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High School Hustle: What would happen if parents didn't fight back?

I sat with my mouth agape as the dentist poked around and asked a question.

“It appears you have been grinding your teeth,” he said. “Do you know why?”

There could have been many answers (high-pressure job, deadlines, raising teenagers) but I knew at once the real reason: My teeth are likely as ground down as I feel after 10 years as a New York City public-school parent, fighting everything from admissions decisions to scheduling and budget cuts.

Not that I have any regrets. My kids have flourished in the city’s public schools, and most days we feel really lucky to have had access to the great schools they’ve landed in—even though there’s always a new battle to fight.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if we all stopped pushing back, and just let it be.

What would happen if the parents of dozens of children who have been shut out of their own neighborhood schools just accepted the decision and sent their little learners to schools far from their homes, to locations that are often terribly inconvenient?

What would have happened if we didn’t fight back with a letter-writing campaign and a phone call barrage the year three of my younger child’s friends were shut out from any middle school at all?

What would happen to the thousands of high school students who every year get no match at all to a high school of their choice if they didn’t fight back against unacceptable placements?

What would have happened to my younger child’s middle school if parents had simply accepted a highly unpopular New York City Department of Education proposal last year to jam 270 students into the American Sign Language & English Dual Language Secondary School, even after parents and educators from the school insisted the move would create dangerous overcrowding and deprive special needs students of needed space?

Ultimately, the Department of Education backed off, but only after parents fought back by finding our own new building—St. Michael Academy, a closing Catholic school. It wasn’t ready when we moved in this year, but we’ve been so happy to have our own space—and gratified that the fighting back paid off.

That particular battle left me more exhausted than any other I’ve encountered as a public-school parent, but it clarified for me the drastic need to push back and make our voices heard.

Before he stepped down, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein acknowledged in an interview with Beth Fertig that he had problems getting his message across to parents who – among other things -- were angered by his decision to close an array of city high schools.

Students were plenty angry about the school closings as well. By the time kids get to high school, it’s time for them to develop the tools and instincts to fight their own battles.

This became clear to me last week when I opened up my son’s tentative schedule for junior year and noticed many mistakes. I immediately called and emailed guidance counselors, teachers, and department heads. I even offered to show up in any office that might welcome me.

The responses were polite but non-committal.

Finally, I impressed upon my son the need to take responsibility for his own schedule, and to find out how to make the changes he wanted.

I was tired of fighting.

What would happen, I wondered, if he didn’t fight back? Would he be stuck with unacceptable classes and languish on waiting lists? I’m happy to report he found the right person to meet with, challenged his schedule and got many—although not all—of the changes he wanted.

He’s learning.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if we all stopped pushing back, and just let it be. The thought terrifies me. It's not an option. To be a New York City public school parent means you must question authority and fight back  -- even if means a lot of teeth-grinding.

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