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.