Fighting for Kids and Families by Margaret Hart

I’ve been absent from my blog for a couple weeks. I can blame it on a hundred different things as it seems my plate is always full. But one thing’s for sure, I was definitely preoccupied by a sucker punch thrown by our town’s interim superintendent, and focused a lot of my time and energy on trying to right what many felt was a wrong. Good news: we won!

It started with a facebook post to a link with an obtuse memo written by the acting superintendent of schools stating that a review had been conducted of the impact of swapping bell times with my son’s elementary school and a magnet school that houses both elementary and middle schools. It provided little or no details as to the who, what , when, where, and why, accept for stating that the bell swap would enable middle school students to participate more easily in inter-scholastic athletics.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, bell time and bell swap means swapping the times that our school starts in the morning and dismisses in the afternoon (i.e., the bell times). Our school was chosen, supposedly, because we had an equivalent number of buses necessary to transport the middle school students at the other school, thereby causing minimal financial upheaval to the district. Our current bell times are 8:10 and 2:40pm and the other school is 9:00 and 3:30pm.

Once news of this memo leaked, whispers started in the hallways. On a Thursday afternoon, our school’s principal talked to teachers suggesting they put in for transfers if this bell swap was going to cause them hardship next year with their commute. Those whispers quickly turned into reality when a memo came home on a Friday from the principal confirming that the bell swap decision was a done deal. The timing was ironic. Some parents most assuredly welcomed the change, given that we had just sprung ahead and lost an hour of sleep in the morning!

The overwhelming response to the news was outrage. How could the interim superintendent make a sweeping change like this without consulting families of some 800 children attending our elementary school? Working parents, stay-at-home parents, and even parents who were somewhat neutral on the subject, were shocked at the way in which the decision came about: with no transparency, and with total disrespect for the families of our school, many of whom would now have to rearrange their schedules and lives to accommodate the change. All because some middle school students— and presumably their parents— didn’t want to have to leave school a handful of times, a little early, to participate in inter-school athletics programs.

What about the kids at my son’s school who would no longer have a life after school? Many kids who take the bus wouldn’t get home until 4pm or later. And kids bused across town, would likely not get home until closer to 5pm with rush hour traffic— in good weather! And my son, who I have mentioned in previous blogs has a busy after-school schedule, would not be able to participate in after school activities unless I pulled him from class one hour early (three times a week), disrupting his day, and that of his classmates. What about working parents who would have to not only figure out what to do with their kids for nearly two more hours each morning, but also have to figure out how to get themselves to work on time! Not to mention the fact that studies show kids learn better earlier in the day when they are fresh; and how many Kindergarten and first grade children are going to be fresh at 3:30 in the afternoon? 

It was a further stinging blow because the other school gets state funds, is new, with state of the art classrooms, and many complain that this school seems to get everything it wants. Compared with my son’s school, which was built in the 1950s, does not have air conditioning, and is in desperate need of many things. As you can image, the emails began to fly. Letter writing and phone call campaigns swung into action. Parents contacted the local media. The story was covered on television and in the newspaper. Parents were interviewed. They came off sincere and concerned, and understandably angry. The interim superintendent did not speak, but a spokesperson did. The board of education sent letters back in response to parents who wrote, saying the board had no say in the matter. Again, rumors that the board and the superintendent were not on the same page. While the stories in the media were fairly reported, they made clear the interim superintendent’s decision was made without consulting families and without a thorough review of the impact of her decision on both schools. A survey went out on the local news facebook page asking whether schools should engage parents in decisions such as these. An overwhelming majority of respondents voted “yes.”

Additional rumors and speculation began to circulate. Since there was no transparency, families had no way of knowing what the real reason was behind the decision. New businesses are set to open in the part of town near the other school. One is a large sports complex that is sure to draw thousands of participants from as far as 50 miles away. Speculation was that these businesses had put pressure on the Mayor’s office to do something about traffic congestion that was sure to increase once these business open their doors. There were also rumors that a group of powerful middle school parents were putting pressure on the city because they didn’t want their kids’ busses to be delayed by traffic congestion.

The next thing we knew, the decision was officially “on hold.” And the following week, our school’s parent teacher organization secured a meeting with the interim superintendent. A new memo came home in backpacks. It stated that our bell time would remain the same. Victory! Now the reason given for the change was stated as a desire by the interim superintendent to provide students at our school with morning enrichment programs.  Seemed like a face saving excuse to many.

The bottom line? If you pay taxes, if you feel you should have a say in how your kids’ schools are run, you need to be involved and you need to speak up! Even people who were afraid to write letters and didn’t know what to say, gave it a shot. Every voice counts. When it comes to our kids, and our families, we, as parents, need to be the strongest advocates.

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