Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Gift of Reading

It's two days before Christmas break, and Shamrock's media center buzzes with excitement. Piles of books spill across the counters: hardcover novels that weigh heavy in the hand, bright-covered picture stories, paperbacks with brittle, browning leaves. Kids cluster eagerly around them, thumbing through the pages, examining the illustrations, looking for just the right one.

I love our media center. Like most of our school, it isn't much to look at – beige cinderblock walls festooned with a scattering of posters, and the usual collection of chairs, tables and plants. But it's where the school's books reside, presided over by media specialist Margaret Hollar, reading evangelist extraordinaire.

This may be the age of the Internet, of Smart Boards and of Angry Birds, but books still lie at the heart of our school. At the start of every day, before the first bell rings, a steady stream of students pours through the media center doors, bringing in completed books to exchange for new ones. Transactions continue at a brisk pace all day long.

As students scour the shelves for new material, Ms. Hollar is always ready to consult. She doesn't believe in telling kids what they should read, or in limiting them to the narrow range of titles that lie within the boundaries of their "official" reading level, but she's happy to offer advice, and to prod gently when someone keeps picking books that seem a bit too easy.

She loves stories and characters and humor and has little patience for the books that seem designed simply to pound a few new words into a struggling reader's head (an approach that unfortunately infuses many of the works the federal government provides to schools like ours). She talks about books like they're people – they can be friends or enemies, she tells the kids, depending on what lies inside.

Every year, when she makes out the lists of books the PTA has agreed to buy, the total always comes to several dollars more than the amount that we've agreed on. The kids have asked for all the books on the list, she explains, and she just can't decide which ones to cut. She'd rather we do it. Of course we can never decide either, so we always buy them all.

Thanks to Ms. Hollar and the rest of our staff, Shamrock students see reading not as a chore, but as the journey and adventure that it's supposed to be. Two of the school's most exciting events are our fall and spring book fairs, when the media center fills with brand-new titles, and kids come through the door clutching bags of change, or a few precious bills.

Parents join in as well, such as the mother of a fifth grader who snuck into this fall's fair to buy her son's Christmas presents, glowing with anticipation as she imagined how delighted he would be to find the books he wanted underneath the tree.

A week ago, we held a drawing for the students who participated in our cookie dough sale (in which our kids astonished us by selling $7,000 worth of double chocolate brownie, white macadamia nut and other exotic concoctions). When I announced that first prize would be a bicycle, the gathered students smiled politely.

When I held up the second group of prizes – book fair certificates – every face lit up.

But now, two days before Christmas break, the book fair books are being packed away, and the kids have turned to the new ones on the counters. They are one of Ms. Hollar's pet projects, which she calls "Give the Gift of Reading." She doesn't just want kids to read for themselves. She wants them to talk about books, share their experiences, pass the fire. So each year, she collects several hundred books – enough for every Shamrock student to give one to a classmate.

This hasn't been a simple task. As we've learned over and over, doing something for every student at a school, even a small one, is never cheap, at least not by our standards. But Shamrock's staff is a determined bunch, and each year, they've made it work, hunting for sales, collecting donations, paying for a lot of books themselves.

This year, though, that changed. When Bobbie, one of our new Plaza-Midwood moms, heard about the program, she thought we should ask the community for books. She and a P-M friend, Patty, put in the legwork we'd never been able to muster, contacting local businesses, placing collection boxes, spreading the word. And the books flooded in, filling box after box after box, enough for this year and probably next as well. A glorious abundance. The more books, the more choices, the more opportunities for each student to find a perfect match.

Later in the day, I stop by Parker's classroom for a gingerbread house extravaganza. At the back of the room sits a stack of books, each neatly wrapped and decorated, with a message from one child to another. The gift of reading, and much more.

Thanks to the local businesses who put out boxes: Book Buyers, The Common Market, Georgetown Day Spa, Foskoskies, No Grease, Pike's Pharmacy, Shamrock Gardens and Zada Jane's. Thanks also to the members of charlottemommies, and everyone else who gave.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Partial Magnet

The students cluster at the base of the glittering Firebird outside the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, giggling and squirming as they pose for a picture. William, Lawrence, Philip, Niko, Dakiya, Asha, Jessica, Kaylyn, Noemi, Filberto and of course Parker (cap over his face, always the clown). The shutter clicks, and they head inside to look at art.

It's kids' day at the Bechtler, where we're members, so we've invited Parker's class. It's a spur-of-the-moment affair – we saw the announcement the previous Saturday, sent an invitation home on Monday, and by Tuesday more than half the class had signed up. Their teacher, Ms. Bonasera, and a couple of parents volunteered to drive.

The caravan arrived downtown about noon, and the kids spent the day exploring the museum, checking out Amelie's bakery, and marveling at our city's gloriously transformed arts district, where almost none of them had been before.

They stuck together, as friends do, heads bumping, arms draped about each other, whispering and poking and teasing. They made postcards and collages, shared root beers, played tag on the Green.

Parker's classmates have been one of Shamrock's greatest joys. Many of them first met in kindergarten, a clutch of tiny strangers who eyed each other warily. Then friendships sprang up, and by the time they graduated to first grade, they were inseparable. Every teacher since has marveled at their connection, at how quickly they tune into each other's feelings, at how much they care.

If an asthma attack threatens, the class picks up on the symptoms right away, often long before the teacher notices. If someone's feeling down, everyone worries. The few new students who have joined the class each year are drawn right in.

I remember when, in second grade, Parker missed several days of school right around Christmastime. The day that he returned, his classmates stampeded toward him, faces lit up, hugging him in welcome and pressing on him the present that had arrived while he was gone. "Open it, open it," they chorused, more excited than he was. He had only been out a few days, but they had all missed him.

This doesn't, of course, mean that every child or every day is perfect. Rivalries break out. They get on each other's nerves from time to time. One day on the playground, as Parker was reeling after being hit by a soccer ball, one of his best friends had the bad grace to laugh. Parker promptly slugged him.

But it's been extraordinary to watch them grow, to quarrel and to make up, to shift from one best friend to another and then back again, to get taller and smarter and more self-assured. I never tire of looking at their pictures. They are such beautiful children.

It would be easy to chalk this closeness up to being at a magnet school. Shamrock is a partial magnet with a "gifted" program, and Parker has always been in the designated magnet class. Parents interested in magnet schools often talk about the advantages of being with a group of people who have chosen the school and the program, who are all on the same page.

But Parker's class complicates that view. It's always hard to get a magnet started, and his was Shamrock's first magnet kindergarten. When it didn't fill in the lottery, neighborhood kids were shifted in. Of the fifteen students in that class, perhaps four had come to Shamrock for the magnet. The rest would have been at the school anyway.

That turned out not to matter. Some students have come and gone over the years, but the class has always shone. They all came into fourth grade having passed their EOGs, and all of them are reading above grade level. Create a real opportunity to push higher, and plenty of students are ready to rise to it. And while most of their parents don't have a lot of money, they help out where they can, and leap at any opportunity to expand their kids' horizons.

This wouldn't have happened if Shamrock hadn't been a partial rather than a full magnet. The beauty of a partial magnet is that it offers the excitement of a magnet program in a neighborhood setting. It's not limited to those kids whose parents have the ambition and resources to seek it out (or those who have the luck to be accepted). The scores at partial magnets can look less impressive than those at full magnets, and the demographics can seem less promising as well. (for an example of the consequences this difference can have, click here.) But parents like Peter and I can make a far greater difference for kids at a partial magnet than at a full one.

Most partial magnets have been deliberately placed at high-poverty schools, because those are the ones that need the infusion of academic excitement, as well as the boost from parents who have the connections and resources to do things like invite a class to an art exhibition, write a grant to build a butterfly garden, or help raise money to send the fourth graders to Raleigh.

And when we do these things, we're not just mysterious, benevolent strangers. We're Parker's mom and dad. They see us all the time; they've visited our house; they know our son has all the strengths and foibles that they do. He may live in a 1,600 square foot house, the biggest many of them have ever set foot in (the first thing most of them remark on is the space; the second is how many books we have). But they know that he still struggles in math, he still gets mad when someone laughs at him, he still thinks "Billie Jean" is the greatest pop recording ever made. And he knows all of them equally well.

So much that's done these days in the name of charity is a drop-in, drop-out affair – people reaching out to low-income children while remaining rooted in their own, comfortable schools and neighborhoods. Being at a partial magnet is different. It's like helping to build a street of houses, then moving into one of them and helping to shape a neighborhood that works for everyone. When I walk into Ms. Bonasera's class, and see her desk festooned with postcards from the Bechtler trip, it's hard to describe the feeling. But one thing I know. Being part of Shamrock Gardens is the most satisfying thing I've ever done.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween Connections

Halloween night on Belvedere Avenue. Orange lights glow up and down the block while pumpkin-bearing figures dart across the streets and sidewalks, clad as bats, bees, ghosts, princesses, superheroes, science fiction fantasies and psychotic killers (Parker, alas, crossed the line into the latter category this year). Unlike last year's mix of cold and rain, it is a perfect night to trick-or-treat, calm and clear, with just the slightest edge of chill.

All of a sudden a small girl, white-beaded braids dangling, appears in front of me and throws her arms around my legs, face tilted up towards mine. "I know you from my school!" she declares.

It is a typical Shamrock Gardens moment. I often refer to Shamrock as the "Land of Hugs," because hugs are such a common currency among the students. As I walk down the corridors or through the cafeteria, student after student detours in my direction for a squeeze, a smile, and a quick hi. Speak to a child once, visit a classroom to make a presentation, and you earn years of PDAs (although they slack off somewhat as the kids get up into the upper grades). Even if the little girl hadn't mentioned Shamrock, the hug would have given her away.

Further up Belvedere, a boy has collared Peter. "You came to talk to my class," he said. When his mom wants to know more, he explains to her that Peter showed his first grade class how to draw buildings. Parker, running by in his candy-laden, psycho-killer suit, barely has time to wave before he's vanished up the street. But the rest of us exchange smiles, and affirm to each other that our kids attend the very best school in CMS, before

heading on our separate ways.

Plaza Midwood is a Halloween magnet, with quiet streets, big, close-set houses, lots of decorations and – most important – a bountiful supply of excellent candy. Plenty of families come here from other neighborhoods, and streets that most days seem lily-white host a multicultural extravaganza, with everyone cavorting happily together among tombstones, moaning ghosts and clouds of artificial smoke.

It makes me happy that a little girl came to the fancy neighborhood next door to trick-or-treat, and ran into someone from her school. Peter and I have always hoped that having families from Plaza-Midwood at Shamrock would draw the different neighborhoods that feed the school a little closer together. Any time we take one of Parker's school friends home to Plaza-Shamrock, the neighborhood where most of Shamrock's students live, we're struck by the gulf that separates their neighborhood from ours, even though the two sit only blocks apart. We don't believe that these divisions are good for our city, or for our country.

Like so many public schools, Shamrock has the potential to connect otherwise divided parts of town. Sending your kids to the same school has the potential to create far more powerful bonds than charitable efforts, or the polite exchange of greetings, or the cheerful distribution of Halloween treats to one and all. With a school, you have something in common that really matters.

For a variety of reasons, we have yet to really take advantage of this potential. One more idea left on the shelf. But looking at that smiling, upturned face, feeling the warmth of little arms about my knees, I think that perhaps some small something has been accomplished, and feel inspired to hope for more.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Social Capital

The circus animals parade through the cafeteria: lions, elephants, monkeys, prancing horses, seals with balls balanced on the very tips of their noses. The gathered crowd applauds as the parade winds past the tables and toward the front, where the participants launch bravely into the song they have prepared.

Not all the singers remember all the words, and each proceeds at his or her own pace, with glances at neighbors and out into the audience. The overall effect is of halting, ragged and yet determined progress, suffused with all the unselfconscious charm that kindergartners wield. Their entranced parents beam.

The parade caps off our PTA's fourth annual kindergarten dinner, a gathering that brings together the families of Shamrock's kindergarten students. For the past three years, we've held a dinner for families in every grade from kindergarten through fourth (the fifth graders get a graduation dance instead).

Most of the dinners have been paid for by a Front Porch Grant, part of the Crossroads Charlotte program run by the Foundation of the Carolinas. Front Porch grants target projects designed to build what is called "social capital" – webs of relationships and connections that people can draw on in the way they might draw on a bank account.

The dinners don't seem like occasions for building something that sounds as serious as "social capital." Families sign in at the door, go through the dinner line, and sit at the table headed by their children's teacher to eat and chat. When most people have finished, the kids go up to the stage to work together coloring "friendship murals," while teachers share a few instructional materials – math games, literacy exercises.

Sometimes we end with a performance, like the kindergarten circus parade or last year's fourth grade performances, which included poetry recitations and a command performance of "Hamlet in Fifteen Minutes."

But events like this do make a difference. We want our staff and families to enjoy being with each other. If a teacher and a parent have shared an enjoyable conversation, it may be easier for them to talk if a student hits an academic snag. If students can introduce their parents to each other, maybe that will lead to more visits or play dates.

Shamrock students bond together across many boundaries. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Africans, and everyone else all work and play together. It rarely takes long for new kids to become part of the group. Students arrive at the dinners bright-eyed and eager, the way most of them do each morning. They find their classmates, and settle in to serious play.

Their parents have a harder time. It's not because they come from different backgrounds – all our parents love their kids and want them to behave well and succeed. When they have a chance to talk, it's clear they all have a lot in common (we see that at our workdays too, as families work side by side). But parents don't have the opportunities their children have to get to know each other.

Although Shamrock is primarily a "neighborhood" school, neighborhoods just aren't what they once were. Our families come from many different places: from all over Charlotte, from other states, from halfway across the world. Many of them move frequently, chasing jobs, cheaper housing, safer neighborhoods. The demands of jobs, concerns about street crime, and the many shifts that families make from place to place have made it far more difficult to form the neighborly connections that many communities once took for granted.

We see these dinners as a start. We try to make them low-pressure and lighthearted – come, eat, see your kids perform, and socialize. It seems to work. Many of the families come in good-sized groups, which can include grandparents, uncles and aunts, as well as plenty of siblings. Everyone seems glad to be there. Once at the tables, people lean toward each other to talk, sometimes shouting over the room full of chatter (although our cafeteria also serves as our auditorium, it was definitely not designed with sound in mind). By the end, most everyone is smiling and many people wave as they head out the door.

So it seems we have created a tradition. As soon as school begins, students and teachers start to ask about the dinner dates, and about what's on the menu this year. Most of the dinners are catered by James and Katina Gaither, who run a family catering company and who have sent four children through Shamrock. Katina loves nothing better than seeing people enjoy her food – unless it's serving them up seconds and thirds. Our families love it.

Teachers have begun crafting their own ideas for student performances, as well as lessons to share with parents. I am regularly nudged out of my role as greeter and attendance-taker – sometimes by students who have moved on to middle school and want to say hello to everyone, sometimes by my own son, who loves to check off student names as families come through the door.

Social capital isn't something you can count, like money in the bank. And one dinner isn't going to turn into a Vegas jackpot. But we believe they make a difference. Before this year's kindergarten dinner, a group of parents scheduled a Friday afternoon kindergarten play date at a local park. Only the organizers came. They held a second play date after the dinner, and got a much better crowd.

School and parents also feel closer than they did four years ago. At first it took a good deal of work to get families out to the dinners. Now sometimes we worry we're going to run out of food.

One of the great strengths of the Front Porch grant program is that they support programs for four years. So often, grant programs last only a year or two, and projects end as soon as funds run out. By sustaining us for this long, the Front Porch has helped us create a genuine tradition. It's going to be a challenge to find funding for the dinners next year. They cost about $3,000 – a lot of money for us. But because they're a tradition, and not just an experiment, I'm sure we'll find a way.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Clearing Space

It is a glorious afternoon, a balmy 75, flooded with sun. The lettuces in one of our kindergarten beds – red-leaf, romaine, buttercrunch – spread their leaves to take in the early autumn light. In our other garden, back behind the school, the sweet potato vines have long escaped their bed, and Charlotte the writing spider stands guard over the remnants of a crop of black-eyed peas.

Our "Food for Thought" vegetable garden is one of my favorite Shamrock programs. During the past three years, the garden has let our kids participate in the miracles of nature by growing crops such as dinosaur kale, giant red mustard, Hopi Black Dye sunflowers and Shamrock Gold cherry tomatoes. They've produced towering stalks of okra and bright-orange bitter melons that open to reveal deep crimson, heart-shaped seeds. They've learned that worms have mouths and discovered a nest of baby rabbits tucked into the middle of a potato patch.

The lessons of our gardens extend well beyond their boundaries.

Last fall, for example, gardeners Amy Hayes and Michaele Fitzpatrick held a session on the mysteries of broccoli, one of a series of cooking and nutrition classes that they have designed to go with the garden. A group of first graders who had planted, tended and then harvested a broccoli patch took time to marvel at the deep green, bumpy heads they had produced, to inhale their aroma, and then to taste with care, top and bottom, raw and cooked. A far cry from "eat your vegetables." For the rest of the year, Amy later recalled, kids kept coming up to her and saying "I eat broccoli all the time now."

This spring, when a team of boys produced a bumper potato crop, they sat down with a phone book and made calls until they reached a food bank that could use a donation.

This has not been a small undertaking. A successful school garden depends on clearing space of many kinds – a challenging task in a busy, stressful time.

It starts, of course, with a sunny swath of ground that can be cleared and planted.

But it also requires space in people's lives, a place to cultivate the patience, creativity and dedication required to keep a cycle of crops growing year-round, despite the vagaries of weather, weeds and bugs, as well as the demands of jobs and families.

And these days, teachers must work to clear space for dirt and seeds in a curriculum jam-packed with requirements and aimed straight at the three or four spring days that students will spend huddled over test papers, filling small circles with pencil. March and April can be tough months in our garden – just as the earth warms up for planting and things start to come alive, the test-prep pressure grows, and anxiety threatens to overrun spring's sense of possibility.

Our garden's bountiful triumph over these many challenges is due primarily to Amy and Michaele, two remarkable volunteers who for the past three years have regularly made the 90-minute round trip up from Rock Hill to plant and water, weed and teach.

At a high-poverty school like Shamrock, it's not so hard to find volunteers willing to commit a few hours – once-a-week reading buddy, clean-up-day worker, one-time event organizer. It's another thing entirely to find people to build and maintain a transformative program, year after year. We are so lucky.

Amy and Michaele first came to Shamrock early in 2008, as part of an effort by Slow Food Charlotte to create one of the "edible schoolyards" that have become all the rage around the country. As so often happens, the effort started with a good-sized group that then dwindled as a variety of distractions began to pull people away. But Amy and Michaele have stuck it out, assisted by our school nurse, Suzanne. Michaele is a nurse herself, dedicated to locally grown food and the role it plays in healthy eating. She slices broccoli with the best. Amy is a transplant from Texas, a master grower eagerly meeting the challenges of a new region and climate.

They started small, with four raised beds. As they tested, planned and started to plant, they became familiar figures at the school, tromping around in boots, jeans and floppy straw hats, Amy with a seed box full of an ever-changing variety of intriguing packets. After that first year, they added a larger space at the back of the school, enlisting husbands, sons and a few other volunteers to dig and weed.

Now, both gardens teem with ideas as well as plants – fenugreek as a cover crop, a hummingbird vine to shade a wall that blasts heat into a nearby bed, Chinese long beans and lemon basil mingling with corn, peppers and tomatoes. Last month, Parker's class cleared an area for wheat, which they plan to grow, harvest and then make into bread (if they can manage to outwit the Hessian fly, which thwarted Thomas Jefferson and kept wheat from becoming a significant Southern crop). In a few weeks, we will plant a pomegranate tree.

For the first couple of years, we weren't real good at finding help for them. For so many of our families, the press of children, illness, shelter, balky vehicles, economic needs and other obligations makes it tremendously difficult to keep space in their lives for school gardening, week in and week out.

But maybe that's starting to change. This year, a couple of our moms – Bobbie and Maria – have found that space, for now. Bobbie enrolled her son in kindergarten this fall. Maria, who has four children at Shamrock, put her fifth and last in pre-K. They both love dirt and plants and the outdoors, and I often see them walking to the school, Maria coming from the east and Bobbie from the west. Once there, they weed and water and chat and plot ways to involve other parents. At a time when tight budgets have squeezed so many school programs, it's great to see this one grow.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

If you build it, they will come

This morning, I took a quick look at our caterpillar bed, checking to see whether our blueberry plants had finally succumbed to this blasted drought.

The garden's been hanging in there despite the lack of rain – the advantage of native plants. That's especially helpful here at Shamrock, since the only hose tap within reach is inside one of the boys' bathrooms.

The passionflower vines are doing especially well, trailing everywhere and putting out their spectacular purple flowers.

We planted them in part because they're beautiful, but mainly because they're food for larvae of fritillary butterflies, orange-and-white spangled creatures that breed here in summer and fall.

As I clear some of the vines off the suffering blueberries, I spy a burnt-orange streak among the green. A caterpillar! It's a variegated fritillary, with long orange stripes running down its sides and black spikes designed to make it look unappetizingly prickly.

Class hasn't started yet, and kids are moving up and down the corridors. I head into Parker's classroom to tell them the good news. Parker and nature-loving Cameron follow me out to view the caterpillar.

Another student, Hernan, stops at his classroom door and asks us what we're doing. When we tell him, he points at to the brick wall at the edge of the garden. There are lots of caterpillars there, he notes.

We troop over, and sure enough, he's right. Not caterpillars, but chrysalises – lots of them. Caterpillars rarely form their chrysalises on the plants they eat. I'd been looking on other plants for signs, but had never thought to check the wall, which stands several feet from the beds.

The first chrysalis we see is in its early stages – half caterpillar, half hardening shell. It clings to the brick with the tiniest bit of silk.

On the other side of the wall, almost to the walkway, sits a finished chrysalis, bright green with gleaming golden spots. More kids pause on their way to class to look.

What's this? one of them asks, pointing further up the wall. Closer inspection reveals yet another chrysalis, this one brown, with a lower half that looks like a pair of discarded moth wings, or perhaps a fragment of dried leaf. That one's made by a Gulf fritillary, a spiky red caterpillar that likes passion vines as well.

All of a sudden, sharp eyes are looking and fingers pointing everywhere. Kids can't find half the things that are right under their noses. But now they spot chrysalis after chrysalis, on the wall, on the adjoining wall, hanging from the gutters up above our heads.

Then someone calls. Look here!

Right by the garden, hanging underneath a bone-dry drainpipe, is a butterfly with bright-patterned wings, holding to a dry brown chrysalis. Clearly, it has just emerged, and is drying its wings. Kids gather round to look. They admire its wings, point out its curled proboscis.

Morning reading can wait. The class ventures out in small groups, all eyes, to see caterpillars, chrysalises, butterfly – a lesson come to life.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Day

The first day of fourth grade. So hard to believe that Parker is starting his fifth year at Shamrock (though even harder to accept that he has only two years left). I look at his first-day kindergarten picture, and at the one I took this morning. What happened to the neatly tucked-in shirt? What happened to the first-day-of-school haircut? Parker's not the only one who's changed.

The fourth grade classrooms look out onto the butterfly garden. Back when Parker was in kindergarten, that space held a few ragged bushes and a bumpy stretch of weeds.

It looks quite different now.

The birds and butterflies have been busy there all summer, and as I pick through the leaves I see the telltale holes chewed by a variety of caterpillars. Parker's kindergarten class won the school's "best door" prize by recreating "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in construction paper. Now, if they look closely, they can see the whole process unfold in real time, right outside their windows.

Although school is in session, I hear only the fountain, some crickets and a few snatches of birdsong. Shamrock's adopted rabbit sits in a corner, chewing blades of grass. It's amazing how four hundred kids can be so quiet.

Across the yard, a small group of this year's kindergartners emerges from a classroom and walks toward the cafeteria, fingers to their lips, eyes down on the black-painted line they're supposed to follow as they walk from place to place.

There's a change there as well. When Parker entered kindergarten, he was the only child in his grade who went home to one of the comfortably middle-class houses that fill the well-off Plaza-Midwood neighborhood. This year, for the first time, there are several Plaza-Midwood children on the rolls.

We've been waiting for this moment. As I wrote when I started this blog, Peter and I came to high-poverty Shamrock because we don't believe in segregation. We believed we could help build a school where kids of many different kinds could thrive together. Now, we seem to have reached the point where some of our neighbors believe that too.

This shift has opened up new possibilities and new challenges.

There were advantages to having just a couple of Plaza-Midwood familes at Shamrock. Peter and I have made more new friends than we might have if more neighbors had been at the school. It also gave Shamrock time to build up on its own. The partial magnet program we have worked to establish is aimed at "gifted" students. A sudden rush of ambitious magnet parents could have divided the school, creating magnet classes that were far better off (and probably quite a bit whiter) than the school as a whole. But because the magnet drew few new families, that didn't happen. Instead, the "gifted" classes came to reflect the mix of ethnic and economic groups that make up Shamrock's broader population.

Now, it's a matter of welcoming a new group of students to an established program and helping them feel at home. They won't slide in unnoticed. Middle-class parents come to a school ready to act, wielding long lists of contacts, expectations and ideas. E-mails have flown faster and more furiously this summer than ever before. It's an energy and a focus that the school needs. But we'll have to work to mesh these new folks with the ones who have been here far longer, working in their own ways. We all have a lot to learn.