Keep the Kids Together


February 3, 2011
Point Reyes Light


Browse in West Marin

One definition of hell is a fight over a local school. It involves parents and their kids, and an experience on which their whole lives can seem to depend. (Most of us turn out okay despite imperfect schooling, but somehow we forget.) When educational philosophies are at stake, things can turn into a religious war.

Put all this into a small town setting that pits us against friends and neighbors, and it might prompt musings about pre-retirement in Guam. There are warning signs already. The situation could go downhill fast, unless our better natures prevail.

Probably you know the story by now. A group of parents whose kids are at or nearing school age want to create a charter school within the West Marin School. It appears that the separate school would be based on the Waldorf approach, possibly with a bilingual component. It would be funded with moneys that would come off the top of the Shoreline District budget. Only a certain number of kids, as yet undetermined, would get to go.

On the positive side, the proponents are both idealistic and determined. They have done a great deal of work, and embody what could be a healthy impulse to local schooling. On the down side, they are disconnected from what actually is happening at West Marin School, and haven’t thought through the consequences of their idea. At a community briefing at the Dance Palace last week, the proponents went from a video critique of schools in general by a British educational consultant, directly to their charter plan.

There was nothing in between. I got the sense that West Marin School does not exist for them as an actual place, but rather as a projection screen for the failures of schools and society in general. There was also an unfortunate insinuation about the rest of us. As in, “We think West Marin School is doing a wonderful job. But we want our kids to be creative.” Or words to that effect.

Waldorf is a big topic. Some kids thrive in it, others don’t. The conceptual underpinnings can be captivating; the cultish tendencies around them, less so. But philosophy is not the point. I once spent a couple of days with John Taylor Gatto, the legendary New York City teacher who quit and became a leading advocate of home schooling. John was teaching at a junior high school at the edge of Harlem at the time. He had to shove file cabinets against the doors before class, to keep intruders out.

Then he worked his magic. Somehow, he made American history come alive to kids who didn’t otherwise feel much connection to it. This was not because of a particular philosophy—he didn’t have one. It was rather because teaching for John was a passion, almost a primal need; and because he had an instinct for his kids and for the possibilities of the moment.

In the end it comes down to committed teachers, and West Marin has many excellent ones, especially in the early grades that are most at issue. A number of these teachers were at the meeting last week, and it was painful to watch them get a lecture on the need for creativity in the classroom. Shall we next admonish Alice Waters on the importance of local and organic food?

We almost lost a couple of our best last spring because of budget cuts. It took a grueling battle to save them, and we are bracing for another fight this year. California’s $15 billion deficit isn’t going to help. Nor would a new charter school that took a chunk off the top of the Shoreline District budget. Yet we are told that the Shoreline Board will have to approve a charter petition regardless, if it meets
the legal requirements.

If West Marin School had 500 students and ample funds, I suspect most of us would say, “Let the flowers bloom.” But a small school in a small community is different. The West Marin School is a rich demographic ecosystem—rich but fragile. The sons and daughters of doctors and landscape workers, native English speakers and kids who start school speaking hardly any, learn and play together.

There are problems of course. But on the whole things work surprisingly well.

One of my proudest moments as a parent was the day my son came home from first grade and told us he was trying to play with a classmate in Spanish, because that boy had trouble with English.

The energies are symbiotic. For example, several days a week, while the native English speakers learn Spanish, the kids from Spanish speaking households get extra help in English. Classes generally are small and friendships are important. Start to pull pieces out, separate the kids, and the whole starts to collapse.

The other evening at the library I saw a girl in our son’s third grade class whose home had burned not long before; the family is still looking for a place to live. There she was with her mother, doing homework. We see that tenacity a lot. Families are struggling against language and other challenges, and I cannot support anything that might take resources from them. (Yes, some Latinos could get into the new charter. But a greater number likely would be left out.)

About ten days later, the community gathered at the Dance Palace for a fund- raiser for that same family. There was food, music, festive spirits, and I was thinking, how about this as a model for improving the schools? Why not be additive rather than subtractive? We could leave our shoes—our opinions and preconceptions, angers and resentments—at the door, and deal with the problems that confront our kids and their school as they actually are.

Perhaps we could add Waldorf concepts, and even language immersion. (State law is tough on “bilingual” ed, but there is always room between the lines.) We could raise money for special programs. We also could include ELAC, the Latino parents group, from the start. Their kids are half the school. They certainly should have a voice.

No one would get everything they wanted. But that’s the difficult glory of a public school, and learning to get along is part of education too.