Last edited: 22/02/14 at 10:05 am (addition of ‘Help Close the Parent Gap’ for further consideration)
I like Sam Liccardo. Really, I do. The San Jose City Councilman from the downtown District 3 has his eyes set on the Office of the Mayor and his mayoral campaign has been in full swing for months. Liccardo, a San Jose native and Harvard Law School graduate, is a new breed of politician- one who’s not afraid to stand up to the old guard, extend a helping hand to local businesses of all stripes and sizes, and implement innovative measures to tackle issues that drain our city’s tax dollars.
As much as I like what Mr. Liccardo does for my district in San Jose, I’ve got one beef with his campaign- an item that surely does not hold up to scrutiny of research, let alone what’s best for moving the city forward. Liccardo proposes an extended school day for all students, K-12, so that kids can reap the rewards of additional learning time while presumably staying off the streets in the afternoon. As of yet, no mention has been made about whether or not some schools- or parents- can opt out of the extended day; likewise, Liccardo has made no statement regarding which school districts in San Jose his proposal would apply to (there are numerous).
Mr. Liccardo seems to be missing something from his estimation of how to fix our educational woes, however. While an extended day may help some of San Jose’s struggling schools and youth, it will overburden others and result in the unfair allocation of additional funding (I can suspect that this would call for additional funding) to schools who don’t, in fact, need it.
That’s because many schools within San Jose’s borders do just fine graduating enterprising young individuals who can be found at the nation’s top universities and institutes. In fact, of 52 elementary, middle and high schools just within San Jose Unified School District alone, a full quarter of the schools are rated at 8 or above on a 10-point scale.
Yet we can’t overlook the increasing disparity of our students’ educational experience within San Jose and to that, I do applaud Mr. Liccardo. Without intellectually curious and educationally engaged kids, we neglect our own future. In Silicon Valley, there could be no bigger death knell than a population who, rather than serve the needs of the community, find themselves unskilled for the jobs of the region. In turn, we can kiss goodbye our area’s thriving economy and everything that goes along with it.
In short, Sam Liccardo, I see your concerns… and I raise the stakes on you to consider better approaches. If you will, here is my short-list:
TARGETED PRE-K: While you focus your efforts on extended days for children already in school, the most well-documented route to educational success actually applies before they enter school. Universal pre-k has been rolling full steam ahead with great success in states as diverse as Oklahoma and New Jersey. Why? Because overwhelming evidence shows us that a child’s education begins well in advance of their first day at kindergarten; those lacking a nurturing environment in the first years of life begin elementary school far behind their peers in terms of cognitive development and preparedness.
In a city where a quarter of our students are English-language learners and nearly half qualify for free or reduced lunches, targeting these children with pre-k would be a huge boost to struggling families who lack the financial ability to provide pre-k let alone the understanding of just how important these early years are on their children. Though there will be hurdles to cross in terms of financing such a plan, make it clear to voters that the well known returns on investment of pre-k in terms of capacity to succeed in the workforce, health, crime reduction and more) will pay off, and then some.
INEQUITY & STUDENT FUNDING FORMULAS: If you become our next mayor, Mr. Liccardo, you’ll have a helping hand over in Sacramento. Among the issues high on Governor Brown’s agenda has been his student funding formula- an algorithm that distributes state educational dollars to schools that need it most based on things like English-language learners, income levels, past school performance and more. School districts lacking large numbers of the aforementioned demographics would receive less money than those with them (here’s the district breakdown). Working with our state legislators and local school board, assess the very real impact these extra dollars will have on San Jose’s neediest children and put these dollars to use accordingly.
BEWARE OF AN EXODUS: I would caution a diplomatic approach to our city’s educational issues that recognizes the needs of all families- not just those that fall under a particular socio-economic threshold. Without the parents who volunteer in a number of our schools at incredibly high rates or who are able to give additional funding so that their children can benefit from supplements that the district axed years ago, San Jose’s chances for success will be precarious at best.
Some of our schools are ranked among the top schools nationally thanks in large part to the dedication of their active parent base, fundraising and supplemental education. At a time when the media pits the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ against one another, we need to find a way to bring both groups together so that they can all succeed together because the future of all of our kids is on the line. Some nearby districts (notably, Albany Unified) redistribute fundraising dollars among their schools. I’m not sold on this idea, though it is one additional perspective that you ought to consider before assuming that all families will appreciate your extended day proposal.
HELP CLOSE THE PARENT GAP: The positive impacts of parent volunteers in our schools and the many advantages it poses to our kids cannot be overstated. Research shows us that parent involvement in their children’s education is the single biggest indicator of a child’s future success. All of San Jose’s finest schools also boast active parent-led volunteer organizations (PTAs, booster clubs, classroom volunteers and more). Unfortunately, our failing schools suffer from a lack of parent involvement.
Here’s an innovative idea… one that I’d like to think you, Mr. Liccardo, can get behind: start making parental involvement a requirement for all San Jose families with school children. Requirements can be as minimal as a single hour per month dedicated to in-class or out-of-class teacher assistance, attending parenting or academic workshops, reading with small children, sending school or class communications to families via email or flyers, etc.
Since his kindergarten year, I’ve been offering 1 hour each week to my son’s school… he is now in 8th grade. What began as a way to see firsthand what my son was learning in elementary and assist his teachers with reading and arts projects has morphed into taking inventory of his middle school’s library and making photo copies. I wouldn’t trade this time for the world, but I also recognize that not all families can participate in the classroom. That’s OK- there are so many areas where families can help their schools and, most importantly, their children succeed. Start small. Leverage the plethora of research that shows the strong correlation between student success and parental involvement. And offer parents options to get involve that work for them.
LESS IS ACTUALLY MORE: What’s the problem with extended school days, you ask? For one, many of our city’s children do not suffer from a lack of after-school activities, so why on earth would it be fair for taxpayers to bear a burden many of us parents happily bear already? For what it’s worth, I’m one of those parents who carefully puts aside money each month to fund my child’s sporting activities; many others ensure their children have access to musical instruction, robotics clubs, theater groups and more… all at their own expense. Leverage this to the advantage of the entire San Jose community!
Targeting parents who cannot afford such luxuries will help to alleviate their family’s financial burdens while ensuring that families who can offer these supplements to their children can continue to do so based solely on the number of hours in a day. Take away the hours of 3-5 pm, and you take away parents’ and childrens’ ability to choose their own endeavors. I should note here that by high school, kids have a host of after-school activities largely paid for by their schools and run by teachers and parents gracious with their time. They already exist: target kids who are at peril of delinquency by getting them into these programs without affecting the choice of others.
THE FINNISH KICKER: I would be remiss to not mention here that both anecdotal and clinical research is casting more light on how time spent working on schoolwork and in high-stakes activities is abused to the detriment of our children. I realize you aren’t a father, Mr. Liccardo, but if you ever become one you’ll no doubt notice the double-edged sword that said activities can fast become. Too little of them and your child is at risk for a slew of problems that will haunt him for the rest of his life; too much and… your child is at risk for a slew of problems that will haunt him for the rest of his life. There is a happy medium, and most families have to strike that chord on their own rather than be told by the district that their child will stay at school until dinnertime.
Take Finland- a most beautiful country of which I’m delighted to have visited. While the sparsely populated Nordic country boasts a number of wonderful attributes, few come close to the international acclaim its public educational system has rightly achieved. Dubbed the ‘Finnish Miracle’, their schools churn out top-performs who have eagerly catapulted this relatively small nation into global fame. If numbers are your thing, their kids blow most other kids out of the water on a variety of tests and measurements. Their parents? Educated, with access to pre-k and the freedom to make choices that would have a positive impact on their own families in the way they see fit. Their teachers? Top notch- only the best make it into the teaching programs, and fewer still graduate… notably, like the parents, they too are able to alter curriculums to suit the needs of their students.
Perhaps it’s little surprise that Finland leads the PISA charts on a number of measures, but the real kicker is in how they got there. Turns out, schools in Finland are pretty relaxed. As in, students attend school a whopping 85% fewer days than the rest of the world. On average, they have just 30 minutes of homework per night (tell this to my son’s San Jose middle school, which typically gives between 2-4 hours nightly). And the country spend $1,200 USDs less per pupil than we do in the U.S. We need to step back from our tired way of looking at education- sometimes, less really is more.
BOTTOM LINE: Forcing an extended school day takes away San Jose parents’ right to allow their child to shine in their own light. Many of our kids would not be enjoying the fruitful activities that they do after school -whether that’s practicing their fast pitch, acting in a local playhouse, that first job bagging groceries, or simply relaxing while listening to their music and letting the world go away.
Mr. Liccardo, I really like what you stand for. Really, I do. So much so that I wrote you this open letter. As a San Jose citizen, mother and voter, I urge you to reconsider the extended school day for all San Jose students, and to find better ways to work with all of the city’s parents for the good of all of our kids.