Boo-Hoo/Yahoo Day — Houston Students Head Back to School
By Rachel Damico
Well the day had finally arrived, the day a friend once referred to as “Boo-Hoo/Yahoo Day.” That’s right, my little mini-me was starting off her journey as a lifelong learner by entering kindergarten. Gone were the monthly payments of $800 dollars for childcare (Yahoo!) and gained was the guarantee her mind would be molded by a certified professional (Yahoo!). On the flipside, there was also the tugging at my heartstrings and a lump in my throat as my little angel was growing up (Boo-Hoo).
I wasn’t just a parent though; I have dedicated my life to working in public education, with most of my experience being in school administration. On the Yahoo side I was perhaps overly confident. Of course I would be an involved parent (the school had multiple emails and phone numbers to reach me, after all, one of which has remained the same since 2002). People knew my position in the district and my child would have the best of the best, if not because of my accessibility, deep knowledge of best practices in education, and understanding of child development, then because of my job title and awareness of the policies, procedures, and laws that govern schools, which most parents don’t know.
Looking back, though, this overconfidence was also a way for me to quiet the internal concerns on the Boo-Hoo side of the spectrum that I had about my profession that were now deafening. It wasn’t just a job anymore, it was personal.
In case you didn’t know, Texas is the birthplace of high-stakes testing and the recent push to adopt a corporate, factory-like approach to educating the next generation. Fifty percent of educators leave the profession within three years. I repeat, fifty percent of educators—dedicated, once-optimistic, civic-minded individuals-quit within their first three years. Abandon their dreams and ideals. This costs all of us in constantly having to train fresh recruits, and it means that your kids have a 50/50 chance of being taught by a rookie.
The exodus, simply put, is because of burnout. Teachers are overwhelmed—constantly being asked to do more with fewer resources while being vilified on the national stage, only to have their worth in the classroom measured by a single standardized snapshot of their kids’ performance. (I say their kids because ask almost any teacher and they will grin and tell you that once a student is in their class or club or building they are always “my kids.”)
An added Boo-Hoo for me was that I was enrolling my daughter in Houston ISD, which is at the cutting edge, nationally, in this corporate-minded “reform” march. I fretted about the impact all of this would have on my daughter—would her educational experience be missing the fun factor that I gained so much from growing up?
I knew these factors were particularly relevant in inner city schools such as the one where I worked at the time. There, we all worked tirelessly to navigate parental involvement, overcoming language barriers and ever-changing Cricket numbers. Whether you were an aide, teacher, or clerk under your ‘other duties as assigned’ fell the roles of counselor, parent, social worker, confronting a host of additional problems that were the norm for many of our children growing up in poverty amidst a concrete jungle.
“That was the answer,” I convinced myself, “I will enroll her in an HISD school in an affluent neighborhood.”
So that is what I did.
That August, I drove through that community close to the Galleria, surrounded by quarter-million-dollar homes and monstrous McMansions, confident in my decision. My daughter, amazed, said “those are really fancy apartments, mommy” as we entered the school zone. A quick hug and a kiss with a brief pause to watch her skip down the hall sporting her Disney princess backpack, and I jetted off as well. Off I went to fight the battles for other people’s children with the same passion and compassion as I do every year, because I didn’t have to worry about mine…or so I thought.
After a few weeks, the calls and notes started. It began with a conduct cut because she kept “putting her hands on other children.” What was going on…kicking, hitting…she never does that? I came to find out it was hugging, my daughter was punished for hugging children while waiting in the hallway for the restroom. Didn’t they know that if hugging while still in line was the worst of their problems, they have it made? I spoke to my daughter for the sake of showing a united front, but didn’t pursue it any further. Shortly after that, as we were outside the cafeteria doing our usual AM ritual of a hug and kiss, closing out with a reminder to “make good choices and learn a lot,” I was stopped by the assistant principal and told that my child’s behavior in the cafeteria in the morning was “horrendous” as my mini-me stood there holding my hand, glancing up at me with her doe eyes.
I gently took my child aside and spoke to her once again, wanting to support the school. Later followed up with an email politely sharing my multiple means for communication so that I could provide the school with better support at home by being informed in the evening because the way in which I was informed of the alleged ‘horrendous’ behavior limited my ability to partner with them in my child’s education. It took me two weeks to get a reply, and essentially I was told by the assistant principal that she was too busy with ‘testing’ to have an opportunity to call, text, or email. Funny, I was testing too but managed to do all three of those activities with parents, community agencies, etc. multiple times during that day.
These sorts of issues continued on into the next school year, compounded by the dreaded letter I received the second week of school. Wadded up amidst the practice test pages and mini reader in my daughter’s Monster High bag-the form document sent by the state letting me know Ms. Sanchez was ‘not highly qualified’ (translation…a rookie). If you are reading this as a parent, you know what I am talking about, or if not, don’t worry, you will.
There continued to always be something, my daughter was staring out the window during calendar time, or, hold onto your seats folks, she wouldn’t sit still and bubbled her test. An exam that I knew was based on California standards that aren’t even part of our curriculum here in the Lone Star State. I also learned to not ask about what she learned in school that day on our drive home, as most oftentimes it was ‘we did a lot of worksheets’ or ‘we had a sub that yelled at us all day and made us put our heads down’. I eventually tuned out the notes and conduct cuts as my daughter’s behavior continued to not fit into the cookie cutter box they expected all kids at her grade level to fit into. I found myself constantly suppressing my inner mama bear and instead actually mentoring Ms. Sanchez, sharing resources and strategies via email because she was largely mirroring the school culture with no supports or guidance, left to figure it all out like too many of us are those first years in the classroom. We even managed to find some things that worked.
Then there was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The scribbled out happy face on my daughter’s conduct sheet with a sad face circled instead and chicken scratch with the stress oozing from the ink on the page that read ‘SEE EMAIL’. I looked and there was none so I politely asked it be resent, fully aware that it was probably never sent in the first place. I received a novel of how horrible my child was at approximately 11 pm that night. Ms. Sanchez went on to note in bold print that I told her to tell you she wrote on the bookcase and refused to clean it up. From my perspective there would be a consequence for my daughter failing to tell me what happened, however I certainly was not going to wake her up at 11 pm to do it and also did not feel it was fair to put that responsibility on a six year old without following up. I couldn’t keep my blinders on any longer, I had to go to my fellow colleague, the principal, and I did just that.
I was sure I would hear back, but there were crickets. It took me several days later and, when we did finally talk, he broke the cardinal rule of school administration. As I told him of my frustrations at the lack of communication and my perceptions of unrealistic behavioral expectations he attentively listened only to interject the occasional ‘mmm, hmm’. After I said my piece, he didn’t even pause to process all that I had shared. Instead he immediately leapt into defense mode, taking zero responsibility for the climate and culture at his campus and instead proceeded by throwing poor Ms. Sanchez under the bus. I could almost sense that he thought he was smack talking at an administrator’s meeting and was waiting for some sort of verbal high five or pat on the back.
“Well”, I started off taking a deep breath all the while straining to keep my obscenity-laced initial response a thought bubble, clenching onto the steering wheel of my car, “with all due respect you are the captain of that ship and we both know that Ms. Sanchez is green. In this job we ALL were Ms. Sanchez at one point and time or another. From where I am sitting, however you have completely forgotten that fact. You hired her and have provided zero guidance, support, or resources. Furthermore, instead of taking the opportunity to speak to me as a fellow colleague and be honest with me about your lapses as an instructional leader, you instead decide your best course of action is to assume no responsibility for that and how it has negatively impacted my daughter’s first grade experience! While we are on the subject if this is how you treat my child when you know full well who I am and what I do for a living, I feel bad for the other families at your school!”
He took a long pause, but all he could muttered was “maybe you do have a point that we could do some things a little better.”
A LITTLE BETTER?! A LITTLE BETTER?! The mama bear was now out of her cage. Now I was the one who jumped in with a response.
“Okay, well, that’s great, while you try to do things quote ‘a little better’ my child will be going to another school because I as a parent demand A LOT BETTER!”
“I understand,” he bleated sheepishly, and that was it.
Needless to say, after this experience I took a step back and really evaluated my career and where I wanted to work, my role as a parent, and also where I wanted my child to learn and develop a love for learning. She now attends another campus in another district, once again where I work. Sure the houses surrounding it aren’t as fancy and the teacher does send more notes than before asking for help with supplies for students and herself. But that’s just it, I get notes, emails, texts, and not just from her, from everyone at the school.
As a parent there is amazing customer service, but that isn’t really what has me sold. The way my daughter runs to the car at the end of the day and won’t stop talking excitedly about a host of things ranging from the baby chick that is hatching in the science lab that we can log in and watch from our laptop at home, to the biography she read during read aloud time about the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz, is priceless. I finally found a little slice of heaven where I drop my daughter off every morning. Sure they have the realities of state assessments like we all do, but I leave my daughter in their hands with no Boo-Hoo’s and only Yahoos.
by Guest Author