Feelin’ Miserable? Watch this!

Check out this video featuring Barry Schwartz , an American psychologist. Schwartz is the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and social action at Swarthmore College.

The talk is brilliant and worth watching/listening. He talks about how to have choices is good but how it also tends to make people miserable! (Click on the link to the post to see the video while you are still on my site)

Challenger School: Myths, Pros and Cons

I was scouting the web for thoughts from other parents about the Challenger school system and I was surprised not to find any posts whatsoever on this topic. Schools are discussed so often in social circles so I was expecting to find at least one parent who would take the time to share their experiences. (Ok, for now, let us blame it on Google’s poor search technology).

I have had the opportunity to get familiar with the Challenger school system for a few years now. So here goes…

First, let me dispel two common myths about Challenger.

Myth #1: Challenger is too academic. The kids have to slog it out starting from pre-school and kindergarten.

This is completely untrue. There is no question that the kids learn a lot. But the slog days are long gone. The kids don’t have to stay up at night learning facts and figures by rote. The academic pressure appears to have eased up dramatically over the years. Kids get a lot more time to pursue extra curricular activities. I had heard the same horror stories before, but they are certainly not reflective of present-day Challenger curriculum.

Myth #2: Admission is next to impossible. You have to queue up overnight to get your child admitted.

Again, completely untrue. There was a time at the height of the dotcom days when this was true. The system has changed. It is now a lottery system. Besides, since the dotcom bust the number of applicants has significantly reduced. It’s a different story that that the school will act like its “full”, would want to conduct tests etc. before they admit your child. But the reality is that admission to Challenger is not as hard as it was a few years back. This does not in anyway imply that they are starved of kids. The general student teacher ratio is about 25 to 1 though it is a lot better in the pre-school and the kindergarten level (more like 1 to15).

Having addressed the two common myths, here are a few pros and cons. First, the pros.

The Teachers: The big question always on parents minds, “How are the teachers?” The reality is that the teachers at Challenger are like those at most other schools (I hear that pay scales are equally poor in both private and public schools) — there are some exceptionally good teachers and some mediocre teachers. Thankfully, the Challenger school curriculum is excellent. So if your child is lucky and lands a good teacher, the combination with the curriculum makes it terrific. On the other hand if the teacher is mediocre, the curriculum is the only saving grace (don’t expect the management to be of any help!). Note that you will also find the occasional teacher (a computer teacher in elementary school, for instance) who chooses to go his/her own way (define their own rules) and surprises parents with their own unpredictable ways.

The Parents and The Kids: This is probably the best part about Challenger. There are plenty of like-minded parents from identical social backgrounds whose kids go to Challenger. They face similar challenges and share the same values, resulting in lasting friendships and camaraderie between families.

Now the cons.

The Administration/Management: This is easily Challenger’s weakest link. The Administration operates a lot like the Bush Administration. In other words, they chose to do as they please. They never bother to look at any issue objectively. When faced with any parent complaints or issues, they simply stone-wall. You can kick and scream all you like, go up the ladder, all the way up to Ms. Barbara B. Baker , but objectivity is a non-existent commodity in the Administrative circles at Challenger. If you ever bring up an issue, it is promptly shot down with generic responses like “Its the teacher’s prerogative”, “It is only because your child is affected”, “hysterical Mom/Dad” etc. One of principals’ favorite responses to any issue (no matter how unrelated) almost always begins with “when my son was in Challenger…” Many parents who have taken their kids out of Challenger have done so because of their frustrations with the Management. (In fact, some good teachers have left the school because of their inability to deal with the management). But the general philosophy of the Management seems to be one of “If you don’t like it, you are welcome to take your child some place else”

Update Nov’ 08: Since posting this article, there have been changes in personnel at the Challenger school that I am familiar with.  I must say that my interaction with the new personnel has been far more positive .

Adoption of Technology: Considering that the Challenger schools in the bay area serves kids whose parents largely work in the high tech community, you would expect a greater degree of technological savvy at school. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Email as a means of communication is hardly ever used by the school. The website is just a bunch of static pages. The school as a whole does not seem to have embraced technology. The parents on the other hand leverage technology to remain in contact, socialize, communicate and share ideas about issues their kids face etc.

The Ethnic Mix: The kids in the Challenger schools in the bay area are predominantly of Asian Indian and Chinese descent. This is true of the teachers and also the Administrative staff. Without a doubt, Indians form the majority. The lack of a strong ethnic mix is a definite minus , but its no different than the student mix at UC Berkeley or for that matter at some of the leading high tech firms in the bay area (Cisco, Intel, Google, Yahoo etc.)

The Big Question: Should you send your kids to Challenger?

I hate to sound like a lawyer. But my answer in this case is “It depends”. The thought of developing a checklist followed by an automated “Challenger Readiness Score” did cross my mind. But I’ll stop here and let you make up your own mind based on the above. I welcome comments and thoughts from others, especially other parents.

Karts-N-Golf in Fremont

The Karts N Golf at the border of Fremont and Ardenwood is a nice place. If you are looking to host a birthday party for kids this place is worth considering. There is miniature golf, video games and the car rides. It does tend to get a little windy sometimes. The place is well-hidden unfortunately (just off of Ardenwood Blvd.,) so most people are not aware of its existence!

They also have have baseball batting cages. You can rent helmets and bats.

34805 Ardenwood Blvd., Fremont, CA 94555

Happy Vishu!

I want to wish all the Malayalees (Keralites) all over the world a Happy Vishu. For those who are not aware of Vishu, it is considered the beginning of New Year by Keralites. It a festive time in Kerala: adults give out cash gifts to their younger relatives, there are sumptuous feasts (vegetarian), followed by payasam (dessert), bursting of crackers etc. The day begins with “Vishu Kani” where you open your eyes in front of  and arrangement of lamps, rice, gold, fruits, flowers etc. You are actually led with your eyes closed until you are seated in front of such an arrangement.

Similar festivals are held in Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra and possibly other states in India.

Ten Tips To Be Better Prepared For Life-threatening Emergencies

10. Make sure you and your spouse share phone numbers of close family members and friends in your cell phone contact list.

09. It is a good idea to enable both your cell phones to make international calls especially if you have immediate relatives overseas. This service is turned off by default on most phones in the US.

08. When you go to the emergency room there is no needs to take clothes along because if you are admitted they’ll ask you to change to hospital attire.

07. If you are admitted to the ICU in all probability it is very serious. The doctors never tell the patients how serious they are to avoid setting off a panic/anxiety attack. Also, they don’t call the family until it gets very critical.

06. Use email to communicate with friends and family about the progress of the sick person. Phone calls can be hard to handle during such crisis. Besides, hospitals insist on limiting the use of cell phones.

05. Too many friends showing up at the hospital (no matter how well-intentioned) is not of much help especially if they are not good at handling crisis situations themselves. It is a delicate balance between providing much needed moral support and becoming an overhead yourself! Besides, only immediate family are allowed to see the patient.

04. If you are self-employed it is a good idea to get some decent insurance (don’t cut corners on the premiums) especially if you are over the age of 35. You might think that you are healthy and barely visit the Dr. but when a big emergency strikes, medical costs in the US are so outrageous you could be completely wiped out.

03. Always have a family friend (or have alternate arrangements in place) who can pick up and drop off the kids at school (or other classes). You might need to do some paper work at school (depending on the school) to make this possible. Also, kids are not allowed in the hospital. So if you take them there they will have to remain in the lobby!

02. When you are feeling really sick, don’t hesitate to go to the emergency room. Most of us think of it as a “big pain” to go there. But its better to be safe than sorry.

01. “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams off” — Don’t hesitate to reach out and seek the prayers of friends and family.

Note: All of the above are relevant in the US and based on unfortunate personal experiences of mine. Depending on where you live you might need to tweak these appropriately to your environment. The reality is that emergencies strike everywhere and at anytime and it doesn’t hurt to be at least aware if not prepared.

Kids Castle Newark, CA

Kids Castle in Newark is a great place these days for kids birthday parties. The owners have given it a face lift recently. The various play things have been fixed and re-organized. There is now a giant screen on which they can play movies, TV etc.

Desi pizzas are an added attraction (this has been available for a while). Pav Bhaji pizza being my personal favorite. Beer is a recent addition too. Nice way to spend an evening with friends and family. Kids are sure to have a great time.

They also have a website (who doesn’t) these days. Though a crummy site, it gives you a starting point.

Kids Castle in Newark, CA

Kids Castle in Newark seems to made a dramatic recovery since its slump a couple of years back. Many of the toys in the arcade appear to actually work now (hopefully this situation lasts). The “desi” pizzas (particularly the pav bhaji) are excellent. Its a good place for a family dinner outing or for a kids birthday party. The crowds appear to back as well.

Movie Review: Akeelah and the Bee

Movie: Akeelah and the Bee
Language: English

Its a movie based on the National Spelling Bee. The story revolves around an African American girl who makes it to the final despite all the challenges she faces growing up in the LA area. Nicely made movie. Highly recommend watching it with kids, they are bound to enjoy it. The acting is very good overall and the movie maintains a good pace throughout.