Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Curious Case of the Ceiling Fan

Just about every home decorating show and magazine hates ceiling fans. If an owner wants to sell a house, "get rid of those fans!" When the featured decorator wants to update a room, "that ceiling fan has to go!"

When we bought our house ten years ago, a few of the rooms had ceiling fans. "Obviously, this home needs updating," our realtor sniffed. "It'll be easy to take out those ceiling fans. Or you can make that a requirement in your offer."

We kept the fans.

Over the past two years, we've replaced old fixtures with top of the line ceiling fans in every bedroom. Why? Because it's blasted hot in the South. Since we don't want a four-figure power bill, we keep the air conditioner set at 76 degrees (78 when we're away from home more than a few days). That's pretty comfortable on the main floors, but the upstairs is a different story. (Maybe our bedrooms should be on the terrace level, surrounded on two sides by cool earth.) So rather than lower the thermostat, we use our ceiling fans. We turn them on in June and they stay on until October. Ceiling fans don't make a room cooler, but they do move air and feel fabulous at bedtime.

If by chance we have to move, I know exactly what our realtor will say. "Paint those walls in neutrals and get rid of those ceiling fans!"

I blame HGTV and all those home decorating magazines. They've trained us to purchase homes with catalog-style interiors that need no fixing up and look exactly like what we already have at home. So, as a nation, we're evidently moving from one Pottery Barn/Ballard/Southern Living home straight into another, with furniture and accessories that fit no matter where we live. Apparently, everyone has gray/khaki/sage walls, white trim, leather seating, a mix of black and warm wood tables, granite kitchen countertops, Container Store closets, elaborate laundry/mud rooms, and themed bedrooms with no photos, personal keepsakes, or mussy beds.

Realtors are right there with them. On the advice of her realtor, one of my friends moved completely out of her house and put her family's possessions in storage, painted everything, hired a staging consultant to re-furnish her home, and listened carefully to every bit of advice. "It's a buyer's market. Your house has to look like they can move in tomorrow." "You need a fence off the view of that house back there." "Nice layout, but you should add granite countertops." "You need to lower your price quite a bit."


Maybe someone could specialize in trading ceiling fans for "neutral" light fixtures, leave a calling card, and return the ceiling fans to the same house as soon as the new owner figures out it's too hot without them.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

It's an education, all right.

Yesterday, I trekked to the Georgia Department of Education's Charter Schools Committee meeting to receive their blessing on Peachtree Middle's charter renewal petition. I sat with several representatives from Peachtree and Kingsley Elementary School, whose charter is also up for renewal (and was approved!).

Behind the scenes, when most folks were busy with lots and lots of other stuff, Peachtree parents were wrestling with, researching, adapting, surveying, and writing a new charter for Peachtree, one with tremendous latitude for curricula, scheduling, staffing, use of designated funding, and waivers from state and county restrictions.

The committee praised Peachtree for its academic rigor and the fact that the innovations in our last charter became standards for the entire county (seven period schedule, daily PE, world languages, et al). Then they questioned us sharply about our AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) scores in science and math with 8th graders (we're suffering the same pangs as the rest of the state thanks to the new curricula), our attendance zone (we accept every student who lives in our district, plus we have a lottery and waitlist for other students - we're too full to open any more spots), where our funding comes from (I think they forgot that as a conversion charter we're funded primarily by DeKalb County - but were really interested in the vitality of our Foundation, which funds teacher training, technology, additional curricula and materials, and capital projects such as new signage and a watering station for the track and field area).

Our 90+ document covered every single question with such clarity that the questioning lasted just a few moments. Then they agreed to submit charter to the State Board of Education. This morning. I'm watching the webcast for that final blessing.

Working on a charter is a keen balancing act between optimistic boosterism and a grounded grasp of reality. I embrace the idea that every student has value and deserves the best possible education. I also believe that Dunwoody must have superlative schools - I demand no less as a parent, a taxpayer, a homeowner, and a volunteer in the schools.

We have made major gains in recent years thanks to savvy Dunwoody parent volunteers, great teachers, and some key school administrators - and in spite of sometimes backbreaking and mindless directives from the county school system.

There is so much more we can do.

It's time to focus on developing a Dunwoody Charter Cluster for our schools. Dan Weber has been working at the grassroots level on this concept (and not just for Dunwoody - Chamblee is discussing the possibility, too.)
This umbrella Charter Cluster would give Dunwoody the kind of local control we need for our schools. I predict that a Charter Cluster would engage our community much the same way becoming a City did, by creating a sense of ownership and empowerment that has been lacking in the one-size-fits-all county administration system. Local businesses will be far more likely to support schools when they see a direct connection between their donations and the results in Dunwoody schools. Parents will get even more involved because their voices would not get lost in the cacophony far across the county. There are resources and talents available in the community that will impact the schools with far-reaching benefits. And accountability will be immediate and dealt with proactively - if something isn't working, it won't take a Titannic-sized tugboat to turn things around.

Yes, we'd still be subject to DCSS for funding, staffing, and transportation. But the recently enhanced Charter Schools Law gives Charter schools tremendous flexibility in spending, scheduling, curricula, obtaining outside resources, and choosing curricula and materials that are far more specific to student needs at the local level.

Just as important, a Charter Cluster allows each school within the cluster to adapt even more locally. The needs of each school, from elementary to high school, are not always the same.

So, some "what if's" for a Dunwoody Charter Cluster:

1.  What if we add a career track academy to Dunwoody High so that all students could graduate along the path that best suits their needs, whether college or skilled job placement? (DHS already has Mass Communications and Finance academies.)

2. What if we mandate balanced enrollment in our elementary schools? Convert the 4-5 school to all grades AND renovate the Shallowford School property.

3. What if we rethink the middle school model and offered parents the option of a K-8 school instead?

4. What if we operate on a balanced schedule, ie year round school with three-week breaks between sessions and a five-week summer break?

5. What if we move Dunwoody High's schedule later in the day to embrace the reality that high school students have a different inner sleep clock than the rest of us?

6. What if we establish a Cluster Foundation to pursue the millions of dollars in grants and resources available to schools? This funding would give Dunwoody tremendous flexibility in capital projects, classroom technology and materials, stipends to support teachers and administrators, and so much more.

7. What if we hve a capital campaign to build our own sports facility? (There's space - we just have to be creative in WHERE the stadium is located.)

8. What if there is a direct link between multi-family and high density zoning approval and school capacity?

9. What if parents' mindset inverts from an all-consuming focus on their elementary school to feeling part of a continuum that culminates in Dunwoody High School? The best school districts in the nation are not labeled "XYZ Elementary School" - they're identified by the HIGH SCHOOL.

10. What if each school can spend the funds allocated by the county according to their specific needs? There will be accountability, but there will also be tremendous flexibility (no more America's Choice or Springboard or other canned edu-fluff).

That's just a start.

I realize that my kids likely won't benefit directly from a Charter Cluster (one graduates next year, the other enters High School in 2011), but my family will. Because we're here in Dunwoody for the long run, and it's the right thing for our community.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dunwoody bits and pieces.

Dunwoody High School has a new principal. The circumstances of the change in leadership are not wonderful, but I feel optimistic about Mr. Swanson and the very positive impact he can have on the high school. By all accounts (friends with children at DeKalb School of the Arts), he is warm, savvy, flexible, creative in problem solving, firm, and a good communicator. 

I spent seven days in Tennessee working with the Mountain T.O.P. project and my gardens pouted. I lost a Cherokee Black tomato plant, two shrubs, all of my basil, and a hosta. This turn of events ruined the work I've been doing for the past year to "get" that I'm NOT indispensible to my family, job, and volunteer committees. I tend to over-extend myself because I worry that no one else will do or volunteer or care about something. Isn't that just a bit self-important? So I left work and family for a week of mission work, only to return to a very neglected garden. Maybe I'm indispensible after all, at least when it comes to watering and weeding.

Dunwoody Nature Center's executive director, Claire Hayes, will retire mid-2011. She will complete 11 years at the helm; a search for her successor will commence this fall. Her tenure has been so long that her personality is ingrained in every facet of the center's programs. At the same time (just about), the City of Dunwoody just took ownership of the parks from DeKalb County. As a Dunwoody resident and a member of the staff, I'm delighted by the change in park management.  It'll be interesting to see how the Nature Center evolves over the next few years.

Our neighborhood's ongoing battle with the rezoning of the property behind us has been idling while the court system slowly processes the case; recently, it has kicked back into high gear as the court date looms and the original Goddard franchise petitioners try to figure out yet another way to get the property. I do wonder . . . what is so magical about this specific location that the Goddard franchisees are willing to wait 2+ years and invest so much in the legal morass just to operate their day care behind our houses?  There are other properties in the Perimeter area that would be far more accepting of and conducive to day care operations. (We're certainly not the first neighborhood to protest this kind of rezoning . . . )

Our son is beginning his senior year in high school and just completed an intensive three-week college class that required a one-hour commute and lots of homework. He's showing some very welcome signs of independence, initiative, and pleasure in school - quite refreshing.

Dan Weber is exiting his State Senate office; Fran Millar is running for the seat. The two men share a passion for education and tireless work ethic.  I know that Dan still has many, many contributions to make on behalf of Dunwoody. I'm delighted that Fran wants to continue serving this community. He has my vote.

I'm visiting the "twin towers" in Atlanta for the first time this week as I attend the State school charter meeting. I'm keeping fingers and toes and eyes crossed that Peachtree's charter will be approved. Now more than ever, we need the flexibility (and accountability) the charter affords to serve Dunwoody's middle school students and to continue to increase the quality of the education our children deserve. Coming changes for PCMS are very exciting and reflect the principal's understanding of and compassion for the middle school student.

I finished Nora's Sweater! It's lovely and I confess, with no small bit of pride, that it was a challenging project start to finish. I still need to block it, and will do so this week. Then I'll wait for cooler weather after October to enjoy it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fireworks - and pipes - bursting.

Our traditional foray to Keswick Park in Chamblee for fireworks may be offset this year by the pipe that just burst in the kitchen ceiling.

I was outside, enjoying the early morning cool and tending to a sadly neglected garden, when T called me in. Right in the middle of the kitchen ceiling, a four-foot area was browned, soaked, and pouring a steady stream of water onto the floor. I grabbed a bucket, he called the plumber, and we turned off the water to the house.


So now we're waiting for Zurn Plumbing to ride to the rescue and keeping our fingers crossed that a little cut into the sheetrock, some handy dandy plumber's tape and blow torch work, and we'll be good to go. We sent little A to her friend's house for cleaning and visiting, I headed to Dunwoody Nature Center to wash off the worst of the garden dirt and sweat, and we're all hoping that the water gets turned back on REALLY SOON. Otherwise, those nasty bath houses at Mountain Top will look mighty good in comparison to Chez Nall.

Doesn't it just figure? We just scheduled AG's braces, the 100,000 service on the silver Volvo, and refilling the freon in one of the air conditioning units (stupid thing leaks a trickle a year - this had to be the year it was finally time to do the refill).

Okay. Time to look at things from the blessing side. We caught the pipe burst right as it happened, rather than after a long night of water flowing in the kitchen. We have air conditioning. And AG's lower teeth managed to straighten all by themselves, which means far shorter time in braces.