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.