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Suddenly it’s November. Over the past few months, my brain has been focused elsewhere than this blog.  Mainly, navigating the new world of having a school age child. We watched our daughter get on the school bus for the first time and waited eagerly for her to come home that first day—and every day since. She seems happy, talks about friends and has settled into the new routine. The buzz has died down—and I finally have the room to think again. And I have A LOT of thoughts. Bear with me. And then please share your own.

First off, some context. Though I’m not comfortable sharing the name of my daughter’s school, it’s a large public elementary school in a relatively affluent suburban district close to the city. And though our district may not be exactly like yours, I still think we as parents can engage in a discussion about the nature of our schools in the region and the nation.

So here goes…

I’m shocked at how LITTLE I see my daughter. Our district has a full-day kindergarten and she is gone from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.  The mornings are a blur and by the time she gets home from school in the evenings, we have no more than a couple of hours to interact with her. Weekends feel sacred.

Naturally, we ask ourselves “What’s she doing?” during the many hours she spends away from us. And though it feels WRONG, I can’t really answer that question. However, based on the little information we get, I know she’s NOT doing enough of:

  1. Free play: shortly after my daughter started kindergarten, I read this article in the Atlantic by Tim Walker. Walker has spent considerable time studying the education system in Finland, where children don’t start learning to read until beyond kindergarten. Instead, they engage in hours of unstructured play per day. “Play is really the work of childhood,” said Fred Rogers, and I couldn’t agree with him more. I firmly believe that children learn best through play, even when they’re beyond kindergarten. So why is it generally perceived that play time detracts from learning time? Is it because the skills that kids learn through free play and exploration aren’t as easily testable? Sometimes I think so…
  2. Hands-on learning: I recently interviewed an educator at the Winchester Thurston North Hills campus. We discussed the curriculum for Little House on the Prairie, where students read the books in their English class, and then head out to the “Outdoor Classroom,” to learn how to build a log cabin like Pa using real tools. This sort of hands-on, cross-curricular learning has to be superior to worksheets and other traditional educational tools so prevalent in our schools. But why is this style of learning only accessible to families who can afford an expensive private school environment?
  3. Physical activity: I have had several discussions with friends who have school-age boys recently diagnosed with ADHD. “I don’t think there’s actually anything wrong with my son. He’s just not in the right school environment,” said one. In many cases, I must say I agree. I don’t think our kids are getting enough time to run around and be active. Concurrently, we have an ADHD and obesity epidemic. Could they be related? I think so…

I’m not pointing fingers at any particular district, school or teacher. I think we are all facing similar pressures. No matter what district you live in, there’s simply not enough money devoted to education. As a result, many of our public schools don’t have the room to think outside the box. Also, schools must deal with the weight of standardized testing and the Common Core. Student performance in these arenas directly impacts school district rankings, which can influence funding decisions and the very fabric of an area’s economy. People want to live in “good” school districts. And when they live somewhere, they spend money there.

These are true challenges. But–I don’t think–insurmountable. In this case, I think school districts are sitting on a gold mine—Mom and Dad.

The success of this blog has proven to me beyond a doubt that parents (and other caregivers) in our region are truly invested in the education of our kids. You have read about, shared and participated in many of the educational activities that I’ve highlighted in my weekend listings and my other articles. I am thoroughly convinced that parents universally dream of nurturing a well-rounded and happy child. And of course we do. There is no one who cares more about a child’s success than a parent. It’s evolutionary biology 101.

So, why can’t we take matters into our own hands? Partially, I think it’s because schools aren’t letting parents in. PA Clearances aside, I don’t think we’re told enough of what is going on in the everyday lives of our children in the classroom. What are they learning in Science? Math? Social Studies? How can parents effectively supplement this learning both in our homes (through books, hands-on projects, etc) and within the community (structured museum programs, events etc.).

If schools could help bridge this gap, I believe we could overcome some of the limitations of our educational system. Because, unlike teachers, parents can provide more individualized attention based on the specific interests of a child. Also, unlike teachers, parents can provide more opportunities for hands-on, play-based learning. Finally, unlike teachers, parents don’t need a paycheck. We just WANT THE BEST FOR OUR KIDS!

So I ask you—why can’t we find a way to efficiently integrate in-school and out-of-school learning so that parents can take a more active role in helping schools overcome their limitations? 

And now, I’d like to hear from you because I know I’m not alone. Please email me at pittsburghmommyblog@gmail.com, send me a message on the Pittsburgh Mommy Page on Facebook or comment below. And if your child’s school is doing a particularly good job of involving parents, please let me know. I want to hear more!

Addendum: I received some feedback from this article that it was “anti-teacher.” I want to explicitly state that I do not believe that the problems I’ve mentioned above have anything to do with my own child’s teacher or any others. I wrote this article purely to start a conversation about the issues–and to determine a way that we can work together to advocate for our children’s interests. 

© Copyright 2015 Nadine Champsi, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Pittsburgh Mommy Blog
Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

24 Comments on Why aren’t schools letting parents in?

  1. This is exactly the reason why I have seriously considered home schooling my son once he is school aged. I taught in public schools for 10 years. It’s not that the teachers don’t want to provide play time, hands on activities, etc. It’s the lack of time in the school day. Teachers have to spend all of their teaching time teaching to tests, because that is how THEY are evaluated, as well as students and the district at large. Do poorly on a standardized test and a school can lose their funding. It’s a shame that education is no longer about education. It’s about money. Plain and simple. In the beginning of my career, I used to send home a weekly flyer, outlining what concepts were being taught the following week, but after only a couple of years, I had no time to prepare that flyer. I spent my prep periods, lunches, before and after school just helping kids, replying to parent phone calls and emails, correcting papers, preparing lesson plans, etc. The entire structure of education and schools today needs to change. Our children are struggling and discouraged. They are beginning to dread going to school at a much earlier age. It’s incredibly sad.

  2. This is my biggest fear. My oldest daughter will go to kindergarten next year and we have talked at length about homeschooling, even if just for the first few years. I hesitate because I LOVED elementary school, but it seems like so much has changed. I can’t believe kindergarten is a full-day program for our school district (and it seems like almost all of the school districts around here) and I just can’t decide if I should send her or not. I have read a few different articles about the schools in Finland even before reading your post and we have even started discussing what it would take to set something like that up here. But, like you mentioned, that usually entails a private school that most people (including our family) couldn’t afford. Why can’t these little kids have school for just 4 or 5 hours? It just seems like so much. I am not sure what we will do. If my daughter does attend kindergarten next year, I plan on doing a babysitting swap with my sister and volunteering in her classroom every week. I hope they let parents do that! I don’t know what to do. I’d love to hear what you learn from your experience and I look forward to seeing what other people post. I am happy to become a part of whatever it takes to see if something can change.

    • ask you school district about half day kindergarten. My district doesn’t say to the public that it is allowed but I believe it is but it is up to the parent to ask for it and maybe arrange the half day transportation home. Kindergarten isn’t mandatory in PA so I don’t know how the school would be able to force a family to do full day kindergarten.

  3. preach! i agree. many parents do not engage AT ALL with their kids. so even a little engagement (as you promote with this site and model in existence) is more than most kids, rich or poor.
    The education system reflects society. Fractured, fearful and controlled. it is in in the “controlling” that you will find why the societal “system” is heavily invested in a very controlled educational system with no play and the absence of any real learning with the presence of constant testing.
    i send my children to what is essentially a prison for children that is called elementary school. so that they can LEARN to follow “the rules.” society does not invest in anything that is love based. there are small pockets of people that prop up certain charities or causes, but as soon as they become mainstream, the life is sucked right out of it.

    sorry for the rant. imagine the impoverished communities and their school experience…

    reset please.

  4. We pulled our son from a prominent, top ranking suburban school district for many of the reasons you list here. I had not a clue what was happening in school academically beyond worksheets and more worksheets. He spent most of his school day filling in blanks and circles. Everything was multiple choice or fill in the blank. While the math program was good, there was little to no writing, no creativity, nothing hands on in the areas of writing, literature or science. The punishment for talking in line at lunch was missing recess. By the end of second grade I’d had enough.

    After a lot of research and looking at options, we moved our son to Aquinas Academy of Pittsburgh – a small, academically rigorous Catholic school out in Gibsonia (we are not Catholic). It was different from day one, to the point that at first I was suspicious that teachers and faculty could really be that open, accessible and committed to their students’ success. I have gone from feeling guilty about emailing his teacher a question and hoping that I would get an answer within a two week period, to being at a place where parents are welcome at any time to talk with teachers, to visit, to ask questions about curriculum, without feeling like they are imposing on the teacher’s time. Academically he is being challenged, and the worksheets are a thing of the past. He has to write, a lot; he does not copy and paste. He has to memorize lines and present in front of his classmates on a regular basis. The math curriculum is advanced but logical, with each lesson reinforcing previous lessons while building new concepts. I also am grateful that the expectations we have at home in terms of good manners and respect for others are reinforced and modeled at school. Yes, it is a sacrifice, though nowhere near (probably less than half) as expensive as many of the private schools in the area. Yes, it kills me to pay high property taxes and tuition. But when we see how happy he is, how he is growing academically, and the good friends that he has made, we know it’s worth it.

  5. Watch ‘Race to Nowhere’ a 2009 documentary that asks really good questions especially about homework and how schools should be able to teach everything needed in the really long school hours and the lack of respect for family time… and this was before the phenomenon of common core testing. My cousin worked for head start in Buffalo and he told me that quite literally the whole point of early education was to shove as much information they can into children in case they drop out. He was working in a lower income area so it was a little different scenario but children were expected to learn beyond their maturity and in ways beyond their maturity. I feel like school has turned into a day care. For working families the long hours are wonderful but they shouldn’t be mandatory…. children do not learn best from institutional like settings. I recently read an article from an early child care educator who has been teaching for 30 years and she talked about how in the push to get kids to know as much as possible as early as possible they have taken almost all the play time away and now children need to be taught skills that they should have picked up themselves in play (I’ll put link below). Finland has the right idea. They also evaluate their teachers actively in person instead of by tests and dedicate so many minutes of play and physical activity in ratio with minutes of sit and study. So cool. Side note: I’m over 30 and I want to go build that cabin in the North Hills too….
    http://www.popsugar.com/moms/How-Play-Preschool-Can-Cure-Sensory-Issues-Kids-38426705

  6. Especially in the early grades, I think parent interaction and participation is critical. Our daughter was in a Catholic elementary school until 7th grade. Although there were the same kind of problems you can have in any school (ineffective teachers, budget constraints, etc.) parent participation was encouraged. The Parent Association, unlike a typical PTA/PTO was really parents, teachers and administrators in a room talking about issues. Sure, fundraising was always on the agenda, but I think we were closer to the action, closer to understanding what was being taught, what books were being used, what field trips were being planned and decisions like that.

    Once our daughter was in public school, I think it was better that she was handling the day-to-day stuff on her own – that’s an important bit of learning some parents these days seem loath to give up. Children need to grow into adults. Still, we stayed involved in several of the seemingly thousands of committees that were out there.

    The other place you have to make your feelings know is at School Board meetings. It’s the only opportunity to question where your tax dollars are being spent and the only way to challenge bad decisions and to counter the often overwhelming weigh of extreme bias that will be brought into public schools by well-organized, perhaps well-meaning groups with whom you do not agree.

    As for hands-on leaning and play, these are, sadly, giving way to more time to study for standardized tests. Children have to play. There are so many studies on that subject that I can’t believe school administrators don’t get the message. We provided time for unstructured, unorganized play and hands-on learning, outside of school. Parents need to take the lead on that.

    I wish I had better answers than “make yourself heard” and “insinuate yourself into the process” (a phrase an former boss of mine used often) but that’s what you have to do. Do it without hesitation and don’t be manipulated out of control of your child’s education.

    Our “child” is over 30 now. Good luck.

    • So good to hear from you, Dan. And THANK YOU for sharing your perspective. I have had to battle my own self consciousness about speaking up and have sat down and talked to administrators at my daughter’s school. I don’t want to be THAT MOM–the one that can’t let her kids go. But seriously, it’s so important to make sure your children are getting an education that you can be proud of!! So why do I feel bad when I go in there and make my voice heard??

      • Nadine– You go girl! Sounds like you found your next project! So glad I caught your post on fb. I couldn’t agree more. I have found the public education system, even with the bit of parental involement that my district encourages, is entirely geared toward educating the masses not supporting individuals. Systems tend to sacrifice individuals needs for the group (or the state’s) needs — graduating as many as possible, hitting bench marks, etc for politics/$ purposes. (I am all too familiar with this ideology from my field). There is a constant tension between what is beat for the group (ie quiet work at desks, minimally differentiated instruction) vs what is best for each child. No one else will advocate for our kids. They are counting on us!

  7. Great post! I haven’t researched this to much as my kids are not yet school age, but I wholeheartedly agree. That said, My mother is an aside for special education children and has been talking about a program called ALEX that has at home activity ideas that parents can tap in to. She had been sharing how the kids are really loving it and are sharing different projects they are doing. This is supplemental and optional but supports curriculum currently being learned. I apologize I do not have more information, but you can certainly respond our email me and I could find out :-)

    • I cringe when I hear the words “supplemental,” “enrichment” or “optional” because my daughter, who is in 1st grade in public school translates those words to “more work” and “less play” which are both true. Although she’s been tested as gifted, we have opted out of some of the additional homework, not because she can’t do it, but because we’d all prefer to play more than do homework all night.

      We have been disgusted with her school and the lack of caring for any individual student. Her teacher said to me at parent-teacher conferences that it was beyond her pay grade to help my daughter individually. WOW! We are currently looking for a better option. My social butterfly of a daughter doesn’t deserve to be homeschooled. Surely, there must be somewhere that will have better teachers in the Pittsburgh area. If anyone LOVES their school, I’d love to hear more!

  8. My daughter is in. Second grade and I communicate with her 2 teachers every day. Now my daughter doesn’t ride a bus. I drop her off and pick her up everyday. I also talk to her principal on an almost daily basis. I stay invoked with her school. Such as PTO and helping out in the classroom. The key is making yourself available to your child’s school. Almost everyone who works at the school knows who I am.

    • Jaci you are definitely very fortunate. In my experience with our local public school, parental involvement was strictly limited to helping out at the winter party or end of year field day, and volunteering to help fund raise. Parents were absolutely not allowed anywhere near the classroom, except to come in once a year to read a book to the class for 20 minutes.. My son’s second grade teacher did not communicate to parents more than once a month, if that. If I had a question, I was lucky if I heard back within a two-week period, and her response was usually a flat yes or no answer that made it clear she did not want to communicate. I think I attempted two emails, one in September and one in October, and then just gave up. Other parents in the class confirmed that she was the same with them. The general feeling among the parents was resignation, and the hope that the next year would be better.

  9. Today I volunteered at multiple intelligence day at our elementary school. The kids got to choose 2 activities to participate in. They could be outside, building with blocks, playing games in the gym, trying out yoga, etc. It was a really fun and it was a full hour of play.

  10. Both my son and daughter are in kindergarten. I am amazed with the knowledge my daughter brings home. She is well on her way to reading, multiplication and derivative math. Even my son, whom struggled at phonics and struggled at struggling is doing well in kindergarten. Much of their success is due to their teachers (particularly my son). But— I too feel shut out. Their play outside is so limited. When they are scheduled to spend a large chunk of time outside parents get emails on dressing their child in weather appropriate clothing. Why is this not a given everyday!? And I would love to help in the classroom. I would love to watch their teacher interact with the kids. Not to sit in judgement, but to be apart of my children’s childhoods and maybe get some ideas for interaction with them at home. Parents want to be involved, teachers say they are over-taxed; I honestly do not understand why there are so few opportunities for parents in the classroom.

  11. Our elementary school just started a papa bear program. Men you have a child grandchild ect can sign up. Then they come spend a day at the school with the kids. This is nice for the kids who don’t have a male influence in their life. Just had a doughnuts with dads this morning and I would say at least 75 dads or grandpas showed up.

  12. I know my comment isn’t going to be particularly helpful but I want to thank you for writing this post! The difficulties you’ve described are among some of the reasons I am both homeschooling second grade this year and planning to at least delay kindergarten for my middle child. And while our school district is “the best” and I think does encourage parent involvement more than most I was still just not comfortable with the type of learning that was happening…

  13. This is not new and unique to Pittsburgh. 19 years ago we pulled our son out of an international studies public for K and into Pittsburgh Urban Christian School for 1st &2nd. Best two years of my son’s life. Parents are wanted! School was fun! Moved to San Antonio, and facing the same attitude of “no parents except to photocopy” and workbook learning is how we do it, we opted to homeschool. Next best set of years. Homeschooling is great, but an engaging school is wonderful.

  14. A friend shared this on Facebook earlier tonight, discussed with another teacher-mom friend and I have been thinking about it quite a bit. You are correct, you have a lot of thoughts on this. 😉

    I am a parent and a teacher at a district that sounds similar to yours. Parent for 13 years, teacher for 20. I will be honest, at first I bristled at this post, simply because of the title and I have seen many years of this whole machine from the teacher’s POV. I perceived the title to be a teeny bit hostile, which I can see is not your intent… just me being sensitive and protective of my profession.

    I’m over that now, and wanted to respond on a couple things.

    Initially, I thought you wanted in the school to help out. My district offers many volunteer opportunities. Sometimes parents sign up to help with Learning Centers. There are times where a parent can be a “Mystery Reader,” or volunteer to do a presentation on which they are knowledgeable. Chaperoning field trips, helping with parties are also offered. I have a friend who is on her school’s PTA board, and she started an after school running club. If your district doesn’t have these types of programs, this would be a great time to join the PTA and make your voice heard.

    After re-reading, it seems like you may be more interested in knowing what your individual child is learning and in how you can help supplement her learning. My suggestion would be to see if you might view the curriculum for your child’s grade and then form questions for your child’s teacher. Based on your description of the learning activities that you feel are lacking, you could base your questions around those three areas and go from there. You seem very attuned to what your child needs and your blog has so many great ideas, I am sure you do a great job at supplementing your child’s education. As she gets older, you will probably find even more ways that you may help in this endeavor.

    Perhaps you meant to suggest a mix of my last two paragraphs (volunteer while teaching content?), and here’s my last: schools have to be careful about protecting the privacy of their students. I imagine that some of the limitations one sees surround this responsibility:

    The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is intended to preserve the privacy of children and their families. If a parent comes in and helps teach something, it could be quite easy to violate FERPA. On any given day, in many classes, it would be immediately apparent who has an IEP, a GIEP or a 504. The accommodations required to meet the needs of those legal documents are private and meant for those who are mandated to follow them.

    I am not sure that I am phrasing that all that well (someone better versed in school law could expand this). I will just say that if my child had to receive extra help in Math, I would not want my neighbor’s mother to be the one doing it. She may be a very nice lady… or she might be the type of person who would gossip about my child’s shortcomings. Either way, it’s a violation of FERPA and I would prefer my tax dollars spent on the salary of the Highly Qualified / PA Certified Teaching Professional.

    You might very well be happier in a private school or in homeschooling. Pricey, yes. But your child will be schooled with students of similar financial means, perhaps paying for a richer set of on and/or off-campus experiences. It is also likely that the number of diverse learners would be lower than that of the average public school classroom. The teacher would have less of the responsibilities inherent in teaching a child with an IEP and perhaps more time to spend teaching to your child.

  15. My 2yo is in a Montessori school because it was a better alternative to the lousy day cares near our home. The school goes through grade 8. They start their day outside and enjoy “work cycles”, which are really free choice play, and some circle time. While parents aren’t encouraged to volunteer in the 2yo room since it often upsets the children, we can observe through a 1-way window at any time, and parents are encouraged to volunteer with cooking and gardening help in the older rooms. It’s amazing there. The kids learn so much and are do independent. We are zoned for one of the better elementary schools in the area, but will probably still bite the bullet and pay the tuition to keep her there for all the reasons you outlined. I’m so thankful that we are able to.