Is School the Enemy?

Once upon a time in America, hardly anybody learned the abcs. Oh, there were governesses and tutors and private academies of learning, but they were for the lucky few, the rich. The rest of us — farmers, laundresses, shipworkers, maids, ironsmiths — had no need for anything but on-the-job training. Then the rabble-rousers — Horace Mann in Massachusetts, John Joseph Hughes in New York, Catherine Beecher in Ohio and Connecticut, Booker T. Washington in Alabama — took Jefferson's “all men are created equal” idea and pushed it further: We can't all be equal unless we're all educated. The great experiment that is American public education began. Our schools became the lamps of the prairies, the torches of the tenements, great beacons of enlightenment sweeping up the huddled masses and setting them free. Teaching was a calling, the noblest of professions. Principals and superintendents were revered, pillars of the community. Schools had one job: to instill learning. They did it so well that upstart America became the mightiest nation on earth.

But something has gone awry in the once-cozy relationship between schools and families — and the much-publicized Battle of Moorestown, which pitted home-schooled special-ed student Blair Hornstine against her school district when it tried to name a co-valedictorian, is only one example. Scan the local newspapers, and you'll see evidence of other firefights taking place in this increasingly uncivil war: A Philadelphia 16-year-old, transferred out of a magnet school for her role in an off-campus brawl, sues to be reinstated. A Boyertown teacher, hit by rocks thrown by students and humiliated by fliers that superimposed her face on a pornographic image, is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. The Hatboro-Horsham School District settles a lawsuit brought by parents who say a guidance counselor urged their 17-year-old daughter to have an abortion without their knowledge, and used school bank accounts to facilitate it. In Central Bucks, popular 33-year-old middle-school art teacher Ryan Newman, son of a former superintendent, is sentenced to prison for having an affair with a 15-year-old student; a letter from her parents, read in court, says that because of his breach of their trust, “We will never know the person our daughter could have been.”

These are the extreme examples, of course. Far more common — and maybe more telling — are the lower-level skirmishes taking place every day between parents and educators. In districts all around the Philadelphia area, moms and dads complain that schools are hopeless bureaucracies unwilling — or unable — to meet the needs of their children. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators complain that parents are unsupportive of the schools and far too confrontational in advocating for their offspring. The result: Where parents and educators once stood shoulder-to-shoulder when it came to kids' educations, today they're posed on opposite sides of a steadily widening chasm.

That the former allies have turned to enemies is part of a larger, generational change. Parents today came of age as America was in the throes of a genuine cultural revolution, a seismic shift from the stolidness of Mitch Miller and Father Knows Best to the heady insurgency of Dylan and M.A.S.H. We grew up defying the Establishment, questioning authority. When we look back on our own educations, we remember strife: shouting matches over rock 'n' roll, hair length, skirt length, the Pledge of Allegiance.

We stuff all this into the backpacks when we bring our kids to kindergarten.

The schools know this. They do. “A lot of parents today had negative educational experiences of their own,” says Kathy Entrekin, principal of Upper Merion High and an educator for 31 years. “As a result, they tend to point the finger instead of ask.”

Mark Klein, a principal in the Council Rock district and the son of a retired school superintendent, has witnessed the drawing of the battle lines. “When a parent went in to see my father 20 or 30 years ago,” says Klein, a trim, friendly man with an easy smile, “there was a measure of respect accorded him. That has changed. People are more empowered to be aggressive. The level of inquiry and critique has increased immeasurably.”

Parents are willing to admit it: They're angry. But they say their anger is justified because public schools are failing in their mission. This is nothing new in the Philadelphia school district, where as many as 60 percent of students drop out before graduation. What has changed is that even in highly regarded suburban school districts, moms and dads are on the offensive — filing lawsuits, hiring advocates, clawing to get everything they think their kids need to become successful and fulfilled.

Think back to the first time you left your child at school. It was preschool, probably. Tender age of three or four. Brand-new Powerpuff Girls backpack. Extra pair of underwear, just in case. And a heart full of dread: Will she fit in? Will she be smart? Will she color inside the lines? Our darlings, our precious babies, were so long awaited, are so appreciated, have been gotten at such cost: in vitro, fertility drugs, surrogate moms, trips to China and Romania, acts of love all. We bring these children to the schools like flowers. And in return, the schools give us … report cards.

We don't do judgment well.

We are a generation of parents with different experiences and expectations from any before us. The schools aren't teaching the offspring of field hands and laundresses anymore. “We're in a generation when more of us are educated,” says A. Joseph Jennelle, principal of Central Bucks East High School. This has created an interesting dynamic. Where parents once sat meekly in the little chairs at parent-teacher night while Mrs. Jones expounded, now we're all in her face — asking questions, challenging her methods, generally being pains in the ass.

“You're probably going to think this is a really little thing,” begins Ellen, a 40-something Jersey mom who works in the insurance industry. “But last year, when our son began fourth grade, he started bringing home spelling lists, and some of the words on them were misspelled. We couldn't believe it!” After the third such list, Ellen sent a note to her son's teacher, asking that he call her to discuss the problem. “He never responded to me. My husband and I finally went to the principal.”

Strangely, going to the principal at age 38 or 40 isn't any more pleasant than going at age 10. “One thing I really dislike about the public school system,” says an unhappy Delaware Valley parent, “is that there is such an institutionalized flavor to it. The power is vested in it by the state, you know? It's like, ‘We're the Man.'”

And for those of us who came of age in the '60s and '70s, the Man gets our back up; we don't trust him, don't believe what he tells us, are suspicious of everything he does. We can't help ourselves; we grew up that way. “The public schools have to deal with so much bureaucracy, a lot of top-down stuff,” a New Jersey mother of two elementary-age girls says disapprovingly. “The people there are really busy. They have tests they have to give, meetings they have to go to, forms to fill out.” Though she lives in what is generally acknowledged to be one of the best public school districts in the nation, she pulled her kids out after the eldest finished first grade, and now sends them to private school.

The schools' institutional flavor leaves many parents feeling lost and helpless when they try to interact with teachers and administrators. Events like concerts and open houses are poorly publicized; parent-teacher conferences are allotted all of 20 minutes; in the wake of Columbine and 9/11, new security measures limit access and enforce a sense of separation from the community at large. “Being an involved parent these days,” one discouraged Montco dad complains, “is like being a sperm swimming upstream. The school environment is the opposite of friendly — it's designed to repel. They view us as the enemy — I guess because a lot of us are. But then they have the nerve to complain about a lack of parental involvement! If they want us involved, they need to make us feel welcome and keep us informed of what's going on.”

Our sense that our kids are caught in a huge, anonymous system that's beyond our control evokes memories of the films most emblematic of our generation: The Graduate, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. There are times when schools' Byzantine complexities, mysterious acronyms and endless red tape seem straight out of Catch-22.

Take the case of Jose, a Center City kid who spent kindergarten and first grade at Greenfield, one of the city's most sought-after elementary schools. At the end of first grade, Jose's teachers said his skills weren't where they should be.

“They said, ‘You might want to get him tested,'” recalls Jose's father, an ITadministrator. “You know that phrase, right? But you don't know the implications of that until later. Being good parents, we took him to be tested for his ‘learning style' by an educational psychologist. He was a bit traumatized by it. There were two four-hour sessions. He was only six years old.

“At the end of it they said, ‘Your son has learning differences.' I said, ‘What's a learning difference?' As opposed to a learning disability, which everyone knows about. ‘A learning difference,' they told me, ‘is more than one standard deviation between his verbal and analytical skills.'” The father rolls his eyes at the jargon. “They said, ‘You need a school with a smaller class size and more structure, because that will help him focus.' And they gave us a list — of half a dozen private schools.'”

Special needs and special ed have a way of making parents take up arms. What could be more cutting than being told your child isn't cutting it? The level of distrust ratchets up instantly — only to be reinforced by even more bureaucracy, with endless forms, battalions of child-ed experts, scary-sounding diagnoses, intimidating tests, a sea of initials: AAD, ABD, ALO, AEP… “I've been to parent-teacher meetings,” one suburban school social worker says, “where I've had to ask the parents to step out of the room, and I've said to the teachers, ‘This is somebody's kid we're talking about here.' It's so routine to us — the language, the abbreviations, the test names — but it's never routine for the child.”

And beneath all the red tape, we're haunted by the fear that the schools don't really get it, don't understand or appreciate our kids. “When Liam was in second grade,” a dad in Delaware County reports, “toward the end of the year, his teacher said she didn't know if he was being stubborn and didn't want to do the work, or if his add was a real thing. It dawned on us at that moment that she was in a kind of fight with Liam, instead of looking at him and trying to deal with him where he was.” On the other hand, one mom blames the schools for encouraging parents to put their sons on Ritalin. “There are a lot of teachers who just don't like little boys,” she says. “The teachers want them to be like the girls, and all sit still in rows.”

Even among parents who don't have special-needs kids, special ed is a hot topic, because it costs so much damned money, because that money gets siphoned off from the rest of the kids, and because the definition of who needs special-ed services has begun to seem infinitely expandable. Parents across the Delaware Valley swear that school districts tell them special-ed kids need private schooling so the districts can save bucks — or, more insidiously, in order to prop up their schools' all-important SAT and college-attendance stats.

“At my kid's school,” says a dad in Chester County, “80 percent of the students are ‘exceptional' and are in the gifted program. Zero percent are in need of help. If your child needs help, they try to get you to leave the district. One child we know, a third-grader, got tested at the school district's request. The school said, ‘She doesn't qualify for the Individualized Education Program.' That's a great program, by the way. They give you a tutor who walks around with you all day. The parents said, ‘What can we do instead?' And the administrator told them, ‘Move out of the district.'” One local family reportedly sued its school district to obtain a breakdown of what was being spent on kids in the gifted program as opposed to what was being spent on “normal” kids, convinced that the haves were being shafted by the have-mores.

At the heart of the war between parents and schools is a near-total lack of communication. Parents bitch and moan to each other, but we're afraid to say anything to the teachers lest our suffer for our discontent. So a Montco mom is overheard raging at pickup about a note her daughter's first-grade teacher has sent home: “She said I shouldn't give Mariah Tastykakes in her lunch anymore. How dare she tell me what to feed my kid? ‘Junk food,' she called it. But the doctor tells me I need to get Mariah to eat more. And she likes Tastykakes. What am I supposed to send — carrots? How can any teacher be so stupid?”

The communication breakdown can seem universal. “I've had my son in public school and in three different private schools,” says a Salem County parent who has had his share of battles. “They all talked the game of availability and communication. But it was never as good as it should be.”

Some educators point to e-mail as the perfect medium for improving dialogue, but at least one teacher begs to differ. “E-mail is the worst way for teachers to communicate with parents,” says Tony Morinelli, of the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr. “We're advised not to use it, in fact. When you read an e-mail, you can't tell whether the writer was being ironical or humorous or sarcastic. You have no vocal inflections or facial cues to guide you. E-mail has contributed more to misunderstandings between parents and teachers than anything else.”

The problem lies deeper than that, though. Parents often seem to be on completely different pages from educators, or maybe in different books. And while we can't always articulate what it is we want out of our kids' schools, we know when we're not getting it.

One mother found the divide was encapsulated in a conference she had with her daughter's first-grade teacher at an outstanding public school. “She was, like, really, really happy that Brianna had scored so well on the year-end standardized test,” Virginia explains. “But it didn't strike me the same way. I'd probably prefer not to be talking about a test right now, you know? What I wondered was, does Bri seem interested in and motivated by the subject? Does she want to go further with it?” Virginia never spoke to the teacher or principal about her concerns. “I just sort of started looking elsewhere,” she says. “I thought, this is a really good school, but I don't know if it's going to be good for my family. Maybe I just had the sense that the grass is always greener.” Today her daughter attends private school, for which Virginia pays $14,000 a year.

The failure to communicate runs both ways. One suburban mom reports that she got a call out of the blue from a guidance counselor about her ninth-grade daughter. “She said Kayla had been in the nurse's office a lot, complaining about being in school. She said Kayla had been cutting classes. It was the first I'd heard about any of it. She said I needed to spend more time with Kayla, needed to talk with her, be a better mother to her. She called me at work and told me this.”

“I was sitting right beside the guidance counselor when she made the call,” chimes in Kayla, a slim, intense girl with long, wavy hair. “She told my mom she wasn't being a good mom.”

Not long afterward, Kayla cut school, came home to an empty house, and tried to kill herself.

Her mother has home-schooled her ever since. What's more, she never even told the school what had happened. “They know nothing about what became of her. I removed her from the situation,” Kayla's mom says curtly. Her anger is palpable three years after the incident.

For every you-won't-believe-it story parents tell, educators have a matching tale of horror. They gripe about kids who have no manners, no ethics, no modesty, no respect for authority. They bemoan parents who frame every discussion as a full-scale war. “Some parents arrive armed for battle,” says Karen Goldman, an elementary-school guidance counselor who works in suburban New Jersey. “They'll start by saying, ‘I want you to know straight off, I won't drug my child.' In some black and Hispanic circles, there are rumors that the schools are out to drug all the little black kids. That's an extreme example, but when somebody starts out defensive and cynical, it's hard to get anywhere.”

“You know what happens nowadays when I call in parents to talk about a child's discipline problems?” asks the assistant principal of a suburban middle school. “The parents come in and shout at me — right in front of the kid. How am I supposed to demand respect from the students when their parents don't show me any?” Educators don't see so much a failure to communicate as a failure of parents to do so in any constructive way. Encouraged by bad TV and a general victim mentality, they say, moms and dads just let fly. “What these parents don't understand,” says principal Mark Klein, “is that when you dress down the teacher, you're sending a strong message to your child.”

Sometimes, the message kids are getting is even more warped. “Parents need to know we care about their children,” says Joe Jennelle, of Central Bucks East High School. “But caring means having the courage to confront the kids. I once had a student referred to me for smoking in a restroom. The parent called and said, ‘No. He was not smoking.' There are parents who will defend and enable their children.”

Ironically, some of those same parents are remarkably unforgiving when teachers are the ones having problems. Last year, a Chester County elementary teacher suffered a major bout of depression and ended up taking a semester off to get his life in order. He fought hard to come back from his illness, clinging to one thought: The kids in my class need me. He made it through, pushed past the darkness, returned to his classroom in triumph —

And was devastated when several parents who'd heard scuttlebutt about his problems asked the principal to have their kids removed from his class. In the eyes of the teacher's union, a mental illness is no different from, say, high blood pressure: You have a medical condition, you take a leave, get on meds, get it under control, come back. The way the parents saw it, though, was: Psycho teacher! Who would leave a little child in the care of someone who was mentally unstable?

“You know what I find ironic?” asks the teacher. “Half of those parents [who complained] are probably on Prozac. But nobody suggests they're in any way unfit to parent a child.”

In a study earlier this summer by the nonpartisan policy research group Public Agenda, more than three-fourths of teachers surveyed agreed that they are “scapegoats for all the problems facing education.” Their frustration is deep and wide. “They feel unsupported — not only by administrators, whom they believe they should be able to depend on, but also by parents, who they believe are missing in action,” reports the president of Public Agenda.

“It used to be that public education was just teaching reading, writing and arithmetic,” says John Armato, director of community relations for the Pottstown School District. “If that was still our mission, our schools would look very different.” But parents, educators say, have left the building, big time. We don't volunteer to help at school events. We don't join the pta/pto, especially once our kids move past the elementary years. More fundamentally, we don't teach our kids any manners or compassion, or that it's wrong to lie. Perhaps because we're clueless about what to say — “I did drugs, but you shouldn't.” “Your father and I lived together before we were married, but don't you dare.” “Okay, so I got arrested for dui — but I don't ever want to catch you drinking and driving!” — we no longer even teach them about sex or drugs or alcohol. It's so much tidier to have the schools do that dirty work instead.

“A lot has been abdicated to us,” says David Blatt, superintendent of the Council Rock district. “We have to serve breakfast. We have after-school and preschool programs. We're responsible for increased transportation, even of nonpublic-school students. There's pregnancy, birth control, that whole sexuality-education thing. We have people who are new to the country, speakers of languages other than English.”

Many of the new duties educators find most onerous come in the form of mandates. These are directives passed by legislators — “Encourage multicultural education,” for example — that sound perfectly logical and good to voters, but wreak havoc on school-district budgets because the legislative bodies that hand them down don't provide any funding for them. “They have to answer to the people who are telling them what to do — to their big supporters,” one weary educator says of legislators who keep loading on the mandates. “The school districts don't give [candidates] any money. So why would they listen to us?”

What makes the situation even worse are parents who, in looking out for their own kids, push to expand what those mandates mean. Guidance counselor Goldman cites as an example Section 504 of the 1973 Americans With Disabilities Act, which says schools must provide services for regular-education students with disabilities that impact “any major life function.” “Years ago, that was interpreted to mean breathing, say, or walking,” Goldman explains. “But recently, some parents who don't want their kids in special ed have focused on Section 504. A huge majority of the kids getting Section 504 services in my district are add/adhd. Those services aren't covered by federal funding. It all comes out of local taxes, regular education dollars.”

There's no legal obligation, Goldman points out, for public schools to provide the best placement for kids: “The only obligation is to provide ‘free and appropriate' placement.” But how could “appropriate” ever be enough for these kids we are so vested in?

“We have so many attorneys with kids with special needs,” a Main Line mom says ruefully. “And they're very organized. There's an enormous amount of litigation.”

There's a difference, teachers say, between using the system and taking advantage of it. And parental advocacy these days is apt to cross the line. With competition for slots at top colleges more cutthroat than ever, news reports have surfaced of parents having their kids diagnosed with add and adhd in order to take advantage of the extra time such students are afforded to take their sats. In response, the Progressive Policy Institute, among others, has called on schools to “make special education ‘special' again.”

Yet the same parents who hire lawyers to make sure their add-diagnosed kids are given tutors and special learning plans and extra time to take the sats are voting for school-board candidates who promise no tax increases — and how crazy is that? Gail Cohen, assistant to the superintendent in the Cherry Hill school district, laughs just thinking about it. “If you're not educated as to what is going on,” she admits, “the schools could certainly be seen as the enemy.”

Guidance counselor Karen Goldman has no quarrel with parents who make a genuine effort to work with their districts — who go through the channels, can't reach what they consider an equitable resolution, and then litigate. “The problem,” she says, “is the ones who don't go through the channels, who start out with litigating, who assume they're entitled to the best education money can buy.” Most of Goldman's salary goes to paying more than $25,000 a year to send her son to a private school for children with learning disabilities. “We knew we couldn't get the services we needed from our school district,” she explains, “so despite the huge financial stresses, we chose to go this way. We never felt it was the district's obligation to pay, because this was our interpretation of what he needed, not the school district's.” It's a fine but vital distinction.

To some degree,” says superintendent David Blatt, “there's always going to be an element of contentiousness when school people need to sit with parents and discuss a problem, whether it's behavioral or academic. That's your baby! Parents have maternal and paternal instincts that we have to recognize. We can do a better job in understanding why parents react the way they do, to defuse potentially volatile issues.”

But another educator with years of experience says, “There are parents who can't be defused. There are people who know how to really use the system in ways that are not beneficial to their child and that take away from the rest of the school They're the ones who end up suing.”

Parents who don't sue express their dissatisfaction in other ways. The number of families who move solely in order to find a better school fit is surprising. Plenty of others make long, long commutes. And it's no coincidence that charter schools are growing like topsy, as parents seek more control over what and how their kids learn. In 2002, Pennsylvania had 76 charter schools; in 2003, there were 91, enrolling almost 34,000 kids. And in the ultimate up-yours to educators, more and more parents are saying they can do the job better themselves. In 1999, 850,000 children were being home-schooled in the United States. Today, that number has reached 1.3 million.

Some parents home-school for religious reasons. Others turn to it, though, despite the considerable red tape, out of despair with their public schools. Sometimes, the alternatives do provide nirvana. But for contentious parents intent on finding an educational environment that will mold their kids into the offspring of their dreams, no number of options may be enough. “Changing schools,” Upper Merion's Kathy Entrekin says sagely, “doesn't change the child.”

Life used to be so much simpler. Our parents didn't cruise the Internet for the latest research into autism, or watch pbs specials on educational theory, or have shelves crammed with parenting-advice books. They had Dr. Benjamin Spock; for anything else, they asked Mom what she did. But Mom doesn't live down the street anymore, and even if she did, we wouldn't go to her; after all, she spanked us. The old ways are out of fashion, and the new ways keep getting revised — Lay the baby on her back! On her stomach! On her back! It's hard to imagine a generation less sure of its parenting skills or the choices it has made. We feel guilty that we went back to work and put our kids in daycare. We hate that we miss the concerts, the ball games, the spelling bees. But we can't afford to live on one parent's income — and half of us are divorced anyway. We are simultaneously less present and more invested in our kids' lives, and that's a dangerous mix.

“We're so wrapped up in what our children do,” marvels principal Joe Jennelle. “When I was young, my parents weren't so involved. There were fewer organized activities. Kids just went outside and played. Today, they live in bubbles. They have very few places to gather. The world is not a very welcoming place. There's an element of fear that pervades our society that wasn't there before. When one child in California goes missing, the whole country knows about it. There's a constant sense of ‘Bad things can happen.'” And every report of a coach diddling kids or a teacher seducing a student only scares parents more, makes us more belligerent and the schools more defensive in turn.

This escalation of the battle is having one serious casualty: administrators. We're losing good principals and superintendents, and we're not producing more. “The school superintendent is an artifact,” says Mark Klein, who returned to working in a school after a brief stint as an assistant to a superintendent. “There are fewer and fewer people interested in going into administration. Those positions have become more difficult and less palatable.”

“When you look at the levels of compensation for teachers and for administrative positions,” superintendent David Blatt points out, “it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the increase in pay isn't worth the differential in time. My workweeks are never less than 75 or 80 hours.”

“You only have to read the newspapers to see the problem here in Pennsylvania,” says Pottstown's John Armato. “Look at the number of retired administrators who are being hired back to fill interim positions.”

“What will happen when we've lost those people?” one administrator asks. “We'll have schools hiring middle managers from Merck. Private firms will come in, and bring the number-crunchers. They won't do well. They won't know kids.” Then he echoes what every teacher and administrator interviewed for this article said — and clearly, despite the anger and frustration, believes: “What's important is the kids.”

“Why won't parents trust us?” one bewildered teacher asks plaintively. “We're professionals. This is what we do with our lives. What do they think we're in it for, anyway?”

e have this really sorry situation in society,” Kathy Entrekin says, after more than three decades in public education. “And we are the only piece of hope. We are the public schools. We have to be everything to everyone. They all come to us — every shape, size, need, want. We can't select them. If we did select them, there would be no hope of human nature ever taking a higher path.”

Maybe that's the crux of the matter. Educators today are the last idealists, still carrying that torch into the tenements, living rebukes to our self-interest and cynicism. No wonder they piss us off so much. Parents today don't see civilization as a path winding upward. We see it as a tennis court, with a net down the middle and two sides: winners and losers. We know which we want our kids to be, and we'll do anything to see that they are.

Blair Hornstine is a winner. She won her lawsuit demanding that she be sole valedictorian at Moorestown High. And she was pilloried for it by her community and the media, because they saw a kid who already had, by all indications, cut herself off a very hefty piece of the pie — and it wasn't enough. She wanted even more.

There's a lesson that a lot of parents seem to leave behind once they start advocating for their kids. It's a lesson that begins long before formal schooling, when we first plunk our offspring down in the sandbox at the park. The lesson is this: There are only so many shovels in the sandbox, and if you take two, somebody else has to do without.

There isn't enough money to go around anymore, even in the best school districts. What parents take when they grab, when they sue, when they make that wheel screech, comes straight off somebody else's plate. School isn't the enemy. Greed is the enemy — greed, and our inability to recognize that we're all in this together. Maybe that's why our own parents were more relaxed, and less defensive: They had faith that their neighbors knew just getting yours is less noble — and less beneficial all around, in the long run — than making sure everybody gets some.

Eventually, our coddled kids are going to graduate from the colleges we fought so hard to get them admitted to. And then they'll step out into a world where the most important checkmark on a report card is one we somehow overlooked in our desperation to see that they became successful: PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS.