94 posts categorized "Schools"

Seeking Science Project Tips & Tricks

April 04, 2014

It's that time of year at many schools: science project season.  We are trying to start early in this household, so we don't get into the proctrastination situation.  My 10-year old and her project partner are getting together soon to "brainstorm" ideas.  

Last year: we had done "which bubble gum brand blows the biggest bubble?"  A fun and silly question pursued in the scientific method.

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What projects have you done in the past?  We are collecting ideas!

On school choice: any decision is the right one

March 21, 2014

For years and years, we have had to make school choices, even from a young age.  Which childcare and why?  Which kinder?  Which middle school?

Our oldest is entering high school in the fall, and we have had to make choices.  What is the right environment, the right size, the right academic mix?

We have asked these questions of ourselves before.  Ten years ago, I stayed up worrying about what decision to make.  We have faced these choices several times since.  At the end of the night, at the end of the day, my co-parent and I have agreed on one thing: whichever school we choose, it will be the right one.

To have a choice is a luxury.  To research our choices as fully as we do is so much more than other families are able to do.  To have communities - like our playgroups, neighborhood families, our local yahoo groups, or urbanMamas - where we can discuss every angle and pro/con for every option is a treasure.

As we enter this decision-making season as acceptance and wait-list notices are being issued, rest assured that the school you choose is the right one.

Throwback Thursday: Kinder Questions

January 30, 2014

With the new school year soon down the road, many mamas & papas are starting to talk about starting school, which school to visit, getting on the Round-Up circuit.  To help further this process, we thought we'd offer up some topics from years past in this week's Throwback Thursday:

Here are the upcoming dates for Connect to Kindergarten dates at PPS schools.

Your strategy or thoughts on upcoming round-ups and school searches?

School Volunteering: "Just Tell Me What to Do"

October 29, 2013

We are in the throes of planning for one of our school's largest events and traditions, a fall harvest festival, featuring food from around the globe, cultural displays, and a midway section of carnival games.  A significant endeavor, planning meetings have been occurring regularly for the past few weeks already.

At one meeting, hoping to elicit dialogue and suggestions, a parent asked the open-ended question: "What is the best way to solicit food from the different continents?"  

There was silence.  It got awkward.  I wonder if he was looking for answers like "put a bunch of continents on slips of paper in a hat and have parents draw from it" or "use survey monkey to put together a questionnaire and facilitate sign ups" or something else?  One parent said: "Just tell me what I should bring, and I will bring it."

Continue reading "School Volunteering: "Just Tell Me What to Do"" »

The END is coming!

June 06, 2013

Yesterday, my kids told me that they were having parties in their respective classrooms. I interpreted that to mean that I didn't need to pack them lunches. They report they ate chips and cookies for lunch (one of them ate five cookies). *shrug*

Nine months ago, we were up at the crack of dawn each morning. I was baking a fresh loaf of bread (in a machine) almost every morning. We had fresh ground nut butters for sandwiches, assorted fruit for smoothies, mom's homemade hummus. The fridge was stocked. Today, the fridge is empty. We don't even have beer.

Nine months ago, when the classroom parents emailed announcements, I reviewed every word and made sure to make note of every calendar item. Yesterday at 10pm, I realized that today was the end-of-year picnic and I had to send my child to school with a potluck item to share.

The list goes on and on, and I had to chuckle and snort as I read "Worst End of School Year Mom Ever" because: isn't it so true?

Aren't we all waiting with bated breath for that last day of school?

Volunteering at Schools: Cliques happen

February 25, 2013

Hard to believe, but it has almost been ten years since my first experience volunteering at school.  We were planning for a (pre-)school auction, and we had a required number of volunteer hours to fulfill.  I figured: Might as well get them all done with an auction activity.

Our leader for the auction that year - I will never forget her.  She was a mama to two and she was amazingly gifted at being welcoming, empowering.  She was a strong leader without being overly directing or bossy.  She delegated well and elegantly.  I crawled out my shell and took on a big role organizing all the "easel parties", the sign-up events where attendeeds would typically pay-per-person to participate.  It was a great first experience with a school auction, a great first experience with volunteering at school.

The following year, we had a different leader for the big event.  She was domineering.  She had a vision, and it felt like no one else's ideas could compare to hers.  I tried to volunteer for the same job, but all my products and ideas were met with criticism and were denied.  I cringed, but I got the job done.  I felt like my efforts were all for nothing, but at least I fulfilled those doggone required volunteer hours.

Continue reading "Volunteering at Schools: Cliques happen" »

Birthday Celebrations at School: Songs, Treats, Other?

October 07, 2012

It was my son's birthday celebration at school the other day, and - when I handed the teacher four 8-by-10 photos to represent each year of his life along with a few sentences about his personality at those ages - I sheepishly said, "I didn't bring a treat or anything."  

She said, "That's ok."

My son has told me that they sometimes have ice cream at school to celebrate a birthday.  Or perhaps they have cupcakes but he cannot have one "because I'm allergic".  When one mama wrote: 

My children's school got around this whole issue by making birthdays party- and treat-free (much to many parents' relief). Instead, the birthday child can choose to have a "birthday book" celebration. He or she brings a book from home to share with the class. After the book is read, the child can either take the book home or donate it to the classroom library. My older son has always chosen to skip the celebration. I'm curious what my younger son will choose.

With our older children, I have probably sent some kind of "treat" about half of the time.  For one of my daughters, it was often grapes or clementine oranges, as these were her favorite fruits.  Sometimes I would do mini corn muffins or dried cranberries.  Mostly, though, it was a stressor for us and I wondered if we really needed to go through the exercise.  I wouldn't mind a treat-free policy for birthday celebration at schools, I'll be honest.  I would rather prepare some photos to share with the class and I have previously come into my child's class on the birthday itself to share 10 or 15 minutes of stories and photos of my little celebrant.  It makes them feel like royalty!

How do you feel about birthday celebrations at school?  What are your favorite ways to celebrate?

School's Out! What to do with that big bag of stuff?

June 15, 2012

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I set myself a couple of deadlines today, and naturally, that meant it was time to organize. I spent most of the day doing important tasks like (1) straightening and dusting the bookshelf and organizing the kids' books alphabetically by series (instead of alphabetically by author, as they had been); (2) filing all my New Yorkers by date and culling a bunch of other magazines straight into recycling; and (3) opening and organizing that big bag of school stuff Truman brought home from first grade earlier this week.

It was mid-afternoon when I found the big bag of school stuff Truman brought home from kindergarten. An entire year ago! One of the items, for instance, was a still-wrapped stack of picture books from his kindergarten teacher. Well: it looks like I've had a whole year of failing to organize. We have a bunch of the sorts of things they send home; leftover watercolor paints, pretty erasers and special pencils, tiny notebooks and bags of crayons and colored pencils and safe scissors. Selected art and writing from his in-school work, and a couple of keepsake pictures and little memory "yearbooks."

I can find a home for a lot of it mixed into the regular craft stuff (one area where I've done a good job -- err, my sister has done a good job -- creating a lovely organizational system for the kids that everyone understands and can fix up). I know I should do something, like turn a magazine box into a memory box for each child's yearbooks and start them on scrapbooks of their favorite homework. (I'm going to do this. Really!)

Continue reading "School's Out! What to do with that big bag of stuff?" »

Oh, June: The mama version of graduation anxiety

May 30, 2012

Urbanmamas_monroe_warehouse
For as long as I can remember I both loved and mourned June. Every June for almost half my life meant goodbyes. Every teacher to whom you would never turn in homework again; every classmate who would graduate or move away in the summer; every community established so quickly and experienced so wholly. Each grade, from kindergarten all the way up to my second year of business school, had its own uncanny friendships and serendipitous societies and secret-keeping, had its possibilities and magic. And it had to end.

I was reminded of my memories of my junior year in high school during the Great Journal Revisiting that occurred when I performed early this month in Mortified Portland. I'd written a melancholy good-bye to my friends, the seniors, who were graduating. And I've been feeling the same way about the 11 days left of school for my kids.

This year, it's not teachers and fellow students I'll miss -- though indeed I will miss Truman's retiring teacher, Donna Zimbro, who was just what he needed. It's this time I'm having with my youngest, Monroe, who gets to hang out with me each day while his brothers are in school. He'll be in kindergarten next year, and our time together will change in character and intensity. Though I'll welcome the wide open possibility of 5.75 hours each day (!!) utterly to myself (let's do another !!!), I'm already nostalgic for this time we have. There's something irreplaceable about the time with a baby, a toddler, a preschool-aged child; I'm not ready to let go.

When his brothers come home from school on June 13, that time will have concluded, forever.

How has your relationship to the end of school changed as you have become a parent? Are you sad, or happy, or a sentimental mix? Do you mark these ends-of-eras in any special way?

Teacher Appreciation Week -- Celebrate All Year!

May 08, 2012

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This week -- May 7 through 11 -- is Teacher Appreciation Week. (Some schools might have celebrated last week; one of my boys' schools did, due to confusion about what "first week in May" meant.) I really appreciate what parents at Bridger have done, coordinating muffin baking for the teachers' breakfast one day and other fun events. And a big bouquet of lilacs was enough to make one group of teachers' Monday; I highly suggest such a simple, pretty, great-smelling gift (and there are lots of overgrown lilacs in alleys and parking strips... don't they deserve their chance to shine?). Calendula and lavender are going bonkers in front yards right now, and they make a beautiful bouquet. My seven-year-old's teacher is a huge fan of dark chocolate, so I'll pick up a few extra bars of my favorite at People's (it's even on sale this week): Equal Exchange Panama.

We've got a great round-up of teacher's favorite gifts here (from the winter holidays; obviously there will be more options now!). I'd love to hear about innovative and simple ideas like muffin baking and a potluck lunch for teachers hosted by the PTA. And this is your official reminder! Remember that teachers tell us over and over again that their favorite gifts are simple notes of appreciation. Remember, too, that this is a good time to pull your teacher aside and learn a little something about him so that you'll be able to tailor the perfect token of your gratitude for their dedication. Don't forget about the administrators, librarians, art teachers, and the like.

And, since we're also talking about whether teachers will keep their jobs this year (as we seem to do so often) -- though we can thank Sam Adams for proposing to provide cash to keep from the worst cuts Portland Public Schools was planning for next year (thank you Sam! maybe we should send him muffins too) -- Teacher Appreciation Week will be ending with a very large rally and march called "Get Upset!" to protest continued "austerity," shall we say, in school budgets. It's starting at 3:30 p.m. Friday, May 11, in the Rose Quarter.

#EndDaylightSavings Time?

March 13, 2012

Urbanmamas_enddaylightsavings
I did everything right: I got dinner ready early, kept the boys off screens on Sunday night, turned all the clocks back before I went to bed Saturday so we would wake up Sunday as if it never happened -- as if the time change was a chimera. We went through the day, keeping to our normal Sunday schedule where I only put the time in quotes in the quiet and safety of my stubborn brain (which had kept me up late Saturday night writing, and late Sunday night too). Still: I'd gotten them all asleep a little early than the normal quote-bedtime-end quote. That should do it, right?

I found out how wrong I was when I woke up at "7:51" a.m. this morning, nine minutes before Truman's final bell rings. It's only a half-mile away, but when I tried to wake him I was resoundingly unsuccessful. I barely managed to get Everett ready by the time his transportation arrived at "8:15"; we were just late, late, late with Truman, and as I walked him into the cafeteria at "8:50" for breakfast, I said that I guessed we were early for the old, dear, departed time!

Continue reading "#EndDaylightSavings Time?" »

The Lorax & Earthy-Day Activities at School

March 06, 2012

We have always loved the Lorax, the wonderful tale of Truffula Trees and Bar-ba-loots, the tale of how we all live in an interconnected ecosystem, and the tale of how we all have an important part of protecting all parts of our web of life.  The Lorax Movie  comes at an interesting time, when were are kicking off efforts at school to start thinking about how we can celebrate Earth Day at our school.

When I asked the kids at assembly: "what can we do?!" Lots of kids suggested picking up trash.  One kid suggested that we have a No-Waste Lunch Challenge.  Others suggested planting trees.

The Lorax, who speaks for the trees, could live in all of us.  How will you harness your inner Lorax to celebrate Earth Day upcoming in April this year?  Please share, I am looking for ideas!

Monday class scheduling blues

January 10, 2012

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Monday, Monday! Can't trust that day.

I should know by now, after having considered this topic week after week last November and January in the days leading up to the LEGO competition -- LEGO club was Mondays and Wednesdays after school, and thank goodness for the Wednesdays, because some weeks that was the only day club met.

Monroe is going to "speech group" as part of the services he receives from Multnomah County ESD. It's great; he adores his teacher and the other members of his class are sweet kids. He looks so forward to it each week. I love it, too, because even though it's 45 minutes it makes a nice routine for me -- I run during his class so I know I have a guaranteed weekly 4-some miler. No excuses possible.

But, it's on Mondays! I forgot how inauspicious this day was until PPS gave its students that extra day of break on January 2nd. Monroe missed the first day of the year and he'll miss next week, too, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Lucky Thursday kids; they get to meet every single week in January.

So if you're contemplating which day to put your child in a class that meets according to the public school calendar, be warned: every other day (every other day!) every other day of the week is fine...

Procrastination & Homework do not mix

January 09, 2012

Last night at 8:30pm, my first-born (now an eleven-year old sixth grader) came into my room.  "Can you sign-off on my report?"

This was the report on Ancient Egypt that has been in process for months.  Originally due the Wednesday before winter break, their teacher delayed the due date to the Friday before winter break.  I suppose enough students were expressing concerns with the deadline, so he again delayed the due date to the Wednesday after winter break, then to the Friday after winter break, and then - finally - the final, drop-dead, absolute, no-more-delays deadline was the Monday after winter break, TODAY.  

"Sure," I said.  "Let me just skim it first."

The intro page had formatting issues (inconsistent font, weird paragraph breaks), the second page had two typos, the fourth page had incomplete sentences, and conclusion page did not make any conclusive statements.  What ensued was a tense two hour session of refining the entire paper, her dad taking the lead with this effort...  while I stewed.

I remember once, when I was in sixth grade, I told my parents at 9pm on a Sunday that my science project was due the next day.  In a tizzy, I made the solar system out of paper mache and attached it to cardboard, staying up until about 1am.  My dad came in at that time and said, "why don't you get some sleep?" and he went on to stay up hours later painting it for me.  I won 3rd place in the science fair that year.

I hate procrastination.  And, I hate my kids staying up late.  I am a huge sleep advocate and stress about their sleep consumption.  I was so, so, so upset last night.  Why did not we (the collective "we" including myself, my daughter and my husband) finalize this report weeks ago, even over winter break?  Procrastination is much too easy.  What is your approach to homework (long-term assignments especially) that won't leave the bulk of the work to the 11th hour?  Do you do progress check-ins?  Do you trust that the final product is "final", and skip the review all together?

Did you get your child's teachers and care providers gifts?

December 16, 2011

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As today is the last day of PPS school before break, as usual, I stayed up late last night working on gifts. And... became mightily distracted by one thing, then another, and never really got around to finishing them. So I'll be scrambling for the next three hours to figure out, what? I have two teachers -- one first grade teacher whose outside-of-school interests are a mystery to me (I think she works 12 or 14 hours a day, so maybe there aren't many), and one early intervention specialist whose interests I think I have more of a handle on, but still -- and lots of stuff that's close to being a gift. But oh! I haven't decided.

This means my children's teachers will get jars of jam for holiday gifts. And I think I'm bringing the sweet school librarian some chocolate.

We've talked about gifts a lot in the past (and had a little interesting sidebar in our post about Halloween costumes; some parents feel, evidently, that the expectation of teacher holiday gifts creates more discomfort, even embarrassment, and shines a glaring light on cultural differences, than any costumery), and I know I have a lot of ideas. But I'm wondering: which came to fruition for you this year?

November School Schedule: Love/Hate

November 09, 2011

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Today is the last day of classes for the week for PPS schools, and many other area schools also have Friday and one other day off for Veteran's Day. Then, there's Thanksgiving week, which we have off entirely, but for a half-hour of parent-teacher conferences per child. Not counting Thanksgiving Day, which nearly all working parents have off, that's six days off school in one month.

I love it, in the mornings at least; I'm just not a morning person, and not having to bundle kids off to school seems like a great thing -- until it's noon and I can't organize the kids to go on whatever errands I have planned. I suspect that I get more done, writing- and housework-wise, on a typical day off school than on a regular schoolday. And my evenings are so much calmer -- no worrying that I get all the homework/paperwork/clean socks/breakfast food ready for the morning.

Lots of my friends, though, hate it -- both at-home and working parents, for different reasons. The at-home parents who crave schedules and something to keep their children engaged during the day are lost; the working parents have extra responsibilities juggling alternative care.

Which camp are you in -- the love or the hate? Ignoring politics for the moment (I know we have the shortest school year on the planet!), what would you do to make it better (if you could do anything)?

Cafeteria food check in: Yogurt, not for breakfast

November 02, 2011

My six-year-old is always hungry when he gets to school -- even if he's just finished his toast or pancakes on the bike ride there. No matter the quantity or quality of the calories, he's hungry. And as our elementary is a school with a large enough percentage of free and reduced-price lunch families, breakfast is free for everyone; so he feels that breakfast is a must. (As an aside, this frustrates his teacher to no end; he and a few other of the not-so-early risers in the class eat their breakfast at their desk, delaying her reading group schedule. I don't know what to say; I can't get him out of bed any earlier, I'm literally carrying him out of bed as it is. He insists that he's hungry. I have no good solutions.)

So today when we went through the line, I saw the no-thank-you table chockfull of yogurt, so much that the cafeteria employees had set out a bin for it. Usually, the no-thank-you table works on equilibrium; there are roughly equal numbers of kids who don't want some of the mandatory breakfast items as those who are hungry for extra. I commented on this to the cafeteria worker.

She told me that she supposed most kids don't really see yogurt as a breakfast food; they think of eggs, potatoes and pancakes as breakfast food. This surprised me, as I don't remember this ever being the case at Bridger, where Truman and Everett went last year; yogurt on the no-thank-you table was usually snapped up by kids who could eat two or three.

Our family has always considered yogurt an acceptable breakfast food but I wondered if it might be cultural; the makeup of Bridger (lots of Hispanic kids) was very different than Grout (lots of caucasian kids and East African children). Even though it has rather more sugar than I'd like, I generally approve of yogurt, especially over those "bagel wraps" and a few of the other highly-processed breakfast options.

What about your school? What breakfast options are popular? Does your child seem to get hungry as soon as he approaches the cafeteria, too?

The great costume debate: Is this really just a power struggle?

October 27, 2011

I got the chance to connect to my email after several hours offline at a cross country meet, alone with my nine-year-old son. I read the comment on the Halloween costume post that quoted a memo the Buckman principal sent to families:

"As you know, we have requested students not to wear costumes to school on Monday for Halloween. The reasons have been expressed in several ways, most recently in a letter sent out on October 20th. Since this issue was picked up by various “media sources” all over the country, we have received many disturbing emails, phone calls, and countless blog entries. Many of these were threatening in nature and completely inappropriate. I do believe that the majority, however not all, were from outside of our community.

"I wanted you to know I have met with the District and we will have our School Resource Officer here Friday and Monday to help in case we have problems with those outside of our school community. Our number one concern is the safety of our students, families, and staff. Please do not be alarmed if you see this extra security on these two days."

I said something incredulous aloud. (Probably: "oh, my GOD.") "What?" asked Everett. I gave a basic rundown of the issues: an administrator made a decision to ban costumes. His expressed aim was to reduce the pressure on the small number of students who didn't celebrate Halloween, and to remove distractions from school.

"So..." I said. "He didn't want kids distracted by wearing costumes. But now because people are so angry about his decision, the entire school community is going to be subjected to security in the halls because of threats from around the country. And there will be TV cameras and radio microphones outside school. A little distracting, don't you think?" [Update: there will be armed police officers at the school.]

"Why doesn't he just change his mind?" said Everett. Indeed.

Even though the pressure and criticism may be mostly external, it seems that the principles are now being largely obliterated by the stand the administration is taking. Is it worth it? In my opinion, no.

Talking it out with Everett made me see what I think the issue has become: not cultural sensitivity. Not the protection of childhood fun. This is about power. The principal who made the decision is not backing down, even though the debate now smacks more of circus than education. I don't think all our kids' best interests are preserved by protecting a few students who don't celebrate Halloween from awkwardness -- not now that it has become such a huge debate.

Keep Portland weird. Consequences be damned.

Continue reading "The great costume debate: Is this really just a power struggle?" »

Teen Access to Birth Control: Have Attitudes Changed?

October 26, 2011

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I remember the debate, when I was a teenager, over birth control access in Portland schools. On one hand, it's positive to prevent teen pregnancy and (in the case of barrier methods) sexually transmitted diseases. On the other hand, providing birth control in schools is a tacit encouragement of sexual activity! (A worry that research suggests is unwarranted -- studies show no increase in promiscuity among teens who have condom access and education in school.) And schools aren't in the business of parenting!

When I was a teen, as the product of a very religious family, I felt only slightly different about this than I do now. I had no need of such things -- I wasn't sexually active myself. But I recognized that my classmates were, and didn't really think that it had anything to do with whether or not they could get condoms from the health center. I was in favor of birth control, though concerned about the parenting thing. Should schools be in the role of offering such advice? My opinion was, no.

Monday's Think Out Loud discussion about birth control access in Canby shows me that, despite two decades of research and supposedly loosening social norms, the debate hasn't changed a bit. Same story, different millennium. I'm a parent now, though, and I have to say that my beliefs have changed just slightly; now I believe that putting birth control in schools has nothing to do with parenting; parenting happens at home. Parenting is the stuff that should already have affected students attitudes toward sexual behavior before they get to the point of asking for birth control. I got parented in a way that kept me chaste through high school, but at no time in the process would I have gone to my parents to request access to birth control. I did not want to talk to them about sex (still don't, honestly). The more available birth control is? The more likely teens are to use it. I don't believe it has anything to do with encouraging the activity, tacitly or overtly.

Now that you're a parent, what do you think? Have your attitudes changed?

Late Arrival: How do YOU manage?

September 21, 2011

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Today is the first late Wednesday arrival of the school year, and I -- a freelancing at-home mama who struggles mightily with early mornings -- am taking a deep happy morning breath. Today, my first-grader was up before me at 6:45, and got to play quietly by himself before his brothers awoke, a rare treat for the middle kid who loves occasional solitude. Now we've all had breakfast, and I have my coffee, and the boys are watching Pokemon while I typity-type-type. I even got Truman to do a little homework. When we leave, more than an hour from now, we'll probably even be a few minutes early, and I'll have a jumpstart on my writing day. No rushing required. Perfect.

I know that it's not all sunshine and deep breaths for many parents. My school doesn't even open until 9:50 (when the first bell rings), and there's no breakfast on late arrival days -- something I know many families count on. I was surprised to see the notice in my child's folder yesterday about Y morning care; it may not be the very first time anyone had heard of it, but it was the first time I knew about the 9:50 building opening. And for parents to sign up for the Y, it's not just a matter of paying $20 per late morning; there's a sign-up process and a registration fee, not the sort of thing I could manage in the midst of a week's coordination if I was working in an office. I'm sure most parents have figured it out ahead of time, but still: there have got to be parents who forget, or miss the first flyer, and struggle to pull it together.

How do you manage? Is late arrival a blessing for you, or a major coordination nightmare? If you've signed your child up for early care, do you like it? Is it a challenge to find the funds? If you could be in charge of Portland Public Schools, would you have ever instituted late arrival -- or would you have one a week?

Sunday Meal Planning: Back to the Lunch Grind

September 04, 2011

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I start every school year thinking this will be the year I win my kids over with the homemade lunches. And every year, I end up giving in to the siren song of the cafeteria (last year, it was the second week of school, when Truman came home with a bill -- he'd been getting both a cafeteria tray and his lunchbox every day). Certainly, I've loved being here in Portland, where school food is undergoing a serious revolution, and, most days, the children will have ingredients from local farms on the menu.

However, as the photo above (taken at a field trip near the end of school last year, so we've got to give them some slack for brown bagging necessities) indicates, there's a lot of room for unhealthy choices. As hard as I try at home to steer my children clear of refined sugar, preservatives, processed flours and other highly-processed foods: if Truman has a choice, it's chocolate milk every day, and, judging from this small window on school food, no one eats the good stuff like grapes.

So I'm trying to get it right this year.

Continue reading "Sunday Meal Planning: Back to the Lunch Grind" »

School's Out For Summer!

June 14, 2011

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The countdown began a couple of weeks ago, when my six-year-old was moping about each morning, telling me, "I'm sick!" when he was only, variously, tired, cranky, or wishing he could stay home and play with his little brother. "Only 14 more days of school," I'd say, "you can make it!"

Today, with the retirement of a beloved kindergarten teacher approaching and the skittering knowledge that going back to Bridger is an impractical choice that would likely result in ill attention for my rising first-grader's rising needs -- he's been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, something that just can't be supported in a neighborhood classroom of 38 first-graders, and now that his big brother isn't going to the school, he no longer gets the "tagalong" status allowing a school bus to take him the 3.5 miles from our house -- I'm saying so long to a school community I'd really grown to love. There are too many people to whom to say goodbye.

I'm not the only one among the urbanMamas who is saying goodbye. I'll let Olivia tell her own story, but her Facebook status last night about an exchange with her graduating oldest daughter had tears in many of our eyes. There are littler goodbyes -- preschool graduations, neighborhood moves, and the like. I chatted yesterday with a life-changing therapist, one who'd worked with Everett in an unusually empathetic and knowing way. All of the mental health professionals -- all of them, except for one school psychologist assigned to each school (often on a half-time basis) -- are losing their jobs. Those with seniority will be re-assigned, maybe as school counsellors. The special ed director has decided that children's mental health shouldn't be supported by schools. (More about this later.)

It's a sparkling, celebratory time for many children, but even those like Truman who spent considerable energy trying to stay home will miss the friends and teachers they loved. A bittersweet time of release from schedules and change in environment. A hope for warm sidewalks and bare feet and ripe strawberries from the garden. The feeling is in the air and in the skips of students through the streets.

How are you feeling as school gets out? What are your happies and sads? To whom are you saying goodbye this June?

Portland "YES" Schools: Get out the vote!

April 26, 2011

Bryn is our guest blogger on this very special post about getting out the vote. He's a parent just like many of us who care about the future of our schools.

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So this May 17th a very important election is taking place. This vote could impact Portland for years to come. Since it is a spring election in an off year very little attention is being paid to this crucial decision involving two ballot measures, they are:

  • Measure 26-121 - School Bond designed to rebuild and improve every school within PPS Measure 26-122 - Levy to save teaching jobs.

Portlanders For Schools is running a grass roots campaign trying to get as many school supporters aware of these measures. Many schools in Portland are phonebanking, canvassing and getting the word out on the playground. If these bills are going to pass it will be because neighbor is talking to neighbor and friend talking to friend. In these times of strained relations in Washington D.C. many people vote no on anything tax related but these bills will make a difference in our children's lives.

My daughter goes to Beach School built in 1928. If this bond passes Beach will get a covered playground, better ADA access, more secure entrance and a natural gas heating system to replace the antiquated boiler. The local North Portland High Schools Jefferson(1909) and Roosevelt(1921) are both scheduled to be rebuilt. I love my school and I love my neighborhood so I feel strongly that this is an investment in my community. This will make a measurable impact in the lives of all Portlanders.

I was a little apprehensive to make the calls but it turned into a really fun night. The vibe in the room is just great with kids playing/watching tv and parents trying to make a difference for something they believe in.

I am currently asking our school community what more can they do to help. What can you do? Phone banking is happening every night until the ballots are turned in. Canvassing will be happening every Saturday until the election. Please contact your school captain or http://portlandersforschools.org/ to learn more.

I have three daughters, 8, 4, and 14 months, that I want to be able to look my kids in the eye and know that I did everything I could to support these measures.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4pkr1wZEkQ&feature=player_embedded

TriMet Trekkers: our newest, youngest commuters

March 29, 2011

Our kids' public charter school is in central Portland, drawing students from all quadrants of the city.  Part of its charter is to be located in that part of the city to be accessible to transit lines. Families commute to school using a variety of transportation options: personal vehicle, carpools, bike, foot, bus, train. 

Our school was one of 25 schools nationwide to be awarded a mini-grant from the National Center for Safe Routes to School.  Our $1,000 award would be used toward safety gear (reflective vests or blinky lights or first aid kids for groups of families walking or biking to school).  But, a large portion of our grant would fund - what we coined - the "TriMet Trekkers".

The intent would be to gather children in convenient clusters, who lived near one another, and have one adult chaperon a group of children on the bus or train together.  Our grant would pay for the transit tickets for the adult leader and any children in the group.  The idea was similar to "bike trains" or a walking school bus: traveling in groups can be safer and funner.

We launched our TriMet Trekker groups a couple of months ago, and my husband leads the one from our neighborhood.  Every Friday morning, at a specified intersection at a specified time, there are usually 7 children that he corals onto the bus, off the bus, and walks in to school.  Parents love being able to walk/drop off their kids down the street; the kids love being able to ride the bus to school with friends.  It's a small thing, but I love that there are 7 less mamas & papas having to drive their kids into school.  I love that the kids all clump in the back of the bus and chatter about schoolmates.  I love that the kids become confident getting on the bus and walking four blocks to their school.  

Homeschooling for the faint of heart

February 27, 2011

Valentines_dragons
Sometime between Valentine's Day and the following Friday, I decided to home school Everett. Now eight-and-a-half and having just passed his third-year special education re-evaluation (still qualifies under the eye-rolling educational diagnosis of "severe emotional disturbance"), I had been thinking (along with the teachers and administrators) all the way into January that things were getting better. Never the sort of kid to have enough good days in a row for successful extracurricular involvement, I'd signed him up for LEGO club, which he participated in through to the end commendably. We'd agreed to do "Battle of the Books," and I was the team parent, and had read the books with him. The assembly where he and his team would compete for a chance at regional tournament was coming up on the 18th.

What's more, he was generally getting along with his teacher, though he'd been through four that year; one permanent teacher who took a job elsewhere; one long-term substitute; one new permanent teacher; then the last one, the day after new-permanent-teacher took over. We all decided it would be best to move him to the older class (the only third-grader in the behavioral classrooms at Bridger, he had been the oldest in K-3 and was more appropriately served, we thought, as the youngest in 3-5). At first, things went great.

Until they didn't. One bad day turned into a week-long bus suspension (shortly after we'd gotten the paperwork done for both boys to take the bus) and then suddenly, he and a friend were suspended. On Valentine's Day, we had a re-entry meeting and, after handing out his dragon valentines, it became obvious that he wasn't emotionally ready to re-enter. Not on Wednesday, either. We missed the Battle of the Books assembly -- the one we'd been reading for since October. On Friday, the counsellor came by and I told her how I felt about this right now: that home schooling might be a better option. About the same time, Rebecca invited me to Get the Scoop on Schooling, "an Evening of Information, Inspiration, and Clarity about Educational Options for Our Children" (Monday February 28 at The Warehouse, 6:30 p.m.). I responded "yes" immediately.

After years of considering this option, and many times typing or saying to someone in the heat of emotion, "I'm THIS close to homeschooling!", the balance had tipped. I felt it was inevitable and that continuing in public school had no possible good ending.

Continue reading "Homeschooling for the faint of heart" »

Homework: does your child have it? how do you handle?

February 08, 2011

After being tucked in at least 30 minutes prior, our 10-year old fifth grader scurried downstairs in a real hurry last Sunday night.  With a frantic look on her face, she held up a paper with about a dozen questions on it about Paul Revere.  "I was supposed to do this!  It's due tomorrow!"

I certainly know the feeling of having forgotten to do something and the feeling of needing to get something done right away.  I used a calm voice and demeanor, as I know just how stressed she was at that moment.  We tackled the questions together, I kind of prodded her along with leading questions.

*whew!*

Our fifth grader gets homework.  Our first grader does not.  We never really ask, "do you have any homework?"  We just know and assume and fully trust that it will get done.  And, it almost always does.  Thank goodness our school's teachers deliver only a moderate-to-mild dose of homework for any given night.  Some nights, there is not homework.  Lucky kids: I recall having at least two hours-worth of homework, every night, when I was growing up.

Have times changed?  Do your kids get a lot of homework?  I know every kid is different, but how do you handle homework in your home?  Does your child get it done even before they get home (I know some kids who do!)?  Does your child do it in a hurry at the breakfast table?  Do you do it together every night?

PPS says child is "special" but doctors do not: what?

January 25, 2011

So, we haven't officially launched the "community" function of the site, but we are glad you are using it!  A mama recently posted there, and we thought we'd better post her question on the front page to see if someone can lend some insight:

Anyone had the experience of Portland Public Schools Early Intervention diagnosing your little on the Autism Spectrum, but your Pediatrician, Ped Neurologist, Occupational Therapist, Speech Therapist, and Ped Behaviorist all disagree, and say no Autism, no Asperger, no Spectrum?  I'm totally confused and baffled.  I didn’t want to sign their evaluation, but I did.  Am I being a baby and not dealing with reality of labels?  Any words of wisdom would be welcome. Thanks!

It is time: Kindergarten Round-Up 2011

January 07, 2011

Last year around this time (and every year around this time, for that matter), parents around Portland start thinking about schools.  It's Round-Up time.  The Portland Public School district offers "school choice", allowing any student in the district to apply to attend any other school in the district.  There are lotteries, magnets, charters, focus programs, mandatory information sessions.  It is dizzying.  We are lucky if we have the time to consider all of these options.  Many of us do not.

Here are some resources to get you started:

If you have a child transferring/entering school next year, have you started to consider all the options?  Or perhaps forgo considering the options and attend the neighborhood school?

The Trouble with Boys: Have our schools progressed?

November 10, 2010

Conferences are right around the corner and I'm waiting anxiously; hopeful that this is the first year where we hear more good than bad.  Being a mama to an energetic and emotionally-charged 7 year old boy in grade school has at times been very challenging, if not all-consuming. We've heard it from all sides - teachers, family, and friends - wondering if the level of intensity of his emotional outbursts was appropriate for someone his age.  I cannot tell you how often we've heard, "At (insert age) he still shouldn't be (insert behavior)."  Being the mama to not one but three boys, as much as I've tried not to, I found and do find myself falling into the pitfalls of our society expectations of how boys should behave, leaving little tolerance for the natural high activity level of boys. 

Kindergarten was rough. The traditional school setting definitely was not a good fit for him; and I wonder if it's good for most boys. Even with a change of schools and different teaching approach, 1st grade was still rocky. He had a difficult time in certain classes and with certain teachers.  He was a child that was on the verge of being labeled as special needs. Despite his issues, we really liked his teacher and her willingness to work with him and all the children on creating a cohesive classroom environment.  In hindsight, I wonder if his teacher being gone for a good chunk of school due to illness really disrupted the dynamics of the class.

This year, in 2nd grade with the same teacher and clear expectations, he seems to be hitting his stride.  He's doing much better and the emotional outbursts have been minimal. I cannot say that we've made any huge changes in his life like therapy or medication, but what I think has happened is that it has taken him a bit longer to mature emotionally.  Are you the parent of a boy? What has your school experience been like? Do you feel schools are really progressing to work with boys?

Landmark high school reforms passes, closing Marshall, changing Jefferson

October 13, 2010

In a 4-3 decision last night, the Portland Public School board voted to close the three academies at the Marshall High School campus, a group of Gates Foundation-funded experimental small schools, at the end of the 2010-11 school year. The school had been in decline before the switch to academies, and in recent years, "falling enrollment and rising operating costs" -- along with parents who were generally desperate to get their children in stronger "community schools," as the PPS buzzword goes -- led to the near-inevitable decision. The students in those clusters will go to Cleveland, Franklin and Madison; the teachers will be distributed; the building will be closed.

Another decision, to change Jefferson into a "powerful focus school that offers students the opportunity to earn college credits even as they complete high school," is equally expected but far less understood (and voted for with a strong 6-1 margin). Northeast neighborhood parents, left with two options, Grant and a long-declining Jefferson, often chose Grant; the privileged students went to Lincoln; Jefferson was in dire need of a return to its relatively strong identity in the 80s and 90s as a performing arts school. 

Benson was already "saved," and Grant, despite early fears by parents and community members, was never really in danger (I submit that the idea was grandstanding by Carole Smith meant to soften the blow of her eventual decision; but that's entirely an unfounded conspiracy theory :). In light of our initial discussion when the first plan was released, what do you think? Is this the best option to fix an awkward-if-not-totally-broken school system? Could equity result if everything goes according to plan? How will your family be affected?

Lunch-Pooling: Making Friends and Swapping Muffins

September 30, 2010

My neighbor Camellia posted on Facebook about her lunch pool -- something I fell in love with briefly once years ago but never executed. When she offered to write a post about her new experiences, I said, "yes!"

Camellia_lunch_pool
I was nervous about my almost-Three starting Montessori school. I was worried about him adjusting, about drop-off, and about…it seems silly, but packing lunches. After reading the recent posts about kids leaving their lunches uneaten and Sunday night insanity I was nervous about being prepared each morning with balanced, nutritious lunches he would actually eat. Even at home, I don’t feel like we always do a very good job of coming up with good little guy meals day after day. We fall back on quesadillas and Cheerios far more often that I’d like.

A woman overheard me discussing the topic at the gym and approached me with a suggestion: lunch-pooling. You find a parent in your kid’s class with compatible lunch-styles and take turns making lunch for both kids, one week on, one week off.

I love it. It’s actually easier to pack two lunches because you can use up your ingredients faster, packing fresher lunches with more variety. I feel like the challenge of coming up with a week’s lunches is much more manageable than the prospect of packing lunches every day. And so far, the kids are eating nearly everything! My kid actually eats better than he does at home, because I have to plan better, and he has to eat what he gets instead of demanding Cheerios. Arranging it in a cute little box helps, too.

Of course, the challenge is finding a friend who eats more or less the same stuff your kid eats. This could be harder if your kid has dietary issues. But even if you don’t find a lunchbox buddy right off the bat, there are other ways to lunch pool. Even if your friends’ kids go to different schools, you can swap home-made lunchbox staples for the freezer. Mini-muffins, meatballs, soups, and pot-stickers are a few our kids like.

In general, I love the ideal of “pooling,” be it transportation, lunches, or what-have-you… I love that the same effort goes twice as far, and it’s more fun, too. As the old saying goes, many hands make work light. I have friends who even pool soup dinners through their kids’ classroom: several families rotate cooking duty on Soup Night, making a savory soup that’s substantial enough for a meal with salad and bread. They exchange soups at school when they pick up their kids. I’m also part of a carpool for picking up our raw milk and fresh eggs from the farm. What do you pool? What are the pros and cons? And what are your favorite freezable lunchbox staples?

Portland redeems school lunches, breakfasts

September 16, 2010

I've been downright cynical about the fate of school lunches. The breakfasts have often been the worst: plastic-wrapped greasy sugar-or-salt balls, was my verdict. While there may have technically been "nutrition," protein and carbohydrates and some pass at vitamin enrichment, I suspected breakfast from McDonald's would have been healthier.

Today, I dropped my children off late at school and there was a big basket of leftover breakfast in the office. Monroe got one, too, and as we headed home I checked it out. The Zac O Mega-bar had me at "northwest fruit filling" and the insurmountably reliable ingredients list which was filled with stuff that's in my kitchen, not the contents of a chem lab. Yes, there's still sugar (zoinks!) but I was pleased with the whole wheat flour and oats, the molasses and honey. Fairlight Bakery in Vancouver makes the treats, and uses Shepherd's Grain flour from northern Washington, a sustainable farming cooperative.

It smelled good -- smelled real! -- and tasted great.  Today's lunch is macaroni and cheese; I've got a call in to ask further, but a lot of effort has gone into making more food from scratch, so I'm hopeful.

Continue reading "Portland redeems school lunches, breakfasts" »

Back to school: Shivers and shakes and tears

September 07, 2010

Truman_school_shirt
Some districts started in the last two weeks, but most students in PPS and surrounding districts have the first day of school today, with kindergarteners coming to class later this week. I dropped off my third-grader, Everett, this morning at Bridger School, where he's in the behavioral classroom. We were a few minutes late; evidently, I'm not as speedy a bicyclist as I remember being last spring. We passed by a few schools on our bike ride; I recognized mamas and papas I knew ushering kids out of cars at Atkinson, and there were so many pedestrians we had to wait at a crosswalk with our bike just for them to clear the corner. Eagerness, first day photos, and cool outfits were everywhere!

Everett was eager for the first day of school, but it's tempered for both of us with concern. He's had a hard time these three-going-on-four years in grade school, and I was a little apprehensive about his move into the classroom -- literally inches away from his old K-2 classroom last year -- because I wonder whether the teacher's style will work for him. But, he was excited to be with the older kids, and separated a bit from some younger students who had challenged his coping skills the year before.

We walked into the classroom to blank faces. "Oh, Everett's going to be next door!" she said. No one had alerted the special ed students to the fact that "the numbers worked out" for third grade to be added back together with K-2. I think the teacher may be nice for him, but he really struggles coping with situations where his expectations do not match reality. His face, as he sat in a seat very near his seat last year, looked crushed.

Continue reading "Back to school: Shivers and shakes and tears" »

Back-to-School Clothing Swaps: 08.21.2010

August 09, 2010

Pile_of_pants
I hate to say it: our first days of school are right around the corner. The weather will turn, and we'll go from afternoon air of warmth to air with a cooler bite. And, we'll have to dig through our bins to rotate weather appropriate garb, from the flimsy to the more substantive. Do you have your coats, socks, jackets, rain ponchos, pants, long-sleeve shirts in order? Sneakers, boots, galoshes? Lunch boxes, thermoses, reusable lunch containers? Start purging!

urbanMamas is teaming up with folks to hold Back-to-School Clothing swaps on Saturday, August 21, 2010. We have locations lined up in each of the five quadrants, so hopefully you can find a time and place that works for you. Emphasis will be on school-aged kid gear, but there will be a section for preschoolers as well. Some snacks and drink will probably be available at each location. Swap school clothes and gear, and maybe make a few new friends, too. Thank you muchly to all of our co-hosts! Let us know if you have questions & we will try to get them answered.

N PDX: St. Johns Swap 'n' Play, 7535 N Chicago Ave, 9-11am

NE PDX: Milagros Boutique, 5433 NE 30th Ave (near Killingsworth), 10am-12n

NW PDX: Isobel's Clubhouse, 300 block of NW 10th Ave, between Hanna Andersen & Cupcake Jones, 11am-1pm

SE PDX: Know thy Food, 3434 SE Milwaukie (entrance on Haig Street), 1-3pm

SW PDX: Westside Academy of Kung Fu, 1509 SW Sunset Blvd Suite B1, 3-5pm.

Budget cuts at area schools have us sick

June 25, 2010

School_hall
Last week, I listened to a Planet Money piece on a financial crisis in Barbados in the 1970s. The country had to borrow money from the IMF, and in doing so, were told they needed to follow some rules in order to reduce spending -- rules that meant they'd have to reduce social services, or reduce wages. After a few of the protests you'd imagine, magically the business leaders and the labor leaders came together and, through difficult talks and careful negotiating, agreed to reduce wages instead of laying off workers or cutting important social programs. Many businesses instituted productivity bonuses and other incentives to help increase worker loyalty.

Decades later, Barbados' economy had improved, wages were much better, employment was stable and -- amazingly -- a deep sense of trust had developed between business and labor interests. Jamaica had experienced a similar crisis and dealt with it differently. In Jamaica, the economy was still bad.

Listening to this story in the background of news from the past few weeks -- in Oregon and around the country -- is sobering. I wish we were as strong and community-focused as Barbados was in the 1970s; I wish we could come together and agree on belt-tightening and shared support for the things that matter to us: people, one by one, jobs, one by one, students, one by one. But no.

In Portland, PPS superintendent Carole Smith has proposed a series of budget cuts meant to reduce the expenses by $19.1 million. In order to be "equitable," she plans to require all schools to make similar cuts. These will, if her proposed budget is approved, be to PE and library employees (126 full-time-equivalent, or FTE, positions); ESL and special education employees (52 positions); and central support and operations (25 positions).

Continue reading "Budget cuts at area schools have us sick" »

School's out for summer! (Almost? Already?)

June 15, 2010

Everett_playground_hanging
Here in the PPS, today is the last day of school; other school districts finished up last week, and some finish tomorrow. I have to say that I am looking so forward to summer; the back-and-forth drudgery of taking kids to and from school, especially with my husband off to the other side of the world, has taxed me greatly. For those of you who work in an office, summer may be even more stressful than the school year, what with juggling camps and summer travel.

I am loving, though, the urban agrarian version of why-they-originally-devised-summer-vacation, and have my first flat of strawberries arriving tonight (through the very awesome new Know Thy Food buying club). I'll be making jam tomorrow; I'll be ordering some "living compost" in a few minutes so I can (finally) plant beans and corn. I'm planning any number of jamming parties and (hopefully I can convince some of my boys to join in) garden-ins. I want to get together with some other neighborhood mamas and dads to do some fruit foraging from neglected trees and bushes and overgrown alley vines; I hope to take part in some Portland Fruit Tree Project volunteer harvestings.

For the kids, I'm plotting swim lessons with Portland Parks & Rec [pdf link] -- maybe we'll even score some of the free lessons (though you must be up early this Saturday, the 19th, at your neighborhood pool to register, in person only -- 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.). Other than that, I'm hoping lots of trips to farmer's markets, you-pick fields, and neighborhood jaunts will satisfy their thirst for social interaction.

What's on the schedule for you this summer? What are your hopes and dreams? Are you excited, or stressed, about the last day of school? School's out!

High school proposed changes announced tonight

April 26, 2010

Marhsall_hurdles
As we listened to the announcement about changes to Portland Public Schools high schools from Carole Smith, PPS Superintendent tonight, we noted our thoughts and reactions. Please add yours in the comment section below.

The proposed changes to high schools were made with what Carole Smith called "an incredible opportunity for neighborhoods to reinvest in high schools." In talks with stakeholders, the common theme was "I want the whole thing [all the comprehensive core classes plus well-rounded electives plus engaging extracurriculars] and I want it close to home." These changes are to be effective in Fall 2011, after a process of community feedback and a chance for board debate. The final vote will be on June 21.

The way this is being created, Smith hopes, is through a series of "community comprehensive schools" whose boundaries have been slightly changed to better maintain the "cluster" approach to elementary, middle and high schools. These will be mostly as we all expected: Cleveland, Franklin, Grant, Jefferson, Lincoln, Madison, Roosevelt and Wilson. Each will have things for which parents and students have asked from all schools, like a full advanced placement or international baccalaureate program, a full athletics, dance, and visual and performing arts program, and a lower counselor-to-student ratio.

Marshall, a school that has struggled mightily over the past decade, with at least two very radical approaches to school design, will be closed as it now stands. In its place will be "a new focus school built upon the strengths of PPS small schools would open on the campus to all students districtwide." (I'm not exactly sure what that means: I have taken a quick look at the presentation but would love more color from our commenters.)

Benson, a school that had its heyday in the eighties and early nineties and whose perceived quality and attendance has fallen significantly in the past few decades, will change, as well. "Benson Polytechnic High School would, in fall 2011, become an advanced learning center for career-related and technical learning experiences. 11th- and 12th-grade students across PPS would have the opportunity to apply to spend half their school day or week at Benson and half at their home school, to pursue an in-depth career or technical program."

Transfers will be much more limited than they are today; language immersion programs will be created by 2013 in Spanish (Franklin, Lincoln, Madison, Roosevelt); Japanese (Grant); Mandarin (Cleveland) and Russian (Franklin). Jefferson will offer a dance program. You can look up your address here to see if your neighborhood school(s) will change with the proposed new boundaries.

Nuggets, pink milk, and party pizzas taking the fall

April 09, 2010

Chicken_nuggets
I've been watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (along with a lot of you, I know) and I can't tell if my blood is boiling hotter than my tears are stinging, or vice versa. During the third episode last Friday, I was in need of a good noseblow by the end. I think it was the stunning failure of Oliver to inspire anything like interest in real food in the kids in episode two that hurt the most, and it was the chicken nugget bit that had people talking. I wrote about it: "When he showed children how chicken nuggets are made -- grinding up the least desirable parts of a bird, gloppily straining out the bones, and adding flavorings and fillers -- he expected them to refuse to eat them. Instead, after having cried 'ewww!' and 'gross!' they each asked for a patty, answering his bewilderment with: 'We're hungry!' ...

"Though part of Oliver's stunt was pure fiction -- 'Thankfully, chicken nuggets in this country are not made this way,' he clarified before heading off to cleave a carcass into pieces -- it's part of a wider movement that's calling out processed fake food by name and calling for it to be eliminated from children's diets." What surprised me was how many of the people I know (and plenty I don't) started talking about how chicken nuggets were now off their family's menu.

There's a lot not to like in Oliver's show. There are the cafeteria workers, who grumble and complain when Oliver dares to bring real chicken and potatoes in need of a peeler into the kitchen, where the comfort food comes in a box and needs only to be heated up. There are the rules that say Oliver's many-vegetable pasta "isn't a cup and a fourth" of vegetables (he has to serve fries with his healthy fare to make it up) and that every meal needs to have "two breads" even if those breads are both halves of an extremely processed, nutrition-bereft pizza crust and that schools need to have "two kinds of milk" which often means milk that's been colored pink and sugar-added. There is all that sugar, so much sugar that Oliver himself has been making special note of it. In that post on Moms Rising, he writes, "Ask a pediatrician (or a teacher for that matter) to identify the biggest enemy of child’s health and they will answer,” sugar”. You put beautiful little kids in school, 180 days of the year, from four to 18 and nearly every choice offered to them is some version of junk food."

School_cafeteria
And there's the grocery store, where the aisles are packed with sugary treats disguised as healthy food. There's the "Froot Loops" and the happy-dippy commercials stacked five solid in our kids' favorite TV shows, the ones that say cheerfully, "part of this good breakfast!" (I tell Everett, overhearing one, "you know, that's not really a good breakfast..." "I KNOW, mom," he replies.) There is the yogurt (even the organic stuff), whose makers feel it necessary to pack it with so much sugar that one eight-ounce serving is as much sugar as the AHA recommends kids have in a day. There are the "fruit snacks," the lemonade which has no lemon juice, the trail mix with so many ingredients I have to look twice to see if there are really raisins and peanuts.

There are our kids, who eat a bunch of candy on Easter or when a well-meaning aunt or uncle stops by, or we ourselves let them go crazy at Starbucks' pastry counter, and then proceed to act horribly, fighting over Froot Loops and Skittles and Petite Vanilla Bean Scones until we cover our ears with our hands and scream, "no more candy, EVER!" (Is that just me?)

In all this craziness, I'm happy to see that more scrutiny is being placed on the harmful quality of junk food, poor quality meats, white bread and the abhorrent state of the "reimburseable meals" provided in our schools. It seems hopeful. It also seems crushing: how many cafeteria ladies will have to be convinced that kids might eat broccoli if we keep offering it to them? How many hard decisions will have to be made -- no chocolate milk, french fries once a week, a re-categorization of "food" in the food stamps even -- how will we pay for it?

Continue reading "Nuggets, pink milk, and party pizzas taking the fall" »

And what about starting kindergarten "early" or "young"?

March 15, 2010

This is the time of year when many parent conversations are all about schools - lotteries, holding back, testing, and maybe even the question of public vs. private.  An urbanMama recently emailed:

My daughter will be turning 5 on August 29th, meaning she is old enough to be starting kindergarten next year. While there is no doubt she is bright, she will always be the youngest in her class. I have brought this up with her pre-k teacher and the principal and I suggested maybe she stay in preschool an additional year. Both said if she was behind, she could repeat kindergarten twice. That's what worries me. For one, I think she will do fine in kindergarten, but what about when she's older. And two, why would I set her up to even fail kindergarten? To me, that seems out if the question. I have heard plenty of parents who recommend holding back boys with summer birthdays, but most give the advice that little girls do fine starting kindergarten a young 5.  Has anyone else dealt with this?  Were you the youngest in your class and always felt behind although you were bright and capable?  Will a stigma be attached to a child who didn't start kindergarten until 6?

Kindergarten choice deadline tomorrow: 'I'm destroyed'

March 11, 2010

Bridger_school_truman
"I'm destroyed," she said. I had been hanging out on the Bridger playground yesterday just before the school's out bell, watching Everett and Truman play while Monroe slept on the bike. I'd seen her and her friend first on an "unimproved road" on the way to school; they and their daughters, each in their own wagon, had been walking while we biked past. She'd called out something friendly; I'd smiled and responded.

Now we were talking about her upcoming, impending, oh-my-god-it's-Friday decision: where to send her daughter to school. Should she go with her neighborhood option, Bridger? She had a few other great ones on her list: Creative Sciences, Buckman, maybe even Atkinson. We chatted for a few minutes, I owning up to not having a great handle yet on the school; I've only been hanging at this playground for two-and-a-half weeks, Everett's in the behavioral program, we didn't pick this.

The decision, she said, was too much. And Friday! Two days to make the decision that would seriously change the course of her and her daughter's life. Who could know how it would develop? What the future would hold?

As she was talking I realized I wasn't, after all, ready to send Truman to his neighborhood school, Grout. How crazy would that be, after all, next year? We'd be on the bikes at 7:45 to get Truman to his school; then head the other direction, past home, to get Everett to Bridger. Monroe and I would have four-and-a-half hours before it was time to pick Truman up, then slog the four-plus miles to Bridger, home again home again. Forget volunteering or staying after to read to my kids. With two on either end of southeast Portland, and me on my bike, I'd be torn between my children.

So now, I, too, am destroyed. I have until tomorrow to make the decision and I'm pretty sure I know what it will be: not my neighborhood school. It's not the way I thought this would go. Are any of you, like this mama and I, feeling destroyed right now?

Morning time: How long does getting ready take?

February 26, 2010

Morning_sunrise
After a week of actually having to get all three boys together and out the door in the morning (Everett's been going to school via bus for the past two-and-a-half years, and I've been working, more or less, at home), I've finally grudgingly acknowledged the truth of the matter: for me, it's a whole hour between the moment I get out of bed and the moment we're on the bikes in the driveway (or sidewalk, if we're walking or taking Trimet). I thought back to the old days when I used to work in an office, and only had Everett to get ready, and sure enough: it was the exact same truth. Doesn't matter how bad the weather is, what sort of conveyance we're planning, what I make for breakfast (or if we decide to stop for a treat on the way), if I try to pack getting ready into anything less than an hour, I end up stressed, pushing boys past their limits, and inevitably, 10 or 15 minutes late.

So today, we were a few minutes early to school! What a pleasure. As I coasted down the hill toward home, feeling satisfied, I reminded myself how pushing my snooze button is only making my job as a mama way, way harder. So, I wondered, how about the rest of you? What's your morning truth? Is it an hour for you, more or less, or do you have some amazing skills (or extra needs) that make your mornings special-in-your-own-way? What throws you off? What gets you streamlined?

Preschool: How much is too little?

January 28, 2010

Preschool_art
As Truman is heading to kindergarten next year, he's going to be ending his preschool journey in June. He's in an MESD program at Grout, meant to provide an opportunity for children qualifying for early intervention to learn alongside "peers," kids who don't qualify but love the $5-per-session (and less for those on low incomes) rates. It's lovely: close to home, with caring teachers, FREE. But it's on a two-hours-and-twenty-five minutes timetable, three days a week. Just barely enough to give him a chance to learn a little bit about letters and numbers and seasons and how important it is to follow rules about cleanup and sharing: not enough to give me a chance to actually get anything done in the meantime.

Typically, I treasure the days, like today, that he's off school; in order to get him in the door at 11:50, I'm feeding him a snack at 11 and doing the get-ready dance for him and Monroe for the next 20 or 30 minutes. By 1:45 I'm looking at my watch every two minutes, interrupting any train of thought I'd been able to establish what with Monroe, longing for the human interaction he craves, holding his hands on either side of my face asking me to look at something -- his nose, a Pokemon card, a Hot Wheels race car.

As Monroe will be three this summer, when his big brother is heading for kindergarten I'll be left to decide whether to put him in preschool. I definitely don't have room in my budget for any longer, less public school-y preschool program; it's the MESD seven or eight hours a week, or nothing. Today, loving the flexibility of my time and the space I have to let my trains of thought play all the way out before I interrupt them for snacks and bike rides, I'm leaning toward foregoing preschool altogether for my third kid.

But... Truman's definitely benefited; he really needed the "discipline," if you can call it that, preschool provides; the structure is something he craves and I'm not great at affording; the social opportunities are hard to live without. Life without preschool for my youngest would require at least a little investment in playdates and a mama who could promise herself to dedicate a little time each day to crafts and books. (I love them. I just don't always manage to fit them into writing-housework-bills-errands-bread baking-chicken feeding-etc.)

What do you all think: how much preschool is too little? Have any of you let preschool be when faced with such a decision (and only one child still at home)? How much "curriculum" (hah) do you do? Crafts and books and seasons, oh my? Do you paint with your young child? Schedule many playdates? I'd love to hear how you've organized your life around preschool, if you too have decided "that much is not enough."

Kindergarten roundups: The big giant fat decision

January 26, 2010

Kindergarden
An urbanPapa friend and I engaged in a lively philosophical debate via chat yesterday evening while I should have been cooking dinner. At issue, the looming opening of school choice transfer applications for kindergarteners -- this Friday, January 29, at 8 a.m. schools throughout the district will begin accepting them, as well as registration forms for neighborhood kindergarteners. Should he apply for transfer, or just accept the fate his home purchase a decade or more ago had set for him?

I told him I thought Atkinson, his neighborhood choice, was a good one; he wondered about the test scores there, which were not what you'd call a "home run." Atkinson got a grade of "satisfactory" in the District's report cards [pdf link] (you can find other Oregon district report cards, with data on individual schools, here.) He asked what was partly a rhetorical question: "do test scores matter?" 

My perspective was this: test scores are a snapshot that tells you how well third, fourth and fifth graders in your district take tests. It has much to do with demographics; students who are minorities typically do worse, as do those for whom English is a second language. Yes, we know this, he said, but white students in Atkinson weren't doing great, either. This, I said, was again a snapshot of demographics; poorer students do worse, on average. This tells you nothing more than "the majority students in my school are not, on average, students with the high level of parent involvement that guarantees better results on standardized tests." It is not a reflection, I said, on teacher competence or whether or not your child will thrive there. It's just a demographic snapshot. Unless your neighborhood school is a war zone (I'm not saying we don't have any of those in Portland, just unless), your risk of a bad educational experience is equally great at a great neighborhood school, a poor neighborhood school, a charter school, or a private school.

Roundup_kindergarten Sidebar: Kindergarten roundups [pdf link] actually started last week: you've missed the dates for Arleta and Ainsworth -- sorry! Atkinson was this morning at 9:30 a.m., but has another at 6 p.m. Feb 4. Astor is tonight at 6:30 p.m. Forest Park and Rieke are tomorrow at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively. The rest start next week. If you decide you love a school other than your neighborhood school, you must list it as first choice to have a chance in the lottery. Also: if there is choice between half-day and full-day kindergarten in your school, you will want to turn your application in right at 8 a.m. if you want the full-day option; they fill up fast. We have a growing resource in our schools forum, which provides at least a little information and a chance to connect with parents for each school in the PPS, many private schools, and those from some surrounding suburbs and towns. Last year, we talked about kindergarten roundups and school choice, although most of the comments there do pertain strictly to 2009.

He countered, saying, "there is no question that educational reputation affects people's lives. I can't say it affects whether they are happy, but it does affect what kind of jobs they get. For example, top competitive positions at corps and in government are filled predominantly by people from about 5 or 10 universities. Ivy League plus a few others. Shouldn't I give him that opportunity if it's there for me?" He acknowledged that stating this was a departure for him; he'd just as soon give a screed on how owning land should be illegal.

Yes, I said, but there are so many unknowns for a kindergartener, and the test results of kids who are now in fourth grade -- who won't interact with your son at all -- are hardly likely to influence this much.

Continue reading "Kindergarten roundups: The big giant fat decision" »

the last-minute mama: It's teacher gift time!

December 17, 2009

Thank goodness for Asha of Parenthacks, who tweeted about 45 minutes before I was due to pick Truman up from his last day of preschool before the break. She was making this chai concentrate from the Oregonian (lots of good homemade food gift ideas in this series, too) for her kids' teachers. Forty-one minutes later, I'd decided upon some of my fanciest jars of homemade preserves and decorative doohickeys to cover the lids, and off I went. But now I must get together gifts for Everett's teachers to avoid (I type only 16-some hours before his bus picks him up) the last minute.

Truman_preschool_teachers_gifts
Last year I had it really together, and purchased farmer's market tokens the Saturday prior to the last week of school. Smart hmm? I even made sweet little notes mentioning our favorite vendors and pointing out that the last farmer's market of the season would be the Saturday after school got out. Though I still think that this is a great idea (more on that later), not only did my gifts almost not get given due to snowed-out school, the last market day of the year was so cold Portland Farmer's Market canceled. Sure, the tokens were good in the spring, but who knows if the teachers remembered where they put them.

While most of we urbanMamas founders had little ones in daycare, we chatted about gifts for daycare providers. Among the comments there was a link to this post about teacher gifts; throughout all these I found many good ideas and themes. Here are some of the most commonly-mentioned ones:

  • Gift certificates are the best gift of all (though rarely, teachers find them impersonal). Not only did one daycare provider ask for "a certificate to either a toy store or a supply store. Why? Because, I swear, I lose at least one toy a day due to toddler destruction," but gift certificates can be regifted (I suspect my middle sister, a teacher, of having done this on more than one occasion). I thought my farmer's market token idea was brilliant at the time; but you may want to choose a year-round market.
  • Gift certificate ideas: coffee shop, New Seasons, craft store, toy store, restaurant you know is convenient to teacher's home/school, co-op (I saw Truman's preschool teacher at People's so I can give her a GC with confidence!), Fred Meyer, spas, massage therapists, Escential, Powell's, one of Portland's awesome chocolate shops (Alma or Sahagun), other ideas?  
  • Winter-themed or holiday-themed ornaments, either purchased or made by your children, are welcome for teachers if you know what holiday they celebrate. Warning: make sure you're certain they celebrate Christmas before giving them Jesus in a popsicle-stick manger.
  • Food gifts. The Oregonian, as I mentioned, had a nice roundup of gift ideas; hot cocoa mix spiced with something unusual (chile? cinnamon? star anise?), homemade preserves (especially ice cream toppings), homemade spice blends, dried chiles, and pickles seem good choices. Buy some fantastic finishing salt from the Meadow, if you really love your child's teacher (vanilla salt!). Homemade vanilla is the hot gift this year (so says my Twitter stream); I'm making one batch with a star of star anise in addition to vanilla (I tested this myself and it's delicious -- but if you make it tonight, be sure and add a best-by date on label). However. Please remember, this being the city it is, many many people have very strict food rules, either due to values or aversions or allergies or some other things altogether (fear of pesticides maybe!). It would be unfortunate to give homemade Tollhouse cookie dough to a locavore teacher who doesn't do sugar or gluten. If you don't know, skip the food. At the very least, list ingredients with as much specificity as possible.
  • Crafty mamas. I have faith in my ability to make something with my own hands that a teacher will like. Perhaps it's hubris, but I'm going with it. I am, I think, about to head upstairs to my sewing room to pull together some reusable market bags for Everett's teachers and such, into which if I am still in possession of calm children, I will put some sort of food gift. Other relatively quick-to-make ideas I've come across in the past several minutes: quilted list takers (sweet); recycled sweater hats; retro apron; handspun yarn or needle roll (if you know teacher is a knitter). I'd love to hear your ideas.
  • Lotions & bath things. This wouldn't float my boat, but according to many online sources and real actual teachers, these are sometimes appreciated. To be safe (again remembering the city in which we live) I'd choose a brand with as few harmful surfactants and parabens and such as possible. One really excellent local brand is Wild Carrot Herbals; I met Jody, mama in charge, when she was hugely pregnant with her little daughter and I appreciate her products and principles mightily. You can find them at New Seasons, Limbo and People's Co-op (and probably other places, too).
  • No mugs! (Although if I were a teacher I would love a mug made by a local potter; I'm not a teacher so don't assume ;).
  • A nice letter. I was surprised how many times a teacher mentioned he or she treasured a thoughtful letter of appreciation. Especially, a hand-written one.

PPS Before-/After-School Care Survey

November 22, 2009

Remember earlier in the year when we had a discussion about before- and after-school care?  We recently received an email from PPS, and they are seeking the input of parents:

The district and childcare providers in Portland Public Schools are interested in learning about your child's experience in before and after school care. The district is also interested in knowing about other before and after school programs that your children attend regularly. This online survey is relevant for all parents/guardians with children ages 5-12, even if your school doesn't offer child care on site or if you choose not to use child care at your school.
 
The results are used as part of an annual program evaluation and to make district childcare decisions. Please take a few moments to complete this survey by Monday, December 18, 2009 using this link: http://www.zoomerang.com/Survey/?p=WEB229V5VK3A36.

Parents: Are we what bothers teachers most of all?

November 16, 2009

In yesterday's Oregonian, opinion columnist Susan Nielsen reported out what she heard from the community about today's stressful classrooms.  In a piece titled What tired Oregon teachers are saying (when parents aren't listening), Nielsen opens like this: "Oregon teachers would like parents to set down their cell phones for five minutes and pay attention to their kids." Sure caught my parental attention.  

While she asked any readers to email her on the topic in a previous column, mostly teachers did (makes sense, I think).  And while Nielsen and others allow that there are causes aplenty for classroom craziness (economy, class size, lack of back-up, the occasional bad teacher, pressure to get high school ratings, etc...), she emphasizes this one - and I quote:

Layered on top of everything else is a phenomenon that seems to bother teachers most of all. They say a growing number of parents undermine their children's academic success and personal growth, undercutting teachers in the process.

Of course my ready-to-take-it-personally neck hairs perked up at this - so I read attentively on:
This bad behavior crosses the socioeconomic spectrum, teachers say: Low-income parents who let their kids skip school. Middle-class parents who drop off their kids late every day. Wealthy parents who take lots of vacations during the school year and demand tailored lesson plans.
 
Then there are the parents who do their kids' homework, insist that the teacher accept late work, berate the teacher in front of their child, send nasty notes using the child as a messenger, skip parent-teacher conferences, spam the teacher with e-mails, fail to return repeated phone calls, or lavish their kids with video games and cell phones rather than books or attention.
 
The majority of parents are not like this, teachers say. But even a half-dozen challenging parents in a classroom of 35 children can change the whole dynamic of the school year.

"Early in my career, parents and teachers were partners," said John Harrington, a recently retired teacher from Newport. "... Now it seems many parents side with their children against teachers and administrators."

After a few hours have passed (always good to cool down...), I am ready to ask: What do these teachers want from me, the parent?  What does it take to be their partner?  And perhaps most important of all, if this is - as suggested in the piece - what bothers them most of all, is it more important to fixing what ails our public schools than insufficient state funding?  than class size?  than trained teaching assistants?  any teaching assistants, for that matter!?

Nielsen's article catalogs the many problems our schools face - including the age-old reality of a bunch of very different kids in one room all day.  Why is this anti-parent part so prominent, I wonder?  Did you read it, too?  What do you think - am I being over-sensitive (always possible), or are we parents really that bad? 

HELP for Marysville School

November 12, 2009

Last Tuesday, Marysville School in SE Portland was heavily damaged by a three-alarm fire.  It is so amazing that all 460 students and 17 teachers of the K-8 school were quickly accounted for soon after the evacuation.  In the past couple of days, PPS has been hurrying to ready another school, Rose City Park Elementary, to accept the relocated Marysville students starting on Monday.

How can we help this community in need?  Schoolhouse Supplies is partnering with Portland Public Schools to provide help:

  • Host a supply drive at your location.  Print a poster here.
  • Donate supplies at Schoolhouse Supplies' location.  Marysville's wish list is rather basic and it includes: paper, crayons, markers, colored pencils, erasers, glue sticks, scissors.
  • Volunteer at Rose City Park Elementary on Saturday from 8am to noon to help prepare the school for Monday.  Help is needed to clean, move furniture and get the school ready for kids!  Sign up here.
  • Donate coats, jackets, sweaters, backpacks, lunch bags/boxes, art supplies, library books, boxes of tissues, construction paper and photocopy paper.  The drop off point is Marshall High School at 3905 SE 91st Ave, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m Monday through Friday.  This donation drop off is being sponsored by The Oregon PTA and Portland Council PTA.

PPS' first NO-SCHOOL day: 10.09.2009

October 07, 2009

Hello mamas & papas!  It looks like we have our first PPS No-School day (Staff Inservice) on Friday.  So, what do you do if it's a no-school day?  Perhaps you have one parent home that is able to stay home with the kids?  Perhaps you have a flex work schedule/workplace that allows for some work-at-home or bringing child-to-work time?  Perhaps you trade care with neighbors or friends?  Or perhaps you enroll your child at a school-sponsored after-care program?  Or even some other all-day program at a Portland Park & Rec community center or another establishment?  Do you have suggestions or recommendations for what our kids can do on Friday?

For ideas from last year, check out "When school's out, where are your kids?"
For the full PPS calendar (English, quarterly) for 2009-2010, click here.

The PPS calendar might change. What do you think?

September 22, 2009

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I've long been troubled by the academic calendar, especially as a working parent.  Now if I had 12 weeks, not 3, of paid (or unpaid!) vacation every year, I might feel a little differently.  But in general, I find the long summer hard to manage - not to mention the very obvious lost learning we experienced (and yes, my kids learned plenty of other incredibly useful - and fun - things while not in school). 

But I digress, because PPS' current look at the calendar isn't just about summer vacation.  It's actually mostly about the variability in calendars across district schools. Variability that might go away.  Not a bad thing if you think all schools perform best on the exact same calendar.  Does one-size fits all work?  Does it matter when talking calendars?  But if you're someone who thinks that individual schools know how they work best and that human beings do well with a little bit of room to make decisions, it might not seem like the best idea. 

Here's how PPS described it in an email I received from them just today - what do you think?  Good idea?  Bad idea? 

The Portland School Board's performance auditor is recommending that PPS reduce or eliminate individual schools' deviations from the standard school calendar, and encourages PPS to move to a common single calendar for the district's 85 schools.  He wrote: 

 "There are a variety of benefits to providing flexibility to schools to adopt various unique school calendars and schedules," Tracy wrote. "However, the multiple calendars and schedules used by Portland schools also result in higher transportation costs, reduced nutrition revenues and more administrative burden. More importantly, many of the deviations from the standard calendars reduce the amount of instruction time provided to students."

Continue reading "The PPS calendar might change. What do you think?" »

Sugar in the Classroom

September 10, 2009

This was posted on the schools forum, but we thought this discussion would appeal to the broader community.  A reader writes:

I am new to the PPS system and would like to hear from parents regarding sugar and media in their school. My family moved here recently and my daughter entered a class where the teacher uses the "candy-reward" system.  I was not familiar with the system as my daughter came from a Waldorf school so we were a bit taken back.  My understanding is that many teachers use treats, specifically to reward and motivate children.  To add more salt to the wound, the teacher also uses movies and many cartoons as a teaching tool.

The last straw happened last week when my daughter came home after watching cartoons and the 3 stooges while doing class work.  She said the kids who finished their work could watch the TV, but the others had to keep their head down and do their work.  She was upset because it was hard to concentrate with the 3 stooges in the background and many of the children laughing.  The teachers response was" well, it's the same as the kids doing homework in front of the TV!  I tried to bring this up at a PTA meeting but was told these types of things are not handled by PTA.  The teacher and the principal are totally unresponsive and from what I understand, this has been addressed by many parents throughout the years at this particular school.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.  I would like to start a campaign to keep sugar out of the classroom, especially for rewards and also to use a movie for educational purposes ONLY!!