After-school bell signals teaching life to kids

By Ellen Goodman

The Boston Globe

The air has changed on schedule as if by order of the school board. The light is as sharp as an Eberhard No. 2, the September air as crisp as a fresh start.

The kids in the neighborhood are heading back to school, outfitted in new T-shirts and shoes that fit as well, for the moment, as their expectations.

Within a week, the annual migration of 51 million school children will find them at their autumn site, behind a desk, before a teacher.

And with this ring of a school bell, the rhythms of family life will change as well. For three-quarters of these families with parents who both work, there are job and school schedules to rejuggle.

There are family gears to shift out of seasonal speed and back into one long rush hour. The traffic instructions from parents to children these days are simple: Hurry.

But many weeks ago, when school seemed as far away as a surfeit of tomatoes in my garden, I wrote about the need to put work and school in sync, to extend the school day and year so that they make sense in the modern world

There is a mismatch now between parent and child, between school and work. Our young are often left in what we euphemistically call “self-care.”

The mail was as diverse as any I can remember. But among the dissenters, there was one familiar undertone of yearning. They made a case for more family time, not more school time.

“I suggest that we begin by updating the working world’s calendar about the personal lives of their workers and families,” wrote an Oregon woman.

“Let’s give parents more time—not imprison our children in a year-long rat race,” wrote a father from Nebraska.

“We need more time with our children, not more time apart,” added a mother from New Jersey.

I was not entirely surprised by the sentiment expressed by this wing of the time-crunch generation.

The mantra of family life today is a complaint about time, a longing for some seamless way to make a living and a life.

It often seems that we have subdivided and subcontracted life. We go to two employers for our money, one or two schools for our education, a Burger King or Pizza Hut for dinner.

As Ralph Nader said without too much exaggeration in the recent Utne Reader, “At this time in American history, corporations are more important in raising children than parents…Who’s raising the kids? Kindercare is raising them. McDonald’s is feeding them. HBO and Disneyland are entertaining them.”

Unlike our farming ancestors, or even the grandparents who ran small shops, today’s husbands, wives and children spend most days under separate roofs.

Even dinner hour sometimes seems to have disintegrated into individual servings, and weekends have been usurped by errands.

So, is it no wonder that some regard schools as another institution of our split lives, a replacement for family.

We are often ambivalent asking the schools to take over any more—to serve breakfast as well as lunch, to teach ethics as well as English. To add hours and days to their schedule and subtract them from our own.

For every correspondent who thought a longer school day provided a balance beam across the great divide of family and work, there was another who thought it led in the wrong direction.

For everyone who thought a longer year would help, there was another who thought it would cloud the real needs of children.

This is part of a much deeper debate about the direction of change, about work and families, institutions and human values. This debate underscores much of what passes for “policy” discussions.

But in this September light, I remain focused on the immediate. The need to alter the school calendar and clock seem clearest.

There is no evidence, after all, that today’s limited school schedule has made the work world adjust to family needs.

Nor is there any reason to believe that a changed schedule would slow progress toward that goal. What we have right now in most places, is parents who work and kids who wander.

A voluntary after-school program—as many communities can attest—wouldn’t take children away from families, but from the streets.

An extended day wouldn’t remove children from parents but from the television set. At their best, such programs enrich a child’s life. At a minimum, they offer security.

This week, every week, when class is out, millions of working parents face their daily pop quiz: “It’s four o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” Schools can fill in the blank.