When Karol Dale-Montz learned her 6-year-old daughter Katy was assigned to a class composed of both first and second-graders, she had no intention of hiding her disappointment.
"I was just flabbergasted," recalls the Catonsville mother of two. "I thought, you can't do that to a first-grader."
A few days later, at a meeting organized by Catonsville Elementary Principal Catherine Amsel to answer questions about the so-called "split" class, Dale-Montz decided to stand up and put her foot down.
She said she didn't want her daughter assigned to the class and expected the principal to switch her. Amsel, who had spent an hour trying to convince her of the benefits of the class assignment, reluctantly agreed.
"It's every principal's nightmare," the veteran school administrator says of such disputes. "It's one of the toughest things I have to do."
But not exactly rare. Increasingly, parents aren't willing to sit passively when it comes to deciding who teaches their children. Confrontations between parents and school officials over class assignments have become an almost routine part of life in schools, both public and private.
Nowhere is this more evident than late August in the nation's elementary schools. That's when classroom assignments are posted in many schools, a particularly important time for parents who consider the choice of teacher a potential make-or-break decision for their youngster's fledgling academic career.
"I've had parents talk about [how this might affect] getting their kids into college. I could tell you stories," says Charles Jansky, principal of Riviera Beach Elementary in northern Anne Arundel County. "One first-grade teacher had 50 requests and this is a school with 55 first-graders and 3 first grade teachers."
But principals like Jansky have begun fighting back. Many are limiting opportunities for class-switching. While others are choosing to ban it outright.
When Ruth Heath took over as principal of Rockburn Elementary School in Elkridge three years ago, she inherited at least 50 requests from parents regarding class assignments. So far this year, there have been fewer than 10--- and it's not certain any of those will result in any reshuffling of class rosters.
She credits the reduction to a change in the school's culture. She has tried to educate parents about the many factors involved in placements -- how it's based on academic opportunities and not just personalities.
"Parents talk to each other at the market, at pools, at churches and temples and word gets around," says Heath. "I've even had people come into my office and say, 'You know my neighbor says Mrs. So-and-so is an excellent teacher and I'd like my child to have her."
School administrators say such requests are not new, of course, but they fear parents have gotten quicker to ask for them than ever before. They speculate that it's an outgrowth of their own efforts to involve parents more closely in the schools.
"People who volunteer in schools think they have an advantage," says Anna Gable, spokeswoman for the Howard County public schools. "They get to know teachers and get a chance to look out for their child."
Betsy Emery of Ellicott City, president of the PTA at Rockburn, agrees that most of the complaints are usually voiced by parents who spend a lot of time volunteering in their school's classrooms.
"The ones at school really get to know the teachers well and they develop personal favorites," says Emery, whose children are going into kindergarten, 4th and 7th grade.
Roland Park Country School Head Jean Waller Brune says parental lobbying can begin as early as the spring before class assignments are made. She promises parents only that their preferences will be "one of several factors we'll take into consideration."
"Schools are a partnership between parents and school. I like that. We want to be responsive," says Brune. "As long as I've been in teaching, parents have called about homerooms. It's not a new phenomenon. It's just that I think parents today do ask more overtly for things they want."
Of course, sometimes a wish that's granted doesn't work out as planned. After Katy Dale was transferred from the split class, she was put in an all-first-grader class that turned out to be a poor match for her skills, according to her mother.
She lost motivation, says Dale-Montz. She had been an over-achiever, but by second grade, she ended up in a lower reading group.
In hindsight, her mother wishes she hadn't asked for the new assignment. Only now, as Katy enters 4th grade at Catonsville, is Dale-Montz convinced her 9-year-old has made up for the lost academic opportunities.
"She got to kick back and not do much of anything in first grade," Dale-Montz says. "It's a good thing to be involved, but not if we shoot ourselves in the foot. I'm not a teacher. I didn't know. I'm just sorry I started her elementary school experience this way."