Sunday, April 6, 2008

Hot topic: bullying

The recent comments on this site about bullying led Ryan and me to discuss this topic after the kids went to bed tonight. It turns out my husband has a horrific story about some mean kids throwing him into a garbage can when he was in junior high. I can remember being teased in elementary school. I was a quiet, bookish child with only one friend. We walked around the schoolyard hand-in-hand, and we always wore matching outfits. The cooler kids definitely had some things to say about us.

I specifically remember an incident in about second or third grade when I was sitting on a bench with my legs crossed. An older girl dug into me for this and said something like, "Don't you think you're cool with your legs crossed!" A group of kids were standing around and I was humiliated. Even though her mean-spirited comment was quite benign, I still sometimes think of it when I'm wearing a skirt and crossing my legs.

I can't imagine how upset I would be if I found out some kids were bullying Alice or her younger brother, Sam. I would only hope that all schools are clued into these issues and would be proactive in stopping any bullying that goes on. I'd love to hear from parents with kids who are already in school. How do your schools deal with bullying? Any advice for parents headed for kindergarten?

59 comments:

  1. I'm sure this varies tremendously from school to school, but our experience thus far on the issue of bullying is that private schools tend to be much more proactive about establishing a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and really working with the kids to understand why it happens and what to do about it when it does.

    Public schools, on the other hand -- at least the ones our children and their friends have attended -- just don't have the resources to be as on-top of the bullying issue as private schools do. First, there tends to be very little adult supervision at recess and at lunchtime, when much of the teasing, meanness, exclusion, etc. happens. Plus, I think there's just a different attitude about it.

    Our kids' public elementary did introduce a social-skills element into the curriculum a couple of years ago, and that was somewhat helpful. But in general I think that public schools pay less attention to social and emotional development than private schools do -- simply because they have less staff and so much state-mandated academic curriculum to cover.

    That said, our kids and most of their friends have experienced only very mild teasing, bullying, and so on in elementary school -- nothing like some of the casual cruelty that I was subject to back in my own grammar-school days. But I think that's probably because there are mostly nice kids at our neighborhood school, and because parents today are so much more involved in their kids' social interactions than ours ever were. It's not really anything the school is doing.

    I think bullying gets much worse at the middle-school level. Our son's private middle school is really, really dedicated to creating a safe emotional environment for all the kids, and recognizing that it is responsible for more than just the students' academic development. Our son is a sensitive, thin-skinned kid, and that's one of the reasons we sent him there. When we toured our neighborhood public middle school, on the other hand, and I asked how the teachers and administration deal with bullying and fights, I was literally told, "Well, that's not *our* problem." So that decision was an easy one for us ...

    Anyway, you probably don't have to worry *too* much about bullying during the next couple of years. But just prepare yourself for middle school, when kids have been known to create MySpace pages with the sole purpose of tormenting their nerdier classmates, e.g.: "My name is Sarah, and I'm a total loser. Crank-call me on my cell phone. The number is ... "

    Sigh,

    Leah

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  2. My son was a total nerd in (public) middle school (seriously -- glasses, braces, zits, and he wore shorts every single day). But he didn't seem to have a problem with bullying. Friends have speculated that it's because he has a fairly wicked sense of humor. Unfortunately, that's not something you can just conjure up.

    (For the record, my son remade himself into cool jazzman -- quietly, without comment or visible effort -- for high school. The braces came off, the zits cleared up, he got contacts, and he grew his blond hair long and wears it in a ponytail with a black cap. The shorts have been replaced with black or blue jeans.)

    My daughter suffered bullying-by-exclusion in the horror of third grade, and I think only time relieved it. I disagree with someone's speculation previously that this was about impressing the boys -- I swear that those girls were completely oblivious to boys and just did it for its own sake. But my daughter seems to have made it through middle school without suffering more of that.

    I do know that once in middle school my son was involved in a group teasing incident of a very fragile boy (fragile but toweringly tall, which probably made it seem like he was impervious). Of course, bullies who aren't doing physical harm always say, "I was just teasing!" I talked to him about it (he said "we were just teasing!") and as far as I know it didn't happen again. I have no indication that my daughter has ever done any mean-girl stuff, so that's the best I can say.

    My daughter asked me recently if I'd ever been in a physical fight. I dredged up a memory that I had suppressed -- I slapped a classmate (a friend I hung out with) across the face in I think 7th grade. I had new white tennis shoes -- it was cool at the time to keep them very white and wear them with sheer nylons/pantyhose -- and this "friend" was stepping on them on purpose to dirty them. She had previously teased me a lot about being flat-chested, too. If anything, it was with shame that I remembered slapping her, like how out-of-control my temper was. Only when my daughter asked did I realize I was being bullied and was fighting back. I only remember that the bullying stopped -- I don't recall any adult intervention after I slapped her -- and we continued to be friends. Weird. Just sharing that memory. The odd thing is that I would definitely NOT endorse teaching kids to fight back physically when bullied, only I now realize it seems to have worked for me. Eeeek.

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  3. My youngest brother was harassed for a while everyday on the bus by one kid. The funny thing is my brother takes after his dad, who is 6'9". He was quite a bit taller and heavier than the kid bugging him, but my brother is a laid back guy with a soft heart. Eventually, after my brother couldn't get the kid to lay off in any other way, my mom said (and I'm not necessarily advocating this) to bop him one. So one day he gave him a little smack across the face. It worked.

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  4. Regarding Leah's comments, I don't think it is true that private schools are per se more proactive about bullying than public. I know for myself, the worst emotional abuse I ever endured was in a private school, and while there were some rough-around-the-edges kids in my urban public school, there was a broad acceptance of diversity, poverty, different ethnicities, disabilities; I know of friends whose kids experienced the same in public and private; and I have seen my kids' public school teachers really take on bullying and work to build community.

    We've had these discussions before, and the stories indicate that bullying happens in both public and private, and that responses vary throughout public and private. Please don't use such a wide brush.

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  5. I wonder if many of the kids who do the bullying are responding to the verbal abuse being done to them by their parents? My father was verbally abusive and when we got upset he would say "oh i'm only teasing...you're so sensitive, etc" I can see how easy it would be for a kid being victimized at home to turn around and pick on someone weaker than themselves.

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  6. Anonymous,

    I acknowledged that the situation varies tremendously from school to school. I was simply relaying my own, and my-kids', experience with the issue of bullying and teasing in both public and private schools. And in that experience, there is a striking difference -- at least between the two schools that each of my children currently attend.

    I'm certainly not saying that public schools are bad. Both of my kids went to public elementary schools, and will probably go to public high schools. But in middle school, when cruelty between kids is so rampant, we opted to send our oldest to a school that was willing to address the issue proactively, vs. our public school option, which officially throws up its hands about it.

    Leah

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  7. Thanks for the response, Leah. I know you wrote the dislaimer that in terms of public schools you were referring to "the ones our children and their friends have attended," but I took issue with your more generalized claim in the first paragraph that "private schools tend to more proactive" in addressing bullying than public schools. That's too wide a brush.

    I'm sure many private schools are proactive about this, and that may indeed be a reason to seek a caring, small private school community for a sensitive pre-teen. But by many accounts here, some private schools are incubators of emotional abuse and the schools either do not notice or do not care. That would be worse than being in a larger public middle school where at least you have a chance of finding your niche in drama, band, sports, or science club--where there is not only one small group to navigate. Depends on the kid, of course.

    I think trends in bullying actually may look quite different in schools with a high percentage of wealthy kids versus a high percentage of poorer kids. But how it happens doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I just hate to see this topic run along private/public lines again when it really crosses both. Some publics and some privates are really, really good at this. Most are okay. Some are awful.

    We were glad to have a choice of middle schools in SFUSD this past year. We chose a school that has several program niches within in it in the hope that our kid will find a place to shine. This school also has, by many accounts, a stellar counseling and peer development program that addresses bullying.

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  8. Ok, "Leah" and 12:05 anonymous, for those of us terrified of middle school (both public and private), can you tell us all (1) which private middle school Leah feels handles bullying well and (2) which public middle school Anon at 12:05 thinks handles bullying. Having been bullied mercilessly as a child at a private school, and having a 2nd grader in a public school now who is already the subject of a bit too much teasing, I'd really love to hear the schools you all think might handle this issue in SF. Thanks!

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  9. 1:56 Anonymous -- my 7th grader goes to Redwood Day School (http://www.rdschool.org), a small, progressive K-8 (though he's only attended from 6th grade on) in Oakland. The head of school, Mike Riera, is a nationally known expert on adolescent social development, which was one of the big draws for us.

    (You can find some of his books here: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-url?%5Fencoding=UTF8&search-type=ss&index=books&field-author=Michael%20Riera)

    I realize the school disclosure isn't much help for you SF dwellers. Sorry!

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  10. hmm. throughout this conversation, i keep waiting for the mommy bear inside me to roar and...nothing. in my personal pantheon of things to worry about vis-a-vis the kids, i guess i'm just not that concerned about bullying. (actually, the fact that i'm not now has me exceedingly worried...) is that weird?

    my own folks were never that worried about it either, and i didn't resent them for it. my dad in particular subscribed to the handle-it-yourself school (straight 'out the bronx and venice, cali he is, and always had the louisville slugger under the bed, just in case...old school all the way). i think he wanted his daughters to get a little scrappy, quite frankly. and, today, i have trouble not advising my kids to do the same. i mean, i don't WANT to promote physical retaliation, but it seems to work, uh, way better than being a wuss, talking it out, running to mommy, etc. (am rapidly seeing self as teacher's nightmare parent here, but just being honest.) the other day, for instance, my daughter told me that this boy at school punched her in the nose (seriously). the teachers told me too. that seems really violent and weird to me -- like, way excessive for a 4-year-old. in front of the teachers, i felt like i had to ask her, "did you tell him he couldn't do that?" and i felt like such an ass. then she said: "no, because then he'll just do it more." fuuuuuuckkk. what i wanted to say: "next time, punch his fucking lights out, and we'll see if he ever does that again."

    it should be noted that my daughter is the size of your average 2-year-old. another weird thing: she didn't seem at all traumatized by any of this. truly. part of life and all that. but i think she felt even better after i told her my personal theory of the role physical self-defense can play in establishing your personal territory ;- ) . (as in, she may have looked forward to her tiny fist connecting with bully boy's schnozz a little too much.)

    i had my fair share of run-ins with other kids throughout my childhood, and i do remember them causing stress, even being all-encompassing for periods of time, but i never really felt like anyone was taking advantage of me. i never felt more vulnerable than the next guy. i have this baseline belief that life is confrontational, a bit of a warrior approach to things...maybe that's why. like, sometimes you're on top and sometimes you're not.

    i also fear leaping to my kids' defense prematurely, before they've had the chance to test their own strength. this is a touchy subject on the playground and everywhere...very charged. have you noticed that parents have very different thresholds of tolerance for kids' fighting with regard to when to intervene? i tend to be less interventionist. then again, i've had the luxury of that because my daughter is not very physical. of course, i would never tolerate systematic or brutal bullying of any kid...but i do think there is something to be gained from figuring your own way out of a situation.

    i will confess that i am going to feel more challenged in this area when my son enters school.

    on a related note: given my husband's and my physical stature (5'5" and 5'3", respectively) and the fact that we're strong believers in body confidence as a means of preventing problems before they start, we're gonna enroll the kids in martial arts. (although i will say my husband always attributes his ability to evade bullies to his sense of humor, not his black belt in aikido. those of you who know him are probably laughing now at the notion of zen master gabe having a small-man's complex...obviously, i'm the puny, napoleonic tyrant in the family!) oh, and btw, he says the torture was profoundly worse in the snooty private international school he attended on scholarship than in the public schools he went to.)

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  11. Speaking of bullying, did anyone else notice that Kate had posted a new entry after this one talking about her SFGate blog and that the comments from the world-at-large were harsher than the ones at this blog, and how nice it is that people are basically a community here despite the occasional snarkism...but then two of the three comments in reply to that post were totally harsh, and down that entry (and its attendant comments) came...

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  12. I saw that, and looked at her new blog since in the entry she said she was being bullied at the new blog a lot, but I just saw people commenting on the name of her blog and how it is a little sexist (the blog name).

    I think if this is the level of what is called bullying - didn't read the comments to hers on this blog though so can't say how harsh they were - then I would say that happens at all schools - private or not (have had kids in both). That is just people disagreeing - bullying is intimidating someone via words or physical maneuvers. If this is what people think of as bullying then you will find it everywhere.

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  13. sfgate comments in general can be totally harsh! and usually quite uninformed, very much a yahoo crowd. this blog has its share of provocateurs and snarksters, but overall the tone and content is quite good, especially given the difficult nature of some of the topics.

    i guess the mom portal they are developing over there is part of the business model they are pursuing of much more interactive, "soft" content as opposed to investigative reporting (they are relying more and more on the wire services for that). i get it....it's a tough world for newspapers right now, and they are seeking a business model that will draw in eyeballs and clicks and thus, advertisers. i personally am not so attracted to that. i like good reporting. i also like good discussion on important topics like the public schools. it will be hard to have good discussion as we have here on that kind of site, because sfgate is large enough to attract the trolls.

    also, so far the mom portal seems to be aimed at the boho bougie crowd. what works best at sfkfiles is the lively debate on class, race, public, private. will there be articulate discussion on those topics over there? debate that doesn't get taken over by offensive trolls? debate that can include the half of us households who make less than $77K/per year, and so is not just anemic recommendations about the latest parenting convenience or travel destination for the well-funded? we've walked a line here, and it mostly has worked. at least for me, as i keep coming back. there is a big difference between lively debate and nastiness.

    maybe i'll be proven wrong (been know to happen!) about sfgate; i hope so, and i certainly wish kate well in this new endeavor.

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  14. I read some of the comments over there, I think a lot of what has been said here was worse.

    I actually agree sfgate branding the blog as 'mommy' is a little silly considering how many 2 dad families we have in the city. A more generic parenting name would have been a better choice, my opinion of course..

    Many of the comments on this blog have been down right nasty, especially the comments directed at Kate's personal choices (round 2, mcds, busing her daughter,etc).

    Unfortunately, that is what happens when you offer your life up as fodder for the masses. Blogging is a double edge sword, you sacrifice privacy and invite commentary on your personal choices.

    I would think blogging over at sfgate will be much more hurtful because Kate is using her real name. So even the fig leaf of anonymity is gone .. not that she was ever really anonymous, she used her real name at first and linked to the blog on pps yahoo group when she first started it..

    Still, it's harder to read comments directed directly at you, it's easier to deal with when you're anonymous.

    I think this new venture shows a lot of courage and wish Kate the best.

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  15. My experience at Grattan thus far (my child's in K) is that there has been a lot of focus on social/emotional development during this first year. Values of respect and kindness are taught and reinforced often. One examply I observed in my child's class was a lesson where the teacher asked the children to trace the number 5 with their fingers (it was part of a daily calendaring lesson). A few children commented "that's so easy" and the teacher quickly pointed out how even this type of comment (which was in no way malicious) could make some children feel badly. She explained how different things are easy or hard for different people and even used herself as an example. I was very impressed with the focus on children's feelings. We haven't had any experience with bullying thus far, but I feel confident that the teachers and administration at Grattan will do all they can to prevent serious bullying and quickly deal with it when it does happen.

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  16. Kate: I'd highly recommend that you set up a system where you approve the first comments from newly registered commenters over at the SFGate site before they are published. Oakland's school beat reporter, Katy Murphy, does this on her Oakland Tribune blog, "The Education Report" and it cuts down on the random drive-by nastiness a great deal. In fact, in doing so, she's been able to create a very positive (though heated) forum for discussing issues related to Oakland's public schools. Subsequent comments are then published immediately just so long as the commenters stick with the same user names.

    http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/

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  17. 8:38 I agree. The Grattan Way rocks. The principal, the teachers, the paras, all of them are committed to every child.

    I'll forever be grateful this school was my kids' introduction to formal education.

    When I was a kid I remember fearing my principal. Not these kids, they love theirs. But make no mistake, she's no push-over, and will stand firm.

    We're lucky to have such a strong community.

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  18. I'm not sure why, but this line of comments seems to have died. Can we get back to bullying? Next year, I will be applying to middle schools in San Francisco, and I am FREAKING out about this issue. My kid gets special ed help, so I REALLY need to stay in public. But looking at SF public middle schools scares the hell out of me. While some have beautiful architecture, they are all gynormous institutions that look like classic fertile ground for bullying. And my personal experience was that the real ugly bullying started in 7th grade. And I'm terrified that my kid, who already is getting teased in elementary school and, as I mentioned, has special needs, is just going to drown in the social hell of these large public middle schools. I have the sense that getting into the few K through 8's in town is hopeless at that point, so that's not a real alternative. Is there anyone out there that has had a good experience at one of the SF public middle schools with particular respect to this issue? How about any of the middle school charters in SF?

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  19. The charters in SFUSD that offer middle school are Creative Arts Charter, which is K-8, and two KIPP schools, KIPP Bayview and KIPP San Francisco Bay, which are grades 5-8. Putting aside the fact that I'm a sharp critic of charter schools overall, in your circumstances I'd probably be looking at CACS and the other SFUSD K-8s, which are not charters.

    KIPP is notoriously unwelcoming to kids with special needs, and strongly enforces conformity.

    Not that I'm saying your child would inherently suffer bullying in a middle school like Aptos. I know some students there with pretty standout differences who have done fine. But I understand the concern and the risk.

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  20. Oh, and it's not hopeless getting into a K-8 for grade 6. I know a number of families who've done it. Kids not infrequently transfer out of K-8s to middle school, because middle schools (because of their size) can often offer much better electives and extracurriculars, plus substantial honors programs.

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  21. You might consider trying to transfer to a K-8 in 5th grade (I think your child is in 4th?), instead of 6th--sometimes there are spots. Just another idea.

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  22. I randomly found this promotional video for KIPP SF Bay while researching something unrelated tonight -- thought it might add to the discussion:

    http://www.sfbayacademy.org/tour/video-high.htm

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  23. Anonymous at 4:20

    I'm not sure if private school is an option financially, but both Laurel School (k-8) and Sterne (6-12) take kids with learning difficulties. Both are smaller learning environments than traditional middle schools, and just by nature of their missions, emphasize respecting individual differences.

    My daughter goes to Sterne, and is doing really well there. My daughter's skills are really uneven, and my biggest fear was that she wouldn't be challenged in her areas of strength (verbal) but fortunately that fear proved unfounded. Her school divides math, literature, and composition up by ability level rather than grade level to ensure that each child is getting what he or she needs. I just read an interesting term in the Stanford Alumni magazine -- the spot you aim for is "i" (individual's current ability) + 1. And that is what is happening! She is more challenged than ever before in English, and getting the help she needs in math.

    Of course, she does not have all the electives such as music, art, etc. that my fifth grader will have next year in public middle school. She does have PE every day though, which is great.

    At this point it looks like she will be transitioning back to a regular high school (either Catholic or public) for high school, and I think she will be ready. At the same time, it's nice to have an option to stay, and we may choose that. She really loves the school.

    Anyway, it might be worth looking at a couple of privates too, if you can swing the finances. I do know some kids with LD's who have done quite well in public middle school, but obviously you have to look much more carefully to make sure it's a good fit for your child.

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  24. As I was reading this, I was waiting for the public versus private to come up. The bottom line is private schools are more proactive about bullying than public schools. Both have bullying issues, and bullying is a very important issue that should not be swept under the carpet. Private schools have more resources and behavior matters are important issues at private schools. I am not saying public schools are not concerned about behavior, but the fact is public schools are not as proactive about bullying. It is just the way it is. It does not mean public schools are bad. There seems to be an attitude some parents have about not wanting to accept that maybe private schools just do some things better than public.

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  25. Anon at 4:20 thanks Anon at 6:37 --Thank you for the advice. I had only known about Laurel. I will definitely look into Sterne now.

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  26. 11:23, the very first poster brought up the public/private issue and there were several comments disputing the notion that publics don't handle the issue as well as privates. My children are at a public shcool and I am extremely impress at the way bullying is handled. Zero tolerance. So I just can't accept your blanket statements to be true.

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  27. We ended up choosing a private school in part because of its focus on emotional well being and its requirement that children treat each other with kindness. But there were a few private schools we looked at where it appeared that kids were being mean to each other. We witnessed it on playgrounds. The scene looked scary and cliquey. The kids looked actually a little mean. Spoiled rich kids can be quite cruel. I sought to avoid them.

    So I would recommend looking at the schools as individuals and not as private v. public. Some private schools focus a lot on kindness and caring. Others seem to do not as good a job at it.

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  28. I have to say that, whenever I think of the issue of bullying, I find myself thinking much more of middle and high school, not elementary. Now this is the "SF K files" and so middle/high school is not technically part of the subject matter, but how about broadening this blog so that we can discuss middle and high schools more generally? Come to think of it, it would be a great subject matter for a new "guest blogger" to talk about. In this regard, what galls me is reading the New York Times, which just this past year ran a series of articles on how public school districts across the country are coming to the realization that "middle schools," as presently set up, are simply not working for the majority of kids. Test scores plummet at even the best of districts. Consequently, a whole bunch of school districts around the country have begun rethinking the whole concept of middle school. They've experimented with different models -- more K through 8's, for example, and even some have tried 6 through 12's! Other districts are working through "schools within schools," at both the middle and high school level. What is SF USD doing to rethink middle schools, if anything? My sense is that SF USD has done little rethinking. We have the same limited number of K through 8's. Then we have the small number of very large middle schools. There doesn't seem to be anything else. Shouldn't we all be trying to get the district to start asking the hard questions here?

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  29. Anon at 3:41

    I read somewhere, but I can't remember where, that reforming middle school is one of Supt. Garcia's priority. Apparently he feels that SFUSD could be doing a lot more for these kids. I look forward to hearing his proposals!

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  30. I am a defender of comprehensive middle schools (though also of having options).

    At SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, my kids have gotten separate honors classes for all their academic subjects and full band in the daily curriculum (or they could have chosen orchestra, visual art, drama or, newly, chorus). Sports-minded kids can play on competitive sports teams. My friends in K-8s like Rooftop were envious -- they got none of those. Some parents move their kids from K-8s to middle school for that reason. I know middle school looks scary when your kids are little, but in general, your kids will be big just like those hulking middle schoolers by then!

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  31. Caroline, I hear you that our little kids do get bigger. I am also glad that your kids got into the honors classes at the middle school they are going to. I'm just not sure that your children's experiences are necessarily reflective of all kids' experiences at SF middle schools, or even representative of average kids at middle schools. I encourage you to get onto the NY Times website and read the series on middle schools. It is very sobering stuff. There's a growing consensus in the education community that middle schools, as presently configured, are just not working. Test scores plummet, and most disturbingly, scores plummet for at-risk kids. Moreover, many kids, particularly at-risk kids, start to disappear into the system. And you'll see districts like the New York City school system trying out all kinds of different ideas. Some probably are bad ideas (I really don't know about a 6 through 12 school), but at least they are trying out different ideas. But, while I saw one commenter say that Garcia is interested in this issue, there appears to be nothing going on. No studying. No thinking. I don't know whether the whole "dream school" controversy of a couple of years ago killed efforts to examine SF middle/high schools more, but there does seem to be a disturbing silence here about this issue. And, since you brought up the honors classes your kids are going to, it does raise something I've heard about middle schools like Aptos: namely, that, while use of systems like honors classes does benefit the smarter kids, what is going on in the "gen ed" classes is often quite different and not so beneficial for the kids in those classes. While the honors classes are oases of academic learning and generally controlled, the gen ed classes are places where much less learning is going on and are populated by kids who are discipline issues. So while your kids may be doing well in honors classes, the population in the gen ed classes are suffering.

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  32. I absolutely know my kids have been lucky, and that other kids have difficulty at comprehensive middle schools. My point is NOT that they work for all kids, but that they work for many (not just a few) and aren't the crashing failures they might seem to the uninitiated. And it's not just that comprehensive middle schools they're not failures; they offer resources and advantages that kids wouldn't get at a Rooftop or a small middle school.

    I have friends who are parents of kids in general ed middle school classes, of course. I'd still rather have my kids in honors classes, but overall it's not night-and-day either. It's not like the honors classes are a lovely island of achievement and the general ed classes are bedlam. There are probably more problem kids in general ed, but it's not THAT bad at a school like Aptos. Of course I understand the issue that providing separate honors classes siphons the high achievers away -- well, I would say that's about meeting the needs of different kids, though one could argue that it's not worth it. And some middle schools (such as James Lick) don't have separate honors classes but provide "differentiated instruction" to GATE students within the same class as the general population.

    By 6th grade, kids are just a lot more resistant to authority, whatever their situation. The book "Code of the Street," examining the oppositional and alienated inner-city culture, talks about how younger kids even from really dysfunctional "street" families can still be onboard with the goals and culture of the school and start out enthusiastic learners. But by 4th grade and up, the pull of the street culture is reaching them and they often become oppositional, disruptive and disengaged in school.

    Similarly, kids whose nature is not completely docile and cooperative about school assignments are still easily persuaded to go along when they're younger, and can start falling off the academic track in middle school. At that point it's just much harder for adult authority to get them back in line. I know really smart (middle-class white and Asian) kids who have had that happen -- perfect students in elementary who just started marching to their own drums by middle school. Would that have happened in the same way if they'd been at much smaller schools? I know some who've had that happen at schools like Rooftop too.

    Then how do you separate that -- the independence, reduced willingness to get with the program , even oppositionality that characterizes adolescents -- from whether it's The Middle School at fault? I'll have to reread the NYT package, but typically reporters are awfully shallow about that kind of nuance, complexity and fine point.

    I do agree that public school systems should offer different types of environments. Since my own 11th-grader marches to HIS own drum academically (though he was a 4.0 student in his middle school's tough honors program), I understand that pretty deeply. And I don't know if SFUSD has plans to make changes at that level, or even what I would recommend if I could. My point is just that comprehensive middle schools are not the chronic problem they might seem to the outsider.

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  33. A group of public elementary parents were talking this weekend about middle school and we were all scared stiff. We love the education that our children are getting currently, but are thinking that we need to go private for middle school. I tried to alleviate their fears, but I really had no solid evidence to back it up. I suspect that some of our children are not going to be honors students (based on statistic in general and specific knowledge of the kids being discussed), so I think that the 11:58 brings up some important points.

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  34. Obviously you have to do what you feel is best for your kid, but I would still say you don't have to be scared stiff. I have a number of friends -- as involved, concerned and tuned in as anyone here -- whose kids (by choice) go to James Lick, which doesn't have separate honors classes.

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  35. Anon. at 1:01 p.m.

    Out of about 45 (?) graduating fifth graders, I think all of them are going to public middle school. Most are going to Aptos or Hoover (some honors, some not), a few to A.P. Giannini, and Denman. My daughter will be going to James Lick general ed.

    I'm not sure what age your child is, but once they hit fourth grade (an age when you can at least see that one day your child WILL be that big), go on a few tours. I found them very reassuring. I saw orderly schools, quiet transitions, happy looking pupils and teachers. It was pretty exciting to see REAL bands, REAL art classes, REAL PE, and REAL dance classes going on. I do wish non-immersion kids could take a language though -- what a colossal waste of opportunity.

    My daughter is excited to be moving on next year. We'll see when we get there how it is, but for now I'm optimistic.

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  36. And if people are just worried about grades, you need to lighten up. There are plenty of people without 4 point averages that get into good colleges, graduate and get good jobs. There are people who don't want to go to college but have meaningful and achievable career goals. There are people who have harder to achieve goals, but who are dedicated to their dreams and who are willing not to follow the "standard" path to them.

    The point is children are not our puppets. They're going to do what they want pretty much. Hopefully, they will have good, solid guidance from parents, but that's all it can be. If they're provided a decent learning environment (not the most fantastic, amazing, spectacular program on the planet, and not the worst), they're probably go to succeed pretty much at the level they want to.

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  37. Anon at 8:43 am -- I'm certainly not worrying about my kids' grades, and I don't know where you got that idea from. I am more worried that, as Caroline pretty much alluded to, the more successful middle school experiences at the large comprehensive middle schools are "carved out" experiences and not representative of what other kids are experiencing at those schools. Recently, I spoke to a parent whose kid is in the honors program at Aptos. She raved about the honors program. I then asked her about the rest of Aptos -- the gen ed classes. She paused and said, and I'm literally quoting, "gee, I just don't have any idea what that side of the school is like." Now this is a very involved parent. She spoke as if Aptos were literally two different schools. What does that tell you? I just don't think we can take the positive comments by the parents of honors students at Aptos (or elsewhere) as evidence that these large SF middle schools are working for all. And I do think it is not right that the school district isn't at least debating these issues. And, in response to Caroline's suggestion that the NY Times journalist's articles might be too "superficial," frankly I found it to be quite in-depth. It is a five part series that goes into quite a bit of detail on the perceived failings of public middle schools across the country. And it quotes from leading education experts who uniformly admit that there is a significant problem in the current middle school model. I would be happy if SF USD were truly studying and wrestling with this issue and came to the conclusion that, indeed, what we are doing is the best. But they are not. There is no discussion going on. And, I think there should be.

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  38. I agree that there should be discussion. That post wasn't directed at you, more so at the overall attitude of parents on this blog (and everywhere, really) that has come through. It just hit me at the moment, and I was babbling. Parents are naturally really concerned that their kids "succeed". Sometimes their own desires overwhelm the reality of the situation. I've a friend who's high school age son who has the potential for high grades, etc., is not doing well now. She's very concerned, but a lot of her concern stems from her having a specific job field she wants him to go into, and specific colleges. I wouldn't say this to her because I don't think it would be productive, but you can only choose so much for your kid. It's hard to keep that perspective sometimes. It probably did get off topic of what you were discussing. Sorry about that.

    Absolutely I think schools should not ignore GE track in favor of honor students or vice versa.

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  39. 11:18 is taking the pessimistic view that most kids in middle school are having a bad experience and those who aren't are outliers, though. I strongly disagree, and I'm currently finishing my sixth straight year as an involved Aptos Middle School parent. Why be so fearful, pessimistic and negative in the face of direct evidence and testimony to the contrary -- what does that teach your kids?

    As for an honors parent not being familiar with what general-ed classes are like -- well, in most cases I found that in elementary school I couldn't speak knowledgeably about what teachers were like if my kids hadn't had them, though I knew reputations in many cases. It's the nature of middle school that parents aren't around as much during the school day and honestly aren't as likely to hear all the scuttlebutt -- plus the school is bigger and the kids are entering their teens, starting to show their independence and don't always share every detail with Mom anymore.

    The norm will be for your kid to have a perfectly fine experience at a comprehensive urban public middle school. That's a reasonable expectation; that's what happens with most kids. Sometimes there's a problem or some level of dissatisfaction. That's the exception, in my extensive experience, no matter what the NYT says.

    I'll go look up the NYT package and read it today. I repeat my declaration that reporters tend to oversimplify and overlook nuance and complexity, though, and that's based on my experience of many years as a daily newspaper copy editor.

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  40. I skimmed some of the NYT series, having other work to do, and will read it more closely later. I have one observation about this excerpt:

    ***Paul Vallas, chief executive of the Philadelphia school system, thinks so, and he has closed 17 traditional middle schools since 2002, while converting some three dozen elementary schools into K-8s. “The fifth to sixth grade transition is just too traumatic,” he said. “At a time when children are undergoing emotional, physical, social changes, and when they need stability and consistency, suddenly they’re thrust into this alien environment.” ***

    But actually, I found that both my kids were really proud, excited and challenged about being "thrust" into that new environment at a time when they'd reached a new stage of maturity. They found that environment welcoming and stimulating. The increased resources that I and others have mentioned -- such as a full band program in the daily curriculum and real daily P.E., with suiting up and lockers and all -- are exciting and appealing to them.

    As some here have read on the sfschools listserve, the plan for a 6-12 school in SFUSD hit my radar one day just after I had watched my 8th-grade daughter in company with a mixed group of high schoolers at a SOTA event. At Aptos, the boys treat her like one of the gang, apparently oblivious to her femininity. By contrast, the SOTA boys were buzzing around her (the introductory line is "whose little sister are YOU?"). There's a nice junior boy who is respectful and reticent and seems genuinely interested in her -- which causes me some angst and concern for a number of reasons despite his evident good points -- and there was a handsome and charming senior who moved her away from the crowd and was walking around in a tete-a-tete with her. That was alarming for different reasons. You get the idea. 6-12 - I dunno. Maybe it's a fine idea. But.

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  41. "Why be so fearful, pessimistic and negative in the face of direct evidence and testimony to the contrary --"

    Not to be disrespectful, but I am unaware as to where the direct evidence and testimony is to be found.

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  42. My testimony, and that of the other parents I know. Anyone else here with middle school parenting experience?

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  43. Gee, my 7 year old daughter was recently locked in a room with a middle school boy, who put on a sex tape and told her she would like sex when she was older. The stories go both ways.

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  44. Eeeek, re the middle school boy! That, of course, is predatory bordering on criminal. (How did a 7-year-old get locked in a room with a seriously troubled older boy??)

    What I was seeing was just the high-school version of social life -- no criminal behavior. But the contrast to middle-school social life was striking.

    You could look at that horrifying incident as an argument against K-8s too, if you wanted to see it that way.

    If you're the same anon, no wonder you're fearful.

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  45. The boy, son of a family friend, lock her in the room during a visit with her aunt. She screamed and pounded on the door until she was let out.

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  46. I hope that's a FORMER family friend, unless they immediately raced him to a psychiatrist for help. Obviously there are badly troubled kids in all age ranges. Needless to say, do not allow your child in the same hemisphere with that boy again! Or the oblivious aunt either.

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  47. Yes, that and signing her up for Tae Kwon Do

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  48. Have you reported this assault to the police? Because it really is about protecting other children too.

    But please be assured that that it NOT normal middle-school behavior. That's a badly troubled kid committing a sexual assault.

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  49. I think 6-12 is a terrible idea. That's just too much of a spread, and I don't think you can keep the kids separated enough at that age range. K-8, well I don't think 6-8 graders want much to do with the younger kids at that point, and at most schools there seems to be a bigger separation--even different campuses or buildings. But sixth graders are still so young--even just when paired with 7th and 8th graders. It's definitely a troubling proposition.

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  50. Aptos keeps the 6th-graders separate. They have their own floor of the building and a separate lunch hour. After a while that doesn't seem so necessary any more, to tell the truth -- I was really into it with my older and honestly wouldn't have cared one way or another with my younger, just having experienced the full range of middle school grades by then, fairly painlessly. But they are pretty stringent about it.

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  51. My child will be attending Aptos next year in the honors program (she is GATE-identified) and she is very excited. She knows many kids from her own school and other schools who will also be attending Aptos. We are happy because we have heard and witnessed many good things about the honors program, and also the arts program at Aptos. It's a very diverse school and very much on the move.

    However, I take the point someone made about how the honors system may separate out the higher achievers and leaves the middle and lower achievers in what may be a more unruly and not as challenging program. I think that is a real concern. For that reason among several, I actually favored James Lick's program for our daughter--but was outvoted by my daughter and husband. They just loved Aptos. We put JL second, but got first-choice Aptos in the lottery, which is fine--especially since our daughter is very enthusiastic now about middle school (though secretly I was wishing for the lottery to spit out JL).

    In addition to the immersion program, what I liked about JL was the focus on every kid. They reportedly have *fantastic* teachers in both language arts and math, ones who have intentionally have by disposition have the ability to teach to all levels. JL has just made an agreement with 826 Valencia to provide writing instruction to ALL kids on site; they have an extra class period; they have a full-time librarian; they have a growing arts program--they are really focused on student achievement for all, including the growing number of GATE kids as well as their constituency, which is Latino immigrant kids, many just-arrived with limited English skills.

    The principal at James Lick is on the ball and has been able to secure a ton of new grants, including class-size reduction for a number of years to 25, new salad bar, Wellness Center, and much more. Every year they take trips to Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare Festival, as well as international trips to Mexico or Costa Rica. They have a rock band program that is very popular, and an excellent (and free) afterschool program.

    I guess we'll see how it all turns out, but I think James Lick is really engaged in a massive experiment on how to close the achievement gap with a largely disadvantaged population, while also attracting and serving GATE kids from mostly very advantaged backgrounds (Noe Valley, mostly). That would be huge. I would just say to current incoming K-parents, keep your eyes on James Lick. And Aptos, of course!

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  52. Thanks anon 12:51. This is the kind of information that need to get out there.

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  53. Public schools have the fear of litigation more than the pvt. schools. Any moron can go to a public school, and many do. Fewer morons go to pvt school because it would be moronic to spend thousands of dollars if your kid is a moron.

    You all need to realize that a school district is not what you are talking about., You are talking about neighborhoods and society. Your child needs you more than he/she needs school, unless of course YOU are a moron, then your kid needs us teachers to ameliorate your moronism.

    http://thefrustratedteacher.blogspot.com/

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  54. I would be extremely frustrated if I had a teacher who called any child a moron.

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  55. I know...

    this person is a bit scary as a 2nd grade teacher...

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  56. 54 and 55,

    Relax. I never called a student a moron. Do you deny though, that some kids, hell, even some parents, are morons? Maybe you don't like the word, or maybe hearing it from a teacher just bothers you. Please, never listen to a group of pediatricians, you may never take you child to the doctor again!

    Districts and schools don't differ because of teachers. They differ due to the populations they serve. The more we, society, buy into the "teachers must do more" meme, the less likely it is that anything will improve. It is not teachers who need improving; it is families, including the ones with morons.

    So, relax. I am just speaking my mind to grownups, thinking maybe if you hear from a teacher, you will adjust your perception of the whole issue, and start to help, rather than hurt, the profession. But, maybe you believe the meme.

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  57. tft

    I don't call anyone a moron, stupid, and idiot etc. We would call that a "put down" at our school. I may occasionally speak of someone's actions as being stupid, but I don't label people that way.

    Yes, moron might be a word, but just because a word exists doesn't mean I have to use it.

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  58. The year before our daughter started Kindergarten, a 70 year old father of 5 boys told my husband and I that we should decide what values we wanted to teach our children and plan when we would do it. So, we sat down and talked about values and made a calendar of topics for a weekly family meeting. One topic was Bullying. Not to do it, and what to do if Children bullied our children. Children need help with the vocabulary to handle new circumstances. We read "NOBODY KNEW WHAT TO DO", a book about a child being bullied and discussed it at length with our 4 year old daughter. We still read it here and there and role play how she could handle certain situations.

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  59. ^^Thanks!!

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