Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why I Love Shamrock: I

For some time now, I've been trying to figure out exactly why I love Shamrock Gardens Elementary so much. How do you capture such an encompassing feeling, a sentiment that floats free from any single experience or revelation, slipping tantalizingly in and out of view?

But a few days ago, as I was leaving the school, I felt as though I finally held it in my hand.

I had just spent the morning helping one of Parker's classmates, Jessica, transfer to another school. Jessica's family had just moved, and Jessica couldn't stay at Shamrock. Everyone hates to see her go. She has been in Parker's class since kindergarten, and her parents have been dedicated volunteers for years.

Jessica needs a school that challenges her (she's officially "gifted" by CMS standards). But her family had just moved into the home school zone for Billingsville Elementary, which according to CMS statistics has fewer than six gifted children in the entire school. Jessica needed to be in a magnet program.

This is easier said than done. Negotiating CMS bureaucracy can be tricky even in the best of circumstances. And Jessica's parents don't speak English, which makes it even tougher.

Jessica's mom started with a couple of calls to student placement, but didn't get any clear answers, at least as far as I could tell. (I can limp along in Spanish, but it was hard for us to understand each other.) So last Wednesday, we set out in person to figure things out.

We started at the Family Application Center, where we learned that Jessica was eligible to apply to Barringer Academic Center. But the only way for her to get there, we were told, was to request a reassignment, a process that could only be completed online.

Jessica's family doesn't have Internet access. We could have done it from my computer, but I had a feeling we would run into complications. So we headed back across town to Shamrock.

The first thing you need to know about Shamrock and computers is that it often takes a full half hour just to log onto the system. Our high per-pupil funding rate has given some folks the idea that our school is a palace, with money being wasted right and left on needless frills. It only takes a quick visit to dispel any such illusion, especially if that visit involves venturing into one of our ancient bathrooms, or using a school computer.

We arrived at Shamrock's media center, started the login process, and settled in to wait. One of the fourth grade teachers, Ms. Gales, was there using a different computer. Once she saw what we were up to, she called us over and told us to use her computer, where she was already logged in. She knew the form we wanted, tapped through the CMS website, and pulled it up on screen. She told us to let her know when we were done with the computer, and she would get back to her work then.

To access the form, we needed Jessica's student number, along with the PIN number parents use when they log into CMS sites from home. Jessica knew her student number by heart. But since her family had never needed her PIN, no one knew what it was.

We walked over to the technology room, where our technology specialist, Ms. Scariot, and our media specialist, Ms. Hollar, were working together on a project (all of this, of course, was happening in the summer, when no teacher is paid to be at the school). After some exploratory hunting around the CMS computer system, Ms. Scariot made a call to someone who could guide her to the page for generating PINs. A few minutes later, we had one.

Back to the media center to fill out the form. We were going fine until we hit the page where we were supposed to list the reason for the reassignment request. We had to select one of three categories: "job," "CMS employee" or "extreme hardship." Nothing for "simple, reasonable request." Ms. Gales came back over to check on us, and explained that we should use "extreme hardship," so we did. She advised us to print out hard copies of the confirmation form, just in case the request somehow got lost in the system. We did that too.

Once we filed the request, we needed to do a second for Jessica's younger sister, who would be entering kindergarten in the fall. She too needed a number and a PIN. So we headed up to the office, where our financial secretary, Ms. Tillman, looked up the number. We got a second PIN. Some time later, our mission was complete, and I headed to the car.

This is why I love Shamrock. From the moment we arrived until the time we left, everyone at the school did whatever they could to help us. Helping a child transfer from Billingsville to Barringer isn't in the job description for Shamrock's media specialist, or technology specialist or fourth grade teachers or financial secretary. But everyone at the school cares more about kids than they do about job descriptions. They do the right thing.

As I write this, I can't help thinking about a discussion the school board held the other day, about pre-kindergarten. CMS currently pays part of the cost of a public pre-K program for disadvantaged kids, called "Bright Beginnings." Any kindergarten teacher will tell you that kids who have been through Bright Beginnings come to kindergarten far better prepared for its challenges than those who did not have a strong pre-K experience. (There's more debate about how long those effects last, but laying out those numbers would require a separate post.)

Still, debate about results aside, one strand of the anti-Bright Beginnings argument focuses purely on "job description." CMS, this reasoning goes, shouldn't offer pre-K that because, as one school board member put it, "our mandate is for K-12 education." If pre-K is to exist, she and other argue, it should be the job of other organizations – although what those organizations would be and where the funding would come from remain a mystery. Figuring that out isn't in the job description either.

Too much in our society seems to work this way, as people and institutions seek to strictly limit their responsibility, whether for children, the environment, or a host of other crucial pieces of our future. I love being at a place that doesn't march to this particular drummer.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


My friend Beth and I are in the butterfly garden, planting a milkweed patch that we hope will attract monarchs later in the summer. She notices the spice bush we planted last fall, and wanders over to take a look. She has two spice bushes, she says, but has yet to see a spice bush caterpillar on either of them this year.

Then she stops, reaches into the bush, and gently unrolls a furled leaf. There lies a bright green caterpillar with two, huge staring yellow eyes. It's one of the most beautiful I've ever seen.

The eyes aren't real, Beth points out. They're there to make the caterpillar look like a snake's head, so that it can scare away birds that might think of it as lunch. The caterpillar's real head, small and white, pokes out beneath.

Kids gather quickly to look. Another of our everyday miracles.