When I left that painful ordeal known as the New York City public school parent teacher conference (also known as, "Teacher Can You Spare Three Minutes,'') last week, I overheard a parent who had also just left the building admonishing a child.
I didn't want to eavesdrop, but the voice sounded furious and frantic, and the words were something akin to: "And I heard it from every single teacher!"
Has to be a freshman parent, I thought to myself, walking away with the wisdom that I've acquired as the parent of a junior who struggled through the beginning of his first year in a large high school, as so many do.
Classes can be huge, pressures enormous, and teaching and testing styles in many cases far different than middle school. Teachers in large schools often may not have the time to really get to know a student (although there are always glorious exceptions) so that when a parent shows up at conference time, the child may be reduced to a series of numbers – test scores and the number of homework assignments turned in, for example.
There is little time for nurturing, or for considering any extenuating life circumstances. And with young adolescents, there are many, including those sporadic growth spurts that lead to sheer exhaustion. Add to that long commutes, a longer school day, hormones and a brand new environment.
The results can be shocking. In a city where three quarters of New York City students who were high school freshmen in 2006 did not leave high school prepared for college, what happens early on is critical.
Listening to that angry parent, I experienced the same surge of outrage I have at times felt at my children when I've heard unpleasant surprises at parent teacher conferences: homework assignments not turned in, classes not attended, planners devoid of specific assignments and due dates, reports of sleeping through class.
But I also felt a wave of empathy for the young teenager.
"Maybe you should cut him (or her) a break,'' I felt like saying to the parent, imploring them to imagine what it would be like to feel so much social and academic pressure all at once, in a brand new environment.
And it got me to thinking: should high school freshmen have some extra help and support, or should they be taught to get their act together on their own, in preparation for the tough and highly competitive world they have now entered?
Because I also have a freshman in high school, I knew the limitations of what the large high school he is intending can offer freshmen, and I had a better idea of what to do this time: I enlisted the help of a junior, who out of the kindness of her heart helped organize his notebooks, planners and backpack.
I know some city high schools offer tutorials, or small sessions where they might discuss study skills and swap survival tips. The large specialized high schools or zoned high schools often don't have the time; the teachers certainly don't, although many stay during their lunch periods or after school to give students who need it some extra help.
By the time I left parent teacher conferences last week, I was feeling sorry for kids, parents – and, especially, the weary teachers. Some had seen well over 240 parents, possibly more, in 48 hours.
But I was also left with a nagging question What kind of extra help and nurturing should high school freshmen get? Or should they simply be told to sink or swim? What schools are good at giving them help? How important is it to success?