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The unauthorized school handbook for bewildered parents and caregivers

An insider’s guide to everything you need to know, but are never actually told, about having a kid in school.

Images from Adobe Stock/Globe staff illustration

Students get plenty of guidance when starting a new school year: orientations, camps, tours. But us, their hapless parents and caregivers? Seems we’re either flooded with details or groping for information, resorting to frantic night-before-school text threads and hidden Facebook groups.

If the first month back left you frazzled, there’s still time to get acclimated. Here’s the handbook that you wish you had a few weeks ago — no expired links, passwords, or secret societies necessary.


A healthy school community prioritizes expectations and communicates them clearly. You’ll need: the negotiation skills of Don Draper in his prime, the executive functioning prowess of an MIT-designed robot, a law degree (when applicable), the open-ended “work” schedule of a socialite, the budget of Herb Chambers, priority access to Target’s school supply inventory, and ideally a few psychic powers.


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We recommend carpooling. Please note that all streets within a 2-mile radius of school are closed from 7:55 a.m. until 8:10 a.m. daily, except for one narrow one-way road adjacent to the front entrance, reserved for kindergarten drop-off. Please drive courteously and remove your side mirrors before proceeding.

We realize that not every family enjoys this convenience. If your child rides public transportation, particularly Boston Public Schools buses or the Orange Line, we will allow up to 20 excused absences per term. Remote attendance is also encouraged while in transit, unless of course your child is stuck in a tunnel.


Understandably, many people wonder how a typical schedule unfolds. We believe in transparency: 95 percent of your time will be spent securing after-school coverage, which is harder to find than a parking space at Market Basket before a Patriots game.

You’ll learn about after-school options through secret handshakes, outright begging, or paying a legacy family to relocate out of district. If this doesn’t work, just cobble together a byzantine array of afternoon enrichment activities for your child regardless of interests, including (but not limited to) archery on ice and parkour for clowns. Please be truly desperate, not to mention able to click “refresh” on your browser for hours until slots open at the exact moment you need to use the bathroom. Bring your strong Internet connection and stronger bladder for maximum success!


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Parents who can multitask have an advantage. You will want to scan bountiful administrative e-mails for detail, synthesizing information that uses a medley of fonts, colors, links, grammatical conventions, and unusual Capitalization Preferences. Please be prepared for an influx of urgent notes saying the exact same thing from dozens of sources with the most important takeaway buried at the bottom. Many of these e-mails demand immediate responses and arrive threateningly in unison, so our winningest parents possess an abiding sense of duty mixed with paranoia.

Organization is essential, too. Do you have on hand your child’s birth certificate, long-form vaccination records, 10-page dismissal plan, five approved and CORI-checked emergency contacts, name and birthplace of your child’s physician, and your own second-grade report card? A savvy filing method will make sharing these forms a snap. You must upload this information to no fewer than five separate places — we believe in information sharing! — each with its own log-in method and password. This task is ideally suited to a persistent individual with a scrapbooking hobby.


We suggest ordering school supplies well in advance, even if you don’t know what they are. Let’s pretend this advice is not coming too late.


We suggest a three-hole punch, 2-inch binder, and a 1-inch pencil case that will hold zero of your child’s belongings because they prefer to keep everything loose in their backpack. Also helpful: labels that will peel off by Halloween; earbuds to be lost on the bus; and a water bottle that reflects your child’s highly personal aesthetic and worldview, at least until it is overtaken by mold.


We also suggest familiarity with GeoCities, a website last seen during the Clinton administration. This will help as you navigate the PowerSchool information portal. Here you’ll find your child’s schedule, teachers’ names, grades, and criminal record on a gray grid that resembles a pathology report rendered in 8-point font. You will unearth the most pertinent information on an obscure tab that often fails to load and is only visible on a desktop computer.

Please remember, updates will appear seemingly at random and always wreak mental and emotional havoc on parents, children, and beleaguered vice principals who must waste their advanced degrees modifying teacher assignments based on temper tantrums.


Please maintain an unflappable sense of self. Particularly in these early weeks of a new year, tensions often erupt without warning. Your parent community might post desperate PowerSchool questions online or generate petitions to change protocols.

Hold your head high and cultivate an air of detached fatalism: The year will carry on regardless of whether you send the food coordinator a strongly worded e-mail about the decision to hold lunch in the ukulele closet due to gas leaks. We applaud initiative, but your time could be better spent elsewhere. See “A Typical Day,” above.


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But speak up when necessary. If your child has special needs — learning or otherwise — chances are you’ll attend an Individualized Education Plan meeting to jockey for maximum services without weeping. This requires legal acumen and Maalox.

A successful negotiator should master niche terminology such as “least restrictive environment” and “substantially separate classroom,” which will be difficult to understand unless you possess the financial means to hire an educational advocate. You will pay this translator-therapist hundreds of dollars per hour to decipher reports and to appear impressively put-together so that you can preserve a reputation as a benign, malleable presence working in the spirit of collaboration — that is, until you begin to suspect that your child is falling through the cracks.


We recommend that you maintain your reputation as a calm and rational person even while quietly suffering a nervous breakdown. As such, you must hone the subtle art of coded e-mails. Please see the anatomy of a successful missive below:

Hi! [Exclamation points are friendly! You are not a pain! Happy hour later?]

Just wondering why my son Ebenezer [sound breezy!], who is failing all of his classes [add a fact!], is only receiving 10 minutes of outside support in origami-folding [emphasize the wackiness!], and nothing else. Per our meeting last week [always say “per”; it sounds official!], we agreed on two hours per week of math intervention.


Happy to follow up with someone else as needed. [I will escalate this! I found a district phone tree from 2003!]

Thank you so much for your help! [About to take a gummy!]

Best, [Your name here]

If your student doesn’t require accommodations, it still helps to sharpen communication skills if posing broader administrative questions, such as:

1) Why is my child’s assigned bus stop in another time zone?

2) Since lunch is merely seven minutes long, can my child eat whatever he dissects during science?

3) Instead of filling out permission slips by the dozen, is there a universal waiver that simply says: “I do not intend to sue?”


For the sanity of school staff, please encourage your children to do their homework — but do not attempt to teach it. If you are too old to understand TikTok, you are too old to understand how math problems are solved now.


Remember, your behavior reflects on the larger community, even when you feel compelled to corner the one person who hasn’t responded to your e-mail in months but whose reply could determine your child’s schedule, extracurriculars, college acceptance, and future earning potential.

Use discretion when trying to find an administrator’s home phone number or Instagram page. And please refrain from last year’s practice of approaching staff at the supermarket and appearing at private homes (you know who you are). We wish we were kidding.

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Now, some housekeeping tips. We encourage you to painstakingly review your school district’s calendar, which is likely tucked beneath information about textile recycling day and a COVID dashboard from 2021. Early dismissal days are denoted with “AAA,” which is a playful way to mimic screaming. City-wide holidays have a squiggly line. Staff training days emit a low beep when you hover over the date with your cursor. Nobody is sure what grayed-out days mean, so keep your schedule flexible for surprises.

Speaking of scheduling: Please eschew all other work or personal obligations in favor of sports. Ideally, your child should compete at the elite level by at least age 7 to secure a future space on a varsity high school team and a college scholarship. This means registering months in advance for your budding Olympian’s chosen fall sport, despite the fact that the itinerary will arrive 10 minutes before the first game. Unless you’ve cultivated the proper friendships in advance — more on that below! — the team will be populated with kids from all over town, making carpooling and other forms of shared transportation difficult. Just head out on Saturday mornings and keep checking your TeamSnap for updates!

Consider aligning with families who possess: three-row vehicles, multi-generational ties to the athletic community who will leak you information in advance, and the dirt on which coaches and/or coach-parents are rational and which ones make John McEnroe look comatose.


Don’t be daunted. Autumn is a busy season. By November, you’ll have settled into a routine of benign acceptance, leaving the real work to the people who actually know what they’re doing: the teachers and staff.

The sooner you realize this, the happier you’ll be — until next year.

Sign up for Kara Baskin’s parenting newsletter at bostonglobe.com/parentingunfiltered. Send comments to magazine@globe.com

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her @kcbaskin.