88 posts categorized "Elementary Schools"

urbanMamas Episode 6: Tamara Rubin

February 08, 2015

Below is a partial transcript from the urbanMamas Podcast Episode 6 where we welcome Tamara Rubin, Executive Director of the Lead Safe America Foundation and creator of the documentary, MisLead: America’s Secret Epidemic. Tamara is a Portland mama to 4 kids, 2 of whom were lead poisoned in 2005.

Click here to listen on iTunes. Click here to listen direct.

Links and resources for lead testing your home are available at the bottom of this transcript, as well as how you can help support MisLead and increasing awareness of the prevalence of lead in our schools, homes and environment. Please help this information go viral. Share this post on your Facebook page, email it to your community groups, your daycare, your school, your local legislative office, and help us fill a petition to get 100,000 Portland parents on board with demanding we fund lead clean up in Portland Public Schools.


We’ll start with the Icebreaker Hat

Tamara: "If you had to move out of Portland, where would you go and why?" Well actually I've been having a lot of difficulty with the Portland Public Schools, and the school system keeps referring my son to schools with lead hazards. And since he has medical fragility and has a compromised immune system from being poisoned as a baby, I don't want him to go to a school with lead hazards and his doctors have said he shouldn't go to a school with lead hazards. But the PPS says "Well, all of the kids here are going to schools with lead hazards, so why should your kid be any different?" And so I've been looking desperately for a school without lead hazards, and we've interviewed at several schools. We just found one in Lake Oswego that we, hopefully, may get a transfer to. And if that doesn't work out, I might have to move to L.A. because they have a publicly funded public school that is a safe school for autistic kids on the spectrum, anywhere on the spectrum, from pre-K to early 20s. And is free, but if you live out of district it's a $20,000 a year private school. And it has integrated therapies, like occupational therapy, speech therapy, focused learning for any deficit areas like reading. And it's like a magical school. And so I would go to L.A. and try to find a place to live in the L.A. unified school district so my kids could go to school for free.

R: Let's talk about lead!

K: So, you have this documentary, MisLead, and you've been working on it for awhile now.

T: Yeah, I've heard from other documentary filmmakers that the average documentary gets produced in about 4 years, and some take 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years. And so this is now the beginning of our 4th year, we just hit the 3 year mark in December. I feel bad that aren't getting this message out faster, but also I'm going with the limited funding I've had to work on the film, and we're doing something that I don't know that any other documentary has done, is we're trying to make a feature film that hopefully will be shown in theatres and will have a Hollywood and NY premiere, but we're doing it completely on donations. So over 900 people have donated something, either time or a dollar or $10,000 to help pull this together.

K: $10,000. Good job whoever you are!

Continue reading "urbanMamas Episode 6: Tamara Rubin" »

Water Fluoridation in Portland: Next Steps

August 28, 2012

I have three children, one born in New York and two born in Portland.  From the time when they were all young, my husband has commented that their teeth growth has been significantly affected by their water source in the formative years.  Our first child drank fluoridated water for the first three years of their lives.  Our second two children never did.

For our youngest, we don't yet know how the earliest years have affected his teeth, as he is only turning 3.  For our middle child, she has already had carries and fillings, while our eldest seems to have the best oral health.  This could also be a result of being the best tooth-brusher among them.

As educated parents (with ample health care coverage), we have swished, taken oral fluoride supplements prescribed by our pediatrician and used fluoride toothpaste.  Even still, one of our children - born and raised in Portland - has suffered cavities.

My best estimation of what is happening in Portland and Oregon is that, indeed, "we are in a dental crisis".  One in three of our children has untreated tooth decay, and one in five has "rampant decay", which is 7 or more cavities.  

The impact on low-income communities and communities of color is disproportionate: African Americans have twice the rate of tooth decay than white counterparts, 72% of Native Americans have untreated cavities, 46% of Oregon's Latino children have untreated tooth decay.  All these issues result in absenteeism and ultimately affects a child's success in school.  This is a preventable childhood disease.  Does the swishing work?  Yes, but it doesn't help the children before kinder age. And also, what about swishing in the summer or what about teachers who might forget the swish or kids that just throw it out?

Sometimes I like to know who else is support a certain cause.  This fluoridation effort, who else supports it, aside from health, dental, or medical organizations?  Some other supporters include: Urban Leauge, Central City Concern, Children First for Oregon, p:ear, Native American Youth Association, Latino Network, African Women's Coaltion, and many more.  (Full List Here in *pdf)

Commissioner Randy Leonard has been a supporter of this effort.  The Portland City Council is holding a public hearing on water fluoridation next Tuesdsay, September 6, at 2pm in the City Hall Council Chambers.  Interested in learning more?  Please attend.

Representatives from the Everyone Deserves Healthy Teeth Coalition has reached out to me and has offered to offer a Q&A situation where we can have readers email questions and concerns, to see if we can find answers.  For example: I, too, was concerned about the Harvard IQ study that is oft referenced, but - after chatting with other researchers and reading more online from a researcher-mom in Eugene - it sounds like the Harvard study is inconclusive.  I have plenty of questions about fluorosis, and - after again talking with others - it sounds like fluorosis can happen at higher levels of fluoridation but not at the level used to prevent tooth decay (0.7mg/L).  Do you have questions?  Send them over to urbanMamas@gmail.com and we will see if we can find answers.

I have suggested that we gather a group of subject-matter experts - a dentist, a medical doctor, a naturopath, maybe even a teacher who has implented the swish program at schools - to field questions from mamas and papas.  Interested in helping to coordinate this effort?  Please email us at urbanMamas@gmail.com and we will put you in touch!  Perhaps a playdate for parents and kids, where we have the opportunity to learn more?

Until then, keep talking, keep reading up on the issue, and keep informed.  It seems highly likely that this effort will pass in Portland, and we - as parents - need to educate ourselves on all the facts as it relates to fluoridating our water.

Water fluoridation in Portland: Taking the choice out of parents' hands?

August 18, 2012

We've made a case against water fluoridation here before.

Sam Adams says he doesn't care that voters have said 'no' to water fluoridation three times (in 1956, 1962 and 1980), and he will support a plan to add a $5 million fluoridation plant -- it would take at least five years to build and cost taxpayers about $575,000 a year to run once it was going. Commissioner Nick Fish, one of the two others who have publicly supported the project (Dan Saltzman is the third) told an Oregonian reporter how much poor families need fluoridation.

In a statement released Thursday, while on vacation, Fish said many hard-working families can't pay for fluoride. "With fluoridated water, simply drinking tap water gives all of our children the same opportunity to start life with healthy teeth," Fish said.

It's a bizarre argument, given that fluoride has been freely offered in Portland public schools every morning for decades. I swished the fluoride when I was in kindergarten (and my family was, indeed, poor); my kids swish the fluoride. Sure, preschoolers can't have access to fluoride unless they pay for it, but (umm) there are so many ways we don't support the health of poor families that this just seems a weird thing to plant a $5 million-plus flag in. Also, many health advocates have repeatedly noted that fluoride's benefit is topical, and there have been documented effects of fluoride poisoning -- from ingestion -- for about as long as water has been fluoridated.

According to a meta-analysis of fluoridation studies published in the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, high levels of water fluoridation had a negative impact on the IQs of children. Here's another mark against fluoridation, found on the web site of Oregon Citizens for Safe Drinking Water:

A recently published study from Harvard found that young boys between the ages of five and ten years old who drink fluoridated water at so called “optimal” levels  of one part per million have a 500% greater likelihood of developing osteosarcoma, a rare and often fatal bone cancer, than boys who do not drink fluoridated water.  The study corroborates earlier studies on the fluoride/osteosarcoma link by the National Cancer Institute and the New Jersey Health Department.

I think the most powerful argument against adding fluoride to water, though, is that parents of babies are asked to avoid giving them fluoridated water to drink. The CDC itself, a supporter of fluoridation, says in a very carefully-worded statement that parents should not use exclusively fluoridated water to reconstitute baby formula. Baby and toddler toothpaste doesn't contain fluoride, because it's considered dangerous for babies to ingest.

I've read a book on fluoridation, and came through the experience firmly against it. I don't disagree with the use of topical fluoride; I think it's perfectly acceptable to use fluoride toothpaste. In fact, it's a lot cheaper to purchase flouride toothpaste than the natural fluoride-free alternatives (Sam and Nick, take note, poor parents now have no choice but excessive fluoridation).

I really don't think this move makes sense for any of us. If we as a city have decided that our tax dollars should support the heath of the poorer members of our community, the most efficient way to achieve that would be in health outreach to poor families -- more fresh whole foods and less sugar, more social-emotional supports for young families, more dental treatments for poor families -- than prophylactically medicating the entire city through our water system. I can't believe this is just about dental health, because there are so many better ways to approach it (and, once again! we already HAVE a fluoridation program for children in Portland!)

If the city council does indeed vote for this plan, we'll have the opportunity to overturn it. It will be expensive (money better spent on true community building and food and farms and arts and all sorts of things); it will take a lot of our time and energy; it will be seriously annoying. We already said "no." We have alternatives that work. We could spend $100,000 a year to buy toothpaste and fluoride tablets for every kid in Portland.

It's just not the Portland way, Sam & Co. Let the parents make the choices about their children's health. We can be trusted. Stop making it so clear you don't agree.

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

June 15, 2012

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?" »

Walk and Bike to School: Know Your Way Around *and* Be Happy

May 20, 2012

A new study illuminates why pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets are so important, not just for the health and environmental impact of neighborhood residents but also for kids' fear and sense of overall well-being. As the post in The Atlantic points out, "Automobile collisions disproportionately kill kids, for starters. Heavy traffic also prevents them from playing on their neighborhood streets. And communities with limited opportunities for walking and playing outside have been shown to have higher rates of childhood obesity, which can lead to serious health complications in later life."

But the new study by Bruce Appleyard, a Portland-based urban planner and designer (and son of an urbanist who famously showed how heavy traffic in a neighborhood increases disconnection, disatisfaction and loneliness) talks about ground-level concerns, the ones I have a lot with my own kids: knowing their way around and being happy in the place where they live.

Bruce showed that kids in low-traffic, walkable neighborhoods remembered more features of their neighborhoods and remembered playing in more parts of their neighborhood than kids in high-traffic neighborhoods where they spent more time in cars. What's more, they simply liked their neighborhoods more and felt safer (according to the "cognitive mapping" techniques he used). He wrote, "In sum, as exposure to auto traffic volumes and speed decreases, a child’s sense of threat goes down, and his/her ability to establish a richer connection and appreciation for the community rises."

Later, he went back to the high-traffic neighborhood after it had undergone improvements in walkability and bike infrastructure. They knew more about their neighborhoods, and, he wrote, "Before the improvements were made in the heavy-traffic-exposure neighborhood, many children drew expressions of dislike and danger associated with automobiles and were unable to represent any detail of the surrounding environment -- possibly feeling overwhelmed by the threats posed by the automobiles. After the improvements alleviated the exposure to these threats, there were indeed fewer expressions of danger and dislike, indicating a greater sense of comfort and well-being."

I've thought about trying this experiment on my own kids, having them draw maps of the neighborhood (without scientific rigor, given that I know next to nothing about cognitive mapping). I think it would be a great way to celebrate Walk and Bike to School month.

Teacher Appreciation Week -- Celebrate All Year!

May 08, 2012

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.

Happy Earth Day! Where do you dig?

April 22, 2012

It's Earth Day, and many local schools are celebrating by having work parties in their rain gardens or school vegetable gardens or compost bins. We're headed to Grout today, where the garden has been greatly expanded by a lot of work (and machinery) last weekend. We're so impressed! We'll probably do the smallest bit of work there -- planting things on this gorgeous day while the littles swing and run on the rocks.

It's a hard balance, though, as I'd rather spend the whole day in *my* yard uprooting the copious weeds and digging and figuring out where to get some free dirt (got extra? bring it over!). I want to plant peas, even though I'm a bit late, and lettuces and radishes and beets and kale. I can't wait to start harvesting more than I have this winter out of my garden -- just a bit of chard and green garlic and lots of herbs. So when we get back from Grout that's what I'll do, harvest nettles for quiche (this nettle quiche recipe, no pine nuts), slay a few blackberry vines and burdocks and uproot as much mint as possible.

How do you decide where to devote your gardening efforts on this and other gorgeous weekend days: your child's school garden, or your own? If you have two or more different school gardens competing for your energies, what will you do?

SUN Schools in Peril: Rally Wednesday 9 a.m.

April 17, 2012

Cuts have been threatened to Multnomah County's SUN programs at local schools. For those of you who don't take advantage of these programs, they're often seen as a very inexpensive extended-day option for parents and kids, and have a variety of other evening and weekend programs as well. I have boys at both Bridger and Grout, two SUN schools. I know they're not supposed to be considered as child care (so say the fliers that go home with my kids), but honestly, that's what a lot of parents do. And it is surely a positive option for many families; the kids get structure and an energetic, fun staff and the parents don't have to make tough decisions about what to do between 2:15 and 5 p.m.

Continue reading "SUN Schools in Peril: Rally Wednesday 9 a.m." »

Valentines: Let's talk crafty

February 02, 2012

It's my favorite time of year to get all paper-y. Early February carries so much promise! I can't wait to come up with some combination of scissors, paints, hearts and paper that will perfectly demonstrate my kids' big, big hearts.

In 2010, for Truman, we cut up some of his old art work and made it into pretty little arrow/heart collages -- one of my all-time favorite combinations of a kid's art with a mama's execution. I was humming Jon Bon Jovi the whole time. Somehow this seemed festive!

Last year, for both Everett and Truman, I found a little envelope template and painstakingly (note: I find this pain fun -- endorphins? something!) printed out, cut and glued 40-some envelopes decorated with photos I'd taken. The boys got to pick between valentine heart candy and dragons, and then I had Everett draw some pictures of dragons with little funny sayings -- "I'm on fire for you, Valentine," and things like that -- and we scanned and printed a bunch of them.

Remembering at the last minute that children only love valentines if they're accompanied by candy, we ran to the store for mini chocolate bars to go alongside. This year, inspired by my Halloween epiphany, I'll be buying the organic lollipops. (I've done the math and, at less than 19 cents apiece, the organic lollipops are cheaper than the mini chocolate bars with the not-so-cruelty-free chocolate.)

Speaking of lollipops. If you too want a sweet homemade card that's not too difficult, you should check out Kristen Howerton's amazing idea. She calls it the "slacker mom" valentine, but really? She is no slacker! Four kids and valentines already done before January was out. And they're super sweet, with each kid posing with a closet rod (you could use a plastic pipe) in front of a chalkboard with the message, "Happy Valentine's Day, Love ___." The kid only has to write his or her name once -- and then the empty space above the closet rod is filled in with a real-life lollipop. Adorable.

I'd love to see your ideas about homemade valentines, or other heart-day crafts. What do you have planned?

(We've talked before about homemade vs. storebought valentines, if you want to add to that debate! And what do you do with your family for this day of love?)

Monday class scheduling blues

January 10, 2012

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...

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

December 16, 2011

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

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?

Of School Fundraisers

October 20, 2011

Och! School fundraiser season is upon us, and if you want to get my blood boiling, ask my five-years-ago self to have my kid sell frozen cookie dough and cinnamon rolls in order to earn cheap prizes probably made in China. Go ahead, make my day!

But when Truman brought home the fundraising forms last week -- Delicious Delights! like the Thaw-and-Bake Blueberry Muffins ($16) or the Pizza Pail ($16, too), full, I was sure, of all kinds of ingredients I try to avoid, not to mention expensive (win a Sling Shot Plush animal! a plastic crawling bug! A Tornado Mug!) -- there was a bit of a surprise. The PTA letter that accompanied it judiciously mentioned that the school would get 40% of the proceeds from the sale of these caloric firebombs; or you could write a check and the school would get 100%.

So, I was getting ready to write a check for $20 (with "donation in lieu of fundraiser" in the memo line) when I saw a comment thread from another Portland Public Schools mom. She was lamenting the state of her PTA's fundraiser, which hadn't been accompanied by a letter like mine. Another mom on her thread said her school (in the area, I assume) had given parents a donation goal for the year -- $500, plus fundraisers.

Meanwhile, I'm helping the cross country team raise money to go to invitational meets and buy uniforms. Nearly all the money for sports is now provided by parents -- the coaches' salaries and the cost of buses come from the sports fees, and fundraisers pay for uniforms, and the Booster Club pays for end-of-season "banquets" (which are usually potlucks) and awards. Volunteers often end up paying for the privilege through t-shirts and Chinook Books and (in my case) babysitting. When I do the math, I realize that high school students who are involved in a few activities do pay $500, plus, a year for the privilege of going to public school.

What is there to say about this? Sometimes I feel like the school year is one big revolving hit-up. I'm hitting other parents up for Chinook Books for cross country while they're hitting me up for Run for the Arts laps while the schools are hitting us up for snacks and boxes of tissues while my friends' school are hitting me up for Burgerville and Pizzicato fundraising nights. I remember writing at least five or six checks for field trips last year. One of the cross country runners rolled his eyes and said, while we talked about the lap-a-thon we are planning for Friday, and the book sales, and the other money-raising ideas, "why don't we just ask people for one check?" Indeed.

Why don't we? Wouldn't it be easier and simpler? At the beginning of the school year, principals could come out to us and say, "we need $12,000 per kid for what we want to do. The state gives us $10,800. Pay up (if you can)." Obviously, we all couldn't afford to make up the difference. But at least we wouldn't have our kids pushing sweets and pizza and those endless forms at us -- the kids could focus on doing arts and PE and (I don't know) reading and math and not on raising money for it.

If you ran the world (or even just your own PTA), how would you fix it?

Halloween Costumes Verboten at Buckman; How 'Bout the Candy?

October 17, 2011

However tempted I am to say something like, "Halloween was simpler when we were kids!"; it's just not true. When I was of trick-or-treating age, I was faced with an enormity of moral and safety concerns each October 31st. My family, very faithful Conservative Baptists, approached Halloween with great suspicion thanks to its age-old ties to the Devil himself. A few years, we went to church on Halloween for witch-free celebrations (that's where I got my first goldfish!); I always chose "good" costumes, princesses and fairies and, ok, I really only ever wanted to be a princess. Also, we had the specter of razor blades and poison, which must have happened one time ever, and yet most of our parents were sure there were razor blade vendors on every block. Beware of the caramel apples! Take heed of the popcorn balls!

This year, in Portland, we have a modern flavor on the ages-old debate over Halloween. At Buckman Elementary, costumes will be banned for the second consecutive year; the principal "says celebrating Halloween at school excludes some kids and can be very offensive." (My six-year-old's school, Grout, is allowing costumes but banning weapons and gory/offensive/skimpy "content.") This has brought up all the debates you'd think ("what's happened to childhood?" "Halloween is an American celebration" "children need to have the opportunity to use their imaginations and dress up, but I do not believe this needs to be accomplished through Halloween"), and a few new twists. A few commenters on Think Out Loud said that they were disallowed from costumes by their family due to strict religious beliefs, and they appreciated the opportunity to stand up for their beliefs (in one case) or to soak up the "normalness" of the culture around them (in another case).

I'm not very passionate either way on this one; costumes at school, for me, means I have to have them ready earlier (I'm a very-last-minute homemade costume aficionado). And I do understand that they are distracting from the learning environment, and agree that there are ample times outside of school to wear costumes. On the other hand, I disagree that Halloween costumes in particular create disparity and cultural discomfort. As one commenter said and I agree wholeheartedly: these differences are always apparent, and Halloween costumes don't highlight them more or less than any other day at school. In my experience, you can see the cultural/economic differences best in the clothing worn to school when it's cold and rainy outside. (And as someone who was once a very poor high school student and is now a high school coach, I'm telling you, the disparity issues only get worse and more obvious every day that goes by in public school.)

Want more reasons to feel ambivalent about Halloween? The candy. It's not just probably pretty bad for you and your kids (and even I let my kids gorge for a day or two on Halloween and a few other holidays; childhood, right?). It's also the product of child slave labor.

Continue reading "Halloween Costumes Verboten at Buckman; How 'Bout the Candy?" »

Late Arrival: How do YOU manage?

September 21, 2011

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

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" »

Beets for preschoolers and other good vegetable-y things

July 07, 2011

It was Citymama herself who cooked up the fresh goodies at the preschool where Everett began his tenure (until she, sadly, moved away to California). Watching small children eat pasta with eggplant tomato sauce or steamed green beans or little hummus cucumber sandwiches is so affirming it made tears come to my eyes. ("They like it. They really LIKE it!") Later, I would birth a baby who would eat carrot greens out of my farmer's market bag, raspberries right off the bushes outside, and salmon salad sandwiches with fresh onions and yogurt-chive dressing (that was today).

Last month, I went to a culinary conference in Austin. There, my friend Michelle (this friend!) organized a visit to a charter school at the University of Texas where grade school-aged kids had grown and learned to cook vegetables from a garden right behind the school. The presenters asked the kids what they had learned to love that they never would have tried before. "Sorrel," said one (!!). The next four kids picked "brussels sprouts."

So when I saw the FOODday piece by Leslie Cole in this week's Oregonian, "Taking a Fresh Approach to Daycare Meals That Kids Will Actually Eat," I squealed a bit. One-year-olds at ChildRoots eating beets, black beans, and steamed grains. Preschoolers at Maryam's Preschool eating Persian rice and vegetables. Parents thrilled... but not really doing anything nearly like this at home.

After having made some mistakes and some total victories with my own kids (and having the sort of child who has a totally unique set of likes and dislikes -- my middle son, Truman, will only eat dried fruit, and only carrots if he can see the vegetable, though he will happily eat grilled fish or sardines or pate, straight), I can say that it's not just exposing kids to a variety of freshly-prepared healthy foods that aren't hidden in other things that is important in developing healthy eating habits; but also maintaining, as much as possible, a food environment in which unhealthy choices are severely limited. It's just a fact: if there is soda in the house, my kids will drink it (same for energy drinks and prepared chocolate milk etc. etc.). If candy is offered right before lunchtime, they'll eat that and skip the salmon-salad sandwiches. If even such a mildly unhealthy choice as Trader Joe's breakfast bars or those sugary yogurt tubes (even the organic ones are pretty high-sugar and TJ's bars have less whole grains and more sugar than I prefer for the kids to have), they'll disappear before the whole-grain scones I made are even touched.

This piece is fantastic inspiration to keep me offering fresh peas and cherries instead of Starbucks treats and yogurt squeezers. I love that more preschools and elementary schools are offering kids whole grains and fresh vegetables prepared in delicious and visible ways (no wink-wink hiding black beans in brownies). I think parents (and here I include my own thoroughly fallible self) could do a better job of supporting these institutional chefs by putting a variety of recognizable vegetables and fruits and whole grains in front of our kids and keep the packaged snack food and sugary treats and breakfast food out of our cupboards. Not every child is going to become a brussels sprout and quinoa lover. But we should give them lots, and lots, and lots of chances -- and they just might end up surprising us.

School's Out For Summer!

June 14, 2011

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?

Homeschooling for the faint of heart

February 27, 2011

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.

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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?

Back to school: Shivers and shakes and tears

September 07, 2010

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" »

Budget cuts at area schools have us sick

June 25, 2010

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).

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

June 15, 2010

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!

Scary news of lost child grips us all

June 06, 2010

Kyron_horman How could we not but hold our collective breath? All of those of us who have children in Portland Public Schools got the auto-call sometime Friday evening; a second-grader from Skyline Elementary in Southwest Portland, Kyron Horman, was lost to his family and the school sometime between a science fair before school opened, and his arrival at class. His stepmother visited the science fair with him; classmates saw him headed towards his room; when she met the bus at 3:45, he wasn't there at all. Police, FBI, and other agencies have no idea. There is no evidence of foul play.

I had wondered why the automated call I always get around 10:30 a.m. if my child is absent, hadn't triggered concern -- but the latest news from today's press conference with PPS superintendent Carole Smith is that it was such a small school, teachers usually know students and parents and the reasons for absences, and didn't have a dialer. All schools will now be getting automatic dialers (although the timeline for that change wasn't announced). It was just a slip, through a crack no one even thought to concern themselves with. And why? A safe neighborhood, a small school, a sweet child. What could go wrong?

The unthinkable. I've been thinking a lot about such typically unthinkable happenstances over the past few weeks, as I came across the news of writer and prolific mommy blogger Kate Granju's oldest son, Henry. He died several weeks after overdosing on the drugs to which he'd become addicted, and being beaten badly. And earlier today, I came across another mother searching for her 16-year-old daughter, last seen in Seattle. These things happen in lovely, loving families just like ours, and they chill to the bone and have me looking around instinctively every few minutes to make sure my boys are safe.

They are, and according to the FBI, violent crimes were down 5.5% last year and have been falling for several years. Free Range Kids creator Lenore Skenazy points this out in her blog, with great little tidbits like this one from a pediatric ICU nurse: "the real dangers are overlooked. Lock your second story windows, make sure your kids understand car and bike safety. Model safe behavior. Don’t talk and text while driving... I can tell you that I have NEVER once taken care of a kid who was assaulted by a stranger."

What is there to be done? Who is to blame? I don't see failings in security or parental care; I think the best answer is to be vigilant, to pray for these other family's awful predicament and the continued safety of our own, and to hug our children tight as much as we can and thank heavens for them.

Nuggets, pink milk, and party pizzas taking the fall

April 09, 2010

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."

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" »

Kindergarten choice deadline tomorrow: 'I'm destroyed'

March 11, 2010

"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?

Kindergarten roundups: The big giant fat decision

January 26, 2010

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" »

Eat-in for school food, community, and art

September 07, 2009

It seems that each week brings a new bit of evidence or an old-but-new-to-me essay inspiring me to work even harder to ply my children with nutritious, slow, fresh, whole, inconvenient foods. This summer, I've been making progress, involving the kids in the magic of the garden and cooking foods they (supposedly) love in the slow, slow way. A few weeks ago, Everett harvested two pumpkins and brought them inside to me to make his favorite food: pumpkin pie. I did so, in a crust made of whole wheat flour and lard I rendered myself (I believe in high quality animal fats, but that's for another time), using that pumpkin from our front yard garden, eggs from our backyard chickens, and honey from the People's Co-op farmer's market. I worried that it wasn't sweet enough. Was too lumpy. Wouldn't be like that pie at the annual Thanksgiving feast at his school.

He loved it, and offered a piece to a friend who came to visit, saying, "my mom made this, and it's really good!" There were tears, fat and heavy, in my eyes. I'd just finished reading this article about how a young man's diet is the best -- by far, far better than socio-economic class or community or parenting situation or playing violent video games or anything -- the best predictor of criminal behavior. Eat mostly junk food, you're more likely to go to jail. Period.

And yet, here we are, about to head back to school, where the lunchtime fare at most public schools is decidedly junk food. At Everett's school, it's particularly bad, and the teachers there will back me up. The vegetables that are available are so burned by refrigerants, or spoiled, they're inedible. The rare fruits and veggies that survive the weeks (or longer?) from harvest to lunch tray are doused in chemical preservatives and, often, sugar. The meat is from the lowest possible quality sources; the baked goods are thoroughly packed with processed ingredients. Whole foods are cut up and wrapped in plastic. The best thing there is yogurt, and that's full of sugar. Each meal surely exceeds the new recommendation from the American Heart Association that we severely limit our daily added sugar intake. The real food at Everett's school is rare (and he insists on eating school lunches; he's struggling mightily with other kids making fun of him, so I don't dare put my foot down).

It could be better. Slow Food USA is working to to advocate for this. Today, right now (I should have written this earlier!) in conjunction with the awesome Time Based Art festival, is a Slow Food Eat-In picnic as part of the National Day of Action to get real food in schools. I am going. I am bringing a salad I made of green beans (cut in half crosswise and cooked about six minutes in boiling water) sauteed with cherry tomatoes (cut in half) and crushed garlic -- all from my garden -- in a little bacon fat, and tossed with salt and feta cheese. It's real food and I harvested it today. I know this can't be the lunch at Everett's school tomorrow. But it should be, some day.

And I'd love to share some with you if you can make it to this event. There's one in NE Portland, tonight, too. Or tell your real-food-in-schools story, here.

Back to School: When you don't have before-/after-care

September 02, 2009

Operating hours at our public schools, depending on the program and grade, can range from 9:30 to 11:30 AM to a more average schedule of 8AM to 3PM.  For the full-time working parent, especially in single parent households, these schedules would obviously require both before- and after-care.  We've previously listed out the before- and after- daycare providers at PPS schools.  PPS Childcare website states:

The Portland Public Schools Board of Education passed a Childcare Policy in December of 1997 that provides for safe, affordable, educationally appropriate childcare for all elementary school students before and after school hours. Childcare is not only a parenting issue, or a workplace issue, but also an education issue.

We recently received an email from urbanMama Tia, who writes about her challenges with PPS aftercare:

My five-year-old son is about to start kindergarten at our neighborhood school, Peninsula Elementary.  My four-year-old daughter will remain in day care near my office in Hillsboro.  Since I am a divorced mom with a hefty commute, before- and after-school care has been a major concern.  I thought my son had a reserved spot in the on-site day care program at Peninsula, so was pretty well dumbfounded a few weeks ago to learn (mostly by accident) that the program has been terminated.  PPS has made no arrangements to replace it.  This affects nearly all the other schools in the Kenton/St Johns area, because Clarendon/Portsmouth, James John, Ockley Green, and Rosa Parks had all bused children to Peninsula for the child care program.  Sitton apparently has an entirely different provider, and a new provider is launching an on-site program at Chief Joseph -- but there are no plans to transport children from the other Kenton/St Johns schools to those locations.

... Nancy Hauth, the childcare coordinator for PPS, has been sympathetic but unable to remedy this gaping North Portland hole in the before- and after-school program.  When I last contacted her I realized that my list of grievances with PPS is already alarmingly long.

I'm worried that there may be other affected parents in the neighborhood who don't even know yet that there's a problem.  My political hackles are up, too, over the fact that PPS' failure here is localized to a big swath of North Portland.  Can you help me get the word out, and maybe spawn some activism on this issue?  I am a total newbie at dealing with the school district and, if nothing else, would love to identify PPS-veteran mentors.

Have you been in a situation left without before- and after-care at your school?  Have you been affected by this change in the North Portland PPS area?  How do we address this need and lack?

School Supplies - stocking up & supporting drives

September 01, 2009

The end of summer vacation is closing in on us quickly.  Last weekend, I took my rising fourth-grader and her classmate to the store to acquire all the items on their supply lists.  The stores (we opted for Fred Meyer's and Walgreens) were overwhelming with all their back-to-school displays, reams of paper, and boxes of Pee Chee folders.  Of course, they were all out of No. 2 pencils!  We carefully chose our items and surprisingly ended up with a bill that was half of what it had been in previous years.

Somewhere in all the school supply craze, I know I've seen signs for school supply drives.  I can recall only one organization, though: Schoolhouse Supplies is a nonprofit organization helps schools by providing free supplies, donated by businesses, to teachers of classrooms in need.  Their school supply drive started on August 1st, but there's still time to contribute before drives end on Labor Day.  Details on locations and participating businesses on the Schoolhouse Supplies website.

This year: where are you shopping for your school supplies?  Have you heard of community school supply drives that could use additional support?

Ross W. Greene and the 'Explosive Child'

February 26, 2009

A few years ago, when I was first understanding my son, Everett, and his behavioral difficulties, I read Ross W. Greene's The Explosive Child. Now that he's at the Pioneer School, a special school geared toward children who have major trouble adapting in the general education environment, and many of the members of the schools' staff have been through Greene's workshops. His approach for dealing with challenging kids, called "collaborative problem solving," is now taught in workshops and MESD-sponsored book groups around the city.

I was surprised, then, when I told several of Everett's teachers that I had just ordered Greene's newest book, Lost in School, a follow-up to his previous books that lays out a framework for how parents and schools can work together to help challenging kids succeed. They hadn't yet heard of it. (What, do you people not have GoodReads?) I've read a few chapters of Lost in School, now, and I already recommend both books to anyone who has a child with behavioral challenges, whether they're like Everett's or more strictly diagnosed (the autism spectrum and ADHD are also maladaptive disorders and can be approached with Greene's philosophies). When adding the new book to my GoodReads shelf, I decided to review the The Explosive Child; I've copied the review after the jump.

Continue reading "Ross W. Greene and the 'Explosive Child'" »

Will they *ever* go back to school?

December 16, 2008


It wasn't even midnight before day one of snow days when I looked at the forecast for the week and had to ask: will they have any school before January? Portland Public Schools isn't known for making children and staff get to school when there is any ice on the roads or sidewalks, and I know from long experience that snow + frozen temperatures + Portland, Oregon means zero relief from icy conditions. (I am just old enough to remember the great ice storm of 1979, which kept my Taylor Street home sparkly and slick and kept me home -- though my elementary school was only a block-and-a-half away).

So I worried over the forecast, freezing temperatures all week, more snow on Wednesday and Thursday, and expect that our kids won't go back to school until school's out for the holiday. This had me frantic with rather inconsequential anxiety. What about those last-week-before-Christmas craft fairs and art projects and holiday concerts? How will I get the teachers the brilliant gifts I'd planned? (A few tokens for the Portland Farmer's Market along with a card listing my favorite vendors and the schedule for 2009.) Will the last farmer's market of the year even happen? (I know, nothing to do with school, but it's my fear nonetheless.)

Then last night, a surprise: the east-siders were going to school today, so my little one was packed off on his very early bus (no west-siders to pick up). Of course, my teacher gifts weren't yet ready so I'm now hoping for beautiful (cold) weather on Friday. [Update: PPS announced no school tomorrow, Wednesday, December 17.] One of the teachers on my Twitter stream announced only about half of her students were in class today; so many parents are calling this week a snow week, regardless of PPS openings. Do you dread or yearn for an extra whole week of vacation? What do you think of the east side / west side division (as if we weren't already divided enough)? What silly anxieties are you harboring? And are you as tired of bundling and un-bundling as me? (I have a blog post going on about that topic in my head...)

Reminder: Eat local at lunch today

November 19, 2008


Are you ready for something healthy and sustainable after that talk about childhood obesity? Remember: today is the Local Lunch at Portland Public Schools cafeterias all over town. I'm heading to Pioneer School today to eat lunch with Everett (and pay penance for having screwed up the dates and missed his annual Thanksgiving Feast parent lunch yesterday, ouch!). The menu appears to have changed slightly and is now "Oven Roasted Glazed Chicken featuring Draper Valley Farms Natural Chicken." Either way, I'm looking forward to having lunch with my little boy; as Aliza Wong wrote so eloquently in her entry on Culinate, eating lunch with your child is good no matter what the ingredients.

Eat local at Portland Public Schools: Come to lunch?

October 28, 2008


We've had a lot to say about the sorry state of our schools' cafeterias, both here and on Activistas, and the criticism is certainly not limited to the Portland Public Schools boundaries; it's a terrible issue nationwide. Movement is slowly grumbling toward a better way, though, and last year the addition of Harvest of the Month (one ingredient per week from local farmers -- this month it's sweet corn on the cob) was, while a small step, still: progress!

This year's small step forward is the Local Lunch: a whole menu, once each month, featuring local foods (defined as Washington, Oregon, and California up to San Francisco -- a generous "local"). The first offering, last Wednesday, was quesadillas with Tillamook cheese and Don Pancho quesadillas. November's offering is barbecued chicken with Draper Valley Farms natural chicken -- yum! I encourage those of you who send lunches with your PPS students to have them buy lunch on these days; or go have lunch with your child. Whole list of dates and menus after the jump.

Continue reading "Eat local at Portland Public Schools: Come to lunch?" »

Tomorrow: Int'l Walk & Bike to School Day

October 07, 2008


International Walk and Bike to School day is coming up on October 8th, this Wednesday. This is a one-time, state-wide event in which many schools participate. 90 schools throughout Oregon are signed up to promote healthy lifestyles by walking and biking to school. For more information on the program, see the Walk + Bike web site.

Are you in?

Making positive changes in the school food environment webcast

September 19, 2008

Everett_raspberry We know you want change in our school food system; I'm only one of millions of moms desperate to improve its current state, although admittedly I'm extra loud and whiny about it. Portland is even one of the lucky ones; our Farm to School program is a model nationwide. Now if we could only expand it to more than one ingredient a month...

But you've got to start somewhere. As part of Ecotrust's Western Regional Assembly today, Rebecca Gerendasy of the Cooking Up a Story video project will be interviewing Deb Eschmeyer from the Farm to School Network, "about farm to school, policies being made toward this, how parents are getting involved, what needs to be done toward bringing fresh, clean, good food to our kids in school..." Her interview will be broadcast on Ustream starting at 12:15, and she'll be taking questions from the online audience. If you have a webcam and a microphone, you can participate. The recorded video is after the jump.

Continue reading "Making positive changes in the school food environment webcast" »

Red Shirting Your Kindergartner-To-Be

May 06, 2008

When my sister mentioned she was red-shirting her son who has a July birthday, I thought nothing of it.  She felt he wasn't emotionally ready for kindergarten and waiting would allow him another year of maturity.  Andrea recently sent us this thought provoking email on delaying the start of kindergarten:

I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about kindergarten for my kids. My oldest is only 3, so I'm still wrapping my mind around preschool. But a friend of mine is a kindergarten teacher, and she recently told me about a growing trend where parents purposefully hold their kids back from starting kindergarten until they're closer to 6.  It's called "red-shirting", and I guess parents are doing this with the idea that their kids, if a little older, will be better able to handle the academic and physical rigors of kindergarten, and therefore outperform their peers. 

A number of issues around kindergarten are explored in this article from last year's NY Times Magazine.  One of which is the shift in our expectation of what children should achieve in kindergarten.  At one point in our not too distant past, kindergarten was geared mostly around play, and was only half-day to boot.  Now, we expect kids to start learning to read and write in kindergarten.  Play is all but disappearing from their school day.  In this sense, delaying your child's start to kindergarten makes sense.  If kindergarten is now what first grade used to be, it makes sense that kids would do better if they were closer to six when they began.  However, this is difficult if it is not uniformly applied.  One of many challenges with red-shirting is that teachers are forced to accommodate the skill differences reflected in the growing age divide of their students.  Another is that red-shirting is only really an option to those with the means to delay their child's start in school.  If you have the money to pay for another year of preschool, or the opportunity to stay home with them for another year, you can ensure they'll have a leg-up in kindergarten.  If you can't, you have to enroll them in a class where they are learning alongside children more than a year further along in their development. 

In response to red-shirting, and more general ideas about the benefits of delaying the start to kindergarten; a number of state's are contemplating changing their cut-offs, delaying them, so that their kindergarteners will be older, and later test scores more competitive with states with later enrollment dates.  I wonder, why is it that we changed our academic expectations of kindergarteners in the first place?  Only to now work on delaying when they start because they're not ready to meet those new expectations. 

Doesn't this represent a major shift from our previous conversations about this, and from the thinking when we were kids.  Until recently, it seemed more common for parents to fight to enroll their kids earlier than the age cut-off.  Sure that, even at the later end of 4, they were prepared to start school. 

What do you think?  Is there a "right age" for kids to start kindergarten? 

Lottery Winnings?

April 08, 2008

A little birdie told me that 'tis the season to be hearing back from school lotteries, for those families who are opting to exercise the PPS school choice.  Did you participate in the lottery?  Have you heard back yet?  What did the lottery have in store for your child(ren)?  Happy with results or resigning to your spot on the waitlist?

Lottery or not, now's a chance to connect with other families at your schools.  Use the urbanMamas School Connection forum to do so!

Welcome to Auction Season!

March 13, 2008

The auction season is well on its way, as the recent Portland Public School e-newsletter alerted us.  We have two children at separate schools, and we have already worked the events, scoured businesses for donations, wined & dined at the event.  Have  you?

Our two schools are very different in nature: one more established institution with a large group of well-connected parents that brings in the school enough money to buy a small house (in some parts of the country) and one newer school whose auction this year was only its 3rd and still has much more room to grow.

Well, here are some things I never knew about the world of PPS auctions:

  • Auctions helped schools raise over $1M in 2007
  • The Portland School Board allows a school to keep the first $10,000 raised.
  • A third of anything above the $10,000 raised is given to an "Equity Fund" at the Portland Schools Foundation for distribution through grants to schools across the district.  "It’s one way for schools to spread the wealth."

Says PPS:

The school district and foundation are sensitive to the fact that some school communities have the resources to raise money, while others don’t. But years of budget cutbacks have left all schools scrambling to maintain academic support for students and programs such as the arts, PE and library. Half of PPS schools receive federal Title I funds because they serve higher-than-average shares of kids from lower-income homes. Title I revenue is far greater than any amount raised at auctions, but those schools have greater needs, and still have trouble maintaining their programs.

Auction season is unique to Portland (and perhaps Oregon) schools.  It is a sign of our inability to fund complete programs at our schools.  Friends with children at schools in the Bay Area, New York, or New Jersey say that auctions are uncommon.  Some schools with endowments (!) will have auctions to fundraise to maintain and grow their endowments.  But, here in Portland, schools established or not are raising funds for enrichment programs, to build libraries, to fund improvements at their schools.  On some days, it makes me angry.

Other days, I do appreciate being given the opportunity to contribute time and effort to my school community, and to get to know other parents in the process.  Auction planning can be fun and auction-going  can be funner.

We'd love to hear your thoughts on auction season.  Do you get involved?  Do you go?  Do you know what programs or improvements at your school auction proceeds fund?  Have you had your auction yet?  Or, have always seen signs for the auction but cannot / don't want to go?  Does your school have a non-auction major fundraiser?

PPS Food: Good, Bad, Getting Better?

February 08, 2008

Sps0511 Hey!  We're chatting about PPS food over on Activistas.  Got opinions?  Experience to share?  Involved in improving it?  Join the conversation, we're learning a lot.  Like how little money there is to spend on food (when was the last time you ate lunch for $1??). Plus, there's a bill before the legislature this month that you might want to support.  Read on, weigh in, and call your legislator in Salem.  All over on Activistas.

When it's a "SNOW DAY", what do you do?

February 02, 2008

As much as I love the sight of puffy white stuff coming from the sky, I dread how it can have an effect on our schedules.  Today, a Saturday, is a great day for a snow day, a day to stay inside and watch the flakes come down.  But, if the weather is like this on Monday, a school day, and if our school is closed (see HERE for the PPS inclement weather e-hotline), what are we to do, if it is supposed to be a work day for us?  If you work outside the home and have a "snow day" school closure, what do you do?

Welcome to uM's School Connections

January 30, 2008

In our informal gathering of parents who discussed their experiences with Portland Public Schools and the choice that goes along with it, we heard that many mamas and papas would like the opportunity to connect with other parents at other schools.  Parents are interested in hearing from other parents: how do they like their schools?  How do they not like their schools?

We have created the urbanMamas School Connections forum, in an effort to connect parents at schools.  Have at it and share as you always have.  We haven't started threads on all the schools yet, so if you want to hear about a specific school, shoot us an email and we'll have it up asap. 

Monday Morning: It's a 2-Hour Delay

January 28, 2008

** UPDATED ***

8:19AM:  All West-side schools and all schools in the Roosevelt cluster are closed on Monday.  All other schools are on 2-hour delay.

6:24AM:  In case you haven't heard yet, PPS is on a two-hour delay today.  For future reference, here is the PPS inclement weather website.

Looking to link with other Vernon Elementary parents

January 02, 2008

It's that time of year for us parents of 4 and maybe 5 year olds...  Time to check the listings for Kindergarten Round-up dates if we're enrolling our children in the neighborhood school.  This can be a nerve-wracking time for many parents, but I know that our neighborhood school has a strong community and parental involvement level, which is why I'm so excited to register my child there.  Erica, however, is trying to look into ways of connecting with other parents at her neighborhood school to strengthen the parental and community and involvement.  She writes:

My daughter will be starting Kindergarten in the Fall 08'.  We are thinking about having her attend her neighborhood school, Vernon Elementary.  We are just amazed that only 42% of the Vernon neighborhood kids attend their neighborhood school.  My husband and I would like to set up a meeting with other Vernon families.  We would like to work with other families in the neighborhood to encourage more parent involvement at Vernon Elementary.  That seems to be the biggest problem with this school.

So, if there are any other parents thinking of sending their kids to Vernon, maybe drop her a line.  I bet she's not the only one out there looking to work on this project...

All-Day Kindergarten in PPS: Good, Bad, Illegal?

December 13, 2007

Images_2My, my.  And I thought the debate about all-day kindergarten in PPS was about issues like equity, learning opportunities, and working parents' schedules.  Turns out it might just be illegal!  Yikes.  And while that seems, at first glance, like a bad thing, maybe it's not.  Maybe the silver lining is that this issue will finally get a good, hard, realistic look here in Oregon.  Read more over on Activistas and, of course, chime in!  How has the full-day kindergarten option affected your family?  Got any ideas about solving this conundrum?   Stories from the trenches?

Charter Schools: Here, There & Everywhere

October 22, 2007

School3 New ones opening, existing ones bursting at the gills.  What's the story?  Charter schools are all the rage.  Should they be?  Are they the best thing since sliced bread in the educational world?  Have a kid at one in Portland?  Head on over to Activistas to read a bit more on the topic and share your thoughts & experiences with other mamas.  And while you're there, you can learn a thing or two about Multnomah County in our Activistas 101 'How To' series.  Who's your county commissioner?  Don't know?  Plug in over on Activistas

Kindergarten Age Cut Off

October 15, 2007

uMamas, We've received another question from an Arizona mama hoping to move to Portland soon.  Beyond our previous 'planning for kindergarten' discussion, can you share more of your experiences and insight about the September 1 cut-off and experiences with having a child tested for early entry into kindergarten?  Any experiences moving to Portland mid-year and finding a spot at a school?

We are considering a move to Portland.  My daughter is already in Kindergarten here in AZ and thriving at it.  The problem is that her birthday is October 3rd, so she is a month and 2 days shy of the Oregon birthday cutoff for Kindergarteners.  She's a young K-G'ner here as well, and goes to a charter with a looser admission rule than our local elementary district. She has been in school for 3 years and I like where she is at, academically and socially.  What I would like to know is whether any of your readers have been in a similar situation.  Will  many schools let her test in to Kindergarten mid-year?  Are they likely to have the space for her?  Thanks for your help and I look forward to being one of your future readers!

Will you Bike or Walk to School?

October 01, 2007

This Wednesday, October 3, is the 2007 Bike & Walk to School Day.  In an effort to get in our faces, grab our attention, and/or shame us into walking or biking, a Willy Week editorial reads, "Driving is Lazy".  With Portland Public Schools offering school choice wherein many families opt for schools beyond their neighborhood schools, it may not be as easy to just walk or bike to school.

There are 37 or so participating schools in Portland, both public and private.  Is your school on the list?  Even if it isn't, will you be able to walk or bike to school?  Carpool or take the bus/MAX? 

Bringing Healthy Food to the Classrooms

September 19, 2007

Meg poses an interesting question and seeks some wisdom from urbanMamas:

I am a high school teacher and I teach a course called environmental issues.  As part of the on-going guiding question of “How do you impact the environment and how can this be measured?” I wanted to do a weekly bit on healthy eating; healthy for the planet and healthy for the student.  My idea was to get a local farm or grocery store to donate organic fruit that was all locally grown.  I approached my administration with this idea and was told that I could only serve prepackaged food in class…. In other words, soda, chips, pizza, doughnuts, candy are all a-ok, but not organic fruit.  What are your experiences with what is acceptable to serve in the public school classroom?  Are there any loopholes I could squeeze through?  I know I can’t cook anything, but I thought raw foods were ok.  What would be the best way to go about changing this policy in a time efficient manner?  Lastly, does anyone have any connections with Washington County organic farms just in case I get this off the ground?