By Tiffany Duncan
Volunteering at the school
While we’re on the topic of culture, a few words about the parent/administration culture are also in order. When my stepchildren were at Hillside, my husband had been very involved. From cleaning up the yard to sitting on the board, he had enjoyed volunteering at the school. It was of course required that we continue volunteering, so in keeping with my background and what I thought I had to offer, I joined the development committee.
The school now had a full time development director and a full time development assistant. (The calculator in my fundraising and development mind was busy making additions and subtractions.) A committee of professionals with an obligation to do grunt work is any development director’s dream. (When I told a development director friend about it she nearly gagged with envy.) After meeting a few times one of my fellow committee members gently put a question to the director, “So far we have had annual fundraising drive meetings. When will we get to development?” Well, by the time I left the school, after many a cancelled meeting the first year and no meetings in the second, we still had not gotten around to having a development meeting.
At some point during a meeting I made a suggestion for a new fundraising opportunity for the preschool. It would have been one for which I myself would have put in the bulk of the work. Committee members asked me to run it by the preschool teachers. When I did that the teachers said that they would discuss it and get back to me. I waited and waited, and then I dropped the idea.
The marketing committee, on the other hand, was thriving. In a school with hundreds of applicants for each opening there hardly seemed need for marketing—but then again, I am the clueless sort. A number of marketing and branding “specialists” among the parents—many of them moms whose career ambitions had been interrupted by their devotion to their children—got working toward redefining the school. (Incidentally, the committee was headed by one of the mothers who also kept busy getting rid of kids in the preschool.) The idea was that our school should claim its place among the top elite private schools in town. No more touchy-feely, happy child, hippy teacher associations here. The crowning achievement of the marketing committee was a new logo. The old logo showing two happy—and multi-racial—children was replaced by a cluster of abstract and “scientific” looking doodles. No problem. Things change. But sometimes change reflects an unadmitted shift in values.
So it appeared that volunteer work, for people like us at least, was limited to yard and carpool duty.
Damage control: the principal diffuses the situation
Within a week of the Wednesday morning talk with Andrew’s teacher we decided to pull him out by winter break, the end of the following week. It was clear—interestingly, sooner to my husband who had had prior experience with the school than to me—that even though we did not have a lot of information about exactly what was happening in the school, there was something systemically wrong. My husband wrote an email to the principal informing him of our decision, saying that we would follow up by explaining things in a letter. Of course the principal wanted to talk. “After the talk,” he gently suggested, “you may not feel like you need to write the letter.”
At our meeting, seasoned professional as he is, the principal let us vent to our heart’s content. We told him everything I have written here that was known to me at that time. He listened in great sympathy and concern. At the end, he said that there were of course things he could say in defense of his teachers but since it appeared that we had made up our mind to leave the school there didn’t seem to be any need for it. During the conversation, however, he discreetly asked one question.
When I mentioned that I sensed a strange parent culture at the school and that it seemed that undue pressure was put on the teachers by some parents, he asked if I had heard anything or if it was only a feeling. At the time I had not heard what I subsequently learned from more informed mothers, so I told him it was only an intuition. He seemed relieved by that.
He also mentioned that there was a rumor circulating that the school was expelling Andrew. (How the rumor had started when even the people to whom we were close at the school had not yet heard, I will never know.) He asked if we could help dispel the rumor by telling people that it was not so, that we were leaving voluntarily. I suppose there was a reason for this technical preference. But of course we didn’t belong to the gossip circle so we could not be of much help.
Finally the principal asked if we had any suggestions for improvement. The only suggestion that occurred to me was to make the classroom more joyful and inclusive so children would enjoy themselves more and not feel so much on the edge. A less punitive environment would also send a different message to parents and would make the climate less conducive to picking on kids and harassing teachers.
We left it at that.
We decided not to write an open letter for a number of reasons. First, the experience had been so injurious to us that all we wanted to do was to leave it behind. The last thing we wanted was to drag out an unpleasant exchange with all kinds of unpleasant people. Second, we did not feel that the privileged and educated parents at the school needed us to stand up for what their children deserved, and what they paid for. Finally, and most importantly, we did not want any fallout of the situation to affect Andrew. We just wanted him out. Period.