Transitions: Excerpt from Newsletter 2/22/20

Here’s an excerpt of the latest newsletter (link fixed). Subscribe please!

Feb 21, 2020

Hi all!

I am a week late on the bimonthly Friday newsletter and am feeling terribly guilty. But I have an excellent excuse, I swear! 

Last Friday, I spent three hours at an IEP meeting for my kid, Ian. The rest of the day was spent packing and driving away to a much needed break in Vermont for the long weekend. More on the snowy paradise in a minute. Let me tell you a bit about IEP meetings first. 

An IEP is like a contract between the school and the parents, which describes the disabilities, provide goals for the kids and teachers, and measures student progress. It came out of mid-1970 reforms of schools that mandated that special ed kids were entitled to a free, appropriate education. Every year, parents and teachers sit down for a meeting to update the IEP. 

IEP meetings are both a blessing and a curse. They’re a blessing, because before they existed, special ed kids had no right to an education in this country. Kids with autism, Down’s syndrome, all kinds of mild and severe learning disabilities were routinely denied an education and spent their days isolated in their homes or institutions. It wasn’t until 1975 that schools were forced to educate all kids. That date should be celebrated and put on national calendars.

IEP meetings are a curse, too, because they’re a fucking pain in the ass. 

Now our meeting went so long, because these IEPs always need work. There’s a Platonic Ideal of an IEP and then there’s what we usually get. With 15 years of IEP meetings under my belt, sometimes I’m the most experienced person in the room. We also had to spend a lot of time talking about Ian’s new health issues and how they were impacting on his stress levels, which then impact on his behavior in class. 

When the kid is over 14, IEPs must also include something called a Transition Plan, which states the long term and short term goals for the child, focusing on plans for future employment and on-going education that happens in 18-21 programs (kids with IEPs are entitled to be educated by public schools until 21). With Ian in his Junior year of high school, we had a lot to hash out. 

He’s an extremely smart kid with very bad social skills, so what are we going to do with him? College or an 18-21 program? He’s super good at computers; does he need a four year degree to get a job in that field or will a 2 year degree suffice? Friday’s discussion about transition from high school continued onto with another hour-long phone call with the high school’s Transition Coordinator.  

So, a team of four professionals and I have had four hours of discussion just in the past week about Ian’s long term career plans and how to align his education — both K-12 and higher ed — with those goals. Now, most special ed kids don’t get this kind of attention, but we do, because I’m one of THOSE parents, and my kid is educated in a school that is as close as any school gets to the Platonic Ideal of Schools, thanks to a hefty 30-year mortgage. 

You know how much time that my older typical kid got from his high school guidance counselor on these kinds of matters? Do you know how many times his guidance counselor asked him what he wanted to do after graduation? Do you know how much work his guidance counselor put into looking for after school activities or internships that would line up those career goals. Answers: None. Zero. None. 

Every kid deserves this help with transition from school to the workforce – not just kids who are blessed with parents who have a tendency to speak at school board meetings. But it isn’t happening. I’ve written before about the problems with the lack of career and college advice from guidance counselors, particularly about issues related to work and local community colleges. 

Kids need this help, because workplaces and opportunities are entirely different from career paths from when we were kids. Parents can’t help. Most parents don’t know anything about the opportunities in cyber security, for example, but that’s a super hot field right now. You know what’s not hot? Journalism and doctoral programs. [Weak laugh.]

The good news is that smart people are recognizing these problems and starting do more about it. More on this later. 

Electrician Gossip: Excerpt From the Newsletter January 30, 2020

Here’s an excerpt from the latest newsletter. Don’t forget to subscribe!

January 31, 2020

Hi all!

We’re in the midst of some minor home renovations. Two rooms that remained pretty much untouched since we moved in — our bedroom and office — are getting some love. Nothing fancy, because a bigger job is on the horizon. Just a little paint, some rearranging, and new lighting. 

The electricians were here all morning putting in overhead lights in our dimly lit office. When they were on the way out, I grilled them about business, because I’m nosy like that. I am super interested in jobs that don’t involve college, both because it’s a good topic to write about and because my kid, Ian, may or may not be able to hack traditional college, even one that has supports for kids like him. 

So, the guys told me that business is great. They were slammed by the recession in 2008 and had to cut their workforce in half, but that things have picked up again. Lots of people are doing construction on their homes and renovating their dimly lit office space, so the work is there.  

I asked them if they are hiring new workers. They said that they would, but that “kids today don’t want to do physical labor. They just want to play on their cellphones.” It’s hard for them to find workers. 

I asked them about schooling. Did they recommend a particular program or trade school? Nah, they told me. They teach people on the job how to do things. The old guy said that he went to college, but didn’t want to work in an office, so he became an electrician. He didn’t need his college education for the job. The young guy said he went straight from high school to the job. 

I asked them if the guys who came from trade school were particularly good. They told me that those programs weren’t very helpful, because the best way to learn how to do a job like theirs isn’t from a textbook, but by experience. 

I couldn’t exactly ask them if their job paid well, but the old guy mentioned that he lived locally. So, he’s making enough to afford the high home and taxes in this area. The young guy said he lived out in western Jersey, where houses in the woods are plentiful and relatively affordable. The old guy said that the good thing about being an electrician is that “you can work as much as you like.” He works for this big electric company during the day and then works for a buddy in the evening. That evening work is probably off-the-books, so that means that extra income never shows up on salary scales.

I’m going to continue my annoying questions of workers and owners of businesses. College isn’t for everyone, and parents like me are looking for answers. 

If you want more on this topic, we talked on the blog about a friend who is sending her honors student son to automotive school next year. Also, I wrote about a girl, who decided to go to a trade school, after college last year. 

Thanks for reading! Laura

Bypassing College

I managed to check off my entire list of work chores before 10:00am. Somedays, things go faster than others. So, what does that mean? Lots of time wasting on twitter and blogs today! Woot! First, let me tell you a story.

Steve and I went out for dinner with friends last Saturday night. Because our kids are all around the same age, we talked about colleges. One couple had decided to go the traditional route for their kids and was spending serious cash on a private college and an out-of-state college. That family will be paying back loans for thirty years.

The other couple of double lawyers was sending their Uber-smart son to the engineering program at an in-state college. The second son had decided that he didn’t want to go to college at all. The kid is also smart and in honors classes with a good GPA, but he just had no interest in higher education. He wants to go to automotive school. He just loves cars and that’s it.

So, the parents did the research, and they’re sending him to a for-profit automotive school, where he’ll commute from home. He’ll be done in two years and do what he loves most, which is to tinker with car engines.

Apparently being a car mechanic these days isn’t just lug nuts and oil changes. It’s very technical. It requires a lot of comfort with computers and high-end machinery. Car dealerships are having a hard time finding people with that sort of knowledge, so they are offering nice salaries and benefit packages.

When blue collar jobs become white collar jobs.

Middle class parents are slowly getting more savvy about these options. I expect to see more of this in the future. Are there downsides?

OPINION: Marching band sets the right tempo for many special-needs kids

With plumed caps and braided epaulets for miles, marching bands are a staple of the high school football game. Students stride purposefully around the field with piccolos and tubas, and synchronize their steps to Billy Joel medleys, homages to Mary Poppins and even a snappy march or two from John Philip Sousa. Girls in flared skirts and knee-high boots triumphantly wave flags or twirl wooden rifles. 

In some ways, marching bands are anachronistic today. The frozen smiles and stiff-legged choreography of these bands harken back to a 1940s Esther Williams technicolor movie. The twirling rifles feel vaguely sinister in this post-Sandy Hook era. Yet they hold a certain magic, too — a place of innocence and sincerity not found elsewhere in the dystopian world of the modern American high school. They hold a different kind of magic for the kids who participate in this activity.

Along with the A/V club and the stage crew, marching bands have long been safe places for kids like the socially awkward girl, Michelle, from the 1999 cult flick American Pie, who annoys everyone with tales about band camp. The typical participant is not a super star on the football field or in student government. 

Marching bands also draw in kids with various learning differences, including those with high-functioning autism. For these students, marching band is an activity in which they can participate with peers. With its unique combination of exercise, dance, music and rigor, it also may be a place where they heal.

More here.

The Slacker Boys of Generation Z

The 20-something writers who cover education on the national stage might have more time and energy than this old girl, but I have a few tools in my arsenal as well. My greatest advantage is that I don’t see the school beat as a stepping stone onto other topics. I like schools and have studied them for years, so I’m not putting tons of energy into learning about health care or the military. Schools get all my brain power.

Another advantage that I have is that I’m a parent. There’s nothing like experiencing a situation first hand to give one a good spidey sense about whether a topic is going to be hot or whether a new report is totally off base.

I’m not just a parent. I’m an active parent, who participates in school functions and parent organizations, and regular attends school board meetings. I’m also hopelessly social, so I regularly talk to other parents about their kids. All these experience provide article and blog fodder.

Over the past holidays, I bounced around various cocktail parties and learned some good stuff. One parent of a college-aged boy told me that she was disappointed with her son’s efforts in school. She said that he has been talking more and more about looking at alternatives to college. He and his friends have discussed the fact that they aren’t interested in following in their parents’ footsteps of BAs from prestigious colleges and good paying jobs that put them into suburbs like this one. They want a more laid-back life style.

She mentioned a kid — a son of a friend of a friend type of thing — who was a surfer in California living out of his car. His parents would have paid the rent for an apartment, but the kid (anybody under 25 is still a kid to me) preferred to live a simple life out of his car. He didn’t see the point in paying someone rent for a place that he didn’t need.

She wondered if kids today were rejecting our modern suburban lifestyles. Was this a return to the Gen X slacker days? Was it happening because there’s just so much stress and anxiety in their culture today? Were they going to move to more laid-back areas of the country, because the cost of living is so high around here.

Her question didn’t seem way off, since lots of other people are clearly avoiding are area. New York State is losing population is such numbers, that they might lose Congressional house seats.

Or maybe it’s a boy thing. I was chatting with people on Twitter this morning about an article that said that boys are alienated from schools today. Now that I finished my marching band article (coming soon), I’m going to do a series of article about the college dropout problem. One facet of that discussion is that boys are dropping out at greater rates than girls.

There’s been some small buzz about Gen Z and college, but I think we’re going to start seeing more stats on this soon. I talked to a girl last year, who told me how annoyed she was by her college education, so maybe it’s not just a girl thing. I’m going to ask more questions about all this soon.

If all this is true, I’m not upset. A little rebellion every now and then is a good thing. If the status quo sucks, then I hope that young people say “fuck it” and cause disruption.

Parenting Philosophy

Here’s an except of my latest newsletter. (Sign up, folks!)

 When Steve and I started our family, we were still in graduate school. Having kids while we were working on our dissertations was not in the original plan, but it took a whole lot longer to get to the writing stage of our dissertation than expected. 
In Jonah’s first year, we alternated dissertating and baby minding (morning shift for me, afternoon for him). We kept paid work to a minimum in order to finish as quickly as possible; Steve taught one or two classes at the Bronx Community College, and I left my job at the policy center entirely. We survived on WIC checks and help from my folks. 
Since we couldn’t afford to go out or have a social life, we spent a lot of our downtime gazing down at our new baby imagining his future, as most new parents do. With (soon to be) PhDs parents, we figured that our blond babe would be a school super star. After all, we had hacked school, so we imagined that we could pass down those tricks to him and the doors to Harvard would open wide. A couple of years later, Ian came along, and we eventually learned that one of the downsides to assorted mating is an increased chance of autism. 
 As the kids moved through elementary school, Steve and I used our education to help the kids, but not in the way that we expected – the unexpected is a huge theme in my life. 


At some point, when Jonah was in middle school, we began to resent the massive presence that school had in our lives. Homework took up whole evenings. Entire weekends were spent on a soccer field or a track field or some other after-school activity. Our kid’s happiness was dependent on his grade on his history exam. Family conversations around the dinner table involved homework, tests, and grades. Forgotten homework would lead to angry conversations. Why were random and, often times, dumb assignments was having an impact on my relationship with my son?
Home schoolers often leave the public school system, because they don’t like the secular or liberal values that are passed onto the kids from the teachers. While the thought of spending years cooped up with my kids gives me hives, I do have a lot of sympathy for those who want to opt out of the system. Because the system is grinding kids up. It makes them jump over arbitrary hoops and assigns marks on their jumping skills. If they were learning worthwhile stuff, okay maybe, but lots of times, the things that were learning was worthless. 
Sometimes Jonah would bring home an assignment in social studies on a topic that Steve or I know super well, like the Federalist Papers or the interwar years in Germany. We would have to reteach those topics to Jonah, because we didn’t feel like the teacher knew his/her stuff. Lately, Ian’s been working on some really crappy writing organizer that’s supposed to teach him how to write paragraphs. I write for a living; no professional writers uses that sentence-evidence-sentence-evidence formula. 

In the end, we used our education to un-educate our kids. We were forced to offer a counter balance to the dystopian world of the modern teenager. We took both boys to do fun things that had absolutely nothing to do with achievement and winning. We went to museums, because we just like learning about stuff. We went for hikes, where we looked at snakes, and jumped over creeks. We wandered into restaurants on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, because eating new foods is fun. 
My education did come in handy, when we realized that Ian had autism, and I had to learn a whole bunch of special education laws really quickly, in order to advocate for him in the best way possible. I’ve also “scienced the hell out of” his unique brain, but that’s a story for another day. Mostly we used our educations to show the kids that there is a lot to learn outside of school and that learning new things was awesome and didn’t need a reward. 
The heavy shadow of the school building is felt strongest in upper middle class communities like ours. Stress and the heavy demands from school is a form of privilege in a way. But for the kids who are dealing with some toxic cocktails of stress and depression, it’s simply horrible. I know five and six year old kids who are having meltdowns in schools about stress right now. This is child abuse, plain and simple. 
Schools are products of their communities, so administrators are ratcheting up expectations and pressure in response to parent demands (and in response to town officials who want high school rankings to maintain real estate value). And communities like ours are scared shitless about the future for their kids. They’re worried that their kids aren’t going to get a ticket on the middle class train without perfect grades and an acceptance letter to a top college. They’re so worried about it that they’ll put themselves in massive debt to pay those private school tuitions, and send their kids to high schools that ruin them emotionally.
So, we pushed back. Not entirely. Our oldest got decent grades and was in a varsity sport, but we resisted school demands enough to be subtly subversive. We decided that it was more important than our kids were sane and happy, rather then they win a perfect SAT score. We tried to not let schools drive our family life. Because schools should be a side dish, not the main course of a family. 
Every family should have their own things that make them happy, that define them, that bind each other together. We like art museums and hikes, but for other families, it might mean Mets games or fishing trips or baking. I’m agnostic about those family definitions, as long as it’s not school. We can’t abdicate the joy and the creativity of raising a family to a government bureaucracy that won’t remember your kid’s name next year. 
My philosophy? Kids and family first. Schools last, by a lot. 

Blaming Parents For Inequality in Schools

In education circles, pundits are currently making two arguments simultaneously that don’t sync up.

First, school choice advocates have pointed towards Democratic political candidates who send their own kids to private schools, while publicly opposing charter schools, and accused them of hypocrisy. Elizabeth Warren, for example, sent her son to a private school in Texas.

You can’t have both – private schools for your own kids and public schools for everyone else — conservatives say. The left says, let’s ignore the choices of these political candidates, because these people are parents first, politicians second. It is possible to do the right thing at that moment for your kid, while advocating for better schools for everybody else.

Second, several articles lately have said that parents who use rating systems, like the Great Schools website, to help choose their homes, are… well… let’s just say it… basically racist. Great Schools evaluates schools based on state standardized test scores, number of kids taking AP classes, SAT scores, teacher-student ratios, and some other publicly available data. Then it assigns the school a grade from 1-10. The 10 schools tend to be in more affluent, white neighborhoods. The lower scoring schools tend to be in low income, urban areas.

In the old days, real estate agents used to steer white parents towards white neighborhoods and black parents towards black neighborhoods in a practice known as redlining. I’m not sure if I’ve written about this on the blog, but when we were little, and my parents moved from an apartment in the Bronx to our first home, my dad forced his real estate agent to show us a home in a neighborhood that had been redlined for black families. He bought the house, and we moved into a home next a lovely African-American family. The dad was a hotshot at IBM. But mostly stories like that didn’t happen.

Redlining was vilified, and the practice ended. Well, sort of. Now, parents self-segregate into towns that have people with similar incomes and use websites like Great Schools as a shortcut, when making those decisions. It’s de facto segregation, rather than de jure segregation. Still, not wonderful, but de facto segregation always been tolerated in our society, because of argument #1 above, which states that parents have to do what parents have to do. Also, it’s a matter of freedom, a value that is highly prized by Americans.

We moved to our current town about nine years ago, primarily because we were seeking better schools for our kids. We didn’t need a website to tell us that our town had a good school system, because anybody who lives in Northern New Jersey can tell you exactly which schools get their kids into college and which ones don’t.

Of course, there are limitations to those ranking systems and reputation. We’re in a town with very large schools, so that meant that oddballs like Ian are lost in the shuffle. Our school now ships him off to a smaller public school about 30 minutes away, where he is thriving. I think Jonah might have done better in a smaller school with less stress, too, but he survived.

Schools aren’t the only reason that we moved to this town. We like it well enough that we will probably stay here, after Ian finishes school. But schools were a major factor in our original decision to move to this town.

By moving here, it meant that we’re not in a school that could benefit from me — I’m a big mouth at school board meetings, and I volunteer a lot, too — and that my good test taking kids aren’t boosting test scores for that hypothetical town either. But, like Elizabeth Warren, I had to do what was right for my kids.

Now, I would just like greater consistency in edu-punditry. If we give Democratic politicians a hall pass for choosing private schools for their kids, then we can’t vilify middle class parents from making those same choices. Rather, I think we should look at ways to make schools in poorer neighborhoods more desirable, to offer parents positive reasons — better school facilities, higher quality teachers, unique school offerings — to move to low income, urban areas.

But we’re entering a dark time for schools. It’s clear that no more money is coming. Reforms aren’t working. Reformers are walking away. When that happens, parents who make rational choices for their kids become the bad guys. That’s just not cool.