School Beat: Schools Are What We Make Them

by Lisa Schiff on April 10, 2008

When my children first started at their elementary school five years ago, no one had heard of it. Or if they had, they were surprised that it was our dream school. “McKinley?” they would respond, “Where is that?” Or even better, would just raise an eyebrow in surprise. As a recently retired sign on the school said, we were the best kept secret in San Francisco.

McKinley in those days was truly a “hidden gem,” a school that people passed over because it had a lingering reputation from years past with few parents willing to take the time to step into the school and discover for themselves what a fantastic place it was for children. Since that first year, through tremendous outreach efforts by parents and the Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco’s ongoing campaign to encourage prospective parents to look beyond the well-known schools, requests for McKinley have steadily increased, bringing us to this year, when we have a waiting list.

As an active parent at the school who has seen her own children and so many others thrive through the efforts of the McKinley staff, I know that while our school is well-known and more popular today, the core qualities that make it an excellent school now were solidly in place when my children started in 2003. The biggest change now is a tremendously expanded pool of active parents, but the heart and soul of the school–the caring, experienced teachers, staff and principal–are doing what they’ve always done—teaching kids in challenging, yet supportive ways, working together, and helping each other grow professionally.

That larger group of parents has enabled a great little school to see its dreams come true, dreams like having more one-on-one time with students, implementing a vibrant library program, organizing educational programs for parents, hosting fun social events for classes outside of school time, and yes, expanding fundraising to add in new programs that weren’t possible before. The influx of eager folks (who like parents at all schools volunteer their time despite working full-time and having other kids who also need attention), has meant that we, as public education supporters who have a direct stake in a particular school, could roll up our sleeves and work with each other and the school staff to make this school what people see and hear about today.

The main point here is not to promote McKinley, although of course I hope it helps in that regard. The point is that right now in our society public schools are more than ever a public project, a social effort that can succeed, but only when those directly affected become directly involved. The McKinley story is one that has occurred many times in recent years in San Francisco, to elementary, middle and high schools. These stories of growth, some but not all of which start with hidden gems, have simply been forgotten and replaced with the stories of current successes, an outcome which in many respects is truly marvelous.

But the downside of that change in narrative is that we forget the tale of how these schools came to be and thus we forget that there are many such schools that could, and hopefully will, grow in the same way. It also lets us forget that the schools people feel have more or less “arrived,” stay that way from year to year because of the continued hard work of parents and community supporters.

This most recent enrollment period when kindergarten requests were up by over 300 applications included both successes and disappointments. Many schools received huge increases in applications, but at the same time, with more applicants some people still didn’t receive the schools they wanted. By April 30th, families who continued through the enrollment process in order to get a different assignment will have received an alternative offer in Round 2 of the process. By the very nature of the process, these assignments are frequently going to be to these lesser known, over-looked schools, may of which will be reminiscent of where McKinley was in 2003, primed for growth, quietly offering so much for kids, but still struggling to get noticed. Schools like Paul Revere, Sunnyside, Junipero Serra and others are just waiting to welcome in enthusiastic parents who are ready to join in and give what they can.

Right now in this country, schools are what we make them. This is simply the reality of the current low level of support for education in our society. Families all over this city and the country have taken that challenge on and together are making great schools, everywhere. Working with a school community to help it grow and thrive is a part of raising kids these days, no matter whether those kids go to private or public school. The reward of doing this work in public schools is that not only are you helping your own children, but you are building every day the kind of society so many of us dream of, a society in which we are all engaged, working together to discover and put in place the things that are important to us. Schools are indeed what we make them, and that is a good thing. When the days of sufficient funding finally do come, let’s hope that the involvement of our school families doesn’t drift away.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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