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.