Friday, September 11, 2009

Notes from Sep's "Back to School" Mtg

I tried to post this as a comment to the mtg announcement, but it was too long to allow it. I'll just start tagged the NOTES so that you can find them easily. Have a great weekend!

cityMamas’ Affinity Group
September 2, 2009
12:00 – 1:30
Portland Development Commission – Commission Room

The meeting was hosted by Estee Segal and Lisa Gramp, who are both working mothers at PDC. Thanks!

Brief introductions and check-ins about what we’re dealing with lately.

There were three “panelists” brought in to share their perspective on the topic of School Choice, Olivia, Marlys and Julie. All of the moms happen to live in N/NE, despite trying to more moms from other areas. Below are the questions we made beforehand, and most were covered, but not necessarily in this order:

  • Can you tell us a bit about your family, like how old are your kids and what neighborhood you live in?
  • What research did you do to learn about your school options?
  • Did you feel like you had a choice? What recommendations do you have for parents whose neighborhood school has a bad reputation?
  • What factors were most important to you in choosing a school (location, test scores, diversity, special focus)?
  • What's most important now that your kids are in school; good principal, teachers, ratio, etc? Are you happy with the school?
  • Is joining the PTA the best way to get involved in your school? Are there other mechanisms for getting involved? Is fundraising key? Or legislative lobbying?
  • What do you wish you would have known earlier? Or still want to learn?

Julie’s kids went to Beech Elementary, and when it came time for Junior High and Ockley Green and Jefferson were officially failing, her family felt like they needed to find another school. In fact, they were ready to move if need be, and it was tough, because they had to wait until just three weeks before school started to find out which school the kids had gotten into. For research, they went to the school gathering event that the District used to sponsor (apparently it was grant funded and this is the first year they haven’t had one in a long while). The factor that was really important to her family was having a strong music program, and the jr high needed to feed into Wilson’s band program. They went on several tours with Vice Principals, and then applied for a transfer.

Marlys didn’t want to do tours, as she felt like she knew enough about the local schools and had been a SMART volunteer. She had talked with teachers who felt like Sabin, King, and Boise Eliot were all pretty comparable to each other. She felt like she wanted to try out the school, and unless there was a big problem, stay will the neighborhood school. She was aware of the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) scores, but knows that they average in a lot of students who don’t speak English as a first language or have special needs, and don’t show the whole story. Marlys also wanted to see the global picture. Her son has been at King for 2 years now, and she’s been very involved and has seen some leadership issues. She wants to focus on solving some administrative issues.

Olivia also went to the PPS Celebrate event to learn about school options, which was confusing and overwhelming. It’s kind of a curse to have so many choices. They targeted their neighborhood school and visited with parents and administrators, but didn’t feel like it was the right fit. If they were going to stay local, the location really mattered and the class size…she wanted under 25-1 ratio, which is hard to find. They chose Emerson Charter School, after they found that Trillium didn’t fit and neither did Child Peace (a private school.) Beech would have been their neighborhood school, and it was a tough decision and in the end about half the families stayed and half found other schools.

Someone suggested attending a PTA meeting, and Julie mentioned that there was no PTA at Beech when her kids went there and the lack of parental support was obvious by a condemned play structure and no plans of fixing it. Julie also suggested that you ask what your obligation for fundraising is like at each potential school. She said they had mandatory magazine sales each year, and bake sales and wreath sales, cookies…you name it. Julie also mentioned that when her kids went to Beech that there was no school spirit, no art or music, but a good language program.

Marlys mentioned that she’s found that many of the rumors about schools are very old and have just become urban myths. She suggests that you find the source of a story before you believe one. She said that she’s been to Jefferson High School, and it’s not the scary place that people make it out to be. There’s a good communication and music program, and if her son was interested, they may send him there. They will wait to make a decision.

Someone asked about the transition to k-8 schools and how that is working out. Julie said that she’s a big fan of k-8, and that the transition from elementary to jr. high was a big leap and a hard transition. She mentioned that you should also consider whether there are college prep classes available, since kids can earn college credit for much cheaper, it can make a big difference and give them a head start toward college.

Courtney asked Julie about transportation, since her kids have to travel from N to SW Portland for school. She said that it’s been a great education for her kids, and they’ve learned a lot about the city by taking public transit. They drive them every morning and then the kids take the max/bus home, unless it’s pouring rain. Someone else asked about having neighborhood versus school friends, and Julie said that it can be hard to get to-from weekend events, and some times they don’t even get invited to things, and that’s tough. Olivia mentioned that they make an effort to stay friends with neighborhood kids, and her girls’ social group is about 50/50. There are some barriers to school friends for visits sometimes.

Julie also talked about the high fees, especially at the high school level, apparently you have to pay for science classes at public schools now! Almost $500 to start the school year for her high school son and daughter (sports are really expensive, football is $300.) Courtney mentioned that the fundraising responsibilities were so heavy for a friend of hers that she decided she’d rather just right a check and not add school fundraising to her already busy schedule.

The topic of free Pre-K came up and how they are available at all Title 1 schools, which meant low-income criteria. Courtney’s school web page was advertising that it’s FREE, but she wondered whether the FREE price tag is worth it, and plans to visit the classroom before making the decision.

Julie said that she wished she would have known the difference between the Principal and Vice Principal. The Principal is in charge of education and the VP covers discipline. Marlys would like to know what makes a good principal, not just first impressions. Olivia said it was important to find out how much PE and outdoor time they get, many schools don’t offer enough. Ask to see a sample schedule. Julie said that she wished she would have known how hard the homework was going to be…on her! There are lots of reports and projects these days.

Thanks to our panelists…let’s keep this discussion going on the blog!

Please post comments or your own story online.

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