I want to take a few minutes to address the heartfelt concerns raised this week by our fifth grade cohort about our Fall Festival plans for Friday. This cohort is the keeper of the traditions we fostered at Schmitz Park, and they lead us in helping to create a new vision for our new school. The comments that parents have shared on this topic have ranged from focus on communication and decision-making, the importance of following rules, how to protest rules we don’t like, equity, inclusiveness and fairness, the importance of making memories and having fun at school. Every one of these issues is important to me and the rest of the staff at Genesee Hill, and I appreciate the good thinking and discussion on these topics. It would be easy to dismiss the questions about Halloween and costumes as not very important, but I actually take them very seriously because all of these essential issues are at stake. Please bear with me.
First, I want to explain how we made our decision around Halloween. The recommendation to “leave behind” our Halloween tradition at Schmitz Park was made this past spring by our Building Transition Team, a committee of parents and teachers. This recommendation was presented at our PTA meeting in May, and we proceeded with this understanding as we focused on opening the new building. As Curriculum Night approached, teachers started wondering what they should explain to parents about what to plan for Halloween, so we took a survey of the staff to identify what the concerns and preferences of the staff were. These concerns ranged from the difficulty of some families to provide a costume, the hassle of helping children with their costumes, the inclusiveness of a schoolwide celebration of a holiday that not all families celebrate (a few families in many classes have kept their children home every year because of perceptions of Halloween as a cultural or religious event), the sheer size of our numbers, etc. Complicating the issue this year is the fact that Halloween falls on a Monday – not a great set-up for the week if we were to do something that day. While we did not survey parents, it should be noted that a high number of teachers on the staff are also GH parents – another attribute that makes GH great.
We reviewed the teacher survey with our Building Leadership Team, who made the final decision. The BLT is the representative body that includes teachers, an instructional assistant, office staff and two parent representatives. Speaking for myself, I went into the meeting fully supporting a more traditional Halloween with a smaller parade at each floor. Our shared decision, however, was to use this year to explore different possibilities for celebration of all things October at each cohort level. This includes autumn, harvest and Halloween. We said “dress-up” was a fun part of the experience, and each cohort has a different idea about how to incorporate. This means, no “Halloween costumes” from home; if we had invited home costumes this year, that would have taken over everything else. Instead, each grade will have different “dress-up” activities. I came to believe this was the best decision for our first year at Genesee Hill. We will get a better idea for what works in our new space and be able to plan accordingly next year. This first year I’m also very aware of what precedences we set. I want to be cautious not to set bad precedences that saddle the community with “we always do it this way,” and I want to take advantage of the opportunity to clear the slate, ensure that we nail a few high priorities and emphasize a few items that are really important to “lock in.” I’m certain we can make adjustments next year on this Halloween issue that will be better informed by our experience this year.
The fifth grade’s special role this year is to try out what a Halloween party could look like in our common spaces. While we considered including other cohorts in the gym/cafeteria for the Monster Mash, we thought it would be best to keep it special for the fifth grade. They have the opportunity to help create a new tradition, and everything that I have heard from the teachers is that they are excited for the possibilities.
I want to add a word about communication and community. In some of the email discussion, I heard some degree of disgust and distrust. I saw divisive language like “outrageous.” In a school community, leadership is about setting priorities and broadening perspective. It is important not to paint anyone out to be the “bad guys” on this issue. In our polarized society, we have to be careful to acknowledge the importance of each other’s perspective, and that goes both ways. I need parents trusting that the BLT had good reasons for making the decision they did, and I need teachers listening and learning (as they do every day) from parents and kids in ways that help see things from another point of view.
I also had a good conversation with a parent today about the importance of parents having the right language with which to talk with kids. Sometimes I get worked up about calls for “transparency” as signs of distrust, but as a parent I know that adults can’t be supportive of the school if they’re caught off guard. This is why good communication is so important. We could have done a lot better on this issue, and this post is a step toward reflecting on that.
To fifth grade families, let’s get through this week, enjoy the Fall Festivals, and work on Salish Seas next – the team is developing some good ideas to ensure this cohort has a fitting culmination to the year and capstone their elementary careers.