Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hello, Hello

I don't know if it's HuffPost's editing or poor writing, but many blog posts on the site seem to be cut off before the author explains his/her significant discovery, revelation or point. 

Take for example Debra Pickett's recent post, Goodbye to All That, which is making the rounds among my online Chicago communities. At the risk of boiling down it even further, Pickett's message is "Some CPS schools are elitist within the system. I am moving to Wisconsin."

Swap out "the suburbs" for "Wisconsin" and you've just defined one of the main messages of Chicago's well-to-do urban middle-class parents, especially as they justify their flight outward. My response to this sentiment remains unchanged, and I've become almost deadened to any emotion whenever I hear of another family moving in protest to outside of city boundaries. I'd make a comment about asses and doors here, but as a hardened city resident, I've no longer got the time to invest in fair weather Chicagoans. Real estate in my neighborhood is like a revolving door as young families with a toddler age into young families with a kindergartener, look at CPS, freak out, and move out. 

You see, I'm too busy donating my time to making my kids' magnet school able to continue to provide its students with a top-notch public education. A K-college graduate of public school, albeit mostly very good ones, I've no idea what a private or parochial school looks like. I can only assume it doesn't get Title I monies or state aid.

However, Pickett's charge of ludicrous parent-led fundraising did resonate. I've have read enough policy papers and statistical analyses to know that the kind of money raised by Picket's former school makes the process of educating everyone better. Even the "poor kids" will benefit from the time, resources, money, and effort put in by Pickett's peers at Oscar Mayer. 

But the problem is not in the fundraising itself. It's in the control and the direction of funds by those who've raised them. I think this is what CPS's legal department is struggling--and failing--to regulate as it attempts to tighten the reins on school-based fundraising. 

Raising funds in a challenging economic climate is, at best, challenging. San Franciscans have panhandler-fatigue; Chicagoans have nonprofit-with-a-cause fatigue. In a four-block span in the Loop yesterday, I avoided representatives from Illinois PIRG snd Children International. I'll sign a petition on the street, but I'm not giving a 22-year-old my credit card number to lobby my congressperson. 

A few months ago, I attended a series of workshops on grant writing and the grant making process. The series was well-run, well-attended, and informative. What I learned was also rather revolting: corporations have found a way to privatize nonprofit giving, using large sums of tax-free cash to influence organizations directly, rather than paying their fair share of taxes and letting state and federal social service agencies decide which programs and initiatives to advance. If I wasn't so horrified, I'd think it a rather brilliant interpretation of the one-per centers' golden rule. 

I much prefer Aesop's version. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

And then what happens?

It's no doubt a function of being a plugged-in mother of three, but it seems to me that American culture is divided on the subject of children in the public space. I've had many a conversation with childless individuals in which they offer advice on how to rear children or simply complain about their behavior.

I, too, had a lot of ideas about parenting before I become one. Things that were once horrifying (babywearing) became daily practices. Things that once seemed reasonable (spanking )_ became not so reasonable. But one that  hasn't changed over the past 11.5 years is my relationship with and attitude toward risk.

I generally think of myself as risk-averse. I don't gamble, take out ARMs, or cross against the light. But I d have a basic trust in society and my fellow humans. Some would say that's naive--and maybe they are right--but as an anxiety sufferer with its swirling thoughts and worst-case scenarios, I have come to embrace this basic human trust rather than become crippled by my fears.

While stories like this are increasingly rare, they do reflect my larger belief that it's OK to teach my children to embrace the world rather than flee from it. That less harm can come from teaching them to trust themselves than can come from teaching them to fear everyone and everything.

I feel I should point out that I am not teaching them to ignore their fears. Although I have not read Gavin de Becker's Gift of Fear, it is a practice that my children--and myself--employ instinctively. After all, The Girl, now 8, has run into the house on more than one occasion to report to me that there's a creepy guy sitting in a van with the motor running on the street outside our house. Each time this happens, I've responded with a reassuring hug for my daughter and a trip outside myself. The guy, as it turns out, is our next door neighbor's father, an aging general contractor and lifelong smoker who is now suffering renal failure. He looks a little different (and a little creepier) than when The Girl first met him.

Letting my children loose in the world so that they can explore it safely is my job as a parent. To me, teaching my children to interact with other people, to become self-sufficient and self-reliant, to build and build upon life experiences, and to trust themselves is probably the third most important thing I can teach them, just after unconditional love and treating others with kindness and respect.

In May, I attended a talk given by the Free-Range founder herself, Lenore Skenazy. That experience--being in a preschool classroom with 30 other mothers (and a smattering of fathers) who shared my philosophy on letting kids be kids, even in the big, bad city--gave me the high of a shared connection or a great deal at the Treasure Store. So I spent the summer giving my kids increasingly longer leashes. The Girl walked to the corner store and back with a friend. Five times. The Tot Who's Not, age 6, finally learned to scooter and started doing scooter laps around the block. The Boy got a new bicycle and began roving around the neighborhood on his bike. Except for 2-3 neighborhood boys whose parents share my philosophy, the only other kids he met were 6th and 7th grade boys from his school.

Earlier this week, after dropping The Girl off at the movies with her girl scout troop, I found myself with 90 minutes to kill in a Barnes & Noble, where I settled in with a stack of magazines and a cup of coffee. Among the mags was Real Simple Family, which featured a cover story on helicopter and overprotective parenting. The first page of the story featured wisdom from, yet again, Ms. Skenazy, who reiterated the difference between taking risks and engaging in risky behavior.

It's a good reminder for us all. There are risks in merely existing in our world, but risky is walking home through an unlit secret passage in the dark, accepting a drink in an open cup from a stranger, or waiting until your kids are in college before you let them leave the house without you. 

After the first time I let The Girl go to the corner store and The Tot Who's Not scooter around the block, I asked each of them if anyone had approached or talked to them. Giving me the look that clearly said, "Mom, you are Looney Tunes," they reported that no, no one had talked to them, approached them, or motioned them to get into a car. I answered with a what-if, and each of them gave me the withering look and said, "Scream and run like hell."

It's the same look they give me when I repeat, for the gazillionth time, some warnings before sending my boys into the men's restroom: "Remember: don't talk to anyone and if anyone tries to touch you, scream as loud as you can and run like hell." The Boy has heard this so many times that I don't even bother to repeat it to him. He recently told me, "Mom, this is imprinted on my brain!" The Tot Who's Not has heard it less often, but he'd risk peeing on the floor rather than enter the ladies' room with me in public under any circumstance.

This is how I prefer it. And I think this is how most girls age about 8 and older would prefer it as well. I can't imagine having to fumble with an early period in a public restroom while sharing a stall wall with your 3rd period classmate. This is why it's a problem for a mother to bring her 8-year-old son into the ladies restroom with her, as one mother wrote that she did when the question of allowing opposite sex children use the opposite sex public restroom arose recently on a popular Chicago message board. Other answers to the question ranged from age 5 to age 34. I am not making this up.

My boys were 6 and 4 when I began encouraging them to use the restroom designated for their gender. Part of this was laziness on my part as The Boy would invariably ask to pee just as we sat down to eat something. But then part of me realized that the fear of using the Target restroom is, essentially, a phobia: irrational and not statistically likely. Since then, I've trusted my boys to use the men's public restroom and trusted the world to let them do their business without comment or incident. And so far, the public restroom public has been worthy of that trust. And that's been true at K-Mart, Target, the library, tollway oases, O'Hare airport, the grocery store, the park, and the beach.

On a related note, I found myself facing another "Am I crazy?" moment this week while I listened to two parents at a school event discuss how to get crossing guards in place to protect their 4th-7th grade children while they walked 1/2 mile or less to school. When I said that The Boy walks the same route with 50+ morning commuters, they said that they didn't feel comfortable letting their children walk the same route alone because of a nearby SRO and shelter, and exit-ramp vagrants. They then went on to say that because they work in public service, they have a different perspective than I do. 

I've been reflecting on this conversation all day and mostly I want to know: What do these parents know that I do not? Should I be more concerned about exit-ramp vagrants? I've passed these folks many a morning on my way to work and they usually look as if they are sleeping it off. Whatever it is. I can't imagine any one of them rising from their cardboard-backed slumber to bother me or my kid. In two years of commuting the same route, I've had 1 person ask me for money, which I would call neither harassment nor particularly damaging an experience. Yes, I am an adult and these types of interactions should be no big deal to me. But how did they get to become no big deal to me? Experience and exposure. 

I understand that law enforcement sees the underbelly of Chicago, and I, in my safe NWside neighborhood and mostly daytime roving, don't have much exposure to it. But I've looked up the crime statistics for my police district and I still don't get it. What am I missing? What do police officers and public servants see happening in our area that I do not? Does the department issue crime alerts for only some of the incidents that happen in our precinct? Do police and fire departments track the crimes that they were able to prevent from happening? Do these departments redact crime reporting? 

I'm pretty sure that despite a lot of anecdotal, on-the-job experiences, the statistics--at least those reported by our police precinct--do not bear out the idea that great harm comes from school-aged children being approached by strangers on the street in our area. In the highly unlikely scenario that an exit-ramp vagrant, SRO or shelter resident approached my kid on a well-lit, well-traveled public street, the question I wanted to ask, but didn't is: and then what happens? And how do you know?

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Nickeled and Dimed

Lately, it seems that CPS parents leap to righteous indignation at the slightest provocation. Or no provocation.

Take for example the discussion about school fees that is currently raging on the Raise Your Hand Facebook page and at playgrounds across the city. School or student fees are a common way for school districts to supplement their costs for disposable instructional materials (like workbooks and subscription services), technology upkeep, and even the basic implements required for classroom learning. School fees are not new, nor are they unique to the city of Chicago. 

I remember paying fees during my high school years in a Chicago suburb 20+ years ago. And these fees included everything from the essential to the ridiculous, such as the mandatory suit rental for the ugly, ill-fitting, black nylon swimsuit uniform we were all required to wear during our annual swimming units in gym. Yes, I know (in retrospect) that we were lucky to even have daily P.E., let alone an indoor swimming pool or instructors who could teach us how to put our pants around our shoulders to prevent ourselves from drowning. 

Now, I know that few parents trust anything that comes out of CPS these days. Perhaps justifiably so. And one of the problems in this one-size-fits-all district is that school/student fees are left to the discretion of principals and LSCs. So the fees are as varied as the schools themselves. Disney II asks its families to pay $160 per student in a combined supplies and instructional materials fee. For me, that equates to $480. I'm not going to lie: this amount presents a financial challenge for my family. Garage sale proceeds, lemonade-stand receipts, consumer survey payments, and birthday checks combine to meet our obligation. 

And it is an obligation. Like getting my kids to school each morning on time, well-rested, and with full bellies, I pay my kids' school fees because giving them the tools they need to learn is one of my responsibilities as a parent. It's the same reason that I sit down with them while they do their homework, feed them a healthful dinner, and read them books every night before bed. I pay my student fees in cash, in full, before school starts because I believe it is the right thing to do.

Our school does make things easier for parents to pay school fees, giving parents the opportunity to pay fees by credit card or an installment payment plan, and offering parents a financial hardship waiver. But for every waiver, the school has to eat the cost of those supplies and those instructional materials, squeezing an already limited budget even tighter. I believe I also have a responsibility to improve opportunities for the collective as much as I can--and pushing school fees onto everyone else is shirking in that responsibility. 

Out of interest, I researched school fees in some of Chicago's tonier suburbs. These are areas where home values, prices, and property taxes are high. And they must pay school fees. Of the four districts I checked, they all have 'em. In Hinsdale, students paid $200-$225 each in student fees in 2011-2012. In Naperville, student fees vary from $42 for PK and K students to a sliding scale that goes up to $145+ for middle and high school students. At Oak Park River Forest high school, students pay $355-$540 before they can come to class. And in Lake Forest District 67? They'll take families to small claims court if they don't pony up the $230/student that is assessed each year by the district. 

At our school, the compliance rate for student fees payments has been about 75 percent. I am not sure how this compares with compliance rates at other schools within CPS, or those with similar student populations. In determining whether to increase student fees from the 2012-2013 academic year or to keep them flat for 2013-2014, our LSC members asked everyone we knew for information on student fees. This list is by no means complete, but can give some idea of the variation in fees assessed by LSCs throughout CPS. 

  • Murphy Elementary - $30/family. Source: June Murphy LSC meeting
  • Taft High school - $275+/student. Source: Nadig Newspaper
  • Belding Elementary - $35-40/student. Source: Friends of Belding
  • Burley Elemenrary - $50-70/student. Source: Friends of Burley
  • Inter-American - $55-110/student. Source: PTO
  • Decatur Classical - $175/student. Source: parent
  • Edison RGC - $250/student grades 1-8; $400/student K. Source: parent
Have a school fee to add? Please leave it in the comments. 

I realize that many families of CPS students cannot afford the student fees payments asked of them. If you live in Lake Forest, you expect to pay $800K for a house and $15K in property taxes and HOA dues each year. Paying an extra $300/student for school fees is chump change. But in Chicago, we persist in the notion that public education means free.

It doesn't.  

However, given the ways in which people can (mis)interpret public and printed statements, it's easy to see how conflation occurs.  The National Center for Learning Disabilities illustrates this beautifully with its Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) Myths and Facts table. After all, you cannot accurately judge intent from a pithy remark. This is probably why we pay lawyers $300/hour to write pages of legalese that clarify the intent behind every statement.

The idea of free public education is an interesting one, and will take more analysis than I want to make at this point in my day. It has been covered by conservatives, turncoats, and neutral parties alike. Follow the links if you are interested to read more on your own.