- Social Emotional Learning: Can It Help Our Most Vulnerable Students? - August 27, 2017
- Why We Should Teach Meditation in the Classroom - November 8, 2016
- Strike! - October 5, 2016
- Teaching a Superpower - September 22, 2016
- Essentially, I am a Teacher - August 30, 2016
- A Chicago Teacher's Dream - January 22, 2016
- A Career in Crisis - August 27, 2015
- Classroom Community and Rock-Paper-Scisssors - July 22, 2015
- The Art of Teaching - June 22, 2015
- Parent tip: Beyond Sounding It Out - June 4, 2015
I had the great delight of being involved at a neighborhood school in Chicago for over twenty years. When I first walked through those doors, it was as a parent and when I left a little over a year ago, it was as a teacher. It was like a dream, a really nice, I don’t want to wake up dream. There were rough moments, to be sure, but the positives outweighed the negatives many times over.
When my son was four, we began the search of a grade school. We filled in our applications for our picks of magnet schools and waited. He got into a school where friends’ children attended. We were happy to have that settled. I wasn’t thrilled about the over half-hour long drive in city traffic, though.
While discussing this with one of the friends from the magnet school, she kindly asked, “Have you looked at your neighborhood school? I hear it’s pretty nice.” Like many middle class families, we hadn’t even considered it. We were convinced that in Chicago, neighborhood schools were not good places. Only a magnet school could fit our needs.
I took my friend’s advice. I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t optimistic. As soon as I walked through the door, I realized I had been wrong to jump to conclusions. The halls oozed child-centered learning. The principal happily gave me a tour. Afterwards, he sat me in his office while he went out to the playground for recess. I was sold. I could envision my children in this place. I think the principal was thrilled to get me, also. He recognized a volunteer when he saw one.
After Kindergarten, I decided to have my son tested for a gifted school. He was the top student in his class and I still hadn’t recovered from the brainwashing about magnet schools. For the only time in his life, my gifted son didn’t test well. They told me he was just average. I was chagrinned until I realized there is nothing wrong with being the smartest kid in your class.
When my daughter, who is two years behind her brother, was ready for Kindergarten, we had no desire to leave. We were quite happy with our little school.
My son got lots of kudos for his grades. My daughter was a struggling student with a vision problem and undiagnosed ADHD. She was a charming, bouncy girl who sang solos in the annual talent shows. Both were recognized for their individual strengths and liked for the simple reason of being who they were.
When I got my teaching certification a few years later, I never thought I would get a job at “our” school. Chicago had a quota system for teacher placement and I did not think there would be an opening. There was very little teacher turn-over. The stars aligned and a retirement and a couple of maternity leaves opened a spot for me in second grade. I was thrilled.
I try to explain to people that going to a neighborhood school is like living in a small town. Nearly all the students live within a half-mile of the school. My kids routinely found playmates from school at the park playground. They played in the same t-ball with their classmates. Friends lived within easy walking and biking distance. The school was involved in the community. Several teachers lived nearby. We had a beautiful school garden started by a teacher’s aid who had read that children who planted flowers at a school were less likely to vandalize the building. The garden is well over twenty years old now and each spring classes plant the donated flowers.
We celebrated triumphs and held each other during sorrows. When a home burned down, the community comes together to help the whole family get needed services and donates clothes, furniture, and school supplies. They are our neighbors after all. We attend funerals, including one of a fourth grade student who died of leukemia one summer. This charming, drum-playing, little boy loved his school and the parents asked if the funeral could be held in the school auditorium. It was the saddest day ever spent at our school. Yet, it felt so right to be with each other in that familiar place celebrating who this child had been.
The teachers work hard at this school to build community. It helps support the learning structure. While we are 90% low-income, we have strong test scores. Academic expectations are high. Most of the staff has their own off-spring attending the school which speaks loudly about our faith in our school.
There is a level playing field. My daughter was the only blonde in her grade. We were part of the 10% who paid full-price for lunch. The friends at their birthday parties were wildly diverse. We wanted our kids to understand that they were fortunate in a material way but that material things matter very little. Being a good friend, an honest person, or a hard-worker is not something money can buy.
If you stop by after school or a Saturday morning, you will probably see boys running around doing errands or playing games. They are the boys who would be wandering the streets, at loose ends, waiting for trouble. Instead, they have a safe place to be, a task to do, and being made to feel that someone is looking out for them.
Are all neighborhood schools like this? Of course not! Just don’t rule a school out because it isn’t a magnet or charter. Here are things to look for to find out if you truly have a gem in your own backyard.
Look at the walls. They should be covered with student work, ideally creative work reflecting on what they have learned.
Does the administration welcome you and give tours? They should.
You should be able to walk into classrooms on your tour. The majority of the classrooms should be busy and a controlled learning-buzz should be happening.
How do the children react when they see the administration? Are they happy to see the principal or do they suddenly fall into that silent state of “uh-oh!”
Does the administration know what’s going on in the neighborhood? Does the school collaborate with parks and are businesses? You may see this by simply looking at the school newsletter or website.
Here’s my favorite way to tell if you are in a great place. Some child will inevitably be getting in trouble as you walk down the hall. How is it handled? Is the child treated respectfully, even if they are being told off? Or are they being shamed? I once had a boy who had melted down in the hall. He was holding his body absolutely rigid and was howling. Another teacher came and gently picked him up. We were carrying him down the stairs to the office with the rest of my class following behind us in an orderly line. We must have sounded like a train with a howling whistle and clattering footsteps behind. As we reached the bottom of the stairs the principal came around the corner with a family with children being given a tour. Every single one of us froze with stunned expressions. Except the howler, of course, who continued to howl. Thinking as quickly as possible, I said, “Hello Mrs. ___. Our friend is having a bad day. We are taking him to the office to call his mother.” Then I led my procession down the hall. The next year, I had one of the children that I had seen that day taking the tour. The mother told me seeing us with that boy made an impression on her. She knew if her child had a problem at school it would be handled with as much grace as possible.
My children are now adults with children of their own. They don’t live in Chicago. But they have a very high standard of what a school should be. And, like many of their classmates, walk through the doors of the school and are welcomed home.
Hooray for neighborhood schools!