What Are We Doing to our Kids? (Part I)

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?”

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