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Magazine Aug 29, 2008 - 1:37 AM

In control

By Deborah DiSesa Hirsch

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A glance at the changing relationship between parents and the schools and the often passionate desire to be always in control...

Nick Tarzia has flipped burgers, scooped ice cream and written down numbers for bingo to help out Rodgers Magnet School. But he was shocked to realize he wasn’t just helping the school, he was helping himself, too. “I learned things like who the right teachers are for your kid,” says the Stamford Toys store owner, father of two boys who attend the school. “When you volunteer, the networking pays off in learning, sometimes quite by accident, all the inside scoop on the school.”

Parents are passionate about their schools. Just ask a parent, and the stories explode. Not getting into a magnet school despite drawing a “2” in the lottery. T-shirts and talking points, bumper stickers and banners all over town when a school was threatened with closing. And don’t forget the Stamford High parents who overflowed a meeting room, vehemently protesting the transfer of a beloved assistant principal (the decision was reversed).

“Sometimes the parents act like it’s their school,” says Shelagh Corporon, co-president of Davenport Ridge’s Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO).

“It’s just so personal,” says Jill Tamburro, mom to four boys, three at Newfield this fall. “When our own assistant principal was moved to another school, it was like losing a member of your family.”

Parents are involved in their kids’ schools for many reasons. But, for many, it doesn’t get more intense than when your school’s attendance zone is redistricted, as happened to several Stamford neighborhoods this year, paralyzing the Board of Education when it was forced to consider closing an elementary school to pave the way for the new environmental magnet school opening in 2009 and rebalance the rest of the school population at the same time.

“We saw faces we don’t typically see when it was possible our school could be closed,” says Corporon. “Something like this brings out the fierce loyalty any parent feels for their school.”

Parents know, if you yell loud enough, the people at the top sometimes listen. But you have to be involved to have a say.

Newfield parent Michele Somody says she probably would have gotten involved at her daughter’s school anyway, but when the prospect of neighborhood redistricting came up, she dug in, attending every Board of Ed meeting, speaking to school administrators and doing everything she could to get to know board members, and have them know her, so she could be informed about any decisions affecting her daughter, entering second grade, and her son, an incoming kindergartner. The issue: her daughter might be allowed to remain at Newfield, but Somody wasn’t sure about her son. Like any mom, she wants to keep them together.

“If they let the older kids remain at the school, but not their younger siblings, I don’t even want to think about it,” says this mom, who runs the school store and helps out in art. “It would be a nightmare to have one at Newfield and one downtown at Hart,” the school the kids in this neighborhood have been redistricted to for the 2009-2010 school year.

But Somody mainly wants to stay at Newfield because she loves it. “We all build relationships here,” she says. “It’s like family. My daughter was very attached to her kindergarten and first-grade teachers, and to the other kids she met, and she’ll be just as attached to her teacher this year. It’s like a family. Who wants to leave a family?”

So she and her husband met with the mayor, the chairman of the Board of Ed and other members of the board to hash it out. “We knew we wouldn’t even have a chance if people didn’t know our names,” she says. The issue is still being decided.

Davenport parents survived their school closing, and that’s one of the reasons Corporon loves being involved. But it’s also the “community” feeling of a school. “No matter how cosmopolitan or urban Stamford has become, we’re still small-town folk,” says the mom of elementary and middle-school daughters. “I want a connection to my neighborhood. But we’re all so busy today, we never see each other. School is a place you can go to see your community.”

Many parents who volunteer at schools admit they hope being involved will allow them to be part of decisions made about their children, such as who will be their children’s teachers next year.

At Westover, that’s “verboten,” says Nancy Ward, who just completed her term as PTO president. “All our teachers are good, and no one gets special treatment.” She adds that, like other schools, Westover parents, however, do get to suggest a “teaching style” that works best for their children.

Schools swear they don’t allow parents to pick teachers, but many administrators do ask parents to suggest the kind of teaching style that might match a child’s abilities.

“If your kid is shy and timid, you don’t want a teacher who’s loud and yells a lot,” says Colleen Rea, mother of elementary and middle-school kids. “You also get to know the kids you don’t want in your kid’s class.” Doesn’t mean you’ll get it, but it helps to be a part of the network.

Rea has one of the most important reasons of all for staying close to her son’s elementary school.

Her son has juvenile diabetes. Rea says she was told by a former school principal when her son started school, “Oh my God, we have a problem.” Rea says that he couldn’t guarantee her son would be safe at school, due to the seriousness of his disease. “You can bet I was at that school every day. Volunteering is the only way to find out what’s really going on at a school,” says Rea, who runs Odyssey of the Mind, a program for gifted kids; Learning to Look, an art program that exposes kids to major artists; and many other after-school activities.

What percentage of her time does she spend at school? “It’s my job,” says this mother, who estimates she spends 20 hours a week.

Rea hasn’t always been a favorite at the school. She calls herself the “problem pointer-outer.” What started out as staying on top of things because of her son’s illness turned into advocacy on many other issues. When Rea’s neighborhood was the only one redistricted this winter, she was one of the few parents who attended every Board of Education meeting, took copious notes and spoke to every member about how the process was handled. “I got addicted to it,” she says. “I even gave up dial-up for a high-speed cable connection so I could read the board’s minutes faster. I’m the thorn in the side of the Board of Ed, the same way I am at school.” She laughs. “But it gets results.”

The reality is, the more involved you are at your child’s school, the more likely it is that you can be part of some of the decisions that affect your child. Of course, some parents are so involved they create headaches for already overburdened staffs. “The key, like anything in life,” says Corporon, “is to know when to back off.”

Once kids are off to middle school, however, everything changes. “With elementary school, it’s emotional,” says Corporon. “In kindergarten you want to be involved in everything. It’s like day care. You want a report on what your child ate, which kids he played with, what toys he used. So in kindergarten you come in and read to the kids, volunteer in the school library, help out at art, just to see what’s going on. My husband even used to come to the parent-teacher conferences. It was ridiculous. Even being on the PTO is intense and very emotional. But once your kid’s in sixth grade, forget it. They have to get it together. Plus, your kids don’t want you there.”

“Yeah, in middle school, the PTO’s a business meeting,” says Rea, whose daughter attends Rippowam Middle School. “They come with their calendars and BlackBerries.”

Westover parent Ward admits middle school was a bit of a jolt for her, when her first child went off last year. “They don’t want parents in the building, and you can understand. The kids are trying to separate. You just have to figure out other ways to be involved.”

But as some parents have learned, being involved can backfire. Just ask Ron Friedson, who tried to intervene at Staples High School in Westport when his daughter Sarah was failing her senior year because she was constantly missing assignments and being late to classes.

“They did expensive testing because they were terrified she wouldn’t graduate,” he says. “They brag they have 100 percent matriculation, and she’d wreck their average. I suggested they make her stay after school and miss fun activities. But no, they had to spend thousands of dollars to find out what we already knew,” says her dad, who puts her in the top 10 percent of her class. “She just can’t manage time very well.”

Friedson says the school wanted Sarah to go to night school so she’d have enough credits to graduate. He snorts. “With convicted criminals and con artists. Right.” Friedson fumes when he thinks of the money the school system spent on his daughter, when common sense would have been better. He is convinced that if the school authorities had listened to him, they would have saved a lot of money.

But it didn’t end there. When, as her senior prank, 17-year-old Sarah rode her sister’s pony Coco to school to protest high gas prices, she was met by Westport police, brought in by the school, and arrested, along with her father, for breach of peace.

Sarah was even denied entrance to her prom, says Friedson, though she was allowed in a short while later.

Does he think it’s connected to his speaking out? “You bet,” he says. “They were looking to make an example of me. ‘Parents should never stand up to the school system.’ They’re so used to parents rolling over.”

School administrators say they were just concerned for students, and the pony, which, they felt, was being mistreated.

Friedson’s daughter did graduate, and took courses over the summer to earn all the credits she was missing.

Schools are in a tight spot. They can’t please every parent, nor should they try. But often they’re accused of favoring, or “punishing,” certain students. “Let’s face it, politics are sometimes involved,” says Corporon. “It’s like any organization. But I think you’ll find that the vast majority of school decisions, if not all, are made for the benefit of the students.”

Some parents feel they may have been punished in unusual ways, like not being allowed to serve on the Parent-Teacher Association after confronting the schools on some issue.

Rea says that has happened to her. “I was asked to be on the Parent-Faculty Association at my son’s school, and the administration at the time vetoed it.” Was it related to her advocacy on other issues? “I’ll never know,” she says, and then smiles. “But it’s certainly possible.”

Then there are the parents who are, just, well, too involved. Wilton parent Chris Delmar laughingly defines herself as one of those. “We call our son the quarter-million-dollar kid,” she says. “What do they call us? ‘Helicopter parents.’”

Her son, Greg, too bright and bored by public school, was failing. “We brought in experts, we tested, we worried, we did everything,” she says. “Then we moved him to St. Luke’s in New Canaan, and it all straightened out. He needed a smaller, more nurturing environment. It cost a fortune,” she says, “but it was worth it.”

Now 21, he’s a senior in computer science at Carnegie Mellon, and interned at this summer.

But when it was daughter Anne’s turn, four years later, the Delmars stepped back. Smart, happy and social, Anne has thrived at Wilton High School.

Parents get involved at their schools for all sorts of reasons — to help out, to see what’s going on, to “let my kids know I’m watching,” jokes Stamford Toys’ Tarzia. But most parents become part of their kids’ schools because they enjoy it.

“People are attached to their kids’ schools and are active because it’s the right thing to do,” says Davenport Ridge’s Corporon. “They also hope their kids will be treated better because the teachers and administrators know the parents. And, let’s not forget, parents micromanage their kids’ lives today, and school is a big part of that.”

“You want to see your own kid succeed, and the kids around her to succeed, too,” says Somody.

Is it ego? Do we just love our kids too much? Or do we just hate not having enough control? Corporon says it’s a combination of all three, but really, in the end, it comes down to community.

“Let’s face it, your neighbors don’t work at the hardware store anymore. You don’t bump into them at the luncheonette, or over the white picket fence,” she says. “By being involved, you get to know the people at your school. Parents who know the staff care more about their child’s school than those who don’t. School becomes people, not just an organization.”

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