I have so many questions about the school district we live in, and the public schools my daughter has the option to attend when she is old enough. (She's only 18 months old now!) I suspect that the schools are not as bad/soul-crushing as I imagine, but I'm sure they aren't places I'd LOVE to send my daughter (or any child!). However, I really believe in the idea of free public education, and rather than just run away from it (and the many people who have little choice but to send their children to our public schools), I'd like to see if there's any way I can influence the schools in my area, starting NOW.
We live in an area where all of the schools are highly rated according to standardized tests, but that means almost nothing to me. I care more about things like, what problem solving approaches are used in the classroom? How much are worksheets relied on? How much is cooperation emphasized over competition? How much say do kids have in their own projects? (I agree with a lot of what Alfie Kohn says about optimal learning environments.)
Any ideas on what I might do to learn more about schools in my area and get involved (without, for example, running for school board or something...)?
Mama to a bilingual (Arabic/English) and cuddly 3 year old, and planning another peaceful homebirth in June.
I would call the school office and ask about volunteering opportunities for community members. My kids' school has community members come in and read with the kids who need more one on one help in reading. I'm sure they also would take someone to help in a classroom setting. Maybe you could volunter to be an aide in the K or 1 classroom for a few hours a week.
I would call the school board or school committee and say that you want to volunteer but that you don't want to run. They'll most likely have subcommittees of parents and community members.
Do you have a skill that might be of use to your local school, or any sort of background working with kids that the school might find helpful? That would be a good place to start. Sometimes schools will have after school activities or clubs that need volunteers, or even before school programs for kids who get dropped off early..sometimes breakfast is served, games are played, or homework help is given. Librarians sometimes need help. Just some thoughts.
The best plan, if you are truly interested, is to place yourself in a situation where you are willing to learn. I'm not sure what sort of way you are hoping to influence the school system at this point, as you said in your OP. Another proposition would be to figure out a way to understand what the actual experience of being in the school, which is admittedly a little difficult if you don't actually have a child in the school, but could be done.
The same goes for volunteering on a big level, ie school board, or sub committee. Most people have something valuable to contribute, but it is so frustrating to see folks who really have very little real life understanding, insisting on their "expertise". That's a particular sore point in my local school community.
There are probably opportunities, if you contact the schools.
I volunteered at one school that offered a mentorship program for some of its struggling students. Struggling in the sense of needing a little extra attention and support for a variety of reasons - difficult home life, poor social skills contributing to "not fitting in" with classmates, behaviour issues.....The idea was to bring together a caring adult to spend an hour a week, outside of class but on school property, with one or two students. They could do different activities like go to the gym and shoot hoops or play floor hockey, work on crafts or play board games, cook in the home ec room if it was free, or just chat a little over snacks and juice.
For obvious reasons, most of the adults were parents, grandparents, or other family members of students attending the school, already familiar as classroom volunteers and therefore well-known to the school. The other adults not already connected with students were usually referred and recommended. For everyone's protection, the adult and child could not leave school grounds, stayed in public areas of the school when meeting, and were not supposed to contact each other outside of school hours.
In another school, our yearbook committee was very grateful to have the assistance of a woman who had expertise with photography and desktop publishing. She knew one of the students and offered her help, but had no children of her own.
I've known community members who directed school plays, provided art lessons, assisted with the orchestra, coached sports teams, helped with the school garden - all the areas that tend to be cut back when funding shrinks and curriculum demands grow.
If you aren't known to the school community already, be prepared to provide references, undergo police background checks and receive a fair amount of scrutiny.
If you want to know what's going on in the schools, volunteering or substitute teaching will put you in the classrooms and working directly with the teachers, staff and students. You could also look for a job at a particular school, like in the cafeteria or teacher's assitant or something. Most positions that aren't certified are part time positions, so you wouldn't end up putting in more hours than you would volunteering.
Doing those sorts of things are going to put you in position to see the types of things you are wanting to find out about, and discuss with teachers how they do things in the classroom. You should see those things, and do so with an open mind, before you try to influence change in anything.
I don't know your childcare situation, but bear in mind that volunteering in the school would require finding childcare. Volunteering to work with the school board would probably be evening commitments, and it might be easier to have your DH arrange his schedule to be home so you can go out.
I would DEFINITELY recommend attending school board meetings. They're open to the public, and you'll learn a lot.
For some of the things you want to know, you might call and see if you could set up an appointment with a staff member and just ask. When we were first considering public school after homeschooling, I did this and learned a great deal from the meeting.
I think that learning more about how education works and is funded in this country would be helpful to you. You might not care about test scores, but they have to. Really have to. The school depends on those scores.
The deeper I got involved in our public school, the more respect I had for the teachers, and the more they made "off the record" comments to me. They really hated the standardized tests. They hated planning the whole year around them, and they hated that some kids were way, way behind but being forced though a curriculum that wasn't appropriate for them. But the real decisions aren't made by teachers or even schools, but at the state and national level.
I think that going in feeling like you have the answers and want to make sure they are doing things right, or that you want to fix things or whatever wouldn't get you every far. Esp. if you put down the standard that the school is held to (the state test). I think that an attitude more like:
- I know that the school is doing very well compared to the state standards, but I'm concerned about "cooperation emphasized over competition? How much say do kids have in their own projects?" etc.
Since you are concerned about problem solving, you could research your states standards. That's a tested area.
We had a very good public school experience, and I have only good things to say about the teachers and staff at the school my kids attended. My kids now go to a private alternative school with a green house, an animal center, a dark room, etc. It is better for my kids and I wish this kind of education were an option for all kids. But the public school that my kids attended was doing a very good job with a very difficult tasks. I have a lot of respect for every one there.
but everything has pros and cons
I agree, and I think it's why the OP felt a bit abrasive to me. You've decided already that worksheets are bad and that more worksheets means worse education. That's not always true; it's certainly not true for every single child. Early education is nuanced and requires flexibility. All children aren't ready to, for example, decide on their own projects.
I'll be honest, too, that I wouldn't want to know that a volunteer who was basically looking to scope out information on the school was in my child's classroom often. If you want to know, ask. It's likely going to vary from teacher to teacher. Our district really is into the "rah-rah self-esteem building" model, which I don't like. I asked for a teacher who is less perky and highly structured. My son's teacher does not get into all of the "bring in the most tops from crappy processed food boxes" competition, and I think that's awesome! If you liked that kind of thing, you'd probably be really unhappy with her as a teacher. OTOH, my son has 3 kids who came into kindergarten not speaking English fluently, and she's used that to introduce customs and words from other cultures. You wouldn't find that out by being a random volunteer, though.
If you want to volunteer in the classroom, do it, but I'd caution against volunteering with an ulterior motive. I think the best ways to get involved before you have children in the system are to work as a volunteer through the school board or PTO (we have some interested, childless community members involved) or to offer whatever expertise you may have. Our administrators love to have people in who've worked in interesting fields, for instance, to chat with classes. Many of the concerns you have, though, aren't classroom-level decisions.
You might be pleasantly surprised. I was a teacher and worked in good and not-so-good schools. But I LOVE my kids elementary school. The teachers are excellent, worksheets are limited and used appropriately, there's time to play in kindergarten, etc.
Thanks for all the great suggestions. Thank you especially for the specific ideas! I've been asking around about the schools my daughter could attend and will start attending school board meetings. Later, I will narrow down other options for volunteering and getting more information.
I agree the original post sounded like I thought I had all the answers, and I agree that I don't! Not being an educator in a school, I could use some more knowledge about how things work in my district. I think my own terrible experiences as a student at public schools around the country definitely color my impressions. In reality, I don't expect or want to jump in and start making problems based on my preconceived notions. It's just that, rather than be a passive community member, I'd like to have an influence. Not by going against the flow in every way for no reason, but to know what's what and how to advocate for my daughter within the system, and for students in general, as a part of our community.
I have nothing but respect for people who go into the education field, especially teachers. (So if any of you who were offended are teachers, sorry!) I don't think teachers are typically the problem when there is a problem. I have so many friends who are teachers (but mostly high school) and they generally have a terrible impression about the experience students have in schools, despite that they try hard to do what is right for the kids. But high school and kindergarten/elementary are very different. It's true--I could be pleasantly surprised.
Mama to a bilingual (Arabic/English) and cuddly 3 year old, and planning another peaceful homebirth in June.