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Challenge: Back to School 2021

School Spirit Days: Creative or Cruel?

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It’s the first week of September, and the back-to-school rush that sent me to four different stores looking for uniforms and school supplies in August has died down. Everyone is figuring out the carpool line at school. Life is starting to hum. That’s when I got the texts about “Spirit Days” for Dallas Independent School District, a district-wide initiative to show “Attendance Matters.” While this specific initiative is local, it’s part of a national trend to get kids excited for school with themed dress up days that become a parent’s job to coordinate.

I saw the infographic for five weeks of special weekly dress-up requirements: wacky tacky day, dress like a superhero day, favorite color day, college shirt day and school spirit day, along with the opinions of the Moms passing it around.

“This feels like a personal attack.”

“We are barely getting to school on time as it is.”

“If my daughter doesn’t have a super hero shirt she’ll be upset, but if I have to find one I’ll go crazy.”

And I agree. As a second grader, my daughter has never had a “normal” school year. Waking up and being ready for in-person school five days a week is completely new, exhausting territory - for both of us. Mine and every other second grader in America have never had a school year that wasn’t affected by the pandemic, and many are facing adjustments accordingly.

Dallas ISD is struggling with low attendance, often citing parental overwhelm and families struggles related to COVID-19 as theories why enrollment may be down. With this being the case, the district will be shocked to hear how motivated I feel to send my child to school when I’m supposed to source a superhero costume on top of leading my child’s acclimatization to our regular school day obligations.

Educating All Students for Success

As one of the 2.2 million mothers in America that were out of the workforce during the pandemic, I’m not alone in trying to use the beginning of the school year, my first consistent child care since March 2020, to get back on my feet. I might be able to afford $10 for a t-shirt and go by a store to dress up for spirit days on one of my better weeks, but after homeschooling and taking massive financial losses to keep our family and others safe through a deadly pandemic, I feel as though there’s no way I should be asked.

I will face relatively minor inconveniences for my daughter to be able to show up ready for school in her college shirt, but what about the families who don’t have the privilege of rolling their eyes, opening their wallets and making it happen?

In Dallas, one in five children lives below the poverty line. Over 30% of families in our city are run by a single parent. How does five weeks of costume days work for them?

Dallas ISD’s mission statement is, “educating all students for success.” But seeing as how they want to disrupt our school’s equitable foundation of uniforms and free lunch for all with implicit bias that enters the classroom when it becomes obvious what child has the resources at home to dress up for Spirit Days and which ones do not, I don’t believe the district has done their research on how poverty shame effects learning. If they had, I can’t believe there’s any way this initiative would come to pass.

No Child Left Behind

To be sure, the only group I can imagine that’s gone through more in the last two years than mothers at home are school administrators. This alone has me wondering why the extra work tasked to them to coordinate these special days respects the load they are carrying to acclimate children back to campus while still protecting them from a deadly virus. The school administration did not reply my emails when I asked for data that might suggest how extra work for parents and intentional call-outs to resources at home would improve an equitable learning space for children and better attendance.

Creative parents and I brainstormed ways to make school exciting for children without taxing families, such as making spirit wear in the art classroom or hosting visits from the local high school marching bands and fire departments. These suggestions were submitted but not met with a response.

What concerned me most was the feedback I received from school administration and other parents that they ‘rarely get complaints” about dress up days at school, therefore letting them assume everyone was on board or managing the extra tasks.

In our school of 200 students, 32 parents join the evening zoom PTA meetings and a handful attend 9:00 a.m. on campus Coffee with the Principal. Every day, a bus brings children who wait outside as early as 6:45 a.m. to get their ride to campus for the school day. To be able to educate all students for success, we have to first realize the inequity of voices in our meetings. We have to stop assuming that just because the PTA or the Moms club finds little inconvenience in an initiative, that it won’t deeply affect a child with fewer resources.

I’ve traditionally been an involved mother in my child’s education. I’ve been privileged enough to be resourced to be able to buy school supplies, volunteer on campus and make special cupcakes for the classroom parties that I post to Instagram with a half-joking, martyr-like caption.

Last May, my circumstances changed. I was sole parenting while working on a huge contract for my business after being out of work for a year. In a “this would never happen to me” type of situation, I suddenly and unexpectedly had zero access to my spouse or our shared finances while he was in mental health treatment. My money went to groceries, bills and living expenses as quickly as I could invoice my clients for it. End of year parties, teacher’s gifts and unexpected items needed for surprise campus activities like splash day became the straws that broke the camel’s back.

As a woman who just a few months before would swipe her card at the grocery store without thinking twice, I suddenly had $60 to make it to the end of the week. It was Monday. With how much of a failure I already felt in the eyes of my child despite working harder in my life than I had ever had to before, there was no way I could stomach sending her to school without special items for activities or telling the school I needed help. I finally did what I had been praying I wouldn’t have to do since the pandemic suddenly closed my private events business 16 months before. I called a loved one sobbing that I could feed my daughter this week but not myself, and I was starving.

I felt so much shame making that call, and so much relief when I saw a deposit for $100 hit my account without question. I thought of the women in my position, from short term circumstances or systemic wrongdoing, that faced this reality regularly and with no one to ask for help. I told myself as we went “back to normal.” I would do my part to not fall back into the false reality that if it works for a PTA member mother, it works for all of us.

We know for sure that mothers have been tasked with the impossible for far too long before the pandemic, that even before the pandemic left 16.9 million people unemployed that only 41% of American families could cover a $1,000 emergency, and that we all vowed in our personal and collective pain last year to do our part in making changes.

Just four weeks into the school year, it’s clear from the sports schedules, homework assignments and extra on-campus activities that we’ve already been asked to forget about how we’ve burnt out Mothers before and during the pandemic. Any dreams I had while down and out last year that society would intervene and create a new reality for us to go back to has passed, but thankfully the last year taught me the power of a grounded “no” like never before. It’s my job to use that no in spaces where I feel needless overwhelm, not just for myself but for the other mothers it affects who can’t.

Spirit Days are not “creative and fun” to the family struggling to get by, but cruel. They needlessly rob us of money but also precious time that could be spent earning for or enjoying our children. Let’s educate all students for success by creating an equitable learning environment that makes it easy and exciting for children to come to school by showing parents we have their backs and love their children as they are. That’s what a superhero looks like to me.

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