Mesosystem Case Study Discussion

You will again analyze a case study in this discussion. This time, address the issues of Case 4, “Lunchtime at Sunnydale Elementary School” (Weiss et al., pp. 42–49). After reading the case, use the following questions to guide your discussion:

  • How are parents encouraged and supported to participate in school decision-making?
  • How can better coordination be achieved between families and the school?
  • How does the school support varying cultural beliefs in day-to-day practices and in decision-making groups? In what ways are linguistic and ethnic differences addressed? Analyze opportunities for improvement in these areas and make suggestions for the most appropriate practices.

Then, answer from the perspective of one of the following roles:

  • Parent or grandparent.


  • School principal or administrator.

As you respond, consider whether this is a realistic assessment or solution from that perspective. How could it be improved?


Beatriz, Rosa and Maria’s Grandmother

Beatriz Hinojosa worried that her granddaughters didn’t get enough to eat at school. Rosa, the 6-year-old, had asthma and was small for her age. Rosa’s cousin, Maria, was 5 and a half; they were in the same bilingual first-grade class at Sunnydale Elementary School. On weekdays, the grandmother was responsible for Rosa, Maria, and Tish, Maria’s 16-month-old sister, from early in the morning when the girls’ mothers set off for work until they returned at dinner time. Beatriz’s daughters were both single mothers in their mid-20s. They and their children shared an apartment a block away from the apartment where Beatriz lived with her son and his wife. Early each morning, Beatriz picked up her three granddaughters and drove to the school, aiming to get there by 7:30 a.m. so that the girls could participate in the free breakfast program.

Maria and Rosa were so little that their grandmother wasn’t comfortable just dropping them off. On the first day of the school year, she began a routine of parking the car and, with the toddler in tow, guiding the girls through the school, across the upper playground, and into the small portable building that housed the school cafeteria. A parent volunteer organized the orange juice, cereal, and milk and stood to the side as Beatriz helped Maria and Rosa prepared their bowls and chose where to sit. The atmosphere felt rushed, and one time a group of older kids threw food. Maria and Rosa often dawdled, eating only a few bites before the bell rang. After the bell, Beatriz said goodbye to her granddaughters as the parent volunteer guided them and the other younger kids toward their classrooms in the main building. Then Beatriz drove home and took care of Tish until 2:45 p.m., when it was time to return to the school to pick up Rosa and Maria.

Two weeks into the school year, when Beatriz pulled into the pick-up area, Rosa and Maria bustled into the car, full of news. “When we got our lunches today, some big kids shoved us around,” Rosa said. “Yeah, they shoved us, and I was so scared, I nearly dropped my tray,” Maria added.

The girls had even more to tell: Their classroom had been moved from the main school building and into a portable across the playground. The only bathrooms were in the main building, and if one of them had to go during the class period, she had to choose a partner, get a pass, and walk across the playground to the bathroom and back again. This bit of news startled Lena, Maria’s mother, and she observed, “Little kids shouldn’t be allowed out on their own like that; it would be easy for one of them to wander off.” The three adults talked it over and agreed that the grandmother, who was the family’s main connection to the school, should find out what was going on.

The next day Beatriz and Tish went to the school at noontime. They walked alongside Rosa and Maria in the first-graders’ queue as it slowly moved from the portable, across the playground, up the stairs, and into the cafeteria. When they finally got inside, Beatriz watched as the girls pointed to their names on the free lunch roster, got trays, and reached for prepackaged food items and cartons of milk. The grandmother leaned over and pointed out that they were supposed to choose between pizza or a cheese sandwich. Then she looked around the crowded room and squeezed her granddaughters and herself (with Tish on her lap) onto the bench at one of the tables.

It all felt noisy, chaotic, and hurried. Young kids take a long time to eat, but the bell was already ringing, and other kids were standing up to leave with their lunches only half finished. Beatriz didn’t think her granddaughters were eating enough. And when they walked across the busy playground toward the portable classroom, they had to skirt around bigger kids who were playing jump rope and kickball and just hanging out. Rosa said that the day before, when she got a pass and was walking to the bathroom with Gloria, some big kids were out at recess and almost ran into them. Beatriz grew more and more perturbed. Didn’t the teachers care about the safety of the little ones? What would happen if one of her granddaughters got hurt or somehow wandered out of the school yard?

Linda Chang, Principal

The principal, Linda Chang, always had a lot to juggle when the school year began, but this year was especially busy. For the first time the school had a breakfast program for lower-income students, but there was no one to oversee it, and she had to ask quite a few parents until she found one willing and able to run it every day. The school was not only short of staff but also short of space. The spring before, the state had mandated smaller class sizes for the first three grades, and there weren’t enough classrooms. After the first set of enrollment figures came in, Linda had to hire two additional teachers and arrange for the delivery of three portable buildings to create enough classrooms. Then a long-awaited donation of computers arrived, which she had promised to the fourth grade. But one of the fourth-grade classrooms was in a portable, and the portables didn’t have enough wiring for computers. There weren’t many choices, and Linda ended up moving the first-grade Spanish bilingual class into the portable, which opened a well-wired room in the main building for the fourth graders and the new computers.

There were other changes that fall. Linda had to persuade the teachers, whose contracts specified that they did not have to be on duty during lunchtime, that they needed to take the time to walk their students, single file, down to the playground by the cafeteria. At the end of lunchtime, they also were supposed to come down and meet their students and lead them, single file, back to their classrooms. This routine was part of a new system of playground discipline that was developed in response to a crisis the previous school year, when a fifth-grade boy threw rocks and injured a younger child. Rumors circulated about playground violence, and parents phoned the school and e-mailed the principal to express concern. Several teachers met with the PTA board, then with Linda, the principal, and worked out a new set of policies.

Getting 420 students fed and back to class within roughly an hour was a real challenge. When she had time, Linda did her best to be an ordering presence in the cafeteria, helping Matty Harris, who oversaw the distribution of food and kept an eye on students eating at the tables. The cafeteria didn’t have enough space for all, or even half, of the school’s students to eat at the same time. Students ate in two age-ordered shifts. The older grades went first, because older kids eat more quickly. Thirty-five minutes later, a second bell rang, and queues of students from the first and second grades moved from classrooms to the upper playground, with “bag lunch kids” settling in at the picnic tables and “school lunch kids” lining up to go into the cafeteria. The school lunch line was longer than ever that fall because the number of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch had gone up. Lower-income immigrants were moving into the school intake area, and there had been an increase in transfers to the school from low-income, predominantly African American areas of the city.

The Grandmother Encounters School Staff

One day, early in the school year, the principal saw an older Latina woman, holding a toddler, move along the lunch line in tandem with two girls from Mr. Turner’s first-grade Spanish bilingual class. She guessed that it was the girls’ grandmother and went over and introduced herself; then she was paged and had to hurry back to the office. The next day the grandmother and the toddler again showed up walking next to Rosa and Maria at the end of the line. The principal was away at a meeting, and Matty Harris, the sole cafeteria worker, was especially hassled because they were once again way behind, and the bell would ring in 10 minutes. Matty asked the students to choose an entrée more quickly.

Carefully holding their loaded trays, Maria and Rosa followed their grandmother to the tables. There was no space left, so Beatriz, the grandmother, went over to Mrs. Harris and asked, “Where can I set my girls to eat?”

“You’ll have to go outside,” Mrs. Harris said.

Beatriz took the toddler’s hand, and with the other hand she gently guided the girls, still carrying their trays, down the stairs and to an empty space at one of the picnic tables. They settled in and began to eat. Then one of the playground aides came over and said, “You can’t take school lunches outside; you have to eat them inside.”

Beatriz was exasperated. “There was no room inside. What are we supposed to do?” The aide shrugged and walked away.

When Beatriz returned at the end of the school day, she parked the car and went to an area near the portables where she had sometimes seen parents of the Spanish-speaking first graders gather to talk while they waited for their children. She joined the group and discovered that they were also upset that the first-grade bilingual class, which began the year secure in the main building, had been bumped out to a portable. Some of the mothers had also heard about big kids shoving little kids in the cafeteria and about scary walks to the bathroom. They agreed that first graders were too little to put up with these problems.

Discussion of “the cafeteria and the bathroom problems” continued in phone and other conversations, until one of the first-grade parents, Mary Ramos, an Anglo woman married to a man from Mexico, suggested that they go as a group to the monthly PTA meeting that was scheduled for the following Thursday evening. Mary, who was college educated and studying to be a bilingual teacher, was the only one in Latino circles who was active in the PTA. She said that she would present the group’s complaints to the principal.

The PTA Meeting

The small core of parents active in the Sunnydale PTA were nearly all middle-class and college educated. Most of them were White, with a handful of African Americans. The “PTA parents,” as they were known around the school, were aware of and troubled by the mismatch between the educational, income, and racial/ethnic makeup of the PTA and the overall composition of the school (see Table 4.1).

The PTA parents worked hard to bring more resources to the school. They organized fundraisers and ran a scrip program at the grocery store. They served on the school site committee and attended and spoke out at school board meetings. They also tried various forms of outreach to other Sunnydale parents, such as free spaghetti dinners and, when they could get expert help, having key announcements translated into Spanish and Cantonese. They knew that there were big gaps of language and cultural understanding among families at the school and that many of the other parents worked long hours in inflexible jobs and had extremely difficult lives.

Several of the Latino parents had tried coming to PTA meetings in the past, but even if they understood some of the English, half the time they couldn’t figure out what was being talked about. Back home in places like Mexico and Guatemala, teachers were the experts, and schools didn’t talk about parent involvement. The immigrant parents felt inadequate and excluded when they were with the Americans who seemed to run things. But this time Mary Ramos, the Spanish-speaking Anglo mother who was friendly with them and active in the PTA, would be there speaking out on their behalf, and they were attending as a group with a purpose.

When Beatriz and her daughter Lena entered the auditorium, they went over to sit with the other six Spanish-speaking parents. Mary Ramos sat near the front of the group and softly paraphrased the content of the discussion in Spanish. Beatriz (who migrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 15) and Lena (who was born and raised in the United States) were the only other fluent English speakers in the Latino group.

After an hour of discussion about issues such as the format of report cards, fundraising, and planning for a school Halloween party, the PTA president, an African American man, asked if there were any new items for the agenda. Mary Ramos stood up and turned toward the princi

“Ms. Chang, these parents and I have children in the same first-grade class. We are coming to the meeting to figure out if there is some way that our smaller children can be safer. They were moved to a portable outside and have to walk across the playground to the bathroom and older kids bump them.”

Lena chimed in, “The younger ones are out by themselves without supervision.” Beatriz added, “One of my girls has asthma. She’s little, and she doesn’t remember to put on a coat and take an umbrella.”

The principal responded by describing the various pressures that led to the decision to switch classrooms and put the first-grade bilingual class in a portable. She reminded them that the bilingual class was lucky because they not only had a teacher but also a Spanish-speaking aide who came three mornings a week. Then she addressed the bathroom policy: “Other first graders also have to have hall passes and walk by themselves to the bathroom. Children are dismissed to go to the bathroom during the two recess times, and otherwise only in an emergency, when they go with a partner, take a pass, and go straight to the restroom.” In short, she tried to reassure the parents that school policies were being evenly applied and that there were reasons for the switch of classrooms.

But Mary, who was intent on being a spokesperson for a group of parents she felt the school was neglecting, wasn’t satisfied. She responded, “They feel that their children are being tossed around. They would like to be involved and help make it smoother for their children.”

Beatriz wanted the principal to know about the troubling things she had seen during her visits to the school. “I started going to school breakfast and lunch, to make sure my girls are eating,” she said. “I saw kids throw food, and there isn’t enough time for younger kids to eat. And the big kids are on the playground at the same time as the little kids go to the bathroom, and they run into the little kids.”

The problems spilled out, one on top of the other. Linda Chang, feeling she had already addressed the bathroom issue, picked up on Beatriz’s complaints about school meals. “Last year children were handed individual servings. The district is doing things a new way this year, with a choice of two entrées, and the food is better because it’s hotter, but it takes more time. I agree that supervision is limited. If you can”—she looked pointedly at Beatriz—“volunteer to help with breakfast.”

Beatriz replied, “I teach my granddaughters to take this and this. The problem is the big kids; you should have the older ones come after the little kids.”

Linda responded, “We tried, but we feed over 250 every day. Lunch periods are only 35 minutes long, and the older children go first. It’s too slow if the little ones eat first. I don’t like to see big boys and girls pushing little ones. It was a mistake that the older ones came in late that day.”

Beatriz wasn’t satisfied. “Where can I sit my girls to eat? There was no room in the cafeteria, so we went outside, and then the woman, she came and told us, ‘You can’t take your food outside.’ Where are my girls supposed to sit?”

Linda once again suggested a course of action: “We welcome volunteers.”

Then a kindergarten parent spoke up with a different issue, and attention turned away from the first-grade parents and their concerns. At the end of the meeting, the principal, Linda Chang, went over to the Spanish-speaking group and gave them flyers prepared by the PTA that read, “We need volunteers—room parents, library, breakfast, lunchtime, fund-raisers, in the classroom. Your involvement benefits your child. Please get involved. They will be proud of you and knowing you care raises their self-esteem.”

Beatriz, Lena, and the other Latino parents once again felt shoved aside. As they left the meeting, Lena turned to her mother and asked, “What about some kind of caring?”

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