The Perry Household
I first met Mrs. Perry on September 4, 1996, at the school, where she volunteered as a Spanish translator for the schools open night parent meeting. Her ease and ready smile impressed me. Because of that impression, later in the school year, I asked her if she would be willing to act as a translator on my visits to families who did not speak English. She went with me once. After the initial visit, however, the mother in that particular family told me that she did not feel she had anything else to tell me and did not want to be involved further in the study. I then asked Mrs. Perry if she and her daughter, Allison, would participate, since I wanted to include at least one Latino girl and her family in my case studies. She readily agreed.
Mrs. Perry and her husband immigrated to New York from Ecuador. She came to the United States soon after Allison was born:
After arriving here, however, Mrs. Perry liked the United States because my mother could take care of my daughter so I could go to school and I could work, instead of having to stay home to raise her daughter as she had in Ecuador. She also liked other opportunities and facilities this country provided: You can be whatever you want to here if you set your mind and set your goals. When Mrs. Perry went back to Ecuador, she talked to her husband about coming to the United States and finally convinced him to move here.
Before coming to this country, Mr. Perry was a computer engineer. However, because of the language barrier, he could not find the kind of work he wanted and instead worked at menial jobs, which he was not accustomed. He worked in a restaurant, a travel agency, and a supermarket, and at the same time he was trying to learn English. Because of the nature of these jobs, the long hours and evening work, I was never able to meet and talk with him during my home visits. Meanwhile, with the help of her mother, Mrs. Perry returned to college, majoring in speech pathology, while also working as a college counselor.
Mrs. Perry began looking for a middle school for her daughter while Allison was still in the third grade. A teacher at Allisons elementary school suggested that Mrs. Perry check out this particular school. Also, a teacher she knew at the middle school recommended that she send her daughter here. At first impression, she did not like that the school was located on the fifth floor, and it did not seem to have enough space. But she did like the way the school presented itself, the variety of classes that were offered, and the interview given Allison as a prospective student. In addition, she favored the small size of the school and its proximity to their home.
Allison was now 11 years old and in sixth grade. She shared a bedroom with her younger sister in their two-bedroom apartment, located only one block away from the school. Allison and her sister shared a bunk bed; also in the bedroom was a bookshelf and a table. Several rows of teddy bears were displayed on the bookshelf, and many small decorative knickknacks were arranged on the table. Between the bookshelf and bed sat a small television set.
Allison carried a smile and radiated energy wherever she went. School was fun for her, and it was easy to make friends. In fact, the only thing she did not like about the school was that she had to walk up and down those five flights of stairs several times every day.
Allison demonstrated initiative in her classes. In a humanities class, the teacher wrote a play called The Trial of Christopher Columbus. Allison was eager to participate and let the teacher know this without any hesitation, even though she would be performing in front of her older seventh and eighth grade peers in the same class. She asked excitedly, Who is Bystander One? I want to be Bystander Two! In her writing class, which was designed to build the vocabulary of second-language learners, Allison frequently raised her hand to answer the teachers questions, such as What do the prefixes intro- and extro- mean? She liked the class because I learn new vocabulary and it makes me look sophisticated! The teacher noted that Allison is a pleasure to have in my class. Her smile and enthusiasm contributed to the class and to her group greatly. Another teacher wrote in her report card: You are a strong leader in the class and have made an effort to do extra credit whenever possible.
Allison also demonstrated effort in the way she took citywide standardized tests. During one of the tests, she kept working on questions until the last minute. As if this was not enough, she wanted some reassurance from the teacher that she had done everything right, asking Should I have written that long? Her attitude and effort most likely reflected her mothers influence, who mentioned during a parent/child/teacher conference that her goal was to help her daughter get into the best high school. Allison said that she wanted to go to Stuyvesant, a highly respected and challenging high school in Manhattan. She was not discouraged because only one student at the school had been accepted at Stuyvesant the previous year and noted particularly that my mom wants me to go there.
Consciousness of Cultural Identity and Origins
Although we are here [in the United States] and this is a different society, a different culture, Mrs. Perry said that she expected Allison to value and keep our roots. Noticing that the children here are not as respectful as she would like to see, she kept reminding her daughter that there are certain rules children are expected to follow, especially those relating to elders. Mrs. Perry observed that girls as young as seven years old began wearing high heels and painting their nails, and she lamented that some girls start adulthood too early and that they dont have any childhood. Thus, she kept emphasizing to her daughter that there is a time for everything.
Mrs. Perry was also concerned that in this country people give too much liberty to their children, and she felt this was one of the main reasons that many children are lost in this country. In response, Mrs. Perry tried to provide a more structured environment in her home:
This emphasis on homework derived from Mrs. Perrys belief that:
Even after her daughters had completed their homework, Mrs. Perry tried to structure their free time: I really want them to be prepared for the future. When they dont have anything to do, I like for them to read or do something thats good. She limited their playing Nintendo games to one hour a night to encourage, instead, constructive activities for their minds. She would put her own homework aside to sit with them and read, listen to music, and play the piano or guitar. She said she did this, although I work and I go to college, and sometimes I dont even have any time for myself. Often she would buy the Tuesday edition of the New York Times and ask Allison to read and write a summary on one or more of the articles in the Science Section.
When Allison complained to her advisor that her mother expected too much from her, Mrs. Perry admitted to her high expectations, noting that Allison had done very well during the last school year:
Mrs. Perry felt that having high expectations for Allison was the only way you can help the child become someone with a future.
Being a top student was not the only thing Mrs. Perry wanted for Allison. Also, I want her to be a happy person....I want her to do what is best for her. Thus, I always try to give my best part to my daughters. In addition to monitoring her daughters homework, she tried to give them constant support and love, knowing that a teenager undergoes many changes. Sometimes after she came home, she would kiss her daughters, hug them, jump rope with them, and play with them as if she were their age. Ultimately, for both Mr. and Mrs. Perry, were committed in this life to be committed to them.
Consciousness of their origins was not only evidenced in Mrs. Perrys involvement in her childrens education, it was also seen in her reaction to parental involvement at the school level. She estimated that about one fourth of Latino parents had difficulty with English. She felt that its very annoying that the school doesnt provide translation for the parents association meetings. She believed that was one reason for the poor attendance of Latino parents at these meetings.
Aside from the difficulty of understanding, she noted another barrier that discouraged Latino parents from becoming actively involved in their childrens education at school:
She said she learned about these rights, about what a teacher can do and what a parent can do, only after she had taken several courses in childhood education in college.
Mrs. Perry felt that the school was very good academically, judging by how the teachers taught their subjects and the way they assigned homework to her daughter. They [teachers] are very supportive and conscious of what they want to teach the kids, to prepare them for high school. They have very high expectations in terms of that.
In addition, she found that the [school] director is very involved in the school...Shes always trying to get the best for the kids and Ive seen it! Also, She is always concerned and watching the teachers to see what they have to do. She also found that not only the school director, but the teachers as well, tried to give the children the support they needed.
On the other hand, she noted, There are certain aspects in the school that really sometimes make me think twice. One reservation she had was about the schools afternoon schedule, which included the twice-weekly advisory classes, community service, swimming, karate, Boys Talk, and Girls Talk. During one of the home visits, she told me that these classes were not about academic affairs. She repeatedly told Allison, Yes, I know that you would like these activities. I know you like them because youre not doing anything....I know its fun and its a pleasurable. But its not worth.
Mrs. Perry also had reservations about the focus of the monthly parents association meetings, particularly stemming from one planning meeting she attended for the next school year:
The Mothers Concern With Allison As a Teenage Girl
Mrs. Perrys concern about Allisons status as a teenage girl may have been largely due to her own experience as a teenager in Ecuador, where she was raised in a very strict environment. She never went to parties alone, even when she was 18 years old. Mrs. Perry expressed her concern at her first parent/child/teacher conference in late November, 1996. When her daughters advisor asked her if she had anything on her mind, Mrs. Perry, hesitantly and apologetically, raised the issue of the homework being assigned by the humanities teacher, who often gave students a list of television programs to watch at home.
Later, when interviewed in a home visit, Mrs. Perry elaborated on how some of the homework assignments she mentioned were in conflict with what she and her husband wanted to reinforce at home:
Although Allison disagreed with her mothers view that Desk Set involved too much sex, she seemed willing to go along with her parents overall view of television control for her and her sister. As she wrote in one of her writing classes:
In another home visit, after the school year had ended, when asked how she felt about the lists of television programs assigned by the teacher since then, Mrs. Perry said that she was happy that she had not found any other assigned movies that included too much sex.
Another issue for Mrs. Perry was Allisons safety in school:
She worried about a stranger wandering upstairs into the school, going into the school, doing whatever harm he wanted.
Mrs. Perrys concern for her daughters safety was also evidenced in the way she thought about high school choices: Ive heard about one school, Stuyvesant. I know that its one of the best schools in science and math. But you know, Im always concerned where a school is located, with the neighborhood of the school.
Freedom: Two Different Views
Unlike the two areas discussed previously, where Allison tended to go along with her mothers positions on selecting a future high school or parental television supervision, Allison and her mother differed in their views about the amount of freedom students should have at school.
Mrs. Perry wondered whether the school afforded too much freedom to its students:
Although she had never seen Allison walking through the hallway or standing in the main office when she had a class scheduled, Mrs. Perry felt that this issue was not just about the freedom the school offered to its students. It was also about how students learned to handle this freedom. She said, I think this doesnt depend only on the school, but also on the students...if the students take this freedom as an opportunity to excuse themselves for not taking classes.
In addition, she felt that, if students started to misuse this freedom, then parents should be made aware of this and should become involved:
Allison, on the other hand, loved the freedom she had at school. She even wrote a poem about it after being there only two weeks:
The Lynch Household
My first contact with the Lynch family occurred in late November, 1996, at a parent/child/teacher conference. During the meeting, Mrs. Lynch voiced a concern about her son, Greg, and his preparation for the citywide standardized tests. She wanted to know how she, as a parent, could get involved in the process. Should we go to a Barnes & Noble bookstore to buy books? If so, What books would you recommend? In addition, she wanted teachers to give Greg extra work because he can do that and he can accomplish more. She wanted to know how to request extra work: Do I go to you or to individual teachers?
These questions intrigued me, since Greg was in the sixth grade and had been in the school less than three months. I wanted to know what made Mrs. Lynch ask such questions at her first parent/child/teacher conference at the school. How important were these issues to her? For what reasons?
Mrs. Lynch is of Chinese descent. She came to this country from Hong Kong, as a child, with her parents. After finishing high school, she attended one and a half years of college, but stopped when her first child (a daughter) was born. Recently, she returned to college and took courses in graphic design; she also worked in the library at another college. Her husband, Mr. Lynch, is of African American and Native American descent. He is a law professor and practicing lawyer.
Greg was twelve years old. He has a younger brother and sister and one older sister. He also has an older stepsister and stepbrother who no longer live at home. The family lived in a three-bedroom apartment, where Greg shared a bedroom with his younger brother. The living room contained a television, a sofa, a chair, a fish tank, a bookshelf, six bicycles, and an assortment of small pieces of furniture. On the wall hung framed pictures of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his I Have a Dream speech. There was no table in the bedroom Greg shared with his brother, most likely because the room was too small. Clothes were scattered around on both beds. There was a small television. Greg told me that he could only get Channels 3 and 31 in the television in his room and wished he could watch HBO, like he could in the living room. The only poster in the room advertised Michael Jordans movie Space Jam. In addition, there were videogames, comic books, and a basketball. The bicycle and basketball occupied important places in Gregs life, as was evidenced in a list he wrote for a humanities class where each student was asked to name something important that he or she remembered for each age of his or her life. Greg listed the following:
Greg looked more Chinese than African American, both in skin color and overall appearance. He gave the impression that he was constantly exploring his surroundings, listening, looking, or on the move. The school director described him in an interview as bright, kind, a leader, reliable, and interested in learning. He soaks up everything that goes on and is well-respected by the other kids. This image, to some extent, was reflected in a poem he wrote, which was printed in the school literary magazine. It was titled, Who Am I?
Gregs self-image seemed more than imaginary. For example, one girl noted that as a friend, hes really nice, and she liked him.
Greg felt that it was pretty good to be a student at the school: Things are really good over here, because I like some classes, and they [the teachers] give you a lot more freedom. He said that he especially liked math, gym, and chess. He liked math class because the things that the teacher gave him were those I learned in fifth grade mostly, so its really a review. He liked gym because Im on the [basketball] team. Ive played basketball since I was eight, so Ive gotten the hang of it.
Greg prepared himself for his classes. For example, in late October, a science class started with a list of questions for students to answer on the excretory system, including What happens when the kidneys do not work? and Describe similarities and differences between the excretory and the digestive systems. While writing down these questions, Greg said to himself that he was so glad that he had just reviewed the excretory system the night before.
Greg was not only motivated in class activities, but he also helped others to move along. For instance, in a math class four months later, the teacher asked students to work in groups. While one member of a group worked on the three times table (starting from 3 x 1 = and progressing to 3 x 12 = ), another member of the group recorded the time each student needed to complete the table. Then each group was asked to draw a bar graph showing the results. A student named Eric prepared to do the test first, but he stopped shortly, complaining that Rebeccas counting was too loud and it interfered with his work (e.g., Man, I cannot concentrate!). Eric threw his pencil on the table, then shoved Rebecca, who in turn shoved him back. Greg rewrote the questions on a sheet of paper for Eric to continue and helped record his time, using a lower voice. After that, he did the same for Rebecca, and then let them record the time he spent on completing the table. Such willingness to help his classmates was acknowledged by his advisor in his year-end report, which noted that Greg has been a great help in class and [he is] a very cooperative student.
Citywide Standardized Tests and Extra Work
After the first parent/child/teacher conference, I interviewed Mrs. Lynch at the library where she worked. The location was her choice because she had to go to her college classes after work. During the interview, Mrs. Lynch said that the reason she had asked about the citywide standardized tests at the first parent/child/ teacher conference, even though Greg was just beginning the sixth grade, was that I believe in preparation early. As for the importance of the citywide standardized tests, she explained:
Even at this stage, Mrs. Lynch had already made up her mind about whether Greg met her expectations and what she would say to her friends about the school. Both would be judged by his performance on the citywide tests. It depends on how well he does on the citywide tests, whether he has lagged back, or whether he has progressed. She went even further, saying that she would take Greg out of the school at the end of the school year if his standardized test scores on reading and math dropped.
The above comments are in line with the initial reasons Mrs. Lynch gave for enrolling Greg in this school. When Greg was in the third grade, she transferred him to an elementary school, which was rated one of the tops when it comes to their reading and math. At graduation, the principal of that elementary school recommended this school [Interconnections]. So, that opened up my eyes, she said, although she could not find any statistics on the schools standardized reading and math test scores in the application book prepared by the New York City Board of Education. Finally, she made the decision to send Greg to Interconnections after the school director gave her various school statistics orally and described how some graduates had gone on to Stuyvesant High School and LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts.
Regarding the request she had made for extra work at the first parent/child/teacher conference, Mrs. Lynch felt that Greg got too little work from the school. Ive always believed that you can never get too much homework. This belief, she explained, had to do with her childhood experience as well as her recent return to college, where she again appreciated the value of homework to reinforce and expand what she learned in class. If there are opportunities out there and you can push your grades up further, why not?
As it turned out, Gregs mother did not receive any response from the school about her concern about the citywide standardized tests and her request for extra work for Greg. By the end of the school year, she had gotten no recommendations from the school on how she, as a parent, could help her son better prepare for the citywide tests, nor did Greg receive any extra work from his teachers. Most likely, this was due to the following reasons.
First, Greg resisted. In the middle of the first parent/child/teacher conference, Greg expressed displeasure with the idea of asking for more work, saying Extra homework? Oh, its my first year. Four months later, in the middle of the second parent/child/teacher conference when the conference was interrupted by a staff member, Greg quietly prodded his mother, as if knowing what she was thinking:
At home, when Greg and his mother got into an argument about extra homework, he would say, Mom, stop it! Dont ask for extra homework for me. Im doing okay. When I asked him in early February whether his advisor or any teachers had given him extra homework, Greg said, No, because I didnt ask....I didnt want no more homework.
Next, it seemed that the citywide testing was not something that the school viewed as a high priority. The advisors opening statement in the first conference hinted, to some degree, at this:
As for extra work, the advisor responded that Greg could ask him to suggest some books to read as extra work for the humanities class. Greg could also contact other teachers for things that would count as extra credit. In general, the advisor viewed it as a situation where Kids need to ask and show interest first. He felt that it was more important and more powerful for Greg to show interest, initiative, and ownership first to earn respect from teachers. The teachers implicit message to Mrs. Lynch was that Greg was the one who needed to take the initiative, not his parents.
Finally, Mrs. Lynchs busy schedule prevented her from following up with Greg, his advisor, and his teachers. Her job at the college library was full-time, and she attended college courses four nights a week. Often she was not at home during the early evening hours, and when she did arrive home, she sometimes had to work on her own assignments until 3:00 a.m. After the first conference with Gregs advisor, she said she intended to contact him [the advisor] on a monthly basis for feedback. Also, she would have liked to have contacted Gregs teachers on a monthly basis so that she would have a better idea of what Greg was doing firsthand, rather than relying only on the advisors interpretation. She said, If I can find other programs out there to improve his math or reading or whatever, Id like to take advantage of them. However, her hectic schedule prevented her from implementing any of these plans.
Although Greg did not want to take the initiative to ask for extra work, he seemed to be very concerned with his test scores, most likely because of his mothers influence. One afternoon in early March, after instructing students on how to take the upcoming citywide PAL test (e.g., Make a list of ideas and look for details), the teacher asked them if they had any questions. Greg quickly raised several questions:
When the teacher shifted to another topic, Greg asked further what the scales stood for and if he would get a chance to see his test score. Greg was one of the few students who finished the test quickly, but he came back to the classroom after the others had left, telling the teachers, I think I have done pretty good. He quickly left the room after the teacher nodded his head.
Community Cohesiveness and Academics
Mrs. Lynch observed that We have a certain group of kids over there who are not getting what they should be getting at home....[So] the school is trying to make up for it...[by] trying to be a mom and dad to these kids where they may not have an emotional mom and dad at home. She was pleased that the school tried to foster a tight-knit community, that is, be together, be there for each other. Overall, she was comfortable with the direction the school was taking. She also was impressed with the devotion and commitment of the school director and other staff members.
Gregs mother noted that Greg loves the social life of the school. Greg agreed, giving a list of things that made him happy there. At the top of the list was that he felt his friends and teachers were nice. He liked various school trips and extracurricular activities, especially playing basketball. He enjoyed a lot of freedom at school and felt that they [the staff] are not always on your case and theyre not always pressuring you doing things....I get to roam around and go out to eat during lunchtime. During the twice-a-week advisory class, he and his peers felt free to talk about things that happened in class and in school as well as problems in the world.
Mrs. Lynch contemplated the schools desire to build a nice chummy community. She said, Its fine to be a mom and dad. But theres a fine line where you should not compromise your academics. She was concerned that, with the amount of emphasis stressing school community cohesiveness, academics might be sidetracked and compromised:
In Gregs case, she felt that the school didnt push him enough academically. She became even more concerned when his citywide standardized reading scores were received, ranking him at the 53rd percentile, compared with his ranking at the 63rd percentile the previous year. Admittedly, Gregs math ranking rose from the 87th percentile to the 91st percentile over the same period. Yet, she asked: His math score went up, but what happened to his reading score? Were they lax on that? Did they fall back on that? Did they just push math and let everything else slide back?
Mrs. Lynch felt that she was in a catch 22 situation on the question of whether to let Greg stay at the school: I can understand if both scores went down dramatically. Then hes out of there. Okay, then hes totally out. But since he has elevated his math score, I guess he stays there another year. The decision to let Greg stay another year was also based on that he seems to be pleased with the school.
As it turned out, Mrs. Lynch not only allowed Greg to stay at the school, but she also arranged for Gregs younger sister apply there. She sent her daughter to the school the following year. Mrs. Lynch explained that its like a give and take balance. Yet, in addition to Gregs positive attitude toward the school, its closeness to their home, and her desire to have his sister go to the same school, Mrs. Lynch liked the schools liberal environment. There was not too much pressure, yet at the same time, they did not let a child fall back to a point where he or she could not catch up. She remembered, as a child, that the emphasis had always been on you got to do this, you got to do that, if not, then youre a bad child.
Even so, academics remained Mrs. Lynchs major concern:
Her concern was evidenced in the following question she posed to me at the end of the final home visit: I have a question: Do the other parents express what I express when it comes to academics, or are they fine with that? Are they fine with that? Then she offered me some unsolicited advice about how the issue of academics should be addressed in my study:
It seemed that the Lynch familys emphasis on academics was shaped, to some extent, by their racial consciousness. Mr. and Mrs. Lynch were keenly aware of their own racial identities. For example, Mrs. Lynchs parents did not recognize her relationship with Mr. Lynch and were not part of their family life for more than a decade because she had married a non-Chinese. Mr. Lynch explained, Ive the feeling it could have been anybody as long as he wasnt Chinese. I think if it was a Chinese person he could have been horrible, but they would have loved him. Thus, for both Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, it was a long and difficult period. And even though Mrs. Lynchs parents had recently been introduced to their grandchildren, the uneasiness and strain remained. This can be seen from the following brief exchange where the word difficult was repeated four times:
Racial consciousness influenced what Mr. and Mrs. Lynch expected of their children. Mrs. Lynch noted, For you to recognize one heritage, you must also recognize the other [parents] heritage. And for you to deny one heritage, then youre denying the other one. Similarly, Mr. Lynch wanted his children to understand who they are and why they exist, and that they exist because we came together. He explained:
The history of segregation and the experience of emigrating from another country shaped the way Mr. and Mrs. Lynch viewed education. Mr. Lynch noted:
Mr. and Mrs. Lynchs reactions to the schools curriculum were influenced by their own racial consciousness. The school participated in a program called Cops and Kids, sponsored by a local community agency. It was designed to promote mutual understanding between the children and the police through dialogue and conflict resolution. Although Greg looked more Chinese than African American, Mr. Lynch adamantly opposed his participation in this program. He explained:
Mrs. Lynch viewed the issue differently. She said, I have no problem with that [program]. As for her husbands response, she explained, You have to understand that when he was growing up, there was segregation and the law enforcement wasnt too kind toward him. I think its ingrained in him to a point where you cant trust a police officer.
As for his sense of racial identity, Greg thought that Im both [African American and Chinese American]. I look like an Asian, but sometimes I speak like an African American. Mrs. Lynch observed:
As he grew up, Greg dreamed he would make it into the NBA, so I can make millions. And If I dont make it into the NBA, Im going to be a doctor because I want to save lives. He sensed that my dad wants me to be a lawyer. Mrs. Lynch also observed that, although her husband said that he wanted Greg to be happy, I think deep down inside he wants him to be a lawyer.... like a dad-and-son firm. She also observed that her husband tried to make Greg see things logically, to analyze them as a lawyer. As for herself, she would be happy if Greg became a dentist or a good businessman.
The Lenard Household
Derrick Lenard was in seventh grade. He lived and slept in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment, where his mother, Ms. Lenard, and her fiancée, Mr. Brown, shared one bedroom; the half-brother of his mothers fiancée occupied the other bedroom. Derricks biological parents and the others living in the apartment are all of African-American descent. Ms. Lenard worked as a clerk at a film distribution company, and Mr. Brown was employed as a limousine driver. Derrick was one of a few students in his school who spent more than one hour every day commuting to and from school.
When Derrick graduated from elementary school, Ms. Lenard wanted to send him to a small middle school. I was looking at the fact that in a larger school children sort of get lost, and I didnt want that to happen to Derrick. She also wished to put him in a situation where the ethnicity was very diverse, adding:
As president of the elementary school PTA, Ms. Lenard had a chance to look at a dozen schools. She finally decided to send Derrick to this school, because I didnt see the option [I desired] in any other of the schools I looked at. What also made the school appealing to her was its emphasis on helping people get along.
Derrick was of average height for a boy his age. But his chubby and slow-moving body stood out as he walked through the narrow, crowded hallways of the school. He said that he wanted to become a corporate lawyer because I like to argue. One teacher agreed that he has a real strong sense of right and wrong, from his viewpoint, and he isnt willing to back down in an argument or compromise. Students and teachers thought that he was funny and friendly, although sometimes he got on their nerves because of his strong personality. He liked music and movies. During home visits, I counted thirteen CDs near his bed, including songs such as Michael Jacksons They Dont Care about Us, Shabby Ranks As Raw as Ever, and Roy Campbells La Tierra del Fuego. Besides sleeping over at other students apartments, Derrick also liked to go to movie theaters and videotape stores with his friends. In the living room, over his bed, hung three large movie posters advertising The Crow, Mimic, and Copland, which covered most of the space on the wall.
Derrick felt that school was fun because students had lockers, and they were allowed to go outside for lunch every day. In addition to gym class, where students often played basketball, he liked his science class. For example, during one science class when the teacher discussed the launching missions of the Mars Global Surveyor and the information it might send back to Earth in the next several months, Derrick was very attentive and quickly raised the question, Why every time we talk about the planets, its always Mars? In another science class, he was intrigued how a person would feel differently in space, without gravity, and asked the teacher how to answer the question, How does the cardiovascular system adapt to weightlessness in space? After the teacher explained, he quickly went back to his seat to think and write about the assignment. He also enjoyed hands-on activities. For example, he and other students in his group concentrated on cutting wood pieces to build a balloon-powered car. Near the end of one class period, after other students were asked to stop working in their cars, he was the only one who continued to work and didnt want to stop.
In most of the other classes I observed, however, Derrick tended to be distracted easily or he would withdraw from class activities. One teacher asked each student to design and measure a house model of their choice and then estimate the material and labor costs that would be required to built it in different climates. As the teacher explained why labor costs would be less expensive in some climates, the class became very quietexcept Derrick, who initiated a conversation and playful contact with a girl seated nearby. Later during the class, Derrick tore a page from a magazine and gave it to a boy, who then came over and handed him an audiotape. After class, when I asked him about the exchange, he told me that the audiotape contained a song he wanted called Foxy Browns Best vs. Lihkim.
In his humanities class three months later, after a discussion of the factors that molded the 1950s, the teacher asked students to work in pairs and prepare for a debate on the pros and cons of coeducation. Derrick was assigned to work with another boy. While most of the pairs engaged in some kind of conversation on the topic, Derrick and his partner sat silently. As it turned out, he and his partner were the only ones that did not make any point during the debate, despite the teachers prompt, Do you have any point? When I commented that Derrick and his partner were the only ones who did not add to the discussion, the teacher told me that she had already mentioned Derricks apathy to his advisor.
Derrick said he did not like these classes because they were boring and hard and they required him to do too much work. Most likely related to this attitude, he sometimes seemed to take a carefree approach to attending school. When he failed to come to school twice during the middle of March, he gave what he considered two different legitimate reasons. First, he couldnt find anything to wear. The second time, he did not want to come to school because it was only a half day and not worth it.
The consensus among adults was that Derrick was easily angered. During a casual conversation with a student-teacher, as soon as the topic turned to Derrick, her first comment was that he tended to make other people angry. Ms. Lenard agreed. She felt that a combination of factors had contributed to his anger:
When asked what made him get angry, Derrick said that his fathers leaving was the main reason. My father left and he vanished with all our money. Also, he felt that some kids in this school were snotty. He gave an example of one student who asked him for money when they went out for lunch, and he lent it to him. However, later when he needed money, the same student would not lend him any, which made him feel like he wanted to hit him. Derrick also felt that some girls received preferential treatment from some teachers: Girls could do something [bad] and some teachers said nothing. But boys do the same exact thing the girls did, youre on probation.
Mr. Brown applauded the schools efforts in actually getting to know and being intertwined with each individual student and parent. He felt thats what helps to gain the trust between the school and families:
He also appreciated the amount of care, interest, effort, and energy that the staff exhibited, which made parents want to keep their children at the school.
Ms. Lenard liked the family atmosphere of school:
After Derricks father and mother divorced, Derrick was taken out of school and went to live with his father in another city for several months. When things did not work out, Ms. Lenard asked the school director if Derrick could return to the school. The director responded by saying, Yes, Derrick is a part of the family; well make room for him. Another teacher made a similar comment: Derrick is a part of the family. Well make room. Well squeeze him in. Ms. Lenard credited the schools effort to reach out and help the family to the schools knowing our situation. She observed also that all of these efforts had helped Derrick get to a point where he could sit down without being so angry...so he could learn.
Mr. Brown felt that the school as a nurturing community was half of the package. He said, We love the school for it and I know weve said it like 100 times on your tape. We think thats great. But the other half is just as important. Specifically, he added that the basic skills arent being paid enough attention to.
He was concerned that the teachers did not provide timely feedback on what Derrick needed to work on. When he helped Derrick do an assignment, he would like to see that assignment come back to the house with a grade and with comments of what the teacher feels Derrick needs to do to improve. This type of feedback, he reasoned, would help me follow his current curriculum so that I can help him with what theyre helping him with and give him extra stuff on it. Otherwise, all I can do is give him whatever I feel he needs.
It was not that teachers did not provide any feedback. Rather, it seemed that Derricks parents and teachers had different views about what kind of feedback was considered important. This can be seen in Derricks homework assignment:
The teacher wrote comments in two different places. In the right-hand margin, she wrote, I dont think a compliment would offend her. Then she wrote on a yellow post-it note, sticking it on the top of the paper. It read:
This example shows that the teacher focused on ideas embedded in Derricks writing, which she used to assess the work. Also, her comments centered on personal connections she wanted Derrick to make in his life. On the other hand, she paid no attention to the basic skills that his parents were especially concerned about and wanted Derrick to improve, including punctuation, grammar, and spelling.
Mr. Brown and Ms. Lenard questioned the schools practice of waiting until parent/child/teacher conferences to inform parents about their childs academic progress. Related to one teachers comment that Derrick, this paper you wrote two months ago really wasnt up to par, Mr. Brown felt that if thats the case, why didnt you deal with that particular paper at the time of writing and make him redo it? Ms. Lenard also was dismayed with the delayed response, adding Thats enough time to lose a kid. Thats enough time for a kid to get in trouble academically. Mr. Brown added:
He speculated that because the school spent so much time and energy getting to know the children personally, there was little time and energy left to use this knowledge as a leverage to get the kids to learn more.
The Role of Parent and Child and the School Structure
Just as teachers and parents held different views about what kinds of feedback were more important for Derrick, they also held different views about the role parents should play in the childs education. This was evident in the first parent/child/teacher conference on November 22, 1996, where the school director, Derricks advisor, Derrick, and Ms. Lenard were all present. The director came to the conference because Derrick had not been doing well since September. Derrick was frequently distracted in class, often forgot his homework, and had failed math. During the conference, which lasted almost an hour, the director asked Ms. Lenard three times to back off and let Derrick take charge of his own learning:
One of the main decisions the director made on the spot was requesting that Derrick write a contract about what he needed and wanted to do in school, and she wanted him to take full responsibility for writing it up, without any assistance from his mother.
Nine months later, Derrick still had not written up his contract. During the remainder of the school year, the director said that she had talked with Derrick about it on several occasions. However, neither she nor Derricks advisor followed up with Ms. Lenard about the contract. When asked about her reaction to Derricks unwritten contract, Mrs. Lenard expressed reservations about the schools view of the parents role:
She felt that her job as a parent was to act as a liaison between Derrick and school so the school doesnt have a hard time teaching him and he doesnt have a hard time learning.
Imbedded in the contract incident was the schools general view about the type of structure students need. The school was influenced by progressive education and valued the importance of entrusting children to take initiative and responsibility for their own learning. Ms. Lenard perceived this approach on the part of teachers as being too laid back. She felt that Derrick needed a more strict environment. She believed that he was one of those children who required consistent monitoring to keep him on track. Otherwise, Derrick would find every possible excuse for not doing his school work. Even with a project he really liked, he needed more structure to help him budget time and follow through to completion. While at camp one summer, he spent one full hour and fifty minutes thinking about different ways design an ashtray for Mr. Brown; in the end, he had only ten minutes to actually make one.
On other matters, it seemed that the school did try to keep an eye on Derrick from time to time. During a weekly staff meeting ten days after the parent/child/ teacher conference, the director asked the staff to make a list of students who had difficulties in subject areas. Derrick was one of about two dozen students whose names were mentioned. Although he was not considered as one of the priority students and was not a focus of the discussion that followed, his advisor reminded the staff, If anybody knows Derrick doesnt do homework, let me know. I want to make sure he does it. Three months later, before the first period, the advisor asked Derrick to check with the teachers of the three classes he had missed the previous day so he could make up his assignments. Near the end of another class, a teacher requested that Derrick come back after school for help with his homework.
Racial Consciousness: A Racial Incident or Not?
Before the first parent/child/teacher conference, an incident occurred between Derrick and Davis, a seventh-grade Latino boy. I was not present when the incident occurred; however, multiple interviews with the two boys, their teachers, and their parents indicated that they had been calling each other names for more than two days. Derrick called Davis motherfucker, and Davis called Derrick nigger. It was unclear who started the name-calling first, but the ill feelings finally escalated into a fight in class on a Friday morning. Derrick stood up and hit Daviss face, and Davis responded by hitting Derrick back. The teacher took both of them to the directors office. For fighting, the director immediately suspended them from school on the following Monday. Then she called the parents of both boys and asked them to come to school to discuss the incident.
Later, Ms. Lenard explained to me how she interpreted the incident, with special attention on the term nigger:
It seemed that Davis did understand the affectionate side of this term: When me and my friends talk, we say like, Whats up, nigger? But he also understood the highly insulting connotation in a different situation, adding Sometimes, I stopped [from using the term] because a lot will happen. In the context of this incident, both Davis and Derrick understood that Davis had not used the term to show affection. Derrick said that the reason Davis called him this, despite his repeated requests not to, was to get me upset. What was less certain was Daviss understanding of how much emotional intensity the term could incite in an African American youth.
Although Ms. Lenard was sure that Davis used the term to agitate Derrick, Derricks advisor and the director downplayed its emotional intensity. In a brief conversation with Ms. Lenard several days later at school, the advisor expressed the view that, while adolescents sometimes use the term in a derogatory way, in this case he thought Davis had simply used it to annoy his classmate. As she looked back at the incident five months later, the director agreed with this interpretation:
She felt Ms. Lenards perception was understandable:
Daviss father also thought that the incident was not racial, saying I never give racism to my son. Yet he did want Davis to draw lessons from this incident and, in the future, be more careful how he talks.
Ms. Lenards concern was more than racial. She wondered why the school let this name-calling continue for more than two days without any intervention, until it burst into a fist fight:
Ms. Lenard feared that the incident would add to Derricks anger to such a degree that he got angry with everybody, and then when thats what your mindset is, how can you open yourself up to learn?
As for the importance of racial acceptance beyond this incident, Ms. Lenard felt that with all thats going on in the world and all thats going on in our communities, this takes just as much precedence as getting algebra right. She noted that The racial tension in our neighborhood is ridiculous. Also:
In addition, Ms. Lenard observed that police officers conducted random drug searches in a videogame store where Derrick often went with his friends, frequently pushing African American youths against the wall and demanding to know their identities.
Thus, Ms. Lenard thought it was important for the school to make time for a dialogue on race among staff, students, and parents:
On the other hand, Ms. Lenard understood that there was fear in a school about opening up such a dialogue, because in this society we do not get along well as adults, and often we dont talk as grown-ups. Its like telling a kid not to smoke while you smoke. Mr. Brown felt the racial makeup of the staff and student body in the school might make such a dialogue even more difficult to start:
It seemed that the fight with Davis lingered in Derricks mind, because he wrote about it two and a half months later in one of his writing classes:
Derrick felt positive about the schools approach in dealing with the incident:
Near the end of the school year, Derrick began taking more initiative for learning in some classes. In my field notes for May 2, 1997, I wrote:
In her math section of the report card, Ms. Howard wrote:
During the last three weeks of May, 1997, a humanities teacher also noticed that there was upward movement in Derricks performance: Hes been participating more, hes done some of his readings, and he actually did some of his homework. Several weeks later, she found that Derrick even called her at home one evening to seek her help on his homework assignment.
On the other hand, near the end of school year, there appeared to be downward movement for Derrick in his favorite science class. The science teacher commented in his section of Derricks report card: Your balloon-powered car was going in the right direction, but you gave-up at the end. Your report needed more effort.
Derricks advisor summed it up on the front page of his school year report card, based on teachers comments in different subject areas:
Mr. Brown could understand why the school suggested Derrick seek counseling. On the other hand, he felt that:
Thus, instead of counseling, what was needed was to make him realize that hes doing this and hes not going to be allowed to get away with it anymore. Ms. Lenard agreed. Derrick knows hes doing it; he realizes he is doing it. What he is gambling on is your buying it versus not. She felt that in dealing with these types of behavioral problems in African-American children, Caucasian teachers wanted African-American parents to deal with their children in the same way they [the teachers] would deal with their children, that is, send them to therapists and say, You fix it.
During the middle of the school year, Mr. Brown and Ms. Lenard speculated about moving to New Jersey. One of the main considerations was to give Derrick a safer environment, where they could go to work without worrying about him being home alone and where Derrick could ride his bicycle without being hit by cars (he had been struck by cars twice in two years).
Derrick, too, realized that it was time for a change, as he wrote in the schools literary magazine, published in February. Titled Time for a Change, the text reflected his anxious desire and interest in having a new start in a new environment and to be accepted by his new imaginary peers:
The Curry Household
Early in January, 1997, during a meeting arranged for parents of students with learning disabilities, Mrs. Curry sat very quietly. The only question she asked was what teachers looked for when they visited high schools, since she was concerned about the surroundings and safety of various high schools, specifically relating to drugs, gangs, and violence.
After the meeting, she sat there for forty minutes without saying anything. Then she asked her daughters advisor why, if Sandra had such a good report card, couldnt she apply for a high school of her choice, adding in a soft voice: This is crazy, this is crazy! The advisor explained to her that Sandra was a nice girl, but high schools were going to look more at standardized reading and math scores than grades on report cards, adding I wish we had more choices for her.
I was intrigued by Mrs. Currys timing to initiate this exchange, the messages she conveyed, the way she conveyed them, and by the advisors responses. First, it took Mrs. Curry two hours to speak; despite the relevance of her topic, she did not voice her concern about high school applications during the meeting. She waited forty minutes after the formal meeting had ended and most of the parents began to leave. Second, what she said was in contrast with the way she said it. Although she was very critical of the schools practices with report cards and high school selection, she made her comments in a very calm voice without showing any emotion. The advisor also responded calmly, took time to listen, and acknowledged what the mother said. She even suggested that she [the advisor] would let the director know that the school needed to do a better job to clarify the purposes of the report card. Thus, it seemed that both sides were in agreement about this emotionally charged issue. Both listened and saw the others point of view. On the other hand, the exchange resulted in nothing that could improve Sandras prospects for getting into a suitable high school, since it was now January and high school applications depended largely on scores from standardized tests taken the previous spring.
Sandra was in the eighth grade. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a city housing project, where she shared a bedroom with her older sister; her mother, Mrs. Curry, shared another bedroom with Sandras younger brother. Mr. Curry, separated from other members of the family for six years, lived alone in an apartment about thirty blocks away. Both Mr. and Mrs. Curry are of African-American descent. Because Mrs. Curry had been unemployed for several years, she had no choice but to settle in a housing project, a place she characterized as a rough city:
For the first several years, Mrs. Curry would not let Sandra go downstairs alone. It was only about a year ago that she began allowing this. However, when I visited her apartment several months later, she had reversed her policy, explaining, I wont let her go down by herself now because we have a rapist in the area...[who] seems to be hitting the projects. Mrs. Currys fears were substantiated by a police notice hanging in the lobby of the building, which read: Police Department: Wanted for robbery/rape. Wanted in connection with attack on women. Safety tips: 1-800-577-TIPS.
Sandra was interested in science, particularly the human body. During one of my visits, she said she was reading a book about the human body called Tune in Health, by Joseph P. Felice and Patrick J. Carolan, which discussed eating habits, fitness, the nature of disease, and the use and abuse of drugs. She had written several pages titled Girls AlmanacThings I Have to Know, and she had drawn a picture of the female reproductive system. Among comments, she had noted: PMSwas first diagnosed in 1931. A gynecologist named Dr. Robert Frank came up with 150 symptoms that women may experience that week before their periods.
Sandra was quiet, whether in the classroom or in the hallway. She found it easy to make friends at school, which was very important to her. The previous year, she and one of her best friends wrote a poem together that was printed in the schools literary magazine:
Sandra felt that the teachers are nice and the students are wild and crazy. Overall, she said that the classes were good, and she learned a lot from them. But most of all, she liked her science classes. One science class was fun because she enjoyed designing a house just the way she would like it for herself, her boyfriend, and her children someday. She was very engaged in the task, right from the beginning, paying close attention to the teachers explanation about how to design a floor plan. After class, the teacher commented that Sandra always worked very hard and he enjoyed having her in his class, although sometimes he found that she struggled with math concepts. This was one of the reasons he tried to use more hands-on activities in this class, which had eight students, including Sandra, who had been categorized as having learning disabilities.
In a science class on nutrition, a month and half later, the teacher explained the importance of planning meals with a balance of foods according to an acidic and alkaline model. She then distributed cooking recipes along with tables with information on which foods were acidic and which were alkaline. The students task was to check five different recipes to see if they were balanced and, if they were not, to balance them. After copying down the recipes, Sandra quickly began to work. A moment later, as the teacher passed by her desk, Sandra asked, What is lamb? The teacher told her to look where the meats were listed. Several minutes later, as the teacher approached, Sandra asked the same question again:
This episode suggested that it took time for Sandra to figure out the relationship between lamb and meat in this context, yet she showed interest, initiative, and persistence in searching for the right answer.
High School Applications, Report Cards, and Sandras Learning Disability
During home visits following the meeting for parents of students with learning disabilities, Mrs. Curry said she had spoken with the director several times about Sandras high school choices, and the director referred her to Sandras advisor. Mrs. Curry made an appointment with the advisor; however, at the last moment, the advisor canceled the appointment. Instead, she wrote Mrs. Curry the following letter:
When the school was founded, the staff wanted its report card to provide more descriptive information in categories including attitude, effort, class participation, understanding of materials, and cooperative working skills. Each category was given a grade, which could range from honors, high pass, pass, low pass, and fail5, along with narrative comments. In Sandras case, almost all of her teachers liked her personality, attitude, and effort. One teacher wrote:
Because of these qualities, Sandra earned good marks. Out of the possible fifty-one marks from the six courses she took during the first semester of the 1996-97 school year, she received thirty-six honors, eight high passes, and seven passes.
Mrs. Curry was pleased with her daughters report card, explaining:
In light of these marks on Sandras report card, what most puzzled and confused Mrs. Curry, her husband, and her daughter was the status of Sandras learning disability. Sandra had been identified as a resource-room student in a small Catholic grade school, where she repeated a grade. When Sandra came to this middle school, Mrs. Curry said that the school did not discuss the issue of learning disability with her until the end of the seventh grade. She said she was cool with that, even though she was not happy when the school told her:
On the other hand, the school director wondered why Mrs. Curry did not realize, early on, that Sandra had a learning disability:
Mr. Curry, however, had a difficult time believing that his daughter had any learning disability, right from the beginning:
Meanwhile, Sandra was angry when she was informed, near the end of seventh grade, that she had a learning disability. I dont have no learning disability, I got pissed at that; I got very mad at the director because she said it to my mother. During interviews with Sandra and her parents, Sandra consistently claimed, I have no learning disability, I know how to read....Im really good in reading, I have no problem in reading. Yet, the director wondered, How could she not realize this when she went off this floor to the third floor, worked with Ms. Williams for two years. Mrs. Curry felt that Sandras denial was closely related to her fathers denial. Hes kind of got Sandra a little brainwashed. The matter was made worse because shes really starting to believe it, now its like Maybe I was at first, but now Im not. But I know it doesnt happen like that.
Just as Sandra and her family were puzzled about her status of learning disability, it also confused them about the type of high school that Sandra would be able to get into. On October 28, 1996, Mrs. Curry received a letter from the school recommending three high schools for Sandra to consider. However, Mrs. Curry discovered that none were the kind of schools she was looking for. Her first concern was the location of the schools:
A related concern were the neighborhoods where these schools were located. She found that they were all located right in the middle of drug areas:
Another concern was that every school that they selected was an alternative school, a school where there were no Regents exams, no pressure, and no requirements. Mrs. Curry asked, Why send her there?:
Mrs. Currys primary concern was that these high schools did not match Sandras interests. Mrs. Curry feared, If I dont get her into a school that does science, shes going to lose her interest, and I dont know if they [the teachers] realize that. Some of her fear came from her experience with her older daughter. Mrs. Curry wanted her older daughter to become a teacher and had sent her to a four-year college, which she [the daughter] did not like. She dropped out after three years. Initially, her daughters withdrawal from college shocked her. She told her daughter, How dare you? I have this debt and now you aint going to finish college? Are you crazy?:
Mrs. Curry wanted Sandra to go to a school where she would enjoy what she was doing, where she would learn, and where she would want to do her very bestinstead of just going there to keep a seat warm while her mind wandered off somewhere else. If a school wasnt offering something that Sandra was interested in, Mrs. Curry reasoned, she would have to go to the school frequently. There will be many a day that Ill be getting phone calls or Ill have to go over there to see where my child is.
Especially, Mrs. Curry felt that Sandra was entering a stage where theres more peer pressure, a stage where everybody might not be geared to doing right, and a stage where shes not in full control of what she wants. She noticed that her own family members had dropped out because they didnt like the schools they were attending. She noticed that a lot of parents start to lose their kids to the neighborhood because the children lost interest in school and had nothing to do for six or seven hours during the day. They hang around in the street, they either go sell drugs or get pregnant or join gangs or go on robberies. For Mrs. Curry, putting Sandra into a school she didnt like was opening the door for her to be in trouble. Because the area where they now lived was not good, Sandra could have a whole lot of time to get out there and get into trouble.
Thus, Mrs. Curry felt a sense of mission to find a school that would match her daughters interest. She visited a dozen high schools and prepared a list of the names of nine schools, which she gave to Interconnections in early November. One of the main criteria was that they have a good science program and that they will give her [Sandra] something to really be interested in. However, Mrs. Curry found out that every one of the schools that I put down, they [teachers at the school] felt were too much for Sandra.
Mr. Curry did not agree with the view that the schools they selected would be too much for his daughter. He said, I think by these marks shes entitled to go to any school that she wants. Sandra followed the same line of reasoning:
Mrs. Curry reacted differently. She wondered why teachers at Interconnections waited so long to tell us what the deal is:
As a compromise, Mrs. Curry let the school add one of the high schools it recommended to the list, as a third choice, and move the rest of her choices down because it was a regular school, and I didnt want Sandra to get caught [in a situation] where shes in no school.
The compromise didnt come easily for Sandra and her family. This middle school used to let parents fill out a childs application form. However, it found that often a single mistake, such as copying a wrong number, resulted in that child being rejected by a high school. As a result, the school decided to fill out all the high school applications itself.
Sandras parents were very critical of this policy, although they were aware of the schools good intentions. They asked who gave the school the authority and the right to fill out their childrens application? These are our children were talking about, and we get offended when somebody else tries to have more authority over our children than us.
What was at stake, it seemed, was not just the physical process of filling out the application form, but also a sense of pride in doing it. As expressed by Mr. Curry: I dont need them to fill out an application for my kid. I can do that myself. Likewise, Mrs. Curry, one of only a few of her siblings who had obtained a two-year college education while the rest of them never graduated from high school, wanted a sense of pride in filling out her daughters high school applications. Instead, she felt that the family had been denied this opportunity.
Because of the influence of progressive education, the school emphasized trusting children and viewed education as a process the children should help construct for themselves. Therefore, the advisor felt that she had fulfilled her obligation relating to high school advisement by talking with Sandraand not involving her parents. However, Mrs. Curry was disturbed with the schools approach of trying to persuade Sandra to choose the high schools that it wanted for her:
Mrs. Curry felt the schools approach gave too much freedom to children:
This approach, in her view, was incongruent with what she tried to do as a parent:
Thus, she left with the impression that the staff had tried to avoid dealing with her and that they undermined her role as a parent:
What was wrong with this approach, Mrs. Curry said, was that I dont feel that they should feel that if we can convince the studentsthis is what we need to do, we aint got to worry about the parents. Thus, she felt that the school had overstepped the line.
The familys reaction to this policy might have been less strong had there not been a misunderstanding over high school program codes. There were two coding systems used for high school applicationsone for regular students and another for special education students. Mrs. Curry felt Sandra should be given a special education code if she had learning disabilities and needed special help. Yet the school placed regular codes on her applications. Mrs. Curry felt, If you want to take that much responsibility, at least do it right.
As it turned out, in New York resource-room students were not considered the same as special-education students. Nevertheless, the seemingly confused use of terms such as special education, learning disabilities, and resource room, which the educational system imposed on both the school and the family, served to deepen their misunderstanding. And, because of lack of communication between the family and the school, the misunderstanding persisted long after Sandra graduated from the middle school.
Beyond High School Applications
One of the teachers at Sandras elementary school had recommended her present middle school to Mrs. Curry, saying that it was a good school that would accommodate Sandras needs as a resource-room student. Now, after Sandra had been there for two and half years, Mrs. Curry felt that the school was wonderful, aside from the high school incident:
Mrs. Curry especially valued the variety of educational trips organized by the school. She felt that it was nice that the school took all of the students for three days every year to a camp in upstate New York, which was also open for parents. She said, Its really good for Sandra because she likes this outdoor life, adding, and it was even an experience for me because Id never been to a camp. She liked trips in which they looked at different kinds of leaves, collected leaves, and brought them back and talked about them. She applauded the schools efforts to organize trips around everybodys history and cultural events, including trips to an African burial ground and to Chinatown. This is really good for them because it opens the doors for them, and it helps them to learn to get along with each other. Another aspect she liked about the schools organized trips was that Theyre with kids their own age, and theyre going to pay more attention to what theyre seeing and ask more questions than when theyre with their parents.
Most important to Mrs. Curry was that she felt that the approach of actually going outside and experiencing things matched the learning approach of the African-American children she had observed in her neighborhood:
She also appreciated other learning opportunities at school:
Also, Mrs. Curry liked the small size of the school, which she felt prevented kids from getting lost. Its small, so the kids can learn if they want to. She was particularly impressed by the schools personalized approach to her daughter, saying, When you come into that school, they show genuine care. Theyre really interested in your child. She felt that her daughter was treated like a human being rather than just a number in the school.
Being that she [Sandra] really likes the school, she likes what they do and everything, Mrs. Curry said she did not have to worry about her daughter dropping out of school. Clearly, she did not want her daughter to leave this school, lamenting But I know its going to end because Sandra had to go on to high school. She valued the family aspect of the school. For example, in mid-April, Sandra suffered chest pains while at school. Mrs. Curry was unable to go to the hospital to be with her daughter because of a recent back operation. However, the school director, who was very concerned, went to the hospital and stayed in the emergency room with Sandra. All thats good and you appreciate it, reflected Mrs. Curry.
The Prom Incident
One reservation Mrs. Curry had about the school was that the teachers seem to focus more on whats going on at home than what a kids doing at school:
Mrs. Curry particularly felt that the school went overboard about an incident that occurred the night before Sandras prom. At one time, Evelyn had been Sandras best friend; however, their relationship changed when Sandra began dating Evelyns former boyfriend. Although the boy was not a student at the school, it soon became common knowledge at school why the relationship between Sandra and Evelyn had cooled. The night before the prom, the Curry family received three phone calls from the school staffone from the director, one from Sandras advisor, and one from Evelyns advisor. All of them tried to dissuade Sandra from bringing the boy to the prom for fear of hurting Evelyns feelings. Sandras advisor, explained:
The schools efforts to persuade Sandra not to bring her date continued the next day. Immediately after math class and before Sandra left the room, Ms. Kenny and Sandra had a brief exchange at the front of the room. Judging from Sandras facial expression and gestures, I sensed that she was upset. Later, at lunch time, when asked, Ms. Kenny remarked that once the school became aware of Sandras intention of bringing the boy to the prom, several teachers had tried to discourage her, yet she insisted that she wanted to bring him. Ms. Kenny paused briefly, then added, Sandra hasnt done anything wrong, so theres nothing the school can really do about it.
Mrs. Curry was disturbed by the schools excessive concern expressed over Sandras prom date. She felt that this pressure was unfair to Sandra and that, in a way, it was unnecessary:
She also wondered, Why would you try to make her feel that its going to hurt Evelyn so badly if you bring this boy? She recalled a birthday party that she, Sandra, the boy, and Evelyn had attended several months earlier, and she observed that it didnt upset her [Evelyn] then....There was no confrontation there. As a result, she couldnt understand how bringing the boy to the prom would be such a problem. She felt its not right to question her [daughter] constantly. Mrs. Curry felt it inappropriate to call the boy the night before the prom and ask him not to go the prom, since Sandra had spoken with the boy a couple of months earlier about the prom, and everything was set. In addition, she felt that the school had gotten more involved in Sandras personal life than in her education: It became like school was second to them, instead of being first. Also:
The prom, held the following night, seemed to go peacefully, at least on the surface. Sandra and Evelyn kept a respectful distance. In my field notes, I wrote:
Later, when reflecting on the schools approach to Sandras choice for a prom date, the school director reasonably felt that it was certainly overkill...that got out of hand. She also observed that it worked out all right at the prom. On the other hand, she wondered if maybe if so much attention had not been paid to it, it could have been really difficult at the prom.
While Mrs. Curry witnessed the schools excessive concern over her daughters prom date, she felt that it had not paid enough attention to Sandras homework and academic progress. For Mrs. Curry, the main purpose of doing homework was that it reinforces what they learned earlier that day. In addition, it gives them a chance to think and explore stuff. Beyond these two purposes, it also keeps them from bugging me while theyre home, which she regarded as a benefit as a parent. For her, the last, and perhaps most important, purpose for doing homework was that it keeps children away from trouble. If theyre doing what theyre supposed to be doing, it will keep them occupied, it will give them less time to be wanting to hang out in the streets. Accordingly, she felt that the school did not assign enough homework for her daughter. She can sit and do all her homework within half an hour, and shes finished. And some days she aint have none at all. She was concerned about this because down here [in this neighborhood], theres really nothing to do. So if you dont keep them busy, theyll be in trouble.
In addition, Mrs. Curry was concerned about the homework practices of some teachers. She found that these teachers just wanted to see if a homework assignment was done, not if its done correctly:
She had reservations about such a practice because if you let children write something to you, and it doesnt any sense, and you dont correct it, then they think its okay. And theyll continue doing that. She found that this practice also made it difficult for her, as a parent, to help her child because if the teacher doesnt correct it, and if I see it I correct it, and she has to do it over, and its like Youre just picking on me. She felt strongly that the teacher should not accept it, she should at least give her some kind of knowledge to know, this does not make sense. Adding to this frustration was Mrs. Currys concern over the standards of the Richard Green High School, which Sandra was going to attend. She anticipated that September is going to be a hard time for her:
5Honorsextra effort and consistent high quality work within students potential; high passconsistent high quality work within students potential; passadequate work according to students potential; low passwork needs improvement in order to meet students potential; failinadequate work according to students potential. return to text