Friday, November 21, 2008

Rant: Key Communicator

A few weeks ago, DD12's school admin asked me if I wanted to be on a parent list and I said OK. This what happens when you go to the office too often to find out why your kid is failing math.

(It's because she sits next to a disruptive kid, to whom she cannot stop responding. Now that she sits next to a quiet kid, she is doing much better.)

Apparently, I am now a Key Communicator:
"...a network of people who are well-connected to both the schools and the community. The idea is to promote a continuing two-way exchange of information between key communicators and the school district."
That means I get pre-recorded phone messages when there is violence at the high school. Since mid-October, there was a minor stabbing, a guard shot with a pellet gun, and an attack by a disgruntled drop-out that was refused re-entry but managed to wander from class to class for hours until she encountered and beat up an old rival.

(Is it any wonder we have my 10th grader cyberschooling from home?)

At first, I thought this "two-way exchange" meant they had made me an official Complainer, to give them feedback from other parents where there are problems. But then I got invited to a dinner...

The dinner was held at the brand-new school that DD12's class moved into on Monday, a magnet school for Agriculture, Science, and Ecology. Good concept, and shiny new building, but I haven't seen a lot of meaningful content yet. At least, not communicated to parents. I am sure I am spoiled by having homeschooled. I can't get used to the curriculum being invisible to me.

The dinner was eerie and corporate. I was greeted at the door by a security guy that looked more like a butler. There was a uniformed ROTC color guard and the Pledge of Allegiance. I counted about 100 seats at round tables in the cafetorium. I sat at a table with our principal, his wife, his mother, the school admin and her assistant, and two other parent "Key Communicators." There were introductions: the Superintendent acknowledged his "cabinet" of top administrators, and the elected School Board Directors, the architectural firm reps for the project, the Mayor, and the principals of the two schools that will be housed in the building. Everyone chortled about their success. At first, I thought the "success" was the dinner itself! I thought, "Wow, they have low expectations." Then I realized that the dinner was to celebrate the spending of $4M to produce this school building. There were very visible displays of sucking up to the Superintendent, accompanied by insider jokes about ordering new office furniture.

The President of the Board showed up very late, and couldn't figure out how to get in the building. (I happened to be out in the hall, listening to the Superintendent tersely giving her instructions through doors and hallways - boy, was he annoyed.) She then proceeded to re-introduce the School Board, exclaiming that the school was only built because the Board had done a lot of work and made a lot of hard decisions. No one stopped her to tell her they had already been thanked during the speeches. I suppose it was a political ritual being played out.

(No one thanked the children who waited in cramped temporary quarters while the construction went almost three months overtime. No one thanked the teachers who tried to teach in hallways and auditoriums. No one thanked the parents, who dealt with the confusion, the crappy bus service, and the lack of teacher contact. No one thanked the taxpayers who will pay for the building.)

The phrase, "It's all for the children," was repeated often, along with things like "Every day, in every way, things are getting better for the children." But there was not a child in sight.

I couldn't tell if there were any teachers, but it didn't seem so - perhaps a union rep that was not introduced. Thousands of dollars spent on catering, an elaborate over-sized cake, rented tables and linens, centerpieces, and gift bags full of custom-imprint schwag. (Gift bags?!) There were black imprinted bags and red ones. I got a black one that had a Post-It note portfolio with "Key Communicator" printed on it - and a imprinted pen, and an imprinted 2Gb flash drive, an imprinted mug full of imprinted M&Ms, and a glossy embossed folder full of info that is already on the website. I wonder what the red bags had in them.

The food was nice - fruit and cheese board with Brie. Good rolls. Salad with raspberry vinaigrette (pretty dated in catering, but still new to some of my tablemates). Three entrees: Pork Loin with Bearnaise, Baked Chicken, and a pasta with clam sauce and lots of shrimp. Cottage potatoes and green beans. Coffee service with the cake. All nice catered buffet food.

We were invited to tour the building between dinner and cake, unguided wandering through empty classrooms. It was nice, but only the kids can put it to the test. The other two parents gushed. "If all schools were like this, all the kids would be geniuses!" I disagree; buildings are important, but not nearly as important as people. People like parents, kids, and teachers - almost none of whom were at the dinner.

I've been involved with the public sector before. I know this is how "business" is done. And make no mistake, a school district is big business - fifth largest employer in the county, and one of the few organizations currently putting up new buildings. Those architects and general contrators would have knelt and licked shoes, if asked. There are more buildings to be built. The financing is already in place.

The Supervisor, hired by an elected Board, is the CEO of that organization. A little round pink-and-white man, he rules a school district that is 80% non-white. Only a third of the Board is non-white - no one is Hispanic, despite the fact that more than half the city is Hispanic, and about 75% of the kids. A good number of school-level staff seem to be black or Hispanic, with several minority principals. This is probably one of the few places it is not hard for a qualified black or Hispanic man to get hired, in this conservative county. Teachers are from a separate unionized country, and not invited to dine.

I was dismayed by the blatant lack of church-school separation. We were asked to bow our heads and listen to the Deputy Superintendent lead us in a plea to Jesus, rather than a non-denominational inspirational message. The staff dutifully thanked Jesus. The Supervisor also thanked him in his speech. No wonder they have trouble separating school activities from the afterschool proselytizing of the Good News Club. They send home applications for church clubs with every kid.

This is how I would have preferred to see the "success" of the new school celebrated:
- Run a food drive, where the classroom that brings in the most food gets to cut the ribbon on the school. The food is bundled into baskets for families identified by the guidance department.

- Announce an essay contest for magnet school students, on some topical theme. The winner gets a cash prize and his/her family gets to come to the dinner with him.

- Eat simpler food (let the adults eat that crap the kids eat every day!) and use the catering money to run a contest for teachers to submit innovative lesson plans. The winners get their projects funded. I bet a lot of teachers could do wonderful things with $1000. That dinner was probably worth 2 or 3 projects.

- Run a reading contest, and the classroom that reads the most books gets money to be spent on library materials the class helps choose.

- Have an elected committee of kids choose a Class Gift from this first 6th grade to the next. A piece of statuary, or perhaps new trees, or a bike rack.

- Figure out a way to extend the celebration to more than three parents. This school and every school in the district has huge difficulty getting low-income parents to get involved in school events. People work, or have younger kids, or have language barriers, or simply feel intimidated. No one at the dinner needed a translator, yet probably half the school's parents do. Fascinating display of institutional racism and classism.

- Buy a sweater for every kid - that new school is cold! 85% of the kids in this urban school qualify for free lunches. There must have been some way to celebrate the new school in a manner that benefited the kids more than the administrators. If I had to hear one more of them say "It's all about the kids," I'd have barfed.
DH and I have talked about inviting the principal and his wife out to dinner. I'd like to see how he feels about it. He strikes me as a practical man, certainly a disciplined man with the will to work this system, but I bet he could think of a lot better ways to inaugurate the school than a stuffy dinner. He invited me to be a Science Inquiry Helper, which somehow involves Hissing Madagascar Cockroaches. Ugh. The things we do for our kids. I'm considering that to be separate from this Key Communicator shtick.

But there is still a dinner kicker! Having read the goal statement for the Key Communicator program, I approached the Community Relations person, to whom we report. It went something like this:
Me: "You want feedback, and I have some. In what form do you want it?"
She:"You tell me."
Me: "Do you want it now?"
She: "Oh. I guess so."
I told her that I often get these school phone messages when I am at soccer practice with other middle school parents. I tell them what the message says. ("Great! That is what we want you to do.") But they seldom believe it. The rumor mill has a different story. Everyone knows someone with a kid at the high school, who has a different story. Or, the police officer that a neighbor knows has another story. The newspaper has yet another story, in print, with quotes from police and witnesses.
She: "Well, that's what your job is, to tell them the truth."
Me: "How do we know which is the truth?"
She: "What we tell you is the truth."
Me: "Then, I guess my feedback is that no one believes that."
She: "It's your job to work harder to convince them."
OMG! I'm an unpaid PR shill for the school district!

Oh, this will be precious.

I get to go to these dinners twice a year. I should probably dress better than khakis and a hoodie next time. And bring my handy-dandy Key Communicator pen and Post-It Notes.

'Cuz I have some communicatin' to do.

[PS: As I was writing this up earlier today, I got a crying phone call from a panicked DD12, on her VERY late bus home. Apparently the kids were out of control, the police were called, the emergency door alarm was going off, they wouldn't let her off the bus, and she wanted me to rescue her from the bus immediately! I could hear screaming.

I jumped in the car and headed for the bus route, but the bus started moving again, triggering a chaotic round of cell phone calls as I chased the bus. I finally caught up at a school bus stop - several angry parents were there, having been waiting for over an hour. At least I got the phone number for the school bus dispatcher out of the driver. There is a lot more to that story, but I got her off the bus at 4:38pm - the buss was due at 3:21pm. She was crying, had a headache, needed to pee, and was starving because the school lunch was horrible. She says someone took down her name and said she was suspended, although she had nothing to do with the trouble. We will be in the principal's office when it opens on Monday, poor man. ]

[PPS: And while I was driving her home from the bus debacle, apparently someone robbed the barber shop around the corner from our house. The newsfeed says that someone else tried to draw a gun, and was shot in the head. We hope it is not the barber or a neighbor. There are lots of police searching our neighborhood for two gunmen. Rough day, today.]


Hausfrau said...

Wow! What a story! I like your ideas for the alternative ways to spend the dinero. I was in business too and witnessed so, so much WASTE - like you described. "Yes, we're eating all this fancy food and having our a$$es kissed and giving boring speeches and getting pointless gift bags - for the kids".

fullfreezer said...

Oh, dear. What a mess! Hope everyone is settled down and all right. Our thoughts are with you as you try to sort through the mess you find yourselves in. Best wishes. Hope all goes well for all your family next week, school and interview included.

Matriarchy said...

What a crazy day! Everyone wound back down - except me. Having trouble sleeping. Looking forward tomorrow to a calm day of rummage sales and a friend's rock-climbing birthday party.

Matriarchy said...

Oh, crap. I just found out that the man shot around the corner was indeed our barber. He's been cutting DH's hair for a couple years. Respected in the neighborhood. He was just closing his shop for the night. He was shot in the head and it doesn't sound good at all. He is 32 years old.

The violence usually feels much further away from us.

LisaZ said...

This sounds too familiar! I'm putting the link to this post on my blog today, so others can read it. Thanks for your insight. I like your ideas.

Inviting the principal to dinner is a good idea. He's there every day working with the teachers and kids, so probably does wish things were different. I know the teachers sure do!

Krista said...

How horrible for your daughter. I am glad things are calming down now that she is home.

I think your ideas are great and that you should let the school know them. Send a letter to the BOE, principal, maybe even the newspaper? I don't know if it would do any good, but it is worth a shot.

Sorry to hear about the shooting. I looked it up on your local newspaper and it looks like he was a great guy. What a shame.

d.a. said...

Holy crow! I'm so sorry about the waste, the bus snafu, the violence... egads. :-(

fullfreezer said...

So sorry to hear that your barber friend was the victim. It's always hard when violence hits close to home. It's something that is supposed to happen 'somewhere else'. Last year in our town a man murdered his family and then killed himself. One of the children sat next to my youngest in school. Yeah, it's hard when it's close....
Here's hoping for better days for us all.

SoapBoxTech said...

Gosh. I am curious what had caused the pandemonium among the students.

As for the Key Communicator tale, I work in the events industry sometimes and the wasteful oblivion at these things has always bothered me, even tho some of that wastefulness translates into more money for me (tho I am FAR from well off). I love your ideas tho, and have faith that you will get at least a few people thinking and acting with a bit more common sense.

Good luck!