Policy Update: April 24, 2015

Policy Update: April 24, 2015

imrsA quick look back at events this week impacting women and families, from Valerie Young, a public policy analyst with Mom-mentum.

Happy Friday – the weekend is here, and so is the rundown on family policy news.

It’s Women’s Health Week. Don’t forget to take care of yourself while you’re taking care of everybody else.  A quick checklist from the US Office of Women’s Health will keep you on track.

New data keep coming about the importance of the earliest years in brain development, and how intelligent policies can support families with young children and really pay off when they become adults.  Nick Kristof takes a look in this New York Times article.

The campaign to get a woman on the $20 bill is gaining steam, and four finalists have been selected.  Send in your vote for Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Wilma Mankiller, or Rosa Parks right here.  My fave, Shirley Chisholm, sadly didn’t make the cut.

The US Breastfeeding Committee has released state fact sheets.  The benefits are legion, but it can be complicated by personal factors and a lack of support.  Practically every state has a coalition if you need resources. Find your fact sheet through this page.

Following last week’s White House push for pro-family policies, the President reminds us that nothing will get better unless we go public with our stories and insist on  solutions.  There is just no substitute for sharing stories and coming together around common frustrations.  You have a role to play – don’t sit on the sidelines for yourself and your family.

Image courtesy of Women on 20s

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The Diverse School Dilemma: A Book Review

The Diverse School Dilemma: A Book Review

By Nancy Poon Lue

Diverse Schools ArtFamily’s education decisions start long before college visits. That is the message at the heart of The Diverse School Dilemma by Michael Petrilli, an easy-to-read personal narrative of the author’s search for the right school for his children. It echoes many of the key questions I am often asked when people learn that I attended inner city public schools prior to matriculating at Harvard College.

Petrilli, president of a DC education reform think tank and a former Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, succinctly dissects the questions raised by families who want to look beyond pure academic statistics and outcomes to consider the broader picture of a compelling school experience. For the author, and the families he profiled in this book, learning side-by-side with peers from different socioeconomic and racial background was a critical element. As Petrilli puts it, “Is selecting a diverse public school a responsible choice or an unreasonable risk?”

In just 119 pages, Petrilli blends research data, facts about school choices, and the anecdotal voice of parents who have gone through this process to answer this question. He opens up his family’s decision-making process as they evaluated their neighborhood schools, local charter schools (tuition free publicly funded institutions which generally operate independently), “private public schools” (public schools that, based on geographic boundaries, are homogenous), as well as private schools.   He lays out the factors, including school safety, curriculum, teacher quality, level of parental engagement, facilities, and class size, which are typically considered in addition to traditional quantitative measures such as test scores. As Petrilli aptly points out, while test scores provide an important snapshot of student achievement, they can also be deceptive if considered by themselves since they don’t reveal a school’s impact on its students’ year-over-year academic gains as well as knowledge attainment on non-core subjects.

By clearly enumerating the benefits and risks in each of these elements as they relate to diverse schools The Diverse Schools Dilemma gives parents much needed insights into how to weigh these factors based on each family’s risk tolerance and preferences. One family Petrilli interviewed decided that the social benefits of attending a diverse school outweighed the disadvantages of a less rigorous math curriculum and a lack of an arts program, both of which could be remedied for them through supplementary tutoring and afterschool activities (made affordable by not having to pay private school tuition). Of course not every family will have the same set of options (even the author admits that his first choice for his eldest son was a private school that was not affordable) and not every family will consider all of these same factors, but Petrilli lays out the foundation from which most families should begin their evaluation process.

Reading The Diverse School Dilemma was like having a thoughtful conversation with another parent. I appreciated the summary of research facts and background, but I most enjoyed Petrilli’s candid portrayal of how his family navigated this tricky process where there is often never a perfect solution. As most parents are trying to figure out what will be best for their children in the long run, I would have loved it if Petrilli had included interviews and any data points on alumni of the different schools types he profiled so that parents can have some perspective on the possible long-term impact of such a difficult decision.

As an alumna of diverse inner city public schools, the benefits as well as disadvantages of my early education followed me well into college, graduate school, and my professional life. So for me the section entitled “Why Peers Matter,” which focused on the influence peers have on a child’s vocabulary development and learning style starting at a young age, resonated strongly. Petrilli also offers practical tips for parents wrestling with school decisions, such as attending a PTA meeting and doing school visits outside of formal scheduled tour hours, in order to assess a school’s fit for your family.

Nancy Poon Lue is the General Manager of the EdTech Innovation Lab at GSVlabs. She was formerly a Senior Advisor and head of strategic planning at the U.S. Department of Education.  

Book Review: The Price of Silence

Book Review: The Price of Silence

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The Price of Silence coverLike Dara-Lynn Weiss before her, writing a negative piece about her child secured Liza Long a book deal. Her emotionally raw blog post, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” (originally published anonymously on her blog The Anarchist Soccer Mom as “Thinking the Unthinkable”), penned in response to the Newtown shootings, quickly went viral after appearing on The Blue Review and then The Huffington Post. The reaction was extreme in both directions, with some applauding Long’s courage and identifying with her family’s struggle and others calling her an imposter and suggesting she is the one who needs mental health monitoring.

Her just-published book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, is an expansion of that polarizing post. According to the Introduction this is a book for two different audiences. The first is those families who have a child with a mental illness to let them know they aren’t alone by sharing her family’s experience. The second is for those who are “surprised to learn that one in five children in the United States has a serious and debilitating mental disorder, an audience that believes mental illness is something we still shouldn’t talk about except behind closed doors in private rooms.” The Price of Silence succeeds in addressing the latter audience more than the former.

Long is at her best when describing the labyrinth families must navigate when they have a child with a mental illness. A myriad of acronyms must be decoded, reports must be written, and parents have to accustom themselves to the idea of dealing first with administrators and educators in public schools and then with first responders like police officers before frequently turning to the juvenile justice system. Though “institutions” no longer exist (in many cases, happily so), no good system has developed to figure out how to take care of the mentally ill, especially children. Many have to enter juvenile detention and hope to stay on parole to get actual treatment at an affordable price. Long writes of parents divorcing so their child can access services with a reduced family income, and poverty in general is a big issue when it comes to children’s mental health. She explains, “In some states, this transition from school to prison is so regular that it’s been called a ‘pipeline,’ one that disproportionately affects poor children and their families.”

One of the most practical suggestions Long makes in The Price of Silence is that pediatricians need to be better trained to identify the warning signs of various forms of mental illness, and not just autism. Though it is true that there is much still unknown about the science of mental illness, more is being understood every day through new imaging techniques and DNA analysis. Because Long discusses a lot of of-the-moment research, the book might not hold up well over time. But her message that there is a complex interplay between genetics, parenting, and the environment, and her reminder that people with mental illness are usually the victims of violence (and when they are violent it is usually against themselves) ensure that The Price of Silence is an important book.

The book falls flat in describing what it is like in Long’s family, which clearly has a complicated dynamic with four children, an ex-husband, and a new partner, along with a change of family religion. She refers to an acrimonious divorce and custody battles, but doesn’t get into specifics and if anything is clear it is that the situation isn’t resolved. That murkiness dulls the larger messages of her book and it may have been more effective to limit the more personal to one chapter.

While Long’s blog post did net her a book deal, it also caused a lot of anguish as her ex-husband had their two youngest children removed from her home on the basis of the violence described. At the same time because her piece reached so many it ultimately led her to a child psychiatrist who seems to have at long last provided a diagnosis and treatment for her son. Now diagnosed with juvenile bipolar disorder with a “Fear of Harm” phenotype, “Michael” is doing better and spending more time with his younger siblings. In many ways Liza Long is not like Adam Lanza’s mom because she acknowledges her son’s illness and will never have guns in the house. And hopefully her message and suggestions can help other mothers avoid the sad fate of Nancy Lanza and those impacted by acts of violence by sick young men.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is a sociologist and writer. You can learn more about her work at www.hilaryleveyfriedman.com.



By JoeAnn Hart

Mother of the Grooms ArtIn our family, Easter is the time for breaking unsettling news to my parents. Divorce, illness, you name it, we save it for Easter. This has less to do with Lenten self-examination, than the fact that we haven’t seen one another since Christmas and there are some announcements best done face-to-face. My son’s engagement to another man was one of those.

William grew up in a time when homosexuality was beginning to be commonplace in daily life. One of his friends in elementary school had two mommies, and this same school celebrated ‘Coming Out Day’ when teachers and students were encouraged to do just that. I’m not sure any student took advantage, being mostly pre-pubescent as they were, but on at least one occasion a teacher stepped forward. My son told me she had cried. “Why do you think?” I asked. “Happiness, maybe,” he ventured. Maybe. He kept his own cards close to his chest. It wasn’t even until his first year of college that he came out to his best friend from childhood. Within hours, this friend ran to their boss at the Yacht Club and lied that William was smoking pot. Shame on the Yacht Club for not questioning the underlying motives of a misguided teenager, and pox upon the board member who later tried to use William’s sexuality as blackmail. By coming out just a little, William lost his best friend and his job.

He continued to keep his cards from me and my husband, but we’re pretty good at reading the tea leaves. As a toddler, William wore his older sisters’ dresses and was obsessed with Barbie, so it didn’t take a research psychologist to guess that something was brewing[1]. In his teens, there was the occasional off-hand hint, but he never used the word “gay.” Some of that stemmed from the fact that he seems to be of a generation that prefers not to identify. If anything, he called himself “open,” a word used to separate love from gender. Gay, open, whatever, at the end of his junior year of college, he announced he was marrying Luke. The shock was not so much the choice, as the age. He was only twenty-two.

“Neither of you can be pregnant,” I said, “why the rush?”

We argued for weeks. They were in love, and they’d been around enough to know this was it. Same-sex marriage is legal in our state, so getting hitched offered considerable financial and legal benefits, not the least of which was spousal health insurance. Their marriage would not be recognized by the federal government, but it was a start. To seal his case, William pointed out that he was the same age I was when I got married.

Where do kids find out this information? We set a date in July and I became a mother-of-a-groom. From that moment on, I asked myself what would I do if this was one of my daughters, and then I did it. I sorted out responsibilities with Luke’s mom and went to work, calling our UU minister, the caterer, and tent company. The boys chose colors (blue and orange) and a flower (sunflowers) but otherwise had no strong opinions. No bride, no bridezilla.

Then came the guest list. My husband and I divvied up the relatives. Luke had been out to his family since forever, and perhaps had never been in, but we did not want people finding out William was gay by reading a wedding invitation. We also wanted them to know that if they weren’t comfortable with two grooms at the altar, they could sit this one out with no penalties. As we worked our way down the list, there was some befuddlement, but just about everyone was delighted. William’s step-grandmother invited the boys over for tea, and even the Christian Right took the news with unexpected grace. “You have to love them no matter what,” my sister-in-law said. Amen to that.

By April, all that remained were my very catholic parents. My husband and I met them in the driveway when they arrived for Easter lunch.

“I have news,” I said. “William is gay and he’s getting married in July. We love Luke and we’re very happy for them.”

My father expelled a short breath. “I knew it!” said my mother, immensely pleased to have her own suspicions confirmed.

“We hope you’ll be at the wedding,” said my husband, “but this isn’t a command performance.”

“We wouldn’t miss it,” my mother said. My father shrugged and we all went inside for a festive day with the happy couple and extended family.

Oh, we had a few moments along the way to the altar, where homophobia popped up in unexpected places, but the route was the same as for any couple: Crate& Barrel registration, shower, rehearsal dinner, then vows under the birch tree in the yard. My father opted out of the actual ceremony for fear of going to hell, but he was there for the reception, with nothing but joy in his heart.

The only drama on the wedding day was when the cake began to melt, a fact known only to me, the caterer, and the photographer, who had to be pulled from dinner to shoot the grooms cutting the cake so we could get the damn thing refrigerated. The next day, I put the top of the cake in the freezer for the boys’ one-year anniversary. Since then, the Supreme Court has shot down the Defense of Marriage Act, paving the way for legalization of their marriage on a federal level. That’s great, especially tax-wise, but legal status does not make a marriage. Love makes a marriage, and no court can bestow that or take it away. At their anniversary party, they sliced into the wedding cake, a great deal more solid than it had been the year before.

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled, works of fiction with a social conscience. Her short fiction, essays, articles, and poetry have been widely published. She lives by the sea in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

photo by Brendan Pike

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[1] Gender-atypical behavior in childhood is correlated with adult homosexuality, but it is an imperfect correlation. Not all boys who wear dresses grow up to be gay. And as for Barbie, she was banned from the house for the sake of our girls’ self-image, but William found her anyway.