Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Legend of the Fall

September. At last. I can begin to put this horrible summer behind me. Even without the one big event that overshadowed everything else, I would be glad to close the books on this one. The record breaking heat coupled with the long, cruel drought is enough to exhaust the most hearty of Texans, and I've never claimed to belong in that crowd. Growing up in Montana, early fall was always a favorite time of the year. The air turns crisp with just a bit of a bite in the morning, the leaves turn golden and you begin to pull out the light sweaters to wear when you go walking. Imagine a Saturday afternoon sitting on metal bleachers watching the Bobcats play in such pristine conditions, and you can begin to see why the Fondas moved there, bringing all their rich, land grabbing friends in their wake and ultimately ruined it for the rest of us. Here, in central Texas, fall is a tease. The light begins to wane a bit, and us Yanks glance outside and think, "Oh, it must be cooler," only to be greeted by the hot kiss of the Texas air long into October. Steeler fans, which are not uncommon around here, are particularly impacted since we are traditionally jersey wearers. Football jersey material is unforgiving; it is heavy and does not breathe. And, ours are black. But, we endure. We are tougher than the elements. Because there is one thing even a Texas fall cannot keep us from: football season. And, I will confess, central Texas is not a bad place to be positioned as a football fan: easy driving distance to two pro franchises, with one major college program in one's own backyard. (Of course, we could get that in Pennsylvania too, as I haven't been shy about pointing out to my husband.)

But for most of our lives over the last two decades, fall also meant back to school. And for my girls, that was not a reason to celebrate. So it is that I as I drive to work these days and watch the neighborhood kids waiting for their bus, I cannot help but wonder how they will fare in the hands of a large, impersonal school district. Some will be fine, others will struggle, maybe one of the little group will actually flourish, but I wonder if there are any among them who will drown in the deep waters of a big system, unnoticed. This is not, I should say immediately, to in any intimate that we do not live in a good school district. We do. Or at least, we did. I cannot honestly say how it ranks these days. But, when we chose this area, it had a good reputation, albeit a conservative one. And, I am not anti-public school in general. But, what I have concluded is that large school systems cannot, and likely never will be, able to handle a student who does not fit the mold. As Kelsey fought her way through high school, they at least tried to work with us, although it was over Kelsey that I had my most frustrating moment. I got irritated to the point of screaming one day not long before we sent her to the initial residential treatment center when the first call I got from the school was the counselor telling me she had collapsed on the stairs, was too weak to be there and was a liability to the district and telling me, not asking me, to come and get her. Later in the day, the grade level secretary called, a haughty, miffed tone to her voice, asking me where she was and asking if I was aware how many absences she had. Keep in mind, I signed her out like a good little parent of a malcontent. I can't recall exactly what I said, but I'm pretty sure it included something along the lines of, "Don't you people ever talk to one another?" I was very careful never to swear or lose my temper at any of them because I knew my kids would be the ones who faced the consequences, but I did exchange some looks that would kill with some of those secretaries over the years.

By the time Marissa came along, either because the Veldman name held a taint or because of funding cuts or staff changes, they really could have cared less, or so it seemed. Helping my child was not on their to-do list, they just didn't want to lose the funding. To hell with the well-being of the student, that funding benefit each head count brings was to be protected. At that point, we said goodbye to public education whether they liked it or not, and Marissa got yet another advantage as the younger child that her sister never had. But, it's a hard decision to make. I still pay taxes to the district, whether my child goes to school there or not. Truthfully, I don't have a big problem with that. I look it as educating the people who will be taking care of me when I call Marissa by her dog's name in some future time. But, it's not a small ticket item on our budget. Neither is private school for that matter. We tried the home school route for a while. What a disaster. Neither Marissa nor I had the self-discipline for that, although we had some fun going to Barnes and Noble to "study" and in fact buying Dandy Warhol CD's and drinking Starbucks. That left finding a private high school and then figuring out how to pay for it. Mother stepped in and helped, and that worked for her from a tax standpoint, so it was a mutual benefit to a degree, but if someone doesn't have a well financed mother to look to, watch out: it's not tax deductible for the parent. And, we were lucky enough to find a tiny local school that was totally perfect for our little hippy chick, but that's probably not always the case in all areas (actually, in Austin there is a private alternative for just about any philosophy for the right price).

What is the answer, you ask? I wish I knew. I don't look to Barack Obama to fix this one for us, it is way too complicated and regionalized. Even within our school district, some of the high schools are "better" than others. And, what we need in my suburban corner of Texas versus what someone needs in the inner city of Pittsburgh are two different things, as are the tax bases for the two areas. The best counsel I can give is to remain involved with the school and in tune with your child. Involve them in extra curricular activities and get to know the other parents. Know the teachers; that's a big one. Know the principal (in our case, there were multiple principals to know and try to cozy up to, which is not always easy since they have big jobs, and a wrench in their system like Kelsey or Marissa is not something they have a lot of tolerance for.) Maybe a bigger one: vote. I generally supported the bond elections, but I could not have told you very much about the school board that made decisions impacting the two most important people in my life. I would not make that same mistake again. But, finally: know your rights. What is out there that can work for you and your child? Alternate programs like "Success" in Round Rock, "Garza" in Austin, or maybe a charter school? Are there programs designed to give an assist to an ailing student, and how do you enroll? Are there counselors available? Remember, you pay them. They work for you. Treat them with respect, they work hard and they get paid very little, but as long as they cash that check, they're on the hook for you and your child. Don't, I repeat don't, let them off it.

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