First Day celebration right idea

August 27, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- So this is how we mark the first day of school now. At Allen High in suburban Dallas, students enter through a metal detector. In Williams Bay, Wisc., an entire school role-plays a mock invasion by student gunmen.

In the old days, we got new-teacher jitters and new-friend butterflies. Today kids are taught to worry about violence and trench-coat mafias. Even the president tells parents to talk with their kids about school -- not about their achievement, but about their safety.

In the wake of the Columbine High School massacre, we have not only lost track of the facts -- school violence is down, not up -- but we have reacted by making schools increasingly isolated from their communities.

In such a climate it is remarkable to find a small, hopeful countertrend in the fertile soil of Vermont.

In the next few days, about 170 school communities in the state will stop to celebrate their first day of school. Dozens of employers will give their worker-parents the time off. Schools and towns will invite parents to join their kids in school for breakfast, assemblies and celebrations.

First Day of School Holiday, a brush-fire of an idea, began three years ago in Terry Ehrich's imagination. A grandfather and publisher of the Hemmings Motor News, Mr. Ehrich is full of notions, some as quirky as the vintage cars that fill the pages of his publications. This one was a keeper.

Mr. Ehrich came across a figure that said the best predictor of a child's success in school was parental involvement. But it didn't say how you get parents involved.

"Around here, we take the first day of deer season off work," says Mr. Ehrich, who employs 140 people. "Why not take the first day of school off?"

He began by giving the time to his own workers. Then he expanded to create the First Day Foundation. It's the third year for the holiday, which has been adopted by some 142 schools in 32 other states, too. That's just one bump short of becoming a movement.

The immediate beauty of this small idea is that parents and teachers meet right at the beginning, when the slate is clean. But in this climate, First Day also makes the statement that the entire community -- from the employer to the parent to the principal -- is invested in that piece of public property known as the public school.

Today it often seems that parents and teachers are estranged. Teachers feel many parents are uninterested. Parents feel unwelcome. Children go from home to school like the offspring of a shared custody agreement left to negotiate two sets of homes and two cultures. The older they get the more they learn not to carry tales from one place to the other.

After Littleton, Colo., it was startling to realize just how uninformed parents were about the daytime lives of their children; about the hallway culture, the power of cliques and classroom. More to the point, it was clear that the schools were starkly segregated from the rest of society.

Mr. Ehrich puts it this way, "What we need to work on is having schools and communities and families all be made of one cloth so we are not having armed guards and metal detectors, but a functioning society that offers children a good solid secure place."

We need places where kids feel known without ID cards and safe without surveillance cameras. We need to have school at the center, not the guarded periphery of town.

First Day isn't the whole year or the whole answer. But like a sharpened old Eberhard No. 2 pencil, it feels like a fresh start.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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