Ready for School? A Tale of Two Realities
Guest post from Amy Rothschild:
The night before school starts, I'm thinking about "school readiness." A catchphrase used to name various policy initiatives and describe the work of non-profits, it refers to the habits a young child brings to school that makes him or her "ready" to learn. We exhort that children must have social skills, like the ability to sit with a group during a meeting time, and certain academic concepts, like knowing how to hold a book. Rarely, however, do we talk about "school readiness" and mean the school's readiness for those learners on day one.
I have made the shift from working in a urban public school in Connecticut to an small private school in DC--where last year's parents received public assistance, this year's crop make public policy. In the week or so of faculty orientation and set up, I have been continually struck by the difference it makes when a school has the funding to be ready for its students. Casually, an administrator told new faculty, "you'll find toilet paper, paper towels, sponges, and cleaning supplies in the downstairs storage room. Pens, Post Its, dry erase spray, et cetera are upstairs in the faculty lounge. When we're running low on something, make a note on one of the clipboards you'll find."
I nearly went into shock. All of these sundry supplies were amply available--which meant that the rest of the meetings were spent discussing curriculum in depth, and I was able to arrive at work each day well-rested for those conversations because I had not been racing across down from Staples to Target to Office Max in search of teacher dollar deals.
In the current discussion of education, discussion of funding is essentially taboo. Scarcity is so thoroughly the norm that bargain hunting, DIY projects, and fundraising efforts through sites like Donors Choose are essential public duties of the teacher.
I recently received the latest issue of the NEA magazine, which makes the rare move of bridging the topic of funding. The cover story described different funding per pupil based on district, and outlined the difference that funding makes. Then, the editors dedicated a full spread to setting up a classroom on a shoestring budget. We learned how to cover old cardboard magazine holders with duct tape to make them look inviting, and ways to make comfy "toadstools" out of electrical spools that presumably, the teacher contributing the idea had begged off of a local construction site.
What I contributed to my public school prekindergarten classroom was a point of pride for me--comfy pillows for the meeting rug, soft lighting for rest time, books that represented my students and their families, pencil holders made from empty aluminum cans washed lovingly and dressed in solid color wrapping paper.
At my new school, provisioning is much simpler. My school has what I need or I order it using their budget. It is an unexpected relief to move past this level of work--scavenging--onto the big questions--who are my students, how do they learn best, what can we do to engage them meaningfully in building a classroom community? Start brainstorming, there's plenty of chart paper over there.
My students come from homes that for the most part enjoy sufficient economic stability to help their children be ready for school. I am curious to see what it will mean for my students and my teaching that our school is ready for them.
Amy Rothschild is an early childhood educator in Washington D.C. She has just made the transition from teaching in an urban public school to a private school. You can read some of her writing on the Teaching for Change blog.