The best day ever at Evansdale Elementary: October 7, 2000

I was digging through my archives in my Harry Potter closet when I stumbled across an old newspaper clipping that brought back a flood of memories. The article was about the Hands on Atlanta project at DeKalb County, Georgia’s Evansdale Elementary in 2000, when I was PTA co-president along with Jennifer Oliver. Our kids are in college now. Back then, they were second-, third-, and fourth-graders.

It was a great day. More than 350 parents, teachers, students, community volunteers and business partners showed up that day to build, paint, clean, plant, and do a dozen other things to beautify the school. I spent nearly 200 hours planning, organizing and executing Hands on Atlanta for the school, but the truth was, I was implementing other people’s ideas.

See, I wanted to do something grand and heroic when I took office. Otherwise, why bother?

At the time Evansdale had just gotten a five-star rating and been named a “School of Excellence.” It was one of the top schools in the state, ranked No. 12 based on test scores, and this with a 23 percent free and reduced lunch rate. As a countywide math, science, and foreign language magnet school, it had trumped demographics. While things could always be better, they were cooking along nicely at the time

Our principal, “Sam” Wyrosdick, no doubt wisely sensing a need to channel my presidential megalomania, approached Jennifer and me in the school’s front hallway soon after we’d been elected but before we could sign checks. Smiling brightly, she said, “I think campus beautification should be our theme next year.” I think she also saw an opportunity to take advantage of a Home Depot guy. She was very cunning. And loved to dance.

Well, that wasn’t my idea. But the most important thing I did that year was to put other people’s ideas on my agenda and implement them. Angie Hawthorne had a dream of converting the dreary looking courtyard into a park. Susan Avent worked with an architect to come up with a plan for an arbor (see photo). Teacher Savant Stephanie Coke introduced me to the Hands on Atlanta project application. And Jennifer worked quietly in the background while I ran my mouth. Evansdale had one of those PTAs–you know, one with 50 committee chairs and at least a hundred trustworthy volunteers. Elves. The usual suspects, I called them. Some I gave nicknames: Laurie Nappo was Superchair; Ruthie Woods was “O Worthy Volunteer”; Ginger Valentine was “Hero” (because when only one person shows up to help, that’s what they are). And of course, our treasurer, Eileen Reimer, who did a great job handling the finances for all of this and more. Her husband, Charles, was a go-to guy on our construction projects. Angie’s husband Robbie was THE go-to guy. Angie would follow me as co-president and cajole me into a follow-up Hands On Atlanta the next year, but there were no pushy corporate flacks or media coverage for that.

It took months of planning. That year, the new gym opened, and thanks to a prior generation of parents’ fundraising efforts, we were sitting on a huge pile of money. It had originally been intended to construct some kind of ersatz gym, but now that we had a real one, there was more than enough money to furnish it, with more than $4,000 going to Hands On projects (we spent more than two grand on lumber that year).

It was a huge work party that started at dawn on October 7, 2000. I mentioned our business partner. A large company was providing 100 volunteers that day. I’d spent much of the week setting up project lists and sign-up sheets, and it turned out to be difficult to put everybody to work efficiently.

So, how did Evansdale Elementary come to be the featured project for the Atlanta Journal Constitution that day? Funny story. Remember that company with a hundred volunteers? Well, they had a PR person. Let’s be charitable and call her a real go-getter. She insisted on media coverage. So here is the corporate flack, haranguing the poor PTA president and demanding that her company’s good works be publicized. While I’m on the phone with her, I’m taking deep breaths and silently repeating my mantra: 100 volunteers. 100 volunteers. Ommmm.

This large corporation also hires a PR firm to ENSURE that they get media coverage. So I get another call from–forgive me–the flack’s flack. Under the gun, he wants to know what to do. Well, I happened to be a former newspaper editor and state government spokesman, but I wasn’t going to volunteer that to this crowd, for fear they’ll have me writing press releases and I have lumber to buy, damn it!

I take another deep breath and say, “The newspaper will want a photo op. Tell them we’re building something big and weird-looking.” Hey, build it and they will come, right? It worked.

On Hands on Atlanta Day, that hard-charging gal arrives at Evansdale and shoves a two-way radio unit into my hand, so that she “can coordinate with me.” Midway through our workday, which ran into the early afternoon, a corporate bigwig showed up for fifteen minutes to have his picture taken. (He had flown into Atlanta just for this.) As far as I know, he didn’t do a lick of work. 100 volunteers. 100 volunteers. Ommmm.

I am so glad that the newspaper ran a picture of the wonderful and gentle-souled Paula Lane (who taught both my kids’ pre-K classes) instead of Mr. Bigshot. By the way, if you look closely, you can see my jeans leg and black sneaker through the doorway behind her. I still wear that brand.

It was a wonderful day. The best day ever. The reporter butchered Sam’s last name in article. That’s why we just called her Sam. The corporate volunteers had all disappeared by noon. I was left with my tw0-way radio. I’m afraid to put in new batteries and test it, for fear that when I turn it on, I’ll hear the flack barking commands at me.

Doors and doorways were painted. We whitewashed the school’s foundation, built a bus shelter, cleared the nature trail, built an outdoor classroom, and of course, put up the arbor. We didn’t get it all done at once. It would take another year before the arbor was stained. And when it was done, it became my favorite place in the world, for some strange reason.

Download AJD Hands on Atlanta Article






Stupid or racist? You be the judge

The whole photo looks off to me, somehow.

So they take a class picture. A couple of kids don’t have permission slips but sit for the photo shoot anyway. Everyone finds out too late and they do the decapitated chicken dance. One of the contraband kids is cut out of the photo. The other is sitting there, square in the middle. I’m guessing he’s black, because the photographer slaps a dumb-looking smiley face over his head.

The picture is now ruined. Is the photographer so stupid he doesn’t realize he’s ruined the picture? Is he protesting black kids’ failure to bring permission slips to school? Or has he just been on the job too long and needs to retire?

I’m voting for stupid–not that those two terms are mutually exclusive. But yeah, it’s offensive. But I have a thing against stupidity. Here’s the thing: How does the photographer think he’s going to get by with it. He should know he’s heading for a redo. Of course, some parents wanted that class picture–that’s a whole ‘nother story.

I think Forrest Gump said it best: Stupid is as stupid does.

Read more.


The Munger games

Made you look. No, the headline isn’tt a misspelling of the most popular movie in America. This post is about competing initiatives to raise taxes in California to adequately fund education.  Attorney Molly Munger leads one petition drive, which is backed by the state’s Parent Teacher Associations. Governor Jerry Brown is pushing a competing initiative to achieve the same effect through somewhat different means. The teachers’ union backs his plan.

Read more.


Good news and bad news about music and art education

Here’s one you should share with your friends, neighbors, PTA colleagues, principals, and school board members–before things get worse.

Tuba power!

NPR has posted an interesting article based on the results of a music education survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. The good news: Schools have, for the most part, somehow managed to keep music teachers in classroooms during the past few years of budget cuts and reading-and-math obsession. The not-so-good news: Teachers’s per-pupil instruction time is waning, support from school systems is down, and smaller schools and poorer schools are losing out in the resource battle.

 Lara Pellegrinelli writes:

“In the 2009-10 school year, music education was almost universally available in the nation’s public elementary schools, with 94% of schools offering instruction that was designated specifically for music,” the report states. “Music instruction was available in almost all public secondary schools,” with the actual number given at 91%.

Over the last decade, these numbers have remained surprisingly steadfast. That might seem like a cause for celebration, a victory over the doggedly narrow focus on reading and math test scores driven by No Child Left Behind, but don’t break out the vuvuzelas just yet.

“The disparity between what schools offer and what students actually receive can be enormous,” explains Richard Kessler, Dean of Mannes College The New School of Music and former Executive Director of The Center for Arts Education. “What the data isn’t telling you is that you can have schools where there is one music teacher and 1000 students. Some of those students are going to get music and some of those students aren’t.”

The article goes on to dig through the study’s data and also discuss the “Arts oppurtunity gap.” Interesting stuff. Read article.

The NPR article also makes reference to a new study by the National Endowment for the Arts that highlights the importance of arts education for at-risk students:

 … high levels of arts engagement by the lowest socioeconomic quarter of students corresponds with greater numbers of students who, for example, complete high school calculus, exercise the right to vote, do volunteer work, finish a Bachelor’s degree and choose a professional career path. In short, the arts help create young adults who have better academic outcomes, are more civically engaged and exhibit higher career goals. Think about how the world could change if we could teach music to the 2.1 million students currently denied that opportunity — that would be worthy of a vuvuzela fanfare.



Publishers Weekly: “Grant provides trenchant criticisms of educational policy … (with) acerbic wit.”

Kindle version on sale at Amazon–only 99 cents!

News from Thornbriar Press

Jonathan Grant’s timely, poignant tale of war between a PTA president and a grade school principal has struck a chord with both parents and educators as well as critics. In addition to receiving praise from reviewers, Chain Gang Elementary is “Required Reading” in PTO Today. To get an idea of the novel’s bite, check out this excerpt on The Standard Hightower Intellachievement Test.

“I tell people that writing the novel was my revenge for having to read Lord of the Flies in high school,” the Atlanta author modestly explains. But there’s more to the book than that.

Here’s just some of the praise being given to Chain Gang Elementary:

  • “This book is the show ‘Desperate Housewives’ wishes it could be.” – Indie Books List
  • “Grant provides trenchant criticisms of educational policy … (with) acerbic wit.” – Publishers Weekly
  • “Exceptionally well-written.” – John Pearson, teacher and author of Learn Me Good
  • “Those who have written education columns for newspapers, survivors of parent/teacher organizations as well as many others will find that Grant has done an exceptional job of weaving educational fact and enticing fiction together. For that, he deserves an ‘A.’”—Jack Kennedy, former president, Education Writers Association
  • “Truth or fiction: Chain Gang Elementary cuts too close to reality. A novel that reads like daily news.” – Diane Ravitch

Book Description: After a murder at Bonaire Elementary, Richard and Anna Lee Gray seek a good school for their son Nick in a safe neighborhood. Their search leads them to Malliford, a “school of excellence.” When redistricting sends scores of minority students to Malliford, iron-willed Principal Estelle Rutherford declares war on kids to raise test scores and save her reputation. Dissident parents revolt, electing Richard to head the Parent-Teacher Organization, and tensions explode. Welcome to Chain Gang Elementary, home to vast right-wing conspiracies, 3rd-grade gangsters, and bake sale embezzlers–where toxic childhood secrets boil over, reformers go stark raving mad, and culture wars escalate into armed conflict.

Chain Gang Elementary

A Novel by Jonathan Grant
Thornbriar Press
ISBN 978-0-9834921-0-8
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9834921-1-5
Contemporary Fiction
Available wherever books are sold

More and more, schools turn to parents for funding

The Washington Post has a trend piece on the growing reliance of cash-strapped public schools on Parent Teacher Associations for basic funding needs.  Money for teacher salaries, computers, and classroom assistants are being shelled out by PTAs–or not at all, highlighting the disparities between rich and poor.

The Post reports:

The trend has moved beyond traditional PTAs to a growing number of local education foundations, often started by parents, that aim to raise ambitious sums.

“Most of the time, philanthropy is filling in cracks or frosting on the cake,” said Jim Collogan, executive director of the National School Foundation Association, which estimates that there are more than 4,000 such foundations around the country. But in some schools, it’s become “the only way to keep the strings program.”

Parents paying salaries

With 80 percent of school budgets typically consumed by personnel costs, more parents are chipping in for teacher salaries.

In March, the PTA at Horace Mann Elementary hosted an auction at the Italian Embassy. Parents bid on donated spa treatments or vacation rentals in France and Bali, raising tens of thousands of dollars to pay for teaching assistants and professional development.

At Murch, the home-school association started the 2011-12 year with more than a quarter-million dollars in the bank and a plan to raise an additional $277,000. In addition to spending $33,753 to keep the counselor’s job from being cut to part time, the money paid for six full-time classroom assistants, four part-time recess aides, laptops and teacher training.

Meanwhile, at Smothers Elementary in Ward 7, the parent group raises a few hundred dollars a year. Some schools have no parent organization at all.

“It’s hard to see how we justify allowing some schools to go begging while other schools are able to supplement,” said Mary Lord, who represents Ward 2 on the D.C. Board of Education. “It’s like saying, ‘If you are rich, you can afford the antibiotics, and if you are poor, you cannot.’?”

Some parents say it is far better to invest in the school system than to abandon it, and District officials say that, on balance, they welcome the dedication of resources and energy the parents bring.

High-poverty schools such as Smothers do get some extra federal funding. And there are other sources for help, including college volunteers and nonprofit organizations. In January, the school won $100,000 from Target to modernize the computer lab.

Even so, Principal Shannon Feinblatt has to make tough decisions.

This year, she decided not to hire a gym teacher and to use those dollars for a Spanish instructor. Next year, there will be no music teacher; the money will be better invested in computer classes, she said.

Read more.