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 wasnâ€™t just helping the school, he was helping himself, too. â€œI learned things like who the right teachers are for your kid,â€ says the Stamford Toys store owner, father of two boys who attend the school. â€œWhen you volunteer, the networking pays off in learning, sometimes quite by accident, all the inside scoop on the school.â€
Parents are passionate about their schools. Just ask a parent, and the stories explode. Not getting into a magnet school despite drawing a â€œ2â€ in the lottery. T-shirts and talking points, bumper stickers and banners all over town when a school was threatened with closing. And donâ€™t forget the Stamford High parents who overflowed a meeting room, vehemently protesting the transfer of a beloved assistant principal (the decision was reversed).
â€œSometimes the parents act like itâ€™s their school,â€ says Shelagh Corporon, co-president of Davenport Ridgeâ€™s Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO).
â€œItâ€™s just so personal,â€ says Jill Tamburro, mom to four boys, three at Newfield this fall. â€œWhen our own assistant principal was moved to another school, it was like losing a member of your family.â€
Parents are involved in their kidsâ€™ schools for many reasons. But, for many, it doesnâ€™t get more intense than when your schoolâ€™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.
â€œWe saw faces we donâ€™t typically see when it was possible our school could be closed,â€ says Corporon. â€œSomething like this brings out the fierce loyalty any parent feels for their school.â€
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 daughterâ€™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 wasnâ€™t sure about her son. Like any mom, she wants to keep them together.
â€œIf they let the older kids remain at the school, but not their younger siblings, I donâ€™t even want to think about it,â€ says this mom, who runs the school store and helps out in art. â€œIt would be a nightmare to have one at Newfield and one downtown at Hart,â€ 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. â€œWe all build relationships here,â€ she says. â€œItâ€™s like family. My daughter was very attached to her kindergarten and first-grade teachers, and to the other kids she met, and sheâ€™ll be just as attached to her teacher this year. Itâ€™s like a family. Who wants to leave a family?â€
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. â€œWe knew we wouldnâ€™t even have a chance if people didnâ€™t know our names,â€ she says. The issue is still being decided.
Davenport parents survived their school closing, and thatâ€™s one of the reasons Corporon loves being involved. But itâ€™s also the â€œcommunityâ€ feeling of a school. â€œNo matter how cosmopolitan or urban Stamford has become, weâ€™re still small-town folk,â€ says the mom of elementary and middle-school daughters. â€œI want a connection to my neighborhood. But weâ€™re all so busy today, we never see each other. School is a place you can go to see your community.â€
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 childrenâ€™s teachers next year.
At Westover, thatâ€™s â€œverboten,â€ says Nancy Ward, who just completed her term as PTO president. â€œAll our teachers are good, and no one gets special treatment.â€ She adds that, like other schools, Westover parents, however, do get to suggest a â€œteaching styleâ€ that works best for their children.
Schools swear they donâ€™t allow parents to pick teachers, but many administrators do ask parents to suggest the kind of teaching style that might match a childâ€™s abilities.
â€œIf your kid is shy and timid, you donâ€™t want a teacher whoâ€™s loud and yells a lot,â€ says Colleen Rea, mother of elementary and middle-school kids. â€œYou also get to know the kids you donâ€™t want in your kidâ€™s class.â€ Doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™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 sonâ€™s elementary school.
Her son has juvenile diabetes. Rea says she was told by a former school principal when her son started school, â€œOh my God, we have a problem.â€ Rea says that he couldnâ€™t guarantee her son would be safe at school, due to the seriousness of his disease. â€œYou can bet I was at that school every day. Volunteering is the only way to find out whatâ€™s really going on at a school,â€ 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? â€œItâ€™s my job,â€ says this mother, who estimates she spends 20 hours a week.
Rea hasnâ€™t always been a favorite at the school. She calls herself the â€œproblem pointer-outer.â€ What started out as staying on top of things because of her sonâ€™s illness turned into advocacy on many other issues. When Reaâ€™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. â€œI got addicted to it,â€ she says. â€œI even gave up dial-up for a high-speed cable connection so I could read the boardâ€™s minutes faster. Iâ€™m the thorn in the side of the Board of Ed, the same way I am at school.â€ She laughs. â€œBut it gets results.â€
The reality is, the more involved you are at your childâ€™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. â€œThe key, like anything in life,â€ says Corporon, â€œis to know when to back off.â€
Once kids are off to middle school, however, everything changes. â€œWith elementary school, itâ€™s emotional,â€ says Corporon. â€œIn kindergarten you want to be involved in everything. Itâ€™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 whatâ€™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 kidâ€™s in sixth grade, forget it. They have to get it together. Plus, your kids donâ€™t want you there.â€
â€œYeah, in middle school, the PTOâ€™s a business meeting,â€ says Rea, whose daughter attends Rippowam Middle School. â€œThey come with their calendars and BlackBerries.â€
Westover parent Ward admits middle school was a bit of a jolt for her, when her first child went off last year. â€œThey donâ€™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.â€
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.
â€œThey did expensive testing because they were terrified she wouldnâ€™t graduate,â€ he says. â€œThey brag they have 100 percent matriculation, and sheâ€™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,â€ says her dad, who puts her in the top 10 percent of her class. â€œShe just canâ€™t manage time very well.â€
Friedson says the school wanted Sarah to go to night school so sheâ€™d have enough credits to graduate. He snorts. â€œWith convicted criminals and con artists. Right.â€ 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 didnâ€™t end there. When, as her senior prank, 17-year-old Sarah rode her sisterâ€™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 itâ€™s connected to his speaking out? â€œYou bet,â€ he says. â€œThey were looking to make an example of me. â€˜Parents should never stand up to the school system.â€™ Theyâ€™re so used to parents rolling over.â€
School administrators say they were just concerned for students, and the pony, which, they felt, was being mistreated.
Friedsonâ€™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 canâ€™t please every parent, nor should they try. But often theyâ€™re accused of favoring, or â€œpunishing,â€ certain students. â€œLetâ€™s face it, politics are sometimes involved,â€ says Corporon. â€œItâ€™s like any organization. But I think youâ€™ll find that the vast majority of school decisions, if not all, are made for the benefit of the students.â€
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. â€œI was asked to be on the Parent-Faculty Association at my sonâ€™s school, and the administration at the time vetoed it.â€ Was it related to her advocacy on other issues? â€œIâ€™ll never know,â€ she says, and then smiles. â€œBut itâ€™s certainly possible.â€
Then there are the parents who are, just, well, too involved. Wilton parent Chris Delmar laughingly defines herself as one of those. â€œWe call our son the quarter-million-dollar kid,â€ she says. â€œWhat do they call us? â€˜Helicopter parents.â€™â€
Her son, Greg, too bright and bored by public school, was failing. â€œWe brought in experts, we tested, we worried, we did everything,â€ she says. â€œThen we moved him to St. Lukeâ€™s in New Canaan, and it all straightened out. He needed a smaller, more nurturing environment. It cost a fortune,â€ she says, â€œbut it was worth it.â€
Now 21, heâ€™s a senior in computer science at Carnegie Mellon, and interned at Amazon.com this summer.
But when it was daughter Anneâ€™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 â€” to help out, to see whatâ€™s going on, to â€œlet my kids know Iâ€™m watching,â€ jokes Stamford Toysâ€™ Tarzia. But most parents become part of their kidsâ€™ schools because they enjoy it.
â€œPeople are attached to their kidsâ€™ schools and are active because itâ€™s the right thing to do,â€ says Davenport Ridgeâ€™s Corporon. â€œThey also hope their kids will be treated better because the teachers and administrators know the parents. And, letâ€™s not forget, parents micromanage their kidsâ€™ lives today, and school is a big part of that.â€
â€œYou want to see your own kid succeed, and the kids around her to succeed, too,â€ says Somody.
Is it ego? Do we just love our kids too much? Or do we just hate not having enough control? Corporon says itâ€™s a combination of all three, but really, in the end, it comes down to community.
â€œLetâ€™s face it, your neighbors donâ€™t work at the hardware store anymore. You donâ€™t bump into them at the luncheonette, or over the white picket fence,â€ she says. â€œBy being involved, you get to know the people at your school. Parents who know the staff care more about their childâ€™s school than those who donâ€™t. School becomes people, not just an organization.â€