Richard Gray thought he knew what he was getting into when he accepted the position of PTO President at “four-star school of excellence” Malliford Elementary. He would have done well to adopt General Sherman’s attitude about the presidency: “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.”
Instead, Richard quickly finds himself at war with Malliford’s ancient and entrenched principal, Estelle Rutherford, and her hardcore supporters among the faculty. For that matter, a vocal group of his fellow parents are also less than pleased with his reformist ways, especially when he challenges them on the basis for their opposition to a redistricting plan which would bring an influx of students from a low-income apartment complex into Malliford.
It’s Rutherford’s implementation of “forced labor” during detention that really escalates things to the next level, however, earning Malliford the scandalous nickname “Chain Gang Elementary,” as well as an exposé in the local paper and Richard’s outspoken criticism. Rutherford is less than amused, and brings in outside reinforcements in the form of two (because one apparently wasn’t enough) school psychologists and the founder of a prominent right-wing “family first” type group to bolster her position, and to help oust Richard…at any cost.
Woven in amongst the main storyline of political in-fighting in education, Richard’s shaky marriage tries to weather his attraction to a fellow PTO member, financial shenanigans involving PTO funds take place, a long-buried childhood secret comes back to have life-altering consequences for more than one person, and a marginalized PTO member’s “No-TV Week” campaign becomes deadly serious when he’s pushed too far by Rutherford and her cutthroat tactics.
Though the premise for Chain Gang Elementary sounded intriguing, I admit I went into it not entirely sure what to expect, just hoping to be entertained. What I got instead was a book that not only gripped and entertained me as much as any thriller – who knew grade school politics could be so damn Machiavellian? – but which also brings to the table some very timely issues about the state of education in America, especially as relates to standardized testing and its emotional and financial impact on students, teachers, and schools.
Author Jonathan Grant puts his experience as both a former journalist (newspaper coverage of the controversies that swirl around “Chain Gang Elementary” play a prominent role in the fight between Richard and Rutherford) and PTA president to good use, bringing a verisimilitude to the story that makes even the more extreme behavior of the parents and teachers disturbingly believable. Grant also uses well placed doses of humor to temper the seriousness of the underlying topics, and keeps the story moving along at a nice clip without ever getting bogged down in the more policy-centric passages.
Doing time at Chain Gang Elementary is (not so) hard labor you’ll actually enjoy being sentenced to.