The Education Learning Curve

Today my children all return to school.  This year, I have two left in Elementary – one of them in his last year there – and one in Middle School and one in High School.  With four boys in three different schools its going to feel like a second job for me to keep on top of their schedules, deadlines, requirements, and commitments.

Every new year of having my kids in American schools has brought with it new challenges for me as a parent.  Between technology developing too rapidly for my grey matter, the generation gap, and a vocabulary gap because of being British, it can be difficult for me to understand what a homework assignment even requires the kids to do.  I do a lot of googling and watching demonstrations of methodologies on YouTube.  This year, however, with one kid in High School, I feel like I am in for an even steeper learning curve than ever before.

My oldest and I attended a High School induction day a couple of weeks ago and that revealed to me how out of my depth I was.  I went all the way through High School, an undergraduate degree, and a postgraduate degree, and I then taught High School.  I am, therefore, well versed in education and the transition between primary, secondary, and tertiary education.  In Britain.  When it comes to how all of this functions in America, I have next to nothing.  And I had better learn quickly because the years are rapidly flying past.

The talks that were delivered at the induction event involved a huge amount of assumed knowledge.  Acronyms were being bandied around with no allowance for anyone, like me, who had only a scant idea of what they stood for, what concepts they represented, or how they pieced together into something coherent.  What I think I grasped, however, is that there is a through-line from the beginning of High School to its conclusion that will determine prospects for tertiary education.  Yikes.  I thought I had a couple of years to figure this stuff out.  Apparently not.  So I need to hit the books myself now and get on top of such things as GPAs, SATs, ACTs, credits, dual enrollment, AP courses, and all of those other things I am clueless about.

This new experience, this new area of life I need to research, is another stark reminder that my adult life and experience was all but reset to zero when I emigrated.  Whole areas of my knowledge were voided and made irrelevant and – even after nearly four years of living in America – I am still a stranger in a strange land trying to fill those gaps in knowledge with new learning.  I am an old dog so new tricks are hard but I will work hard to understand what I need to know.

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Small Differences: Back to School Supplies

Goodness it has been a while since I wrote a “Small Differences” post!  I wonder if that is a sign that I am pretty well acclimatised and assimilated into everyday American life.

This morning my children all returned to school after the looooooong summer break.  We have had a lovely summer between our travel back to Britain, having guests, our History of Art project and having fun in our home environs.  However, the four boys and I have been together 24/7 for 10 weeks now.  As much as getting back into the routine will be a shock to the system, we all really need to get back into our own grooves.  My treat for my first child-free day in ages is to sit down with a hot cup of tea before running errands and doing the household chores.  Gosh, the lavishness.  As I waited for the kettle to boil, I thought about the way in which the preparations for the return to school differ on both sides of the Atlantic.  It involves a small but significant difference: school supply shopping.

In Scotland, the shopping preparation ahead of the new school year was clothes based. My kids would need outfitting in new uniforms, thankfully standard polo shirts and trousers that could be bought very affordably. The only items requiring much investment of thought and planning were the jumpers and the shoes – the former because they needed an embroidered logo so had to be ordered in advance and the latter because I had to buy them in time for school but not so soon that they were outgrown before they were required. Plus we lived 86 miles from the nearest big shops so the shopping trip was a bit of an expedition. But that was it. Just the uniform. Maybe a new backpack if the old one had been wrecked. Maybe some optional colored pencils in a pencil case.

Here in America, however, purchasing the supplies for the following year is a major endeavor and not too little an expense either.

Each year, the teachers issue a list of items that parents are expected – required – to supply. And it’s not a short list. Half a side of A4 is size 12 font for my Elementary aged kids and at least three quarters of a page for my Middle Schooler. With four kids to buy for, that’s a whole load of supplies. The items run from stationery – pencils, glue sticks, lined paper – to cleaning supplies – disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizing gel – to memory sticks and, this year, a chrome book for my oldest son, purchased through a school scheme.

What’s additionally annoying is that brand name items are requested – pretty much demanded. There’s no just doing a trolley dash around Walmart or Target and bunging in the cheapest items. No, no, no. Generic will not pass muster. For some items it makes sense: Crayola crayons lay down better pigment; anyone whose had to keep sharpening the same pencil because it’s lead constantly snaps appreciates the value of Ticinderoga pencils. But won’t store brand disinfectant wipes clean just as effectively as Clorox? Kids always leave lids off glue sticks so they dry out just as quickly if they are generic as they do if they are Elmer’s. But I submit and conform and fall in line as I don’t want my kids to be the one in the class handing in boxes of no brand tissues. Except my 7th grader can have reinforced cardboard folders with envelope pockets because the plastic ones are double the price. That’s my rebellion.

With four kids, the price of this stuff soon stacks up too. Last year I actually went to the bother of doing price comparisons. This year I decided that my time has a value too so no price comparisons and no visiting multiple shops. Instead I ordered the required box of goodies from the Elementary for the three younger kids. It might cost me a few dollars more but it saves me time, effort and not having to carry all that stuff to school on the first day.

The reason why I have to provide all of these items is the real bug bear though: schools are too underfunded to provide the necessary items from their own budgets. They, therefore, rely on parents to provide essential items of stationery. Ours is a good school district that’s funded better than many in the area but still I’m providing basic items like lined paper so my oldest can do written work and whiteboard markers for the teacher to actually write with.  If parents didn’t provide these items, likely the teachers would dip into their own salaries to purchase them. That’s something I did in my own teaching career but for items over and above the essentials. I would buy prizes for my students or extra little bits and bobs to make a wall display more visually appealing. At no point was I having to reach into my own purse for pens or pencils or paper for my students.

Chronic underfunding of education here, however, means that special, “treat” items come from fund raising – which is so near constant that I wish I could just hand over a lump some up front to not be perpetually hassled for money – and many essential items are donated by parents. And if it’s like this in our school district then materials must be thin on the ground in school districts working with very Spartan budgets, such as in Philly itself.

So it was a bit of a culture shock to be faced with shopping lists for school each year and I do feel hassled and peeved by it to an extent but I would rather the money be spent on teaching than on pencils. It’s just shocking to me that such decisions should even have to be made.

Date Night at the Middle School

There have been two previous occasions when my children have been babysat by someone other than their grandparents.  For the eleven years that we have been parents, Mr Pict and I have organised our lives so that should one of us have a commitment the other would be home to care for the children.  We, therefore, have never needed much in the way of babysitting but have always gratefully accepted offers of a child-free night from generous grandparents when they have been around to provide such a service.  Those two previous instances of non-family babystting were as follows: the first was when I had to go and chair some very important hearings only to discover that Mr Pict had double-booked himself at work and could not, therefore, be home to care for the four boys which necessitated me enlisting the help of a member of staff from the preschool the kids attended and she watched over them that afternoon so that I could make my commitment; the second was when Mr Pict was having surgery some distance from home and my friends all banded together and organised themselves so that they could, in a sequence involving three hand-overs between them, care for my three oldest sons so that they did not have to miss a day of school or accompany us to the hospital.  To summarise, therefore, both times were emergencies and there was no fun social evening involved.

Last night we hired a babysitter for the third time.  We employed the teenage girl who lives across the street who had done a wonderful promotion of her services by welcoming us with brownies when we first moved into the street and proffering cookies a few times since.  The boys were initially resistant to the idea but soon accepted and tolerated the fact that it was going to happen whether they liked it or not.  They were indeed good as gold for the babysitter and were more compliant about bedtime than they usually are with us.  Good result.

But what were the Pict parents doing with their child-free evening?  Dining out at a restaurant with heavy flatware, pressed linen napkins and menus printed on cartridge paper?  Watching a critically acclaimed play at the theatre?  Going to the cinema to see a movie aimed at grown ups?  Well, of course, the title to this blog post has already given it away: our child-free evening was spent at the local Middle School.  Let down?  Us too.

The reason for our evening excursion was that we had been invited to the Middle School our oldest son will be attending from September to hear various members of staff explain how things operate in that school and at that grade level and to take a self-guided tour of the building.  Children were not to attend, hence the need for a babysitter.  Technically one of us could have stayed home but Middle School is a new venture for both of us as parents and the “two memory banks are better than one” principle also persuaded us that we should both attend.

Mr Pict had been to the school before – to learn about their math curriculum – but I had only ever driven past it.  I must admit, therefore, that the fabric of the building was disappointing.  It is definitely the poor cousin out of the schools in the school district as the elementaries are all in decent condition and the high school is brand spanking new and shinily impressive.  I would guess the building dates from the 60s as it has that sorry, ill-conceived, municipal feeling to it that certainly buildings of that era in Britain are prone to displaying.  I wonder if perhaps it was an era where people were trying too hard to be avant garde and take wildly different approaches from architects of decades past and reinventing the wheel and making it worse.  The building was an absolute warren of corridors that wound their way around weirdly shaped communal spaces and specialised rooms including a central library that was essentially a tube running through the middle of the building.  Mr Pict and I got lost despite clutching a map.  Our oldest son will definitely get lost.  The bathrooms looked beyond shabby, like you might catch a rare or even previously undiscovered disease should you be foolish enough to sit rather than hover and squat.  The type of toilets that had me training my bladder to contain itself between 8am and 4pm every school day when I was in High School.  

However, it is not a building that determines the quality of a child’s education and that, of course, was the focus and the priority.  The classrooms were spick and span and the student work on display was of an encouraging standard.  The list of clubs available was fantastic as we could identify several our currently apathetic tweenager would want to join.  Most impressive, however, were the staff members who spoke.  Of course they were saying persuasive and encouragingly positive things about the school and what our child(ren) would experience, learn and develop there but there was also something to their tone and manner of presentation that testified to commitment and passion and drive for success that would filter down into the students in their care.  As a parent who knows very little about the American education system or each grade’s curriculum (but is furiously trying to gen up) and who has never been in a Middle School, I left feeling informed and positive about the quality of education my child(ren) would receive there.

A waste of a “date night” it might have been, therefore, but it was not a waste of a night.

Next time, however, we are going to dinner.

First Parent-Teacher conferences

Yesterday afternoon was my first experience of going to a parent-teacher conference in America.  It was useful to get a better have on the curriculum here and how attainment is assessed and reported as well as hearing about how well my three school age children are doing in this new education system.

I was almost embarrassed by the superlatives (positive, of course) being used to describe my kids. Their academic progress and their degree of participation is an excellent litmus test for how well they are settling into life here. In turn, them being more settled here helps me feel more settled here.