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How Do We Fix Our Schools?

Posted by Old Shoe Woman on Flickr


Matt and I don’t watch television. I haven’t had cable tv since about 2001. And when I had that cable installed, the cable installers broke my antenna for basic tv (poetic, isn’t it?)


But I am in the film business. So to keep on top of what’s going on, Matt and I will rent whole television series, or television movies, and watch them. Unfortunately that means it’s often a crazy tv binge, where we watch several seasons during just a couple of weeks. But then we won’t do it again for months, we never submit ourselves to ads, we choose only what we want to watch, and we watch on our own time.


So not too long ago, we watched “The Wire.” The fourth season looks into the problems of inner-city schools. It was an interesting season – extremely depressing – but well worth our time. And it made me realize that while you and I worry about day-to-day simplifying of our lives, we are very privileged. There is a lot going on out there, and I’m sure some of you are dealing with it every day.


The Problem


As we worry about the big picture of economics, climate change, and energy – and the ramifications of not working hard to turn around our society’s relationship with each of these things – there are big social problems we should not be ignoring:


How do we change the world, when the school systems are so bad that some of my closest friends have moved to the outer reaches of suburbia, so their children can get a decent education? (And I don’t mean to in any way disparage those of you who have made that choice.) And what happens when we don’t fix the inner city school systems and continue to abandon them?


My grandfather and I talk about schools a lot. He asked me last week what the kids in schools are learning about oil and how it relates to the current economy, about how recessions work and what is going on right now in our country, and how different our whole system is since we went into Iraq.


“I don’t know,” I said, “I don’t know.” I remembered that we learned very little about the present day in school. And that was back when the public schools were better overall, when “white flight” was just beginning, and people paid a lot more attention to the schools.


I was fortunate to grow up in an urban school, incredibly mixed economically, racially, culturally, politically. I was a positive product of the busing system. And I know I was lucky. It has made me who I am, it turned me into someone who wants to change the world. But my old school is not what it was. The attrition rate is high, the diversity has decreased, the schools are overcrowded, and the good teachers have long gone.


What Can We Do To Help Our Local Schools?


This is one of the important parts about living locally, of spending time in your community, of giving whatever you can to make your neighborhood more sustainable and adaptable. Our children are future decision-makers, action-takers, and world changers. Whether you have children or not, it is essential to play an active role in education, for our communities and our society as a whole.


I have worked with children of various age groups at various different locations: housing projects, summer camps for at risk youth, drug and alcohol recovery centers, soccer coaching and refereeing, youth accountability, and after school programs. I also have a number of friends and family who have children. But I don’t have children, and it has been a while since I’ve been intimately involved with the school system.


I know many of you have children and this issue is probably very close to home for you. Please share with us what you know, and what ideas you’ve had!


What can we do for our schools? If we have money, where can we put it? If we have time, where can we use it?


Here are some ideas I have, off the top of my head:


1. Donate used materials. For example, if you have books gathering dust in the basement, you can take them to the school librarian. If you have art and craft supplies from a project you started long ago, you can donate them to the art program. Your old computers could be helpful to schools who can’t afford to provide computers for each child.

2. Vote for the school board – and honestly look into who is the best candidate, rather than just reading a little blurb on the way to the voting booth. Also, if you have some time, write letters to legislators advocating for more education spending, and attend School Board meetings.

3. Hold a rummage sale – check out Green Bean’s inspiring story about her school rummage sale!

4. Help local schools build a food garden.

5. Volunteer your time for a child who needs tutoring.

6. Help coach a school athletic team, or an after school art, science, dance, or music program. These are the programs that get cut first when economic times are tough.

7. Become an active member of the PTA.

8. If you don’t have any free time, consider donating whatever money you can give to the school, or adopt a classroom.

9. Help write a grant for a school program, or find another way to use your own expertise to help. Maybe you have connections that can bring interesting speakers to visit the school, or your photographic skills can help, or… there are many ways that you might help.

10. Ask. Go visit the school and ask how you can help. I’m sure they can tell you some needs they have that you can fill!


It’s time I paid more attention to our schools. What about you? Are you doing any of these things? What else can we do to help?!


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17 comments to How Do We Fix Our Schools?

  • I’m a teacher and this is one of those topics that I cannot shut up about. So, here goes the (very) abbreviated version of what I would like to change about the schools.

    1) each classroom needs books. Reading books, not text books.
    2) each student needs books at home to read. Literacy is SO important, but if you live in a house that has no books, how would you know that? My school had a book day each summer (usually late July) where kids came in and selected a free book to take with and had a snack.
    3) Help parents. Is there an afterschool program? Is it stocked with books, art supplies, puzzles, sport equipment? Is there food as in snacks?
    4) If hunger is an issue see if the school social worker is willing to start a food pantry. Our school sent home a bag of groceries over winter break/spring break to certain homes that were in need. Soup, cereal, granola bars, canned fruit.
    5) Winter warming. The upscale district I live in still has kids without socks, gloves, hats, etc. If your school runs a winter warming program, donate!
    6) What the schools are teaching, how they are teaching it, the focus on sports instead of academics…all things I could go on and on about but won’t. Not today. :)

  • Your list, and Veriance’s, are very good, Melinda. I almost climbed up on my soap box about education, but I didn’t. :) It makes me sad that 4 of the needs on Veriance’s list are not about teaching, but rather basic needs and about parenting. It’s been that way in a lot of schools for a long time.

    Time to get ready to go work with my group of children today.

  • There are no easy answers.
    Some of things I have done in the past in my own childrens schools, you already mentioned. Here is one you didn’t.

    Attend NCLB meetings (required by law (national I assume) to have a parent committee in each school. This committee is offered trainings as well as a specific amount of money alloted, 1% of the funding I believe, for parent activities) The idea here is that with parent activities hosted at the school, you can be exposed to not only the inner workings of the institute but also be more aware of its needs, while beginning to understand the issues of school funding. On top of that, parent activities will bring more parents to the school who may have special talents to offer and the time to offer them.
    I truly believe that change in education will come about as a grassroots movement.

  • my wife has worked in the whole spectrum from suburban to deep urban to rural where she is now. Your list is pretty much verbatim what she talks about daily as things to do. Her number one focus though is parental involvement. Hook the parents, start a continuing dialog. A supportive administration is key, so your suggestion about getting on the school board is great. In the present climate good teachers want to stay in challenging areas, but if the administrators (principals, school board, support staff) are counterproductive or negligent…well thats another good way to lose talented educators.

  • A few more options:

    Mentor- Some urban districts have their own mentoring programs and there are also organizations like BigBrothers/Big Sisters. In my city I can think of 5 or so mentoring organizations that are conected to schools in some way.

    Donate funds- For those with less time and more money, donate funds to schools or organizations that support schools. connects donors with classroom teachers that need materials.

  • Interesting post…I guess I never thought of being locally involved with our schools.

    I homeschool our children but hubby coaches a few different sports teams that include kids from the local elementary school, guess we are involved that way.

    Your thoughts have given me something to think about…thanks, Kim

  • I taught in an inner-city school some years ago. My suggestion for your list is to move # 10 to # 1, and to think hard about # 1- if you are going to donate, make sure the stuff you are giving is worth it.

    Frankly, when we moved away from that city, and I had the opportunity to teach/put our children into suburban districts, I chose to homeschool despite the loss of income. I don’t think our current system of education is viable, urban, suburban, rural or private- and I despair of being able to change it. Our methods of instruction were designed at the turn of the 20th century to turn out factory workers, and are inappropriate to develop the adaptive, divergent thinkers needed in the world today.

  • My eyes are tearing up right now. I’m so happy to see more discussion about schools. I’ve focused almost completely on green living for the last 2 yrs but when my son started kindergarten, I realized what bad shape our schools are in (and his is rated a 9 out of 10 nationally!!!). They have few supplies, the ratios are too high, the buildings are old and crumbling, there isn’t enough money for maintenance much less green upgrades. More and more, the solution seems to be to move – as you mention – or send your kids to private schools. This is not an option for everyone and, frankly, neither of these are very good options. We need to stay and fight. For our kids. For our neighbor’s kids. For our next generation. We’ll never make it without them.

    Your ideas are all fantastic ones. There is SO much need in our schools. Do a bottle and can drive. One neighborhood kid collected $1700 for his school last year in one month hauling his wagon around the neighborhood. Our school does this and earns about $100 a week. It encourages recycling even if it doesn’t discourage single use containers.

    Our rummage sale was so successful that we’re looking into doing it more often. Maybe as an ongoing store or quarterly mini-sales just for families. Being less rushed, we can also sell items on Craigslist, ebay and at consignment stores.

    Bake sales are great.

    Also, a friend and I are planning to do a real food seminar next year for the 1/2 kids to introduce them to organic food, drawing on the school garden and local farmers’ markets.

    Supplies for gardens – seedlings, seeds, shovels, etc. – are always needed.

    And PLEASE support local property taxes for your school. I spent last night phone banking for a local tax to help our school retain it’s teachers due to CA budget cuts and stock market losses. I got a fair number of yeses. But I also got several NOs, we don’t want to pay more taxes. Well, we need to invest in this next generation somehow. If we don’t pay now, we’ll be paying later.

    Please help your local schools! And help grow a generation of green and caring citizens.

    Thank you, Melinda, for this post!

  • Carolyn Marie

    I live in Minnesota which had always been recognized as having among the best public policy for education in the U.S.( both K-12 and higher education). However, as society and politics changed, Minnesotans elected governors Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty and legislative bodies who campaigned on “no new taxes.” This, coupled with the mandated yet unfunded No Child Left Behind has left public education decimated in my state! As energy costs and healthcare benefit costs increase in every other sector, they increase in school districts as well. The recent economic crisis does not bode well for public education. I am so grateful that President Obama recognizes the dismal state of public education and has pledged to make it a priority during his term.
    Society benefits through having a well educated citizenry and workforce. It is a responsibility of adults to pay what needs to be paid for the education of those who follow behind us! Education is every bit as important to this country as is defense! We must be willing to properly fund public education. Every governing body is making very difficult budget decisions during this economic crisis. Programs will be cut; don’t let public education bear the brunt of the economic crunch!
    I am not a teacher; I am a citizen activist for a variety of issues because I care about the young people in this country and the future. We must give up the selfishness and greed that has permeated US culture in recent years and step up and do what is in the common good.
    How can you help to insure excellence in public education? Become informed about the conditions in your schools. Learn how schools are funded in your state. Most of all, make public education a top priority in your community and state. Contact your elected representatives and ask that they do the same. Through my activism, I have learned that people seldom ever contact their elected officials. They need to know what issues you care about!

  • An old friend of mine left a message on Facebook with so many awesome suggestions, I wanted to share them here:

    “Very nice. I appreciate your list – these are all things I do, well, daily! Involvement is important. From helping in your kids classrooms to school wide events to district level meetings. Everyone should go to a school board meeting or two – familiarize yourself with your school board rep. Get involved in the little things,not just when your… Read More school is threatened with closure. Also our district, like so many, have schools that have more than they need and schools that could use so much more. If you’re lucky enough that your school has plenty of books for each classroom library – start a donation drive for one across town where the books are few and far between. Involving kids in helping out their community – and city – is an important lesson – let them plant a vegetable garden for a food bank, have them clean up a local park, hold a fundraiser to help out a less fortunate school.

    “Talk to your schools councilor, family service worker, or principal to see if you can donate school supplies, food, or clothing to them to go to families at your school in need. You may not know who those families are, but they will! Lastly, encourage your school to hold an annual or semi-annual clothing swap. Any leftovers can then be donated to charity.”

    Thanks, Lena!!

  • Great post, Melinda. Just recently I heard something (TED talks?) that helped me grasp a powerful vision. Imagine if overnight there was a complete and total shift of focus in all aspects of government to children? Children’s health, education, standards of living, safety and joy . . . What a welcome relief and answer to so much that is misdirected.

    On Tuesday I spent my first session at the elementary school across the street as part of the team demonstrating compost bin use. This school already has 2 gardens, a vermicompost bin and some wonderful garden volunteers. I will now become a regular part of this effort (which needs even more willing hands). I am going today to get measurements so that I can do a garden plan on AutoCAD for use in a grant next week.

    Prior to this step, I was able to do something for this school without leaving home. I secured some old rotten fence posts and asked a neighbor to cut each at the end to look like a carpenter’s pencil. I then painted each a different color. A dozen neighbors helped raise a fence across from the school with these pencils between our compost area and the road we share with the school. Here is a look at them. The kids just love them.

  • monica

    I think that if a parent asks for resources to help their kids, the school should be trying to do their best to help. I had to BEG to get help for my son to get back onto an IEP (might be different in some states–we live in ohio). We never wanted him off of it–the lady that passes them to the next teacher “didn’t want to bother with another on, so he no longer qualified.” She retired and his file, just slipped through. Well, let me tell you: He will never get off this program until we say that he is ready! No child left behind dropped my kid off and ran him over in the road.

    It drives me crazy when we have to sign forms and there is space for only one parent to sign. While only one is required, we want to show both of us are interested in our son’s education.

    Teachers used to be allowed to show compassion, but now there is too much of a chance that the wrong impression might be made.

    Teachers used to have time to make sure mouths are wiped after lunch, and that shoes are tied. It doesn’t matter how much we try as parents to make sure all of these things are done, but there is no point in trying if they are not reinforced throughout the day. I do agree with the children need to have certain criteria met before continuing, but not at the expense of letting all else go to the wayside.

    I think that teachers are great, but there is too much emphasis on getting a good passing rate on the standardized tests–not skills that they will need to utilize to pass through life.

    I am not a teacher, but I have a child that needs extra help sometimes. I just didn’t think that there were many parents that responded–The people that make the laws need to consider the feasibilty of what they are expecting to be accepted.

  • monica – as the mother of a special needs child, I understand where you are coming from. I just wanted to point out that I am a teacher and a mother. My previous response was looking at *big picture* educational issues, not things specific to my son.

    Also, as someone who worked in K for a year, there is no way you can get anything done if you are “wiping mouths and tying shoes” with 20+ kids in one room, many of which don’t know their colors or how to write their name, that’s time you just don’t have!

  • monica

    I just felt like much focus at it from the teacher point-of-view, not from the parent angle. I think too that the teacher that retired had much to do with our son’s situation. After he was no longer on an IEP, there is no reason to get him back onto it. We finally won, but now his grades are continuing to slip.

    After lunchtime, the students look atrocious: even the older children look more than slightly disheveled. So, if the teachers do not follow up on neatness, he is falling behind in studies & he is not learning what he should be learning: what else am I to think?

  • Thank you all so much for really thinking about this. GREAT ideas. Let’s do what we can to work on it, shall we? Maybe one or two of us can even publish our ideas in our local newspapers, PTA newsletters, etc.? Would that help spread the word, and get more people thinking about it?

    Veriance, Ah, I forgot about just basic needs! You’re so right. Thank you for adding these.
    Deb G, LOL, it’s ok to get on your soap box a bit. Here I have many times. ; )
    linda, Indeed, these are tough topics we discuss – there are no easy answers to creating change – you’re so right! Together we give each other the extra strength and knowledge to do more, to work a bit harder… and together we will create the change we need. I hope!! : ) Great addition, too. Thank you.
    kory, Mmmm. We should also be thinking about how to make our schools better for our teachers and administrators – I think that is an awesome addition I’ve overlooked. I’ll think about that some more – maybe there is a part 2 to this discussion….
    sara I, Thank you for those – I’ve never heard of – looks like a great site!
    Kim, You’re welcome. ; ) Sounds like you’re doing some things already!
    Willa, Great point. Targeted, thoughtful help is key. And I know it is a tough road to change, but we must do everything we can to change the broken system. We cannot do it alone, but together we can. I truly believe that.
    Green Bean, : ) I thought of you when writing this. You are doing quite a lot, and it is so inspiring. Also, I saw your Facebook shoutout and it made me happy. I don’t have children. It was a difficult decision to make, but I wanted to devote as much time in my life as I could, to changing the world for all of its children… Great suggestions – thank you!
    Carolyn Marie, Becoming informed is definitely the first step – you are so right! I can hear your passion through your words – keep going, keep doing what you’re doing for our children!
    katecontinued, those pencils are AWESOME. Love all that you’re doing. If you find the link to the TED talk, I would love to see it!! Sounds perfect.
    monica, “No child left behind dropped my kid off and ran him over in the road.” I am so sorry. It is a terrible policy that has truly broken our schools. Keep fighting for your son. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, and bond together with other parents who may be feeling as you do. Is there anything specifically that any of us could do to make it easier for people like you and your son in our own communities?

  • Mark

    In a nutshell – let our local schools manage themselves. Take the unions and the DOE out of the equation. Allow local school boards total autonomy and be allowed to make fiscal decisions based on LOCAL needs. Unions? Why do we have them? Public employment is NOT working in a coal mine. If the school board and the residents can’t afford to increase benefits because tax collections are down – then the teachers and support staff should suck-it-up and not have a raise or a step increase (automatic raise outside the contract)

  • D R

    I live in southwest Louisiana, also have problems with our school allowing coke and candy machines in our lunch rooms. PE is no longer a required class in high schools here. There is also a general lack of discipline in some of the high schools.

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