As you’ve probably figure out by now, raising my kids has helped me believe in magic. And not just because of all the years I spent coming up with clever ways to convince them that Santa Claus was real. Including the year I made a big show of having them see me to go bed, and then changed the sheets overnight, so I could say that Santa magically put new sheets on my bed while I was asleep.
Anyway, back from the North Pole. Here’s the magic story of ASCEND:
When I got the boys on January 11, 2003, Mark was in preschool, and Daveon was in 1st grade. Which meant, legally, I had to get him into school ASAP. Unlike many adoptive—or biological, for that matter—parents, I did not do a big search to find the “right” school for my kids. I also did not move into a neighborhood known for “good” schools. Even after 40 hours of parent training, a lot of what I did and still do in terms of parenting would fall under the scientific approach known as “winging it.”
We started with our neighborhood public school, where Daveon lasted all of two days. After his third (fourth?) fight started by a kindergartner, we were done. A guy I know at the YMCA had worked for the district for years, and he recommended a school whose principal he knew well. She was doing “great things” there. Maybe for some kids. Daveon lasted at that school until June, barely. And only because we had our alternative already lined up.
Meanwhile, Mark got into a Head Start campus at the old Oakland Army base. Because most of their day was eating, sleeping, and playing—aka Mark in his natural habitat, at least until skating kicked in—he did fine.
So, magic: About two weeks after I got the boys, I was invited to a friend’s birthday dinner in San Francisco. It was a grown-up event as a nice restaurant. I was very torn about leaving the kids so soon after I got them, but on the other hand the thought of a few uninterrupted hours of adult conversation was irresistible. I arranged for my heroes Jim and Chris—fresh with their own two newly adopted kids—to watch the boys, and off I went to the big city.
One of the main topics of conversation was, unsurprisingly, Joe’s new kids. Across the table from me was a woman named Elena whom I did not know. Elena asked about the kids’ schools, and I explained where they landed, more and less smoothly. She then said flat out: “You need to send them to my school. I’ve been teaching in Oakland for over 20 years, and it’s the only place that I would send any kids I had.”
The good news: Said school was having an orientation for prospective parents of kindergarten students the next week. I called on Monday and got a slot at the event.
The bad: They only had openings for kindergarten. But Elena advised: “Just go and apply for your younger son. If he gets in I’m sure they can work something out for the older one.”
When I pulled up that Monday afternoon, my first experience of ASCEND was watching a group of older students (7th or 8th grade) walking down the hallway in a double-file line … in silence … with no teacher leading them. As a point of reference, I would be hard-pressed to remember a single kid of any age walking down a hall in silence—teacher or no teacher—at either of Daveon’s earlier schools. I thought: “I don’t care what else they do at this place. I want my kids here.”
At the orientation, the teacher, parent, and principal spiels were encouraging. Entering just its third year, ASCEND was a small school (max class size 20), founded by teachers and parents who demanded better for their kids and knew they could provide it. There was an activist spirit to both the faculty and parent make-up, and they were doing great things.
At the end of the presentations, I approached the principal with my application for Mark and explained that I had met Elena a few days before. She said immediately: “Oh I know who you are. Just give that to me and I’ll take care of both your sons.”
They were in. In part because the school was almost 100% Latino and Asian, and improving the racial mix with a couple of African-American boys fit their vision of diversity nicely.
And in part—you’ll never convince me otherwise—magic.
And magic it was, especially for those first few years. Daveon’s reading increased two grade levels within six months, and Mark, getting in from the ground floor, had a solid foundation from day one. The kids stayed with the same teachers for two years, and those particular K/1 and 2/3 teachers did work magic on the kids—an amazing blend of compassion, individuation, high expectations, and constructive discipline that many schools would do well to mimic.
Though the school changed in later years—growing larger, turning over staff, losing some of the special charm that made it ASCEND—and though the boys had some high- and lowlight school experiences after that (stories for another time), ASCEND gave the boys—and me—a “home away from home” base that really spoiled us in terms of what school could be like.
Next: Skating, Part 1