Open house in two languages
Posted on September 26th, 2012
hen Marcel’s principal greeted the assembled parents and students in the school gym at last week’s open house she said her hellos in English.
The vice-principal immediately translated those into Spanish.
Marcel’s middle school is big—nearly a thousand students big—so I’m not quite sure why I was taken aback by the noisy energy in the gym last Thursday. Parents and students filled the bleachers. Then they filled the folding chairs as quickly as a custodian could unfold them. And, finally, the latest of the latecomers leaned against the wall in clusters that eventually blended together to become a straight-up crowd by the time the principal finished up at the mike and set us loose to visit the classrooms.
I think my surprise at the turn-out came in part out of an assumption I’d made about the level of parental involvement at middle school. You can’t attend a kindergarten field trip without falling over five parent chaperones but, as the students move up, the parents don’t seem to be as visible anymore. Project that realization beyond elementary school, forward even three short years, and you’ve got a great big empty gym on Open House Night.
But there was this, too: that Marcel’s middle school is a Title 1 school. More than 60 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced lunch. The school is receiving more than $60,000 in aid to address the needs of the student body—as interpreted by the district sifting through the registration data.
Most of all, though, I think listening to those opening remarks being translated into Spanish made me confront some ugly assumptions in that standing room only-gym that I’d prefer to believe I wasn’t entirely aware that I was making.
That parents of poor children wouldn’t bother showing up.
That, even worse, Spanish-speaking parents, excluded from the proceedings in that terrible, pro forma way only institutions can, would opt out of the evening’s proceedings.
Well, not by this school.
At Marcel’s sixth grade orientation last month, I listened to a bearded, bespectacled white man exhort the children and parents crowded into the cafeteria to follow the path they were starting out on that day to its destination: not just the completion of middle school but high school, too, and secondary schooling that could be vocational training or college.
“Preach,” I said under my breath. He wasn’t talking to just us, I thought, Marcel and me; he was talking to all of us, and we were, shoulder-to-shoulder, in this room together.
“Amen!” a father hollered back from the walls of the cafeteria.
Public school is an education in our societal demographics—who we really are as a city, state or country, without the divisions of privilege to separate us from each other. But whether it’s news of teachers striking in Chicago or the realization that classrooms are working just as hard to give English to students as math and reading skills, committing to public education can feel like a risky proposition. Open House reminded me that only by fully engaging in the system would our son be able to benefit from the opportunities still available in public school while gaining an authentic understanding of the challenges we face together—and not just at middle school, either.
Later that night, I listened to Marcel’s math teacher talk about how he believed students gained confidence in their ability to problem-solve. Not by being told that they were “shiny all the time,” he said, but students grew sure of themselves by doing the work, whatever it might be, until they knew they had it.
We—all of us—have no end of work to do, inside the classroom and out. Nights like Open House make me hopeful that our community problem-solving skills are improving because we are doing this particular kind of work together.∗