Listening to the Hip Mamas

So the Seattle School District won't close 10 buildings after all, thanks to some noisy parents out in the neighborhoods.

Somewhere among the district's bean counters and PR consultants, somebody must have realized they're in a war of attrition.

Seattle's housing hyperinflation has decimated the town's supply of striving middle-class families with minor children.

If the district's gonna maintain any acceptable level of popular support, for taxation and other reasons, it can't allow itself to become known as the last resort for parents too poor to ship their kids to private schools (or to move to Bainbridge).

The blank generation

To do this, the district has to listen to more than just the traditional neighborhood-school advocates behind this last protest. I believe the district has to be particularly responsive (i.e. kowtowing) to the whims of Blank Generation adults-people ages 20 to 45, skilled in activist organizing and demanding of "quality" education, whatever that means.

The rich parents will patronize private schools, quality differential or none, for the social-status thang if nothing else.

Square professional-class parents (the old Seattle Weekly target market) will decamp to the suburbs upon the first sign of morning sickness, just because it's what parents of their subculture are expected to do.

No, it's the postmodern parents, the ones represented by zines such as Hip Mama, who are the parents public schools have to keep.

The ones who used to listen to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and now have teens or preteens of their own. The adults who grew up with "Pac-Man," whose kids are growing up with "The Sims." They're the adults who believe in city life, who believe in a strong public sector, who believe in cultural and ethnic diversity.

Unfortunately for the school bureaucrats, these are also the parents who believe in political action, in making a fuss to get what they want.

I've known several of these parents. They're not all as "X-treme" as the woman who personally dyed her kid's baby clothes all black. But they do care about their kids as well as about their own sense of style.

And there are many of them. You should've seen the scene at Easy Street Records on Lower Queen Anne the night They Might Be Giants came to promote their second kiddie CD. The joint was filled to the brim with hip parents and swingin' kids.

What do these hip parents want from schools? I asked several of these friends of mine. They expressed a variety of priorities, but that's part of the whole thang. They want schools that recognize kids aren't one-size-fits-all, and education shouldn't be either.

Many of them want "alternative" teaching methods and systems, such as those provided in the Orca, TOPS (The Options Program at Seward), and Summit K-12 programs. They'd like more programs like these (many of them are now booked solid); and to keep them available, in a post-busing era, to kids from all over town.

They want teachers who know what they're talking about and can effectively communicate it.

They don't necessarily want all the latest hi-tech gadgetry in every classroom; at least not at the expense of human attention. But they do want working computers and Net access in every school building. They want teachers and/or community volunteers who can show kids how to use computers more effectively, to go beyond Net surfing and into programming.

They want after-school activities, the sort of things their own parents might have once scorned as "frills." They want more non-spectator sports (for both genders), community outreach programs, and especially arts programs-and not just marching band and choir either. They want mentoring, tutoring and learning enrichment programs.

Yep, these things all cost money, and the Seattle School District doesn't have much of that to flail around. Things could get worse if today's housing bubble pops, taking property-tax revenues down with it.

The will to make it happen

But the indie-rock generation's well versed in the do-it-yourself aesthetic. These parents can stage benefits, auctions, art sales, etc. like nobody else-even if some of them are turned off by old fashioned institutions such as PTAs. They can scrounge for donations and volunteers most adeptly, if they believe the cause is worth it.

These skills, and these priorities, will be valuable for everyone's kids. All the District has to do is learn to respond to this new parent-power.

It's hard, of course, for any entrenched bureaucracy to loosen up, open up and cede more decision-making to the people for whom it's officially working.

But it's vital, if the district's going to get parents involved (not just protesting), and if it's going to serve all the city's families (not just those who can't afford to go elsewhere).

Clark Humphrey's column appears in the first issue of each month. His Web site on popular culture is

[[In-content Ad]]