, since my oldest hasn't grown a lot, she'll probably start out the year in her spring jumpers. She definitely needs new shirts - you can't keep a first grader clean for long.

My kindergartener-to-be needs everything. She doesn't have the first piece of her uniform. She's our fashion maven, so it will be interesting to see how she reacts to the idea that her color and wardrobe choices are restricted. My fingers are crossed.



When I was a little kid going to kindergarten, the first day of school was pretty straightforward. Boy, have things changed.

In Philadelphia, kindergarteners do not start school on the same day as the rest of the elementary school children. They start a week later. This, I knew. But it's not as simple as that.

The week before, you meet with your child's kindergarten teacher. You fill out papers and otherwise get acquainted. On that day, you find out which day your kindergartener actually starts school since those days are staggered. It's all terribly complicated even though it makes sense in the abstract.

We got the call this week for our appointment. We'll all set to go for next week. My daughter gets to meet her teacher and ask questions. She's terribly nervous about the whole process, even though she is familiar with the school since her older sister attends the same school.

As an aside, I also figured out that there's a really bizarre "wish list" that goes on with respect to teachers. Apparently, certain parents want certain teachers. Clearly understandable (we got the teacher we had hoped for). But there's a whole subculture of positioning and whatnot to get the "best" teachers. Yes, for kindergarten. Go figure.


How bad is it?

I think it should be said that, even before the great public schools experiment, I was a fan of the idea of public school. I attended public school as did my husband.

The public school that I attended for most of my childhood (actually, the great majority of my childhood: K-10) was fine. It wasn't a great school. It was tiny and didn't offer that much in the way of choices - in fact, the year that I entered 10th grade was the first year that the school had ever offered more than one foreign language. It was French and it was taught by a teacher that had some college French about 20 years ago. Needless to say, the program wasn't spectacular.

But that wasn't the point. Growing up, I didn't need a million languages to choose from or levels and levels of AP classes. My parents had certain criteria - the same criteria that I had, more or less, for my kids: a safe school, a neighborhood school where you could learn the basics.

As you read the blog, I don't want to give the impression that I had expectations for Philadelphia public schools that weren't being met because I wanted too much. I didn't demand Latin or calculus in elementary school. I don't think my children need to learn cello in kindergarten. I actually started out the process by wanting the basics: a safe, neighborhood school.

That isn't as easy as it sounds.

Before I decided to take the plunge into Philly public schools, my good friend and neighbor decided to be the pioneer. She enrolled her daughter in public school. A few months into the school year, her daughter was attacked by another child. As it turned out, her daughter was fine, just scared. But it also turned out that the child who had been the aggressor had "issues" and this wasn't his first offense. He had, it was explained, had a difficult life, as if this was supposed to excuse everything. This, we learned, is a recurring problem in the public school system. Since every child is entitled to an education by law, it turns out that some children are apparently entitled at the expense of others. So the best solution ended up being that my friend took her child out of public school (and enrolled her in private school) and we all breathed a sigh of relief. That, we thought, was the end of that.

Only it wasn't.

Sometimes, even when you don't want to be the catalyst for change, you are. And my friend may have been the catalyst for change even though it was at the expense of her child.

Things changed after the incident. Class size decreased. The number of aides increased. And yes, that meant some things had to go - the money for this didn't just magically appear. Art and music took a beating. But it was a step in the right direction. A few years later, when my daughter enrolled in that same school, class size was manageable and school violence was minimal.

But that doesn't mean that we don't still have concerns. The elementary school where my daughter is enrolled is a feeder school for the local high school. And just last week, that high school was named one of Philadelphia's most dangerous schools. Not exactly encouraging.

When I met with the Regional Superintendent about the high school, he had a very interesting comment for me: it only takes four years to change a high school. Four years.

And with that, I have hope.


Taking the Plunge: Public School in Philadelphia

September 8 is the first day of school for public schools in Philadelphia. It feels incredibly late for school to just be starting but nonetheless, I feel remarkably unprepared.

This is Year 2 of the great public schools experiment. After the first year - which seemed to fly by - I was inundated by questions from my friends. Suddenly, in my circle, I became the mom who knew things. Only here's my little secret: I still feel completely clueless.

I am not your typical Philadelphia public school mom. And I know, ahead of time, how all of this is going to sound. And I've decided that I'm okay with it. I'm okay with it because I understand that we are willing to believe that Philadelphia schools are okay, that they are all about diversity and that they respect their cultures of their respective neighborhoods. Only that's a lie.

Here's what's true: many Philadelphia schools are struggling. The system, as a whole, needs help. And because of that, the schools don't reflect the cultures of their respective neighborhoods. Instead, they look like what happens when you rely on bussing kids into a "neighborhood" school while many, many parents choose to send their kids to other schools. For a mixed bag of reasons, many parents in Philadelphia opt to send their children to private or parochial schools. I should know: I was one of those parents.

I am a professional married to a professional. My family lives in a nice house in a nice neighborhood in the City. It's all so very... nice. Except for the school situation.

For two years, we drove our daughter outside of our nice neighborhood to a private school in another neighborhood. Every morning, it was the same routine: rush, rush, rush. Get in the car. Drive by our local public school to the private school our daughter attended. The expensive private school.

And we were happy. Sort of.

We were happy with the education that she received. The private school was a Friends School. We liked the climate and curriculum. But we weren't happy with the commute or our schedule. And we definitely weren't happy writing a big fat check every semester. It was already like paying for college - and we had two more children to go.

So we did what every other set of parents in the same situation in Philadelphia would do: we put our house on the market. We found a house in the suburbs and we planned to move.

We were willing to make this sacrifice, to leave our friends and the life that we had grown accustomed to for the sake of our children.

And it really, really sucked.

At some point, we realized that we couldn't do it. We pulled the house off of the market and sent our daughter back to private school. Reluctantly.

In the meantime, we enrolled our second daughter in a more local preschool. Within weeks, she had been asked to a number of play dates, all of which were a few minutes' walk or drive away. Our oldest daughter could rarely make parties or play dates: her private school chums were spread far, from Gladwynne to Chestnut Hill to Upper Darby. And so we thought about our choices again. We had decided that staying in the City was the right thing to do - but perhaps staying at private school was not.

Three tours of our local public school later, we made one of the most important decisions we could make as parents: we would enroll our daughter in public school.

I know what you're thinking: big deal.

Only it was a big deal. We knew of only one family in our circle of friends that had made a similar decision. One.

Many of our friends were shocked. Others were concerned. Public school in Philadelphia wasn't an option, they thought. What were we thinking? We were about to find out. This is our story.

Technorati Tags:
, , , ,