Keeping School: Letters to Families from Principals of Two Small Schools

By Deborah Meier, Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer (Beacon Press, 192 pages, $23.00) BUY NOW!
reviewed by Jill Davidson

It’s nearly impossible to overestimate how many fully loaded plates most principals (and teachers) spin on any given school day. Interruption-driven, overscheduled: this is their norm. Though it may seem counterintuitive and nearly impossible to find time on a regular basis to put a page’s worth of sentences together, many school leaders have discovered that predictable, proactive communication home to families can set the tone for the school community, steering attention away from dead-ends, squabbles, and rumors, and toward celebrations, important decisions, and other matters of real significance. Reliably setting expectations, managing the flashpoints of potential misunderstandings, tooting your school’s horn—these are the basics of ally-building and cultivating partnerships.

Keeping School collects selected weekly letters from Deborah Meier, principal of Boston’s Mission Hill School and Ted and Nancy Sizer, one-year co-principals at Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts, sorting them into four themes (learning, community, authority, and standards) and providing commentaries. The Sizers and Meier are the real thing, principals of a secondary school and an elementary school, newly founded schools at that, with all of the attendant joy and craziness. They are also, to say it plainly, big shots, and the letters’ accessible, informal language nicely complements their more formal writing to which we are more accustomed (this is particularly true of Ted Sizer’s letters from Parker).

What does Ted Sizer say to Parker community when it confronted drug use? How does Deborah Meier present to parents the choice whether to permit their children to take state standardized tests? What words and images does Nancy Sizer choose to describe education as a collaboration between teachers and families? The letters make the process of keeping school transparent, and thus serve both as wonderful models for other school leaders and offer vivid “insider access” to Mission Hill and Parker.

As much as anything else I’ve read, these letters provide tangible and specific details of what it is like not only to keep school but to keep an Essential school. In particular, the letters in the section on standards aim to reset families’ expectations about assessment, creating an alternate vision of what school can be. “Learning is different in our schools,” writes Nancy Sizer, and these letters demonstrate that one of the elements of that difference is the collaboration among educators, families, and students that Keeping School’s letters describe.