I am not an activist.
I vote, but don’t campaign. I give money to causes I believe in, but don’t tell others to do the same. But in the past five years since I’ve had children in the public school system, all that has changed.
When I spent time in the kindergarten classroom and saw how cramped the space was; when I saw children were literally on the floor, under tables, crying – I talked to the teacher, then the principal. He was rudely unresponsive. So, I did some research about budgets and state law. I contacted the superintendent, assistant superintendent, and five members of the school board.
I spoke at a board meeting, shaking with rage and nerves the whole time. I was on the local news twice, including one day when I hadn’t showered. And when all of those efforts made not one drop of difference, I moved my child to another school.
To choose a school with better chances of success in kindergarten, I asked everyone I knew about their experience. I called district offices where no one wanted to answer questions about class size. Finally, I called every elementary school in my city to find real numbers — not school averages, but how many five- and six-year-olds one teacher was expected to wrangle.
Before switching, I went to observe. I’d learned my lesson. The tone and tenor of one classroom, far from our home, was unlike anything else I’d seen. Immediately I knew it was the right place for my son.
It shouldn’t be this hard. I speak English as my first language, have my own transportation, work from home, and have a master’s degree. Even with these advantages, navigating the education system in my community was exhausting.
Fast forward a few years and my second child was set to begin kindergarten. We were at the same school where we’d found such contentment the first time around. With a wonderful teacher, we began the year. My son had some special needs – a chronic health condition – and a brilliant mind. I met with the teacher early on and together we figured out accommodations to make things work.
Despite the teacher’s best efforts, my boy was not thriving. One day I noticed he’d begun to count on his fingers, like his peers, something he’d not done since he was three years old. I recognized the need for intervention and began to confer.
I met with the principal, so unlike the first one I’d encountered. She was responsive to my concerns and came up with alternatives. Stymied by rules, she involved district administrators. I spoke again with superintendents, even state legislators.
I was treated by these officials with such remarkable condescension. I was told by many that my opinion did not matter, that every parent wants to think their child is special. In not so many words, the message was clear: suck it up.
The first time around, I was disillusioned and pained by how the system didn’t seem set up for student success. This second time I was heartbroken to see how nothing had changed, despite the amazing people in the real classrooms.
Something has shifted inside me over these five years. I’m up to date on state education policies, as well as national trends. I know the people involved in every level of leadership in my community, and know who can be taken at their word. I tell strangers they don’t have to take the status quo when I overhear them worrying in the parking lot.
I still hate meeting new people and hate how my voice sounds amplified through a microphone. I don’t want to be seen as an agitator or loudmouth. But once it became about my kids, my preferences went out the window.
I’m working with a small group of parents to get approval to expand our school. We’re hitting roadblock after roadblock. Some people want to give up, don’t think it’s worth the hassle. I get that. I just know that no one else will advocate for my children if I don’t. Special education parents changed the system over the past 50 years, fighting for every child.
My quests may be less dramatic but the idea is the same: our kids are worth fighting for.