Q.Friends used to roll their eyes and warn us, "Just wait until you have a teenager," but they were wrong. Our talkative, outgoing 14-year-old is a lot of fun.
She is full of life, with good friends and strong relationships within our close-knit, extended family, and though she is full of opinions, her views are interesting and insightful. She is also a hardworking student in the gifted-and-talented program, but school is not a bright spot in her life.
She liked elementary school and we hope she will like high school, but the two-year middle school in our community has nearly 1,100 students. It appears to be the weak link in our public school system. While our daughter is involved in myriad activities, none is connected to the school, as it has no sports teams, no school newspaper and very few after-school clubs. Also, the principal has been there so long she doesn't care any more; the teacher turnover is way too high, and we could complain about some new problem every week. But we don't. When we did complain, the school administrators would say, "I'm sorry that you feel that way, but there's nothing we can do," and the teachers wouldn't answer either our voice-mail or e-mail messages.
There are few chances for parents to volunteer at the school, but when we do, we can see why our daughter and her friends find it a chaotic, inhospitable place. Many parents agree, and then say, "But it's a difficult age."
For all of these reasons, we're switching our son to a private school next year, but we still believe in public education and would like to help change this middle school if only we knew where to start. Or is the school so bad because of the age of the students?
A.No, it isn't the age of the students that is messing up this school.
The essential problem is the size of the school, the apathy of the principal and the faculty and the basic need of teens to lead younger children and for older children to show them the way.
A first-rate principal can keep order and still offer many extracurricular activities, but it would be much easier if the school had only 500 to 700 students, rather than 1,100. A big school may save money on staff and heat bills, but the bigger it is, the more impersonal it becomes and the less time and interest teachers and counselors can give to each child. In time, no one even notices the child who is falling apart.
A stable child with a caring family can handle chaotic situations at school, but not all children are so fortunate.
When hundreds of 12-to-15-year-olds are stuffed into the same building, it only takes a few explosive types to set off a big scene.
Their bodies are awash with hormones; their minds are taking a big leap forward around 14, and they're probably in the middle of a growth spurt.
Suddenly their legs don't fit under their desks so well and they feel a bit ungainly, especially the girls who have put on a little baby fat, as so many girls do at this age.
You can't do much to change policy in the public schools but you can -- and should -- testify before the school board and tell them why you're taking your son out of the school and suggest that they split the school into pods or into separate physical units. Many schools are doing that.
To communicate with the school and the school board better, read "Parent Talk!" by Cheli Cerra and Ruth Jacoby (Jossey-Bass, $14.95) and to find out about the pressures that every teacher faces, read "Teacher Time" by Marty Shollenberger Swaim and Stephen C. Swaim (Redbud, $12.95).
These books will help you empathize with your child's teachers and walk softly and wear a big smile.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.