When Schools are Adversarial, No One Wins

Almost everyone agrees that parents and schools should work together, that they are partners in creating successful students who are engaged learners. School administrators say it, most teachers believe it, and many parents try their very best to support their children's schools and teachers.

Unfortunately, schools are also often part of a large bureaucracy. And the larger the school system, the more bureaucratic the organization can become. A friend of mine, Stephanie Young Rosen, lives in the Los Angeles Unified Public School District, the second largest public school system in the country, behind only the New York City Department of Education.

Like many parents, she works hard to ensure that her daughters have the best chance to succeed at school and in life. She juggles her numerous roles as a professional, a wife, a mother, a chauffeur, a coach, and many other things with aplomb and a sense of humor. Thank goodness. Because after you read her story below, you'll be shaking your head. Like me, you may be left wondering who is captaining our educational vessels - and marveling at how far they've sailed off course.

Stephanie's story:

"LAUSD is the second largest school district in America. Ever wondered how it deals with tardy students? (Think, 1890s factory whistle blows...).

Below is my experience of what happened this week. (those of you in private and charter schools in LA may be surprised!) This is district policy on tardiness for all LAUSD schools...our tax dollars hard at work!

Monday morning. The dog has surgery to have a tumor removed and needs to be at the vet before 8 AM. The three-year old needs to take her antibiotics (a feat akin to trying to storm Normandy Beach on D-Day in flip flops). There may be tantrums (last week, the 5 year old had an epic meltdown and wouldn’t get out of bed because the temperature was only going to hit a high of 69 in February, not 81 like the week before). Despite choosing clothes and show-and-tell items the night before, there may be accidents (everything from smoothie spills to lost must-have toys). There may be traffic, also due to accidents (hello LA). So we get up uber early and do the best we can.

Husband takes the dog. I have both kids, and Culver Boulevard is bumper to bumper as there’s construction. No left turn by the 90. I have left a cushion of time….and yet…. As we finally turn on to Walgrove Avenue from Washington Boulevard, the 3 year-old matter of factly announces that she has just wet her pants. By the time we reach Walgrove Elementary and park on the street, it is literally 8:05 (the time of the second bell). I grab my 5 year old and RUN like mad. A passing mom says, “Oh, don’t bother, they just closed the Kindergarten gate – kind of early today if you ask me”. “But it’s still technically 8:05 – for another 10 seconds!!” I protest, to no one in particular. I have that feeling that I have failed. Excuses be damned, effort in vain. We didn’t make it. I’m juggling five balls but the sixth one just dropped. I feel awful.

We walk around the school to join the long line out the office door waiting to get a tardy slip. By the time they get to us, we actually are seven minutes late. I spell my daughter’s name, offer an excuse (but the one person manning the book is too overwhelmed to care), grab a green slip, and get to class. I put her things in her cubby, we greet the teacher, take off her jacket, hugs & kisses, and when I walk back through the front office, the line of tardy kids is still out the door. No one is making eye contact. Morale is pretty low.

I shake it off. We’ll do better tomorrow, I tell my three year old as I change her outfit at preschool. So when, during work, I get an email from the school informing me that my 5-year old was tardy this morning, I’m taken aback. “Um, yup. I spelled her name for you so you could send me this email. Thanks Sherlock!” I try to shake it off, but I can’t help thinking, “What is the purpose of this email? To shame me? Harass me? Obviously I know we were 30 seconds late today. What do you want me to do about it now?” I get back to work.

When my phone later rings, I am hoping for an update on the dog’s surgery, but instead find it is an automated message from the school informing me….you guessed it – my child was tardy this morning!! This is the FIRST time we’ve been tardy since starting this school in December, so while no longer perfect, our batting average isn’t too shabby. At this point, I tell the automaton, “Look, if anyone in the school administration has never been late to anything, let him/her cast the first stone. In fact, I’ll help them find the stones.” The automaton doesn’t care.

I can’t help wondering why the school is interrupting my work day with this negative reinforcement. Is it from the LAUSD system? Our school seems so innovative, creative and progressive that we signed up to battle the commute to come here, turning down our neighborhood LAUSD school, which is stymied in old patterns. I wonder, does the school lose a dollar for every minute we are late?

Negative reinforcement doesn’t motivate, we all know that. That’s why we don’t use it on our kids. In fact, it backfires. Where is the trust? The respect? I know that showing up on time for things is part of setting oneself up for success. My husband and I try to help our five and three year olds understand that promptness is important. And sometimes we succeed. And sometimes we don’t. Maybe we need advice from parents who are never tardy? Maybe faith in us might go further here in building trust? When our five-year old complains about something in her school day, we listen, and remind her that her teacher is doing the best she can. We love her teacher, and respect her enormously. Our philosophy is to work with the school because we’re a team. We start to wonder, does Team Walgrove feel the same way about us?

During dinner, our phone rings but we don’t let it interrupt our family time. Afterwards, my husband informs me that it was an automated message from Walgrove, informing me, yet again, that…well, you know the rest. At this point, I start looking for a Fed Ex truck to come rumbling up the street with a delivery of sack cloth and ashes.

Before bedtime, I quickly check my email to find a new Walgrove message stating that, in case we thought bygones were bygones… I laugh, but not quite the joyful kind. “Really, you think THAT was tardy?! Oh, I’ll show you tardy!” This negative reinforcement has turned tardy from an adverb, “We arrived to school tardy” into an adjective, “ I AM tardy”. A new identity. I will be joining the other beaten down parents in line. We are the tardy.

Needless to say, my husband insists on taking the kids to school today."

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