Here we are facing a new school year, a time filled with happiness, excitement, dread, apprehension and relief, sometimes all at the same time. Students are planning what they'll wear the first day, parents are obligingly debating the merits of three-ring binders with zippers versus Velcro strips and teachers are deciding which projects they will assign and what their bulletin boards will look like.
We all need to take a deep breath and pledge that we will be more organized than last year, that we will keep track of deadlines and obligations and not leave things until the last minute and--excuse me, I need a cup of coffee, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed already.
Tell you what. Let's just plan on the first week being a whirlwind of emotion and snafus. In the meantime, here's a little guide to some things that parents in particular might want to know:
One thing parents don't always realize is that the transportation department is making its final bus plans in the first week school starts. This is because officials can't really know until then how many students will be riding from where to where. So don't panic those first couple of days, just let the transportation department know what the problem is, whether it is a bus that is too crowded or one that is a half-hour late.
The way to do this is to call the bus depot for your area. Look at the first digit of the four-digit number on the card in the bus's front window. If it is number 1, the bus operates out of the Bethesda depot 301-469-1070; 2 is Clarksburg 301-353-0815; 3 is Randolph 301-929-6906; 4 is Shady Grove 301-840-8150; and 5 is West Farm 301-879-1065.
If you're not satisfied with the response, you can write the boss, John Matthews, Acting Director, Division of Transportation, 16651 Crabbs Branch Way, Rockville, Md. 20855.
Most teachers, both elementary and secondary, prefer that you wait to buy supplies until after school begins, when they can tell the students exactly what to buy. This is annoying to those people who hate to shop with every other parent in the county on the same evening. But it will save you from buying the 64-pack of crayons when your second-grader only needs the 24-pack. Some schools sell supplies from their school store, which saves a lot of aggravation and sometimes money.
In some schools, parents and children know who their teachers will be long before the start of school. In others, they learn the first day or just before that. Either way, the call principals dread is the one where a parent complains about his or her child getting a particular teacher.
This is a tricky issue, because as intimately as parents know their children and as much as they know about the reputation of an individual teacher, they aren't always able to know ahead of time whether a particular teacher will be good for a particular child.
Perhaps the teacher who was lackluster last year has received additional training and support that will propel him or her into the stratosphere this year. The teacher who was disorganized and never returned tests last year might have learned a new system for record-keeping that will keep him on track. The teacher who just couldn't seem to teach division in such a way that all her children understood it may have taken some advanced math classes and is re-energized and full of good ideas.
Still, parents have a right to be concerned. My rule of thumb is to look at the kind of year the child had the year before--if the child had a bad year with a teacher, the parent has a right and an obligation to ensure that the following year is with a more compatible teacher. The parent should discuss this with the principal. Most children can survive one bad year, but two bad years in a row can really hurt. However, if your child had a good last year, give it some time this year. Don't assume that just because your neighbor's child had a bad experience with a teacher means that your child will also. Volunteer in your child's classroom and get to know the teacher better--not so that you can "keep book" on him or her, but so that you can be a real partner in your child's education.
And never stand in the hallway discussing the terribleness of a particular teacher. Nothing is more demoralizing to teachers and students.
If your child has a special need or eccentricity that you want teachers to know about, tell this year's teacher or teachers. You cannot assume that they will read your child's file. Some do, but many don't, even in elementary schools. To communicate with teachers, you can leave a message at the school and wait for a call back when the teacher has time. Or you can write a letter and send it with your child. Even more effective is to fax letters to the school's office, where the school secretary can put it in the teacher's mailbox.
If you are having a disagreement with a teacher, first raise the issue with the teacher, and if that doesn't work, send a letter to the teacher with a copy to the principal. If you have e-mail, see if your child's teachers check their e-mail daily. This can be a wonderful way to communicate, taking much less time and having much more immediacy than anything except a face-to-face meeting.
Parents should check them. There are areas of your child's life that are okay to be private, but the backpack is not one of them. The backpack is where school and home intersect, and much of the communication between the two takes place in the backpack. So tell your children that and check.
All those forms
Fill them out. Every single one. In particular, the yellow cards tell the school where to reach you in an emergency. The forms are kept in different places, so they all need to be filled out.
If your school PTA publishes a directory, you will get a form asking you to fill out information on your child's address, etc. If you don't fill it out, your child will not be in the school directory, and don't be surprised if birthday party invitations are rather thin that year.
Don't confuse that form with the school system's form that asks if you want to "withhold directory information." This has to do with whether the school system may give your name and address to a commercial interest. Although the school system hasn't been selling the lists in the last couple of years, it may be obliged to soon. I personally always withhold directory information, but if you like junk mail you might want to make a different decision.
The very word causes shudders in parents throughout the country. The little critters can bring any family to its sobbing knees after weekends of laundry, vacuuming, shampooing and that endless combing.
This is what parents need to tell their children: Don't just throw backpacks and jackets in a big heap on the floor with all the other students' backpacks and jackets. Hang them separately or fold them neatly in their cubbies or lockers so they are not in contact with anyone else's belongings. I'm assuming parents have already told children not to use someone else's brush or comb or wear someone else's hat.
But here's a little danger I just learned about: Many elementary schools use books-on-tape for children to listen to while reading, and they sometimes share headphones. A nice little fund-raising project for the PTA would be to get every headphones for each student, to be stored in zip-lock bags with the students' names on them. This would save a lot in lice shampoo.
Speaking of which, you probably shouldn't buy lice shampoo anyway. Only the most toxic work. The best treatment is combing with a good metal lice comb (not the kind included with the lice shampoo) after conditioning the hair with a greasy conditioner. The experience will connect you with the long-forgotten traditions and practices of our ancestors and bring new meaning to the word nit-picking. For lots of information, go to www.headlice.org, run by the National Pediculosis Association.
That's all for now. But for those of you who are not familiar with this column, I'd like to welcome you. Homeroom is a countywide conversation on schools and education, and it relies heavily on letters from parents, teachers, students and residents who are interested in what goes on in schools. It appears in the Montgomery Weekly, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinion and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St. Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.