Monday, October 26, 2009

Purple and Green

It's Friday afternoon and and Shamrock's walkways are bright with purple and neon green. Kids wearing brand-new school T-shirts hustle along, bookbags slung over their backs, heading for their transportation home. They chatter happily, sharing their weekend plans.

We tried something new with our T-shirts this year. Instead of selling them, we gave them away. For two years the PTA designed and sold T-shirts for students to wear on "Spirit Fridays." The problem was, we never sold that many. Some kids got shirts; most did not. The splotches of bright color were few and far between.

Part of the problem was money – our families don't have much spare cash, and many have two or three children at the school. It always hurt to have a parent ask about the T-shirt price, and then turn away, quietly saying "maybe later." We also didn't have the volunteers to run a major sales campaign.

So this year we decided that the only way to get most of our kids in school T-shirts was to make them free. The PTA had about $2,000 in reserve funds, just enough to buy shirts for all the kids. It seemed the time to spend it.

Still, we didn't want to just give away the T-shirts. Something for nothing doesn't happen in the real world. So we consulted with a few folks and shaped a program based in part on a KIPP model (we're miffed at our local KIPP because they steal our teachers, but they have some good ideas).

The teachers in each grade set up criteria: basics like wearing uniforms, completing homework and behaving well in class (most of our kids do this already, but some need extra encouragement). Students who met the requirements during the first four weeks of school would get T-shirts. Those who didn't would get a second chance during the next four weeks.

As the end of the fourth week drew near, I picked up a pile of sample shirts and began moving from class to class to measure students. Most smiled as they held out their arms and discussed their options – who wanted form-fitting, who wanted loose. Where students were absent, their classmates happily advised me on the proper sizes.

The Friday after the shirts arrived, purple and green were everywhere.

So far, we think it's a success. A friend told me the other day that her kindergartener had come home dancing with delight, showing off the beautiful shirt she had gotten "for being good." Teachers said that the incentive – however small – had made a difference, from kindergarten through fifth grade.

As always, though, questions remain. What will happen with those students who didn't meet the goals, and thus went T-shirt free on the first Spirit Fridays. Will they try harder? Or will they get angry and give up?

Perhaps most important, was this the right place to spend our money? The PTA doesn't have a lot of it, and the T-shirts will be this year's second-largest expense (after our family dinners, which are paid for by a grant).

I've noticed that donors are sometimes reluctant to pay for "frills" at high-poverty schools. How does a bright bit of cloth help a child learn? Wouldn't it make more sense to spend the money on books, or computers, or a science program? Don't the kids need to get down to the business of study, and forget about what they have to wear?

But to me, such objections are too abstract. They're much like the phrases "every child can learn" or "black kids don't need to sit next to white kids to get a good education." While there is some truth to these ideas, too often they float free from the realities of what it actually takes to give every child an equal chance at learning, or the difference in opportunities available at high wealth and high poverty schools. Or what can help students feel like school is a place where they belong.

Our kids need to study hard, and read everything they can. But I think it helps to have a brightly colored, brand-new shirt that you can pull over your head, something that proclaims that you are a part of the school you go to every day. Not something that your parents bought you (or, worse, couldn't afford to buy you) but something that you earned yourself.

So if we can raise the money, we'll try the T-shirt program again next year. Wish us luck – or better yet, send us a contribution!

All our great T-shirt designs are done by Little Shiva (, a former Charlotte resident now living in Belgium. We love her work! Thanks also to the folks at T-Shirts Plus, who do such a great job with the printing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

67 percent

The other day, while wandering around the Charlotte Observer's website, I came across an intriguing number. On last year’s CMS student survey, 67 percent of Shamrock’s students agreed with the statement: “My teachers make school work interesting.”

That 67 percent was the second highest score among CMS elementaries and the third highest in the district. Points for the underdog! Kudos to our teachers for raising test scores without becoming deadly dull!

The more surprising number, though, was the average elementary response – a mere 36 percent. Middle and high schools averaged an even more dismal 15 percent. What is going on? Do CMS students really think their teachers are that boring, or does it just seem cool to say they are?

(Charts and graphs are from the Charlotte Observer. For a comparison graph of the "my teacher makes school work interesting" data, see:

The current obsession with educational data means there’s plenty of it around – test scores, surveys, “school quality reviews,” and much much more.

In a large district, where few people have direct experience of more than a handful of schools, this data takes on enormous importance. Yet trying to figure out what it really means can be a mind-bending exercise. You can waste endless hours playing with the numbers.

Last year, for example, I spent some time comparing survey and test score data from our school with that from a far wealthier elementary (a poverty rate of 24 percent as opposed to our 86 percent).

While the wealthy school had a considerably higher percentage of students on grade level, a look at some of the more challenged groups of students showed a different picture.

The wealthy school's percentage of low-income students on grade level barely topped ours (40 percent vs. 39). A higher percentage of our African American students scored at the tests' top levels. I couldn’t compare the performance of ESL students, because the wealthy school didn’t have any.

Yet when asked to rate the “overall effectiveness” of the school, 97 percent of the wealthy school's teachers rated it as excellent or good. Only 50 percent of Shamrock’s teachers rated our school that highly. What do these differences mean? Who has higher standards? Which is the better school?

One of the problems of all this data is that it's easiest to use it for simple comparisons, as parents do when deciding between schools. If a school is near the top of a list, we assume, surely it must be better than those in the middle or near the bottom.

Data also has more powerful effects when it confirms what you already think you know.

If the bottom rung of the "my teachers make school work interesting" graph were occupied by low-wealth, low-scoring Ashley Park, many would no doubt find it easy to imagine classes of restless students being drilled by a weary, frazzled staff.

That the lowest score (14 percent) in fact belongs to high-wealth, high scoring Endhaven makes it a little harder to jump to simple conclusions.

Happily, Shamrock's high score confirmed what I already knew, that our teachers pour their hearts into their work. So I'm going to put questions aside, and tell everyone I know.

To play around with some of this data yourself, go to: and choose a school under the "Searchable Data on CMS Schools" section. I hear rumors that CMS also has some data on its much-touted "Data Dashboard," but since the dashboard won't let Macs access it, I can't confirm them.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wake County

Many school activists in Charlotte have been saddened by the news that Wake County's recent school board elections may bring an end to the county's busing program.

That might seem odd, since what happens at the other end of the state doesn't directly affect our children or our schools.

But for many of us, the Wake County vote recalls the heartbreak of watching Charlotte's quick slide from the achievements of desegregation to a system of separate and unequal schools.

For me, this loss comes home in the story of West Charlotte High School, which I’ve spent the past decade or so researching.

Historically black West Charlotte desegregated with stunning success on many levels, becoming one of the state's top high schools, as well as Charlotte’s desegregation flagship. Today, in contrast, the student body is 99 percent minority, and almost entirely poor. The school and its students have struggled mightily to climb out of a deep dive in academic achievement.

When I interview West Charlotte graduates from the desegregation era, their eyes light up as they recount the ways that black and white students learned to overcome stereotypes, respect each other, and work together. They don't describe West Charlotte as a trouble-free paradise. But many view their high school experience as one of the most important of their lives. (To hear directly from some of these graduates, go to

In contrast, I was recently on a panel with some present-day West Charlotte students. Race wasn’t a real issue at the school, the students said, because everyone was pretty much the same. It mainly came up when they dealt with other schools, and had to fight the many stereotypes that others held about a student body that was predominantly black and poor.

The students still spoke of their school with warm affection. But while their predecessors' words brimmed over with enthusiasm, theirs carried the weight of struggle.

Some of busing's critics say they are not concerned about resegregation, because an end to busing would "put the focus on education."

But as these two groups of West Charlotte students make crystal clear, the lessons students learn at school go far beyond the classroom. As Charlotte's schools have pulled apart, many lessons in inter-racial interaction and human understanding have fallen through the cracks. Even if resegregated schools offered equal academic opportunities – which they decidedly do not – much would still be lost.

Imagining a similar change in Raleigh thus feels like being in a movie where you goes back in time, but cannot change anything, and have to watch the same tragedy unfold once more. It isn't just about my child – or anyone's child. It's about a whole idea of how to build a strong community, where people understand each other and everyone belongs. Losing that – anywhere – hurts.

(You can access a column I wrote for the Raleigh News and Observer about the Wake election at The above image is from the News and Observer web site.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Dear Mr. President

President Barack Obama drawn by Hernan Loredo-Rangel

In October of 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln, peppering the soon-to-be president with thoughts and questions. "Have you any little girls about as large as I am?" she wrote. "If you let your whiskers grow . . . you would look a great deal better." "I think that rail fence around your picture makes it look very pretty."

The letter ended as breathlessly as it had begun. "I must not write any more answer this letter right off."

A century and a half later, 10-year-old Alexis Duncan, a fourth grader here at Shamrock Gardens, sat down to write President Barack Obama. Although Alexis had no fashion tips for the famously handsome Obama, her letter brimmed with equally chatty enthusiasm.

"Are you having fun as President?" she asked? "Or is it all seriousness and business? Do you have a Smart Board for your meetings? I hope it's not an abyss of files and papers." "Have you been making some good laws?"

Like Grace, she expected an answer, albeit in a different form. "Maybe you can send an e-mail when you get this," she concluded.

Some things change, and some don't. Wars start and stop. Beards go in and out of fashion. The Internet arises, the mail declines. Yet little girls keep writing presidents as though they lived next door.

Alexis penned her letter as part of a PTA project to invite Barack and Michelle Obama to come see our school's accomplishments. Shamrock's students pass their lives far from the seat of presidential power. But from their letters, no one would ever guess. For two weeks, school corridors buzzed with happy excitement as students weighed their arguments, chose their words, copied and recopied their compositions.

Their letters often started off in formal tones. "Thank you for everything you have done for the United States and for North Carolina," wrote Raiven Gillespe. "My classmates and I appreciate the money going to the schools," noted Shelby Pincay. "I would like to congratulate you on being America's first black president," explained Mekhi Hampton.

Still the connection students felt to the Obamas broke quickly through. Mekhi Hampton followed his formal congratulations with a far different postscript. "Could you say hey to everybody?" he asked. Amaya Jones offered lunch. "We got to plant peas in our garden," she explained. "I hope you come so you can eat some." Like many students, Peyton Murphy signed her note "Your friend, Peyton." Students surrounded their words with hearts and flags and flowers. For those two weeks, the White House seemed so real, so close.

The daunting challenge of actually reaching the most powerful person in the world did not sink in until we packed our box (complete with crayon decorations) and put it in the mail. Two days later, a cryptic note appeared on the Postal Service website. "Delivery was attempted on 03/19/09 at 10:52 AM, and a notice was left."

No one at the White House at 10:52 on a Thursday morning!?!?? At first we chuckled at the image of a small, sticky note affixed to the famous front door. But we quickly panicked – not for our country's safety, but for our letters. How long would they be stuck in Post Office limbo?

A week later, thankfully, a more reassuring note appeared: "The delivery record shows that this item was delivered on 03/27/09 at 04:21 AM."

Someone at the White House signs for packages at 4:21 a.m.! The free world must be safe! More important, our letters had arrived. A post office employee informed us that the delay involved security checks. We wonder how long it took Grace Bedell's letter to reach Lincoln, in an era without computers or jet engines, but also without anthrax powder or plastique.

In the much smaller world of the 1860s, Grace Bedell got to meet her pen pal. Lincoln's inauguration train stopped in her hometown of Westfield, New York, and the freshly elected president, sporting his new beard, called her to the platform. We may never get that close. But in many ways, it doesn't matter. Visit or not, our kids' letters testify to the persisting power of our democratic ideals, the tenacious conviction that even our youngest citizens can speak or write or e-mail, and presidents will listen.

Perhaps our most poignant letter was written by fourth grader Tannia Juarez. Tannia came to Shamrock as a small, scared kindergartener, who spoke no English and was frequently in tears. Five years later, her letter to the U.S. President exuded calm assurance, and a clear sense of belonging. "I was so enthusiastic when I heard that you had won the election," she wrote. "I would like to invite you to our school, Shamrock Gardens Elementary (our homeroom is #15), whenever you have time. I wish you, your wife, and your daughters luck at the White House!"

From all of us at Shamrock, thank you, Barack and Michelle Obama, for helping our kids touch this spirit of democracy. In the words of second grader Tyler Gary, we "know you are busy taking care of the world." But if you ever feel the need for a bit of extra inspiration, you will always be welcome at Shamrock. Just Twitter us, and we'll be waiting.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Some of Parker's Classmates

One of the best parts of being at Shamrock has been watching Parker and his friends grow up together. Most of Parker's classmates come from families with long histories at Shamrock – brothers, sisters and even parents went to the school before them. They are testaments to the talents that exist in all our schools.

< Cameron is our nature-lover. In first grade, he wanted to become a crocodile hunter. In second grade, he was always talking about his pet rabbits. Last year, the kids went to a performance of "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs." In the play, the wolf was put on trial, and he explained at length why eating pigs was not a crime. Cameron's assessment: "Predators need a lot of excuses."

< Da'Quan doesn't talk much, but he is always thinking and hunting down information. In first grade, he wanted to be a museum curator. He's a native Charlottean – his mother graduated from Shamrock. He loves Michael Jackson's music and dancing. Everyone in the class is jealous of his break dance and moonwalk skills.

< Mario and Parker became close friends in kindergarten, and have stayed that way. Mario's parents are from El Salvador, and they throw terrific parties (we've been lucky enough to be invited to a few). In first grade, Mario wanted to be a house painter, just like his dad. He and Parker both like math. He's the top player in the recess soccer games.

< Lianna, who was born in Florida, is new to the class this year. She spent much of last summer reading Harry Potter. All seven books. Twice each. She also wields a mean Nerf gun in the Star Wars battles that rage in our back yard. Her parents love the outdoors, and she knows a lot about plants and trees and wildlife.

< Kaylyn is a tiny girl with big ideas. In first grade, she wanted to be a doctor. In second grade, the class elected her mayor. She takes ice skating and ballet. She loves cats, and she's a reading whiz. Her family is from Vietnam. Parker had a huge crush on her all through second grade.

J.W. is the most competitive class member – perhaps because he has four older sisters (all of whom have gone through Shamrock). He loves video games, and in first grade he wanted to become a game designer. He is also keen on reading, and piles up Accelerated Reader points almost as fast as his video game scores. He likes to tell people about the things he's learning.

< William's father is from Cambodia and his mother from Vietnam. His older sister, Steffi – now in eighth grade – was Shamrock's academic star a few years ago. William is great at math, writing, and everything else. He also likes adventure. In first grade, he wanted to be a race car driver. He's fond of anime cartoons, and has a great collection of plastic ninja weapons, which he and Parker love to battle with.

< Promise, who came to Charlotte from Philadelphia, was the top performer in the class last year. She loved learning about anything – food, music, history, science, you name it. She won the second grade spelling bee. She was especially fond of the sushi that I sometimes make Parker for lunch. We were all sorry when her family moved to a different part of town over the summer.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


The scraps of cardboard spill across my dining room table, a jumble of ragged edges and neon colors. We lost our boxtop/soup label coordinator part-way through last year, have had a hard time finding a replacement, and the coupons have been piling up.

We've never made a big effort to collect boxtop or soup label coupons. But these programs have a life of their own. Kids bring coupons from home. People in the surrounding neighborhoods stop by and drop them off. Employees in some unnamed department at one of Charlotte's banks mail them to us once a month or so (since our coordinator moved on, I haven't really kept track).

So here I sit, sorting through the pile, separating the expired coupons from those that are still good. Some are a pleasing size, about an inch and a half wide, easy to hold and read. Others are almost impossible to decipher – tiny, with blurry print. I peer down below my glasses and squint to make out the microscopic dates.

Why am I doing this? I wonder. Is the check we'll eventually get really worth the effort?

The bank employees, for example. They take the trouble to cut out coupons and bring them to work. Someone there collects them, puts them in an envelope, and writes our address on it. It then goes to the mailroom, where it's weighed and gets the proper postage. If there are bottle caps, the postage can top a dollar.

After the coupons reach us, someone sorts them again, counts them out into bundles of 50, and then spends more time and money packing and mailing them. In the process, some expire. During the three years or so that we've been getting coupons from the bank, all that work has probably added up to less than $100. Wouldn't it be simpler for everyone if the employees just sent a check every now and then?

But there is also something very real about these remnants of our corporate-driven economy, parted from the products that they once adorned. The cardboard ones feel stiff. Those printed on metallic paper shine. Those cut from plastic bags curl into miniature rolls. Most important, someone cut each one out, and took the trouble to get it to us.

One group of coupons, snipped and bundled, has a note. The donor has written down the number of each kind of coupon, calculated the value of one set ($12.90), and cautioned us that five of them will expire at the end of the year. A handful of ripped ones have been neatly taped together.

The writing looks like an older woman's. I imagine a pair of hands snipping, sorting, counting, just as I am doing now. Clipping boxtop coupons isn't exactly a tradition like weaving, or basket-making, or growing roses. But still, somehow, I feel the slim threads of connection.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Parents at high-poverty schools have to fight a lot. That's just the way it is. The odds are stacked against our kids in lots of ways. Sometimes, these battles make me want to laugh. More often, however, they just make me mad.

Battles of perception

Perceptions about schools like ours boggle the mind. Before we went to Shamrock, we conducted a neighborhood survey about the school. The responses made it clear that some people believed that the school was frequently visited by unsavory neighbors (even though Shamrock sits in a white, middle-class neighborhood!), and that kids with weapons roamed the halls (of an elementary school!). That's one battle.

Other challenges of perception are more subtle. Because we are a high-poverty school, the federal government sends us lots of books. Most of them are terrible! They have no plots, no characters and no thematic development. All they do is teach basic words and concepts, over and over and over and over again. Clearly, some folks in high places do not believe that our kids are capable of learning anything more.

Battles of resources

In a large public school system, schools have to compete for resources, and parents often play a significant role. This puts high-poverty schools, where parents generally have fewer resources and less political clout than those at low-poverty schools, at a considerable disadvantage.

Last year, for example, CMS decided to realign its magnet programs. When staff and board members suggested closing or moving several popular, low-poverty magnets, parents turned out in force to protest. In the end, most of the eliminated magnets – and the resources that went with them – were taken from high-poverty schools.

Battles with the "experts"

Education today is rife with studies and "data." Unfortunately, these studies (despite being appallingly expensive) can contradict the experiences of schools and teachers. Class size is one example. Almost any teacher at Shamrock will tell you that in her experience smaller classes make for better instruction, and higher levels of teacher satisfaction (a key point in hard-to-staff high-poverty schools). However, many "experts" have recently been citing a California study that suggests that small classes don't do much good if they're headed by bad teachers.

Since small classes are quite expensive, school district leaders would prefer to eliminate them, if possible. So now class sizes are creeping up, as district officials turn to stressing teacher quality. The most effective combination – good teachers and small classes – is thus becoming a "luxury" we have to fight for.