Monday, November 23, 2015

Weighing In on the Final Four: Do the Right Thing

Last week, I attended one of the Parent Forums to hear about the four proposals to address the enrollment inequity at Waltham's six elementary schools.  There is one more chance for parents to give their input next Tuesday, 12/1. As usual, I have nothing but praise for the way that Dr. Echelson has handled the entire process, from identifying four possible solutions, to establishing a timeline (unheard of!), to soliciting parent and staff input at four meetings, etc.  He said, at the meeting that I attended (and I paraphrase), "I have a lot of big plans for this district, so we need to get this issue resolved and move on."  Oh, AND he even has a list of FAQs (and all of this stuff is on a Google drive, so that it can actually be accessed.)

My friend, the Watch City Wonder, blogged about the proposals and gave her opinion here today.  The News Tribune ran an editorial.  Both of them, at the end, ask the School Committee to reflect on what they've heard from staff and parents, and to make a decision.  Both make clear that not making a decision is unacceptable.  While I have a few disagreements with both opinion pieces, I wholeheartedly agree with that summary.  Inaction is untenable.

At the meeting at the McDevitt last week (which I live-Tweeted @lizhmccarthy btw), I was greeted by a parent who I know, whose son is a classmate of my youngest.  She looked surprised, and asked me, "What are you doing here?"  I was, in turn, surprised at her reaction, and I got all defensive, which is kind of what I do when I'm taken off guard, and said something like "I have been the Poster Mom for complaining about enrollment inequity since the Dark Ages!"  She thought about that for a second and said, "Yes, but you won't be included in redistricting."  And then I felt really terrible because I got her point.  As parent after parent walked to the microphone, a majority (and I didn't count, so this is subjective) identified as parents whose kids would not be affected by redistricting.  Another parent I know who would be included in the redistricting plan was also there.  Neither of them spoke.  And I get that I don't really have 'skin in the game' when it comes to redistricting.

One of the areas most impacted by redistricting is the Garden Crest apartment complex; both of my kids have many friends who live there and I didn't see any of their parents at the meeting.  That is concerning because, at an earlier meeting (at which I was not present), a parent made comments that seemed to some to be culturally insensitive at best and racist at their worst.  I really would have liked to hear from someone representative of the Garden Crest community and I do hope that some parents were at the other parent meetings or will go next Tuesday and make their thoughts known.

In general, the meeting that I attended at the McDevitt was made up of parents who were concerned, reasoned, and well-informed.  And I learned a lot from them.

Proposal A, which has kids changing schools every two years, was hammered by these parents because of the logistics: start times, end times, lunch times, after-school programming, bus routes, etc, etc.  I travel frequently for work, and I can't imagine have two or three kids under age 10 at two or three different schools and thinking that everything would go smoothly.  Especially if I imagine myself as a single parent, or as a parent who works off-shifts (like nurses and other medical personnel, police officers, EMT's and fire fighters.)  I now have a middle schooler and a third grader, and so, for me, the logistics remain the same: I have a kid in elementary and one in middle school.  The parents of multiple elementary school students who spoke out about this plan taught me a lot.

Proposal B is, of course, the redistricting plan, and the questioning here was gentle and respectful. See the FAQ's that I linked to above for information on grandfathering: in brief, there will be some limited grandfathering to the capacity that the district can bear.  This is a sensitive issue because it impacts so much more than where your kid goes to elementary school: it may impact property values and may even change the DESE designation of Level 1, 2, or 3 schools in the district.  Moving district lines is politically charged and it's emotionally charged: parents with more than one child have a relationship with administration and staff at a particular school; they have friends whose phone numbers are in their phones; they socialize with other parents nearby.  But it's only for the next one to two year of transition: after that, you're part of the new community and you have more numbers in your phone and when your kids get to middle school and to high school, they will know more people.  And I am saying all of this as someone without skin in the game.

My favorite is Proposal C: even knowing that in 3-4 years, we will outgrow the Middle Schools as they currently exist, there's the possibility that a new school building, which may house grades K-8 and/or some combination of special programs, would be completed in that timeframe or shortly after.  Of course, I'm the parent of two boys, and when I heard a parent's concerns about her 5th grade daughter riding the bus with 8th grade boys, again, it gave me another perspective.  I still think that one middle school for grades 5-6 and another for grades 7-8 will take care of the immediate issue without redistricting, allowing some breathing room as we initiate the inevitable Proposal D (build a new school, in addition to the high school) and get a better handle on where the new kids in the district are coming from (despite the mayor's insistence that new Waltham residents with kids are all buying houses for $600,000 in Warrendale and Cedarwood, because of course none of them are in any of the condos, multi-families, or apartments springing up like weeds around the city without any thought of traffic impact or student population.  But I digress.)  Of course, a change like that will move some kids who are currently in Middle School, however, I don't think that they will really care.  In fact, they may not even notice.

If you are reading this and you live in the Garden Crest area, or in another area that may potentially be moved to another elementary school, please, if you haven't gone to a meeting, plan to go to the one next Tuesday.  If you can't go to the meeting, then please get in touch with a School Committee member or with Dr. Echelson.  If you are a parent who has strong feelings about the four proposals who hasn't yet attended a forum, then you need to make your opinion known, too.

In the end, it's up to the School Committee members to do the right thing and to do it now.  No more can-kicking.  This is the right superintendent to bring change. The situation, especially at the Stanley and the Fitzgerald, is critical.  John, Margy, Kaytie, John, Teddy, Steve: collaborate and get it done.  Our kids are depending on you.  #OneWaltham