Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fifth-grade Graduation

"Egbert" graduated from the fifth grade this evening (actually, it was called a "stepping-up" ceremony). The whole idea of graduating from elementary school seemed rather silly to me, and Egbert had said he didn't want to go, so I didn't think much about it. But his teacher talked him into it, and in the event, I was very glad we had gone. The ceremony was held in the hot, un-airconditioned gym, which was so filled with the extended families that the proceedings had to be delayed while more chairs were brought in, but such a feeling of community, and intergenerational pride and connectedness, was worth the heat.

The 26 kids in the school's graduating class ranged from a tiny boy who was probably only 36" tall to a girl who was nearing six feet. The boys were dressed in Tshirts; polos; shirts and ties; two boys wore suits. (Egbert had requested a tux, but settled for a shirt and tie with his shorts and tevas.) The girls wore sundresses and heels, a pantsuit, or skirts and tops. They each received at least one award, for such diverse accomplishments as participating in art exhibits, proficiency in physical education, politeness, improvement, diligence, poetry writing, creative writing, math excellence, musical excellence... there was a history prize from the DAR, three minority-student achievement medals from a sorority... I can't remember them all. A couple of the kids really racked up the awards, including some of Egbert's friends--the two smartest girls in his class, and the boy who is the funniest-looking but sweetest and least-affected child I know. Egbert got his share: math excellence, excellence in technology (he's one of two kids who help teachers and students troubleshoot their computer problems), poetry writing, and for being the best speller in the school (he's a derivational-constancy speller!). As the english teacher was building up to the announcement of this award, the kids started to call Egbert's name, and when she finally called it, they all joined in unison. It was very sweet.

The kids were serenely proud, for themselves and each other. They have matured so much in the past year--this was especially obvious in the video slideshow at the end, featuring photos from this year and the preceding few years. The real affection that the teachers and the principal have for these kids (most have been at this school their entire lives, and some are second and third generation graduates) was palpable.

(On a weird note, one of the stepping-up kids was the son of one of my clients, whose case I won in court on this very same day (though he's still incarcerated, on a different charge). It was odd to hear the boy's name called, and to see this sweet, shy, skinny boy proudly accepting his awards (and accolades for being the fastest runner in school) and to think that this morning I was arguing his father's case.)

This elementary school is tiny, with only 175 kids (preK to 5th). It's a poor school--in a poor rural area of the county, with the highest proportion of free/reduced lunch-eligible kids in the division (59%), and the population includes more than 40% minority students. It's also an historical school--it's built on a site that was originally purchased by local black families,  who held barbecues to raise the funds to buy the land and build the school for the community's black children in the early 20th century. The school still is named after the first teacher those families hired to teach their children. Several documents from that era are displayed in a case in the school's lobby. Those families donated the land to the county after the demise of massive resistance, and the integrated county elementary was built, and still stands today--a little the worse for wear, since the county has not upgraded or even invested in infrastructure maintenance in years.

The school division is considering closing the three smallest elementary schools--including this one--all in the southern part of the county. Parent push-back has been much stronger than I think was expected by the school board or the committee tasked with looking into alternative plans (including building one big combined elementary school--which seems to be the plan they're trying to push). The sell didn't go over too well--at the forum I attended, they had an interactive power-point presentation that consisted of info-bites from a commissioned study, and polled the audience with questions derived from the study, such as "will children have a longer or shorter bus ride at a new southern feeder pattern consolidated elementary school" -- which attendees would answer with a clicker. The results of the instant poll would show that, for instance, most parents believed kids would have a longer bus ride, but... lo and behold, the correct answer was that actually most kids would have the same or shorter, and none would have a longer! All the questions went like this; the intuitive answer always turned out to be incorrect. Ah, what a great way to get buy-in from parents--telling them that everything they think is wrong! Strangely, smart people can be really dumb when it comes to understanding how people really feel and react. The powerpoints were a disaster, and only served to increase the frustration, sense of powerlessness, and anxiety of the parents who are faced with the loss of their community school--the one that most of them attended themselves.

The presentation focused on things such as small school/larger school performance, achievement, economy-of-scale, etc, but didn't address intangibles such as community--how is that measured? Even the kids got exercised by the consolidation proposal: Egbert's debate club debated the issue at their final tournament. There have been subsequent meetings, petitions circulated... it will be interesting to see how it's resolved.

Before he started at this school, I had been really worried about Egbert's transition from the freedom of Montessori to a public-school third-grade classroom, but actually he adjusted really well, and felt much happier in an environment that included both more structure and more attention than the large Montessori he'd left (his first montessori school was so unique--a one-room school house, with a kindergarten class of 5 kids--that it was in a class of its own). We had struggles with homework at first (montessori doesn't do homework, and it took a while before his third-grade teacher (now his art and advanced-math teacher) figured out the appropriate quantity of homework for eight-year-olds)--and there's the ongoing issue of how different he is from most of the other kids. But for the most part, he's been really happy there, and has loved all his teachers, who are sweet, nurturing, and fun--really engaged with the kids, and knowing them all individually, which is one of the best things about a small community school.

I feel Egbert is ready to move on to the broader social horizons of middle school (though as MS's go, this one is small, too!) but I'm so glad he was able to "step up" with 25 other kids he's now known for three years, in a nurturing environment, with teachers he'll remember for the rest of his life. Watching him as he sat there in his white shirt and red tie, looking both serious/grown-up and young/sweet, he seemed simultaneously to be my child whom I love so intensely, and an unknown young man out in the world. I suppose that dichotomous perception will only increase in time as he turns more of his attention into the world... bittersweet.

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