Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

I am about to come right out and say something so outlandish, so against the grain of normal thinking, so unbelievable that you are all going to stare at me in disbelief and shock and a touch of condescension, thinking that I am clearly insane. (Well, duh. That's not quite the newsflash you might think it is, Scout.)

I love our public school.

There. I said it. And let me be very clear here. I'm talking about a regular old public school, with no more funding than the next guy, and with the same ridiculous testing issues and bullying problems and lack of gifted education and ridiculous teachers who can't be fired because they have tenure. But still, I love this school.

Why? I can sum it all up by telling you about the stupidly named "developmental assets" program. Apparently, during some staff development day at the district office, someone spoke to the district's teachers and principals about ways in which they can promote the growth of children outside of the standards-based academic program that's in place. Our principal brought these ideas back to the school, sat down with teachers and parents, and came up with some new, very specific goals.

Basically, she decided that she wanted to expand on the school's sense of community. And so she has made it her task to learn the names of every child at the school (it's relatively small; under 500 kids). And she has asked her teachers to do the same, to walk around and chat with children who aren't in their class and find out their names, etc., so that kids in first grade know the people who will be teaching them later on, and so that the kids in the fifth and sixth grades get to reconnect with the teachers they had in the past.

She also instituted a program to get the students to care about the work that the custodians and such do at the school. They call it the golden dustpan award. Each week two classes (one in the upper grades, one in the lower) are awarded a gold-painted dustpan that they get to display on their front door; they earn the award by being the classroom that has done the most to help the custodians have an easier job. One teacher recently reported that her class, during free choice time, got together on their own and decided to wet mop the floor using paper towels. Another said her class has been emptying trash bags and putting their chairs up on their desks without being reminded. All for the 'prize' of a golden dustpan.

To get the kids to give the same sort of help to the 'noon aides' who watch over them during lunch, the principal instituted the 'golden lunchbox' program, which is a bit more complicated. Basically, each class gets an empty golden lunchbox. Every time a noon aide 'catches' a kid doing something good--anything from remembering to throw away their trash to sitting quietly to sharing with their friends--they are given a golden ticket to put into the lunchbox. When a class collects 100 golden tickets, they get a special lunch where they get to sit at a table with a tablecloth, and they get lunch served to them, rather than having to wait in line. And just as hoped, it's turned into a team effort. It doesn't matter whether one kid does all the work and gets all the tickets, or if each kid gets a couple of tickets over a couple of weeks, they all get the reward. So they're working as a team. And they're paying attention to the noon aides, who previously were just furniture to most of the kids.

I'm seeing such a difference, even just from the 'outside.' Em has come home telling me about how one of the sixth-grade teachers stopped to talk to her about her USC sweatshirt. A friend of hers, who is in kindergarten, was telling me the other day about how hard the custodial staff has to work at school with so many classrooms to clean up, and how she really tries to make sure her desk is clean to help them out. And this morning, when I dropped Em off in the drop-off lane in front of school, it was one of the noon aides who opened the door for her.

"Good morning, Em," she said, smiling brightly.

"Hi, Mrs. C," Em replied.

Mrs. C then stuck her head in the open passenger-side window. "She's such a smart girl," she said. "She was trying to get some work done during lunch yesterday, and I offered to help her, but she wanted to do it herself. She did just a great job concentrating and getting it done."

"Thanks," I said, and before I could go further, tell her how much I appreciate what she's doing for our kids, she had moved over to the next car, and I heard her say, "Hi, Esther..."

It makes such a difference to drop your child off at a place where you know everyone knows her name, and where they're all looking out for her. It makes such a difference to drop your child off at a place where you know they are teaching all of her, not just the part of her brain that processes math and language arts. It makes up for a multitude of budget- and bureaucratic-based sins. It makes me feel like there really is a village helping me bring my child up toward adulthood.

It makes me able to say, without prevarication, that I love our public school.

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