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This Week on Metro Connection: Parenting

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. Today, we're talking about that most life-altering, sleep-depriving, heart-warming and all consuming of topics, parenting. In 2011, Washington, D.C. received kudos as Parenting Magazine's top American city for raising a child. The editors raved about the capital's history, its architecture, its monuments and museums and its plethora of kid-friendly places to eat. Critics were quick to stand up and point out that Washington may not be ideal for all families, however, given D.C.'s struggles with crime and poverty and its on-going issues with the public schools.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

So this week on the show, we're taking a look at parenting in the Washington region from a number of angles.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

We'll meet a couple who decided to use a surrogate mother in India. And they're not the only ones who have latched onto this international trend. We'll learn why a significant number of Washington women are choosing to parent without a partner. And talk about family bonding, we'll hear from a family that's spending the next year sailing around the world.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

But before we dive into those stories, we wanted to get your thoughts on bringing up kids in D.C. So we hit the streets and asked Washingtonians to describe their experience of parenting in one word.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE

I'd say exciting. I'd say new.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE

Unpredictable.

MALE

Always changing.

FEMALE

You never know what's coming around the corner.

MALE

Stress.

FEMALE

Frustration.

MALE

Growth.

FEMALE

Commitment and consistency.

MALE

Innocence. It's a blessing. He's a blessing. It's the best thing I've ever done in my life.

SHEIR

Those were parents in Cleveland Park and Shaw, speaking with "Metro Connection's" Lauren Landau. And we're curious. What's the one word you would use to describe parenting? You can share your child-rearing challenges and joys by emailing us at metro@wamu.org or send us a tweet. Our handle is @wamumetro. Now, anyone who's been in D.C. for awhile knows how much it's morphed and evolved through the years.

SHEIR

And, according to the woman we'll meet next, so has parenting in the nation's capital. Leslie Morgan Steiner is a native Washingtonian who's penned three books, "Crazy Love," "Mommy Wars," and the forthcoming, "Baby Chase." She also spent two years writing "On Balance," the Washington Post's parenting blog. These days, Leslie resides in Georgetown, but I recently met the mother of three in a different part of Northwest Washington, Wesley Heights, home of Horace Mann Elementary School, where Leslie spent many happy years as a student.

SHEIR

So, Leslie, here we are standing on the playground of Horace Mann Elementary School. Can you take us back to your times here, when you were growing up? Something that just particularly stands out in your mind and your memory?

MS. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER

Well, one of the things I have to confess I remember most is all the boys that I loved to chase on this playground. I would chase the boys and try to kiss them.

SHEIR

Do you remember any names?

STEINER

Oh, so many, Phil, Chris Barker, Fletcher, Oakley, Patrick Waters. Oh, they were endless.

SHEIR

Leslie says she's changed considerably since then, as has parenting in Washington, D.C.

STEINER

The one striking thing is that when I was a kid there were not a lot of parents here on the playground. And right now I would say the ratio of parents to kids is about 1 to 10. But when I was a kid, your parents never came to the playground. You know, there was an afterschool sports guy who oversaw stuff, but you were free here and the parents weren't watching you and they weren't, you know, at the edge of the field with their Smartphone, taking pictures of you.

SHEIR

How do you account for that change?

STEINER

Well, my mom was a stay-at-home mom. She was raising four kids, pretty much by herself. Our dad was not an involved dad. He was your typical '60s dad. He went to work every day and we didn't see much of him. My parents had one car. And my mom was really busy. And she was too busy with four kids to be after us all the time. And starting in first grade we walked to school, we walked home for lunch, we walked back to school. All of our friends had this kind of freedom.

STEINER

And what's different now is that families are much smaller. You know, most families have two, or maybe three kids and the parents have the ability to keep a much closer eye on a smaller number of kids. And dads are much more involved. So they're doing a lot more. So I think that's really what explains the rise of helicopter parents in the space of just one generation. It's seen as bad parenting to let your kids go free, but I tell you, it was one of the most glorious parts of my childhood, was roaming around this playground every day after school or Battery Kemble Park was close by and I was the neighborhood dog walker so I was there almost every day, as well.

STEINER

And a few bad things happened. Nothing serious. You know, very minor things like the time I lost $5 on this playground and I couldn't find it and it was a fortune. I think I'm still going to look for it today. Maybe it's around here somewhere.

SHEIR

I'll help you.

STEINER

You know, and very minor problems, but nothing like what I think parents are terrified of today. They are so afraid of abductions and other things. And I think I had a better childhood. I wasn't necessarily aware of it at the time, but I had a better childhood growing up in Washington, D.C. than my own kids have today.

SHEIR

What about parental involvement in schools? Was that something you saw when you were a child?

STEINER

No, not at all. You know, here at Horace Mann and then once I graduated from Horace Mann I went to the Moray School, just a couple of miles from here and I don't remember my parents ever being there, except the day that I graduated. And I, you know, now as a parent myself, I am at my kids' school sometimes three or four times a day, more than my parents were there in a month or even a year. It's so radically different.

SHEIR

Something I wanted to ask you because we have something called the PIN, the Public Insight Network. And we asked a lot of our listeners to chime in on the Public Insight Network about what it's like to be a rent in Washington. And an overwhelming response we got from them was about the competitive pressure the feel to get their kids to excel in school. Is that something that you see being a fairly new development? Have parents here always been so gun-ho to the point of -- I don't know-- SAT prep classes in sixth grade?

STEINER

I think that this has really changed over the last 20 years or so. It's so competitive here and parents and, thus, their kids, are so worried about doing well in school and getting into -- not just a college, but a very, very good college. And when I was growing up we just really didn't think about it very much. My parents both went to Harvard and so there was always this idea that if we were really good kids, and worthy of our parents, we would, too. But I think, again, we were unusual. And I don't know exactly why that has changed so much. I think it has changed around the country, but probably even more so in Washington.

STEINER

And I wish it were still the way that it was when I was growing up, where, especially at the school that I went to, Moray, the teachers really were very interested in us being who we were, not fitting some mold of doctor, lawyer, business person. We had so much freedom to be more creative. And I didn't know what a special time it was that I was growing up. I just thought it was just my childhood, but now I look back and I say, well, that was priceless to grow up in a place where my parents were able to give us a lot of freedom and where I was able to live in this vibrant city with, you know, it felt like politicians and newspaper reporters coming out of my ears and to be exposed to that all the time.

SHEIR

When you were writing for the Washington Post, could you sort of characterize the kinds of people who would write to you? Was there something specifically D.C. about these people?

STEINER

They were very well educated. I have to say that. They were really, really educated. And they were intensely into how they were raising their own kids. They were also very opinionated. You know, one of the things that relay surprised me about writing for "On Balance" was that people who didn't have kids still had really strong opinions. They still cared about how we raise our kids. And I'm not sure if that's a Washington, D.C. phenomenon, probably. Or maybe it's just an American thing that we really care very deeply about how other people raise their kids in a way that is wonderful and also can drive you really crazy.

SHEIR

And that's not something your mom dealt with.

STEINER

My mom did not deal with that at all. But, you know, as the type of thing that I deal with as a parent sometimes, would never have happened to me as a kid. For instance, when I was starting to let my kids have that little freedom to walk to the corner store or to the CVS, on more than one occasion other parents called me to report that my children were crossing the street by themselves. And they were calling to criticize me, there's no doubt about it.

STEINER

And my mom died two years ago, but back 10 years ago I would tell her that the neighbors were doing this and she would just howl with laughter. You know, the thought of, on Klingle Street where I grew up, another parent calling her to say, you know, Leslie is crossing the street by herself, you know. My mom would have been like, that's what I want her to do. And I think one thing I learned growing up in this corner of Washington, D.C. was that I could definitely handle the world. I could handle this teeny little part of it.

STEINER

And I'm grateful that my mom raised me that way, and also that D.C., was that kind of place, at that time.

SHEIR

Well, Leslie Morgan Steiner, thank you so much for coming out to the playground and talking with me today.

STEINER

It's my pleasure, any time.

SHEIR

Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of "Crazy Love," "Mommy Wars," and the forthcoming book, "Baby Chase." She also helmed the Washington Post's parenting blog, "On Balance." And we want to know how you think parenting in Washington has changed over the years. You can reach us at metro@wamu.org or via Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro.

SHEIR

So these days, not only is parenting changing, but so is how people are becoming parents. Jonathan Wilson brings us this story on couples facing fertility issues and how a certain option for conceiving a child may take them halfway around the world.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

The second floor of Crystal Travis-McRae's townhome in Laurel, Md. is about as full of playtime paraphernalia as a room can get. Crayons, light sabers, Dora the Explorer dolls, it's all here. And it needs to be. McRae has a 4-year-old son, Mark, along with 2-year old twins, Alec and his sister, Elle.

MS. CRYSTAL TRAVIS-MCRAE

I love being a mom. I always wanted to be a mother. It's a lot more work than what I thought, but I really enjoy it and I'm glad that the kids are here. It's made a huge difference in this part, this journey of our lives.

WILSON

But arriving at parenthood wasn't an easy journey for Crystal and her husband Colin. She is 50 and he is 52 and they only started trying after Crystal turned 40. A couple of miscarriages led them to the process of in vitro fertilization, or IVF.

TRAVIS-MCRAE

I had been pregnant twice and then I started an IVF protocol and I didn't like the chemicals. So I decided that I don't want to do that since we have to use an egg donor anyway.

WILSON

Colin and Crystal next explored adoption and even began taking their county's 27-week adoption class. But they soon discovered that Howard County had few infant children available. Then Crystal remembered an article a friend had sent her about surrogacy in India.

TRAVIS-MCRAE

So I Googled one doctor, sent her an email and she replied. And I said, okay, well, we'll catch a plane and we'll see you in two weeks just to see if this is legit. So that's where we started.

WILSON

There is little reliable data about international surrogacy and exactly how many couples are using surrogate mothers in other countries to carry their children. But the Council for Responsible Genetics says the market for surrogacy is exploding here in the U.S., with more than 5000 babies born this way between 2004 and 2008. But if surrogacy is a new area of growth in our country, it's a well-oiled, moneymaking machine in India, where many estimates say surrogacy generates $2.3 billion a year for the Indian economy. Crystal explains how the process worked for her.

TRAVIS-MCRAE

An embryologist creates the embryos. So we had an egg donor, Colin's sperm, a surrogate. You can pick the egg donor that you want. Some people in the U.S. will bring an egg donor with them or will have eggs shipped or you can use an Indian egg donor. We used an Indian egg donor and my husband's sperm.

WILSON

The process gave the McRaes what Crystal calls a tri-racial family. Crystal is black, Colin is white, and their children are half-Indian and half-white. Choosing this international route also ended up being a bargain.

TRAVIS-MCRAE

It is a lot more expensive here. In this area, for a surrogate, it would be about $125,000. In India, for a singleton birth, you're going to pay about $30,000 to 35,000 for a singleton birth.

WILSON

But the concept of international surrogacy isn't without controversy. Critics point out that the industry's growth in India has much to do with lax regulation and the absence of legal protection for surrogate mothers. Many also say the future of the industry points to large-scale baby farms in poor countries where women can be easily be lured into surrogacy by their $7,000 cut of the fees. Crystal and her husband Colin see it differently.

TRAVIS-MCRAE

I feel like it's a win-win situation for the surrogate, as well as the intended parents. The surrogates, the amount money that they make, most will never make that kind of money again in their lifetime. If they make $7000, that's like hitting the lottery for them.

MR. COLIN MCRAE

When you give somebody the chance to buy a house who never had a chance to buy a house, it's not a high price to pay.

WILSON

After Mark was born, Crystal and Colin decided he should have a playmate or two. They decided to use the same surrogate once more. They ended up with twins, Elle and Alec. Crystal has become something of an expert for Western couples looking into surrogacy in India. And after advising dozens of families on how to do what she did, she decided she'd like to get paid for her services. She now has a consulting business and travels back and forth quite a bit. Colin says surrogacy should be higher up on the list of options for many families.

MCRAE

I think the misunderstanding about it is that it is the bottom of the barrel, you've got to go through every other option before you get to that. I think that's just wrong and it should be one of the main options that people think about.

WILSON

Though Crystal is often busy answering questions for other prospective parents nowadays, she still has questions about her own path to motherhood. She herself grew up as a foster child, never knowing her biological parents.

TRAVIS-MCRAE

Sometimes even in the back of my mind now, I often wonder if I put it off because I was afraid that I would have children that turned out like my biological family members, who I didn't know, but know weren't in a good place.

WILSON

As for her own children, Mark has already been back to India and understands that he was born there. Crystal says it will be the same for the twins.

TRAVIS-MCRAE

And as a person who was adopted, I feel like you need to tell the children early on, even though our children were not adopted, but they do need to know how they got here.

WILSON

And what a story they'll always have to tell. I'm Jonathan Wilson.

SHEIR

This story came to us via WAMU's Public Insight Network or PIN. It's a way for people to share their experiences with us and a way for us to reach out for input on stories we're working on. You can find more information about the Public Insight Network by visiting metroconnection.org/pin.

SHEIR

Time for a break now, but when we get back D.C. parents and teachers bringing the classroom into the home.

FEMALE

In order for those relationships to flourish, you need to know one another. The best way to get to know one another is to spend time talking.

SHEIR

That and more in a minute on "Metro Connection" here on WAMU 88.5.

ANNOUNCER

WAMU news coverage of labor and employment issues is made possible by your contributions and by Matthew Watson, in memory of Marjorie Watson. And support for WAMU 88.5's coverage of the environment comes from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, dedicated to the promotion of farmland preservation, the reduction of environmental toxins and the conservation of natural resources.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today we're focusing on parenting and in a few minutes, we'll hear from a mother and father who are parenting their daughters aboard a 62' sailboat as they venture around the world. First, though, let's meet 37-year-old Stacey Pearl. When Stacey was 34, she found herself single and imagining how the rest of her 30s would play out.

MS. STACEY PEARL

Well, I was doing the math in my head. I was like, okay, I would have to meet the right person in the next year or two so that would bring me to like 35 or 36.

SHEIR

Two years of dating, one year of engagement, a year or so of wedded bliss.

PEARL

And, like, I'm close to 40. And that's only if I actually meet the person. I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket, literally. And I thought, well, I have a lifetime to find a husband, you know. I don't have a lifetime to have kids.

SHEIR

Now, Stacey's long known that the average woman's fertility begins to decline in her mid 30s. So she decided to get this show on the road on her own. To tell the rest of the story, here's "Metro Connection's" Emily Berman.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

Stacey Pearl is on her living room floor guiding her daughter's hands as she sorts out shapes. Even though Stacey technically became a mother on her own, that's not how she describes it. To her it was a community experience, especially picking out her sperm donor.

PEARL

I emailed out the profiles of the people that I was seriously considering, like, to my closest friends. And I was like, okay, everybody read everything and, like, tell me what you think.

BERMAN

Even during her insemination treatment, which is called an IUI, everyone was right there with her.

PEARL

And it was fun. Like my phone was like exploding with messages. People, like, cheering me on as I was laying there.

BERMAN

She was ready, mentally and financially, to bring a new baby into this world. Except she didn’t have one baby, she had two. And that she says was a problem.

PEARL

It was quite a shock when there were two in there.

BERMAN

Stacey works at a public charter school.

PEARL

I don't make a lot of money.

BERMAN

She calculated she could afford daycare for one baby. With two, she'd be about $1000 over budget every month, even at the least expensive daycare center. It was going to be too much.

PEARL

And to be a single mom with twins and not have a lot of financial resources is really hard.

BERMAN

Stacey's mom, Anita, came down to help after Stella and Sadie were born. Before maternity leave ended, Stacey's mom had decided to retire and move her belongings down from Michigan to become a live-in nanny for Stacey and her girls.

PEARL

I asked her, well, why did you make -- I'm going to cry. I said to my mom, why are you doing this? Like, why did you decide to stay? Because it wasn't the money, because my parents could have given me the $1000 a month.

ANITA

Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was really emotional. She was working 24/7 and I just couldn't leave her.

BERMAN

On weekdays, she's out of the house at 6:45 in the morning to drive from her home in Kensington, Md. to a public charter school in Southeast D.C. Most nights she gets home around 6:30.

PEARL

For me, the hardest thing would have been having the girls and raising them and not sharing the day-to-day with somebody else. To be excited or to, you know, be frustrated or to talk about, like, the new words that we heard for the day. And so to be able to share that with my mom has been great for me. And, you know, obviously, made us even closer.

BERMAN

There's no one agency or organization that tracks the number of women choosing to get pregnant without a partner. But Dr. Eric Levens, with Shady Grove Fertility, in Rockville, Md., says about five percent of his patients are women like Stacey Pearl.

DR. ERIC LEVENS

I think that's been a pretty dramatic increase over the last years. And I think it's ever increasing.

BERMAN

And with more and more women choosing this route, Dr. Levens says there's less of a stigma, especially in the D.C. region. Just ask Clair Sassin and her daughter Danielle.

MISS DANIELLE SASSIN

Some people ask why I don't have a dad. I've told my friends the story and my mom's friends know because my mom told them.

BERMAN

Danielle, or Danny, is in fourth grade and lives with her mom in Shirlington, Va.

BERMAN

They just got home from Sunday School and they're making lunch.

BERMAN

Clair was 42 when she conceived Danny using in vitro fertilization.

MS. CLAIR SASSIN

I used to call her my little in vitro baby. I knew that when she went to preschool she would eventually notice and see that we are different, we are a different family. And she did. While she was in preschool, at one point she asked me, you know, if she had a daddy. And I said, no, you don't. I said families come in all different shapes and sizes. I said some have a mommy and a daddy, some have two mommies, some have two daddies and in this case you have a mommy who loves you very much. And that was it.

BERMAN

Clair says her friends always joke that she knows more about her sperm donor than they know about their own husbands. And these days, Clair and Danny talk about him quite a bit. He has olive skin, like Danny. He played the trumpet and Danny does, too.

SASSIN

There are kids in her class that have two dads, there are kids that have a mom. It's not odd that--do you think--do you ever feel odd because you don't have a dad?

SASSIN

No. I just feel like a regular, like, because none of my friends really care.

BERMAN

Clair says she feels like a regular, too.

SASSIN

I see myself as a mom with a child. And I happen to be a mom by choice.

BERMAN

She mostly worries about Danielle's future and making sure she's brining in enough money. But these worries, she says, are the same things all parents worry about.

SASSIN

Being a parent is the toughest job, but it's also the best job ever.

BERMAN

Taking on that job and becoming Danny's mom, Clair says is the smartest decision she's ever made. I'm Emily Berman.

SHEIR

Now, once you have children, a key part of raising them is educating them. Right? But for many families, figuring out how to reinforce what kids are learning in school is easier said than done. And that's where the D.C. public schools are increasingly stepping in. They're partnering with a private foundation to connect teachers and families in new ways. Kavitha Cardoza brings us this story on what works and what doesn't when it comes to getting parents involved in their kids' education.

MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA

Michelle Alexander and Catherine Schafer are sixth grade teachers at Jefferson Academy in Southwest D.C. They're in the middle of a home visit, listening to their student, Cameron, play the cello.

MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA

Cameron's musical talent is a little tidbit about him these teachers wouldn't normally have known. They also learn he wants to play basketball, he's very loving with his baby brother and his grandmother helps raise him. They continue talking with his mother Jamila Johnson.

MS. MICHELLE ALEXANDER

Cam participates to the point where if he's not called on, man, does he sometimes get frustrated. And I would rather have 10 Cams than anything else.

MS. JAMILA JOHNSON

Well, he's my good son. He's very helpful with me. Does homework, knows how to work the computer. He shows me things I don't even know.

CARDOZA

In the past, interaction with parents was almost always one-way. Often the meeting was about bake sales, report cards or discipline. Kristin Ehrgood is the founder of the Flamboyan Foundation, which is working with teachers in 20 D.C. schools. She says she envisioned a two-way exchange where teachers also learn from parents.

MS. KRISTIN EHRGOOD

Now, purely they are there to build a relationship with the family and ask the family, what are your hopes and dreams for your child? What do I need to know so that I can be a great teacher for your child? That, in and of itself, changes the dynamic radically.

CARDOZA

On some home visits, D.C. teachers have learned a student's entire family lives in a single room. Sometimes a child has no books at home or the family speaks a different language. They also find out a child's nickname, meet siblings and hear family stories. All those tiny details form relationships that can help improve a student's learning.

CARDOZA

The Flamboyan Foundation spends approximately $45,000 dollars a year in each of the 20 schools. That money helps pay teachers extra for these home visits and funds educational materials they send home to parents. Back at Jamila Johnson's house Michelle Alexander and Catherine Schafer hug Johnson before they leave.

ALEXANDER

Well, thank you so very much.

JOHNSON

No. I'm glad. Thank you. Thank you.

MS. CATHERINE SCHAFER

And anything at all, just call.

JOHNSON

All right.

CARDOZA

Multiple research studies have found the benefits of family engagement on a child's academic performance are consistent, positive and convincing. It leads to higher test scores, better attendance and improved graduation rates. And Natalie Gordon, principal at Jefferson Middle School and Academy, says she's already seeing the benefits of what she calls the exhausting but awesome effort. Gordon says these home visits are a huge priority for her, especially since about half her staff is new this year.

CARDOZA

Last year her school had 250 suspensions. This year, she says they're on track to cut that rate in half.

MS. NATALIE GORDON

Students are surprised that their teachers are coming into their homes, but because of that they will check their behavior a little bit more in the school building because they know my teacher might come back.

CARDOZA

Rena Johnson is principal at Stanton Elementary School in Southeast D.C. She says her teachers are conscious of how they talk even when setting up the visit.

MS. RENA JOHNSON

We're calling them Mom and Dad, right. We're not saying, Mr. and Mrs. Pickering. That helps a lot.

CARDOZA

Because of safety concerns, teachers always go in pairs. And they don't take notes.

JOHNSON

For some of our families, their visits, when folks are writing stuff down its social services, and our families, they don't need any more of that.

CARDOZA

Stanton Elementary saw a more than ten percent drop in the truancy rate after doing home visits. They also attribute the school's doubling of reading scores and tripling of math scores to their work with parents. Outside the school several parents waiting for the bus said they have bad memories of their own educational experiences or haven't felt welcome in schools in the past.

CARDOZA

This effort seems to be rebuilding those relationships one parent at a time. Letitia Bragg is the mother of two children in the school.

MS. LETITIA BRAGG

In the past I did feel like I was just another parent, just another number, no one of any importance. My children wouldn't be a, you know, priority to a teacher. As of now, I'm satisfied. I really am.

CARDOZA

The first part of the Flamboyan strategy for family engagement is building relationships. The second is giving parents tools so they can help their child learn.

MS. ZAKIA REID

This is your graph, all right. So take a little moment to kind of look and see where your child is.

CARDOZA

Almost 40 parents of first grade children crowd into the library at Bancroft Elementary School in Northwest D.C. Principal Zakia Reid says parental involvement isn't a problem at her school, which has almost 100 percent attendance for school events. But she still felt parents were not involved in their child's academic success.

REID

It's hard to tell parents your child's two, three grade levels below. And I think teachers say things that are not very clear. Oh, he's struggling. He's a really nice boy. So everything kind of gets mixed in.

CARDOZA

Now, all communication is translated. And teachers show parents a simple, clear graph so they can see, for example, how many words their child knows and what the goal is. Teachers hand out stacks of Post-It notes with Spanish and English words written on them.

REID

Stick those notes above their bed. It's important that the first thing they do in the morning is read those sight words and it's the last thing they do before they go to bed.

CARDOZA

Beth King is a parent here and says this new outreach has helped make her accountable.

MS. BETH KING

It put more responsibility on my desk as well because know I know that, oh, I can't just send her to school (inaudible) like I really have to come home and practice.

CARDOZA

And there's a lot to practice. Teachers play a bingo game with parents, give them flash cards and show them math puzzles to try out at home. Parent Monica Sanchez says she isn't always sure how to help her child with school work. Now, she does.

MS. MONICA SANCHEZ

It just felt like we were in the desert without any rain. And I think the kids, they deserved it. They've been waiting for this.

CARDOZA

The evening ends with a rousing raffle along with prizes. Principal Reid looks at her parents talking about word lists and math problems and finally answers a question I asked earlier. Why would a principal with so much on her plate already, want to deal with hundreds more adults?

REID

I think that's the only way that we're going to do it. And I really think it is the only way that we are really going to make a difference with students.

CARDOZA

The challenge for D.C. schools will be continuing these successes into higher grades where families are typically less involved, scaling up this effort so it's more than 20 carefully chosen schools, and continuing to fund this work if the Flamboyan grants are no longer available. But for now, Reid and others involved say this is a crucial first step. I'm Kavitha Cardoza.

SHEIR

This next story is about family bonding, as in spending a year in 62 foot seaborne vessel together family bonding. Okay, here's the scoop. Eastern Troy residents Richard and Jessica Johnson have been wild about sailing for as long as they can remember. And for the next year, they're bringing their kids, Emma and Molly, on a round the world sailing adventure.

SHEIR

Setting off from of the little town of Oxford, Md. The family recently took Tara Boyle inside the final preparations for their expedition on their sailboat, Elcie and she brought us this audio postcard.

MR. RICHARD JOHNSON

Hello, this is Richard Johnson on Elcie and we're getting close to departure. We're going to take the next year and sail to New Zealand basically in 10 legs.

MS. JESSICA JOHNSON

This is Jessica. So I'm here talking to Molly and Molly is one of our deckhands. She's nine and, Molly, you're getting to go on a long trip. So how are you feeling about heading out into the ocean on Elcie?

MS. MOLLY JOHNSON

I don't want to leave my friends here, but I also want to go on all these adventures and swim in coral reefs.

MS. TARA BOYLE

So you sailed about 10,000 miles back from New Zealand with your family on Elcie and now you're heading out again. What are some of the things that you've lived from living on a sailboat?

JOHNSON

I've learned how to tie some knots and what direction north, south, east, west is in and I have learned lots, how to sail a sailboat.

JOHNSON

So let's take it up, let's take the dingy up on the jib now, here, so if you slack it off, I'll go hook it up.

JOHNSON

All right, going up.

JOHNSON

I'm looking around me at this deckhouse right now and even though we're only about 10 days away from departure, it doesn't exactly look like a boat ready to go to sea. It pretty much works out that it all just kind of comes down to the last minute.

JOHNSON

Have you made the other calls yet?

JOHNSON

I think I got everything done. Let me -- we got the Netflix canceled, the New York Times subscription, that's gone. We've checked in with the car and home insurance. We have the boat insurance to deal with tomorrow.

JOHNSON

So Molly, when you're living on the boat, you don't have a very big bedroom and you live in a cabin that you share with your sister and you have a bunk. Can you describe what it's like to live in a cabin on a boat?

JOHNSON

First of all, our mattresses feel like they're made of concrete, which my Dad likes to say, a slab of concrete. And it's kind of small, but me and my sister, Emma, decorate it with lots of posters and I have a bulletin board with calendars and all this other stuff.

JOHNSON

You get to see a lot of the sky in the daytime and in the nighttime, is there any favorite time that you like to be out on deck and look at the sky?

JOHNSON

I sometimes might sleep outside and look at the stars at night when we're anchored.

JOHNSON

Sometimes, the most relaxing time is once you cast off the dock lines and you can kind of get into your shipboard routine. Yes, there's lots and lots, lots of things to pay attention to and we look forward to getting underway.

SHEIR

That was Jessica, Richard and Molly Johnson. The family which includes another daughter, Emma, is spending the next year sailing around the world. They're bringing along passengers on various legs of the trip so if you'd like to check out their itinerary, head to our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

Up next, parenting Naked Mole Rat style.

MR. DAVID KESSLER

And the first solid food they eat is feces.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

Okay.

SHEIR

It's coming your way on "Metro Connection," on WAMU 88.5.

SHEIR

Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. Parenting is our theme today and thus far we've exploring the benefits and challenges of childrearing in Washington and looking at the new methods couples are pursuing to become parents, human parents that is. In this next story, we're going to head to another part of the animal kingdom and meet some parents whose techniques are, how do I say this, a little bit unorthodox. Sabri Ben-Achour brings this sitcom-like story of naked mole rats.

BEN-ACHOUR

Well, for now, this show only exists in my head, but the real world of mole rats is actually even stranger. Just ask David Kessler who manages these creatures at the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

BEN-ACHOUR

Can you describe them for me? I think that, I mean, I would do that, but I feel like I might be unkind.

KESSLER

They're cylindrical, they have very little hair, they don't have any fur. They've got some hair between their toes like hobbits. And they actually have some hair inside of their mouth which keeps their mouth nice and clean while they dig because they dig with teeth.

BEN-ACHOUR

Those are some big teeth.

KESSLER

Those are incredibly big teeth. They're rodents so their incisors, which are they're front teeth, are constantly growing. They can chew through concrete, they can bite through a human hand. I've seen them do both.

BEN-ACHOUR

They are fleshy and, well, naked. Imagine a pink practically eyeless rat that looks and feels like the back of your elbow.

KESSLER

They're virtually blind because they spend their whole lives underground. Their skin is very thin and wrinkly and almost translucent.

BEN-ACHOUR

They're from East Africa and they spend their time burrowing around searching for hard to find giant roots to eat. And when they don't have roots for dinner, they eat...

KESSLER

Feces. The young will actually solicit stool from adults and that's their first food.

BEN-ACHOUR

Okay, why do they eat poop?

KESSLER

Why not? Well, they live underground. They live in an area where they don't get any free water. So they get all their moisture from food and it's a good early source of solid food.

BEN-ACHOUR

Hmm, poop. Anyway, another thing that's special about their families is they live kind of like honeybees or termites.

KESSLER

They are eusocial mammals, which means that they live like social insects do. They live in large groups of 20 to 300 animals called colonies and there's only one breeding female in the group who's called a queen. One to three breeding males, he's not the king. He's just the breeding male and everyone else is a worker or soldier.

BEN-ACHOUR

The queen is different from everyone else, she's bigger, longer, her vertebrae are thicker and she's the only one who has babies, like 20 at a time.

KESSLER

But everyone helps take care of the babies so it takes a village to raise a mole rat up.

BEN-ACHOUR

Well, it's kind of a tyrannical village. The queen maintains her tunnel kingdom through violence. Like, she beats up on everyone. Stan Braude is a senior lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis. He studied Naked Mole Rats for 30 years. He says living with momma mole rat is so stressful for her daughters and siblings that their reproductive systems shut down. That's how she stays queen.

MR. STAN BRAUDE

Under stress, physiological stress but also emotional stress there's inhibition of the reproductive side. So in a small colony mole rat system the queen physically beats up on her daughters. Shoves them around, bites them and physically stresses them and shuts down their reproduction as long as they're in her burrow.

BEN-ACHOUR

Now, this kind of setup or any kind of hive-colony situation posed a challenge for Darwin back in the day.

BRAUDE

He has a chapter specifically entitled "Problems with the Theory." He brought up queens and workers in honeybees. How could you get different morphs of workers if the workers were sterile?

BEN-ACHOUR

How do non-reproducing worker mole rats or bees pass their worker mole rate genes to the next generation? And how is it in their interest to be worker mole rats if they don't get to reproduce?

BRAUDE

The basic answer is there are other venues to spreading genes like the genes for being a worker than just having offspring. So if you spend your life producing lots of siblings than that can be more successful than spending your life producing a smaller number of offspring.

BEN-ACHOUR

And if you're the queen, it's in your interest to have helpers ensure the survival of your babies, babies who could one day split off to start new colonies. So there may be a lesson in all of this for human parents, parenting is difficult especially when resources are tight. So don't be afraid to enslave your family to build up a fear-based empire in the pursuit of large tubers. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

Want to check out these charming critters for yourself? You can find photos on our website, metroconnection.org.

SHEIR

Our story today is about an art exhibit, one that holds appeal for parents and kids alike. It's an exhibition of work by the painter Roy Lichtenstein, whose canvases some people say look as if they come from the pages of comic books. NPR special correspondent and "Metro Connection" contributor, Susan Stamberg, headed to the National Gallery of Art to learn the story behind Lichtenstein's famous pop art images.

MS. SUSAN STAMBERG

You're not supposed to use cell phones in museums, but at the Lichtenstein show, I just had to make a call.

MS. SUSAN STAMBERG

This is Susan Stamberg for National Public Radio. I'm at an exhibition of works by Roy Lichtenstein and one of them is called "Desk Calendar," something he made in 1962, and your phone number is on it. Could you call me back...

MS. SUSAN STAMBERG

Never got a call back, but it was a real number just as the date on the open black and white pages of the "Desk Calendar" in the painting, Monday, May 21, was the real 1962 date. Just as real comics inspired his '60s works, angsty comic frames often of ladies in distress. National Gallery curator, Harry Cooper, inspects one with me.

MS. SUSAN STAMBERG

A beautiful, very fraught looking woman, they're all fraught. She's got a furrow between her eyebrows and she's holding on with both hands to the telephone and she's saying, ohhh, all right. And you know she's talking to some fellow.

MR. HARRY COOPER

What I like about that painting is the way she is holding the phone and she's caressing that phone and I think in a way she would rather have a relationship with that receiver than with whoever is on the other end of the line.

STAMBERG

Wonder what he's saying to her and what she's agreeing to? Ah, all right.

COOPER

I don't know. That, you know, and one thing about Roy is that he really looked hard for these frames that had a kind of crux in the story, in them.

STAMBERG

And lets us imagine the back story and what might happen next. Interesting, because he uses such a cold mechanical process, dot, dot, dot. He was really painting digital pixels before there were pixels to evoke such strong emotions, dot, dot, dot. So did he paint each one by hand?

COOPER

No, he didn't. In fact, you could argue he didn't paint any of them by hand.

STAMBERG

Lichtenstein used various kinds of stencils with perforated dot patterns. He'd brushed his paint across the top of the stencil and the colors dropped through as perfect circles and elevated commercial images from comics, ads into high art. In the 1960's young American artists were looking for a way to make their marks.

STAMBERG

Andy Warhol did it with soup cans, Roy Lichtenstein did it with dots, inventing pop art, comic book frames were his starting point. But he wasn't making exact reproductions.

COOPER

He's always making these alterations. He did it because he felt these things could be improved and they weren't quite art but he could make them art.

STAMBERG

By changing a hue, widening a line, expanding the dots.

COOPER

Tiny things that would help make a really iconic image, an image that I think would stand up, you know, would last on the wall, last in our memories.

STAMBERG

You can always tell a Lichtenstein, the vocabulary of dots and he makes you laugh. Another fraught woman, this one drowning thinks, I don't care, I'd rather sink than call Brad for help. The fraughts are from a series on romance. In another series, brushstrokes he addresses that basic element of art. In 1993, he told WHYY's "Fresh Air" that he was painting the idea of a brushstroke. You do not, for a minute, think it's real.

MR. ROY LICHTENSTEIN

You think it's a picture of a brushstroke and, you know, that's a kind of absurd thing to do. It has that built-in absurdity and that's the reason I like it.

STAMBERG

Dorothy Lichtenstein, the painter's widow, says her husband dotted beyond the post-World War II abstract expressionists, Pollock with his drips, de Kooning with his brush sweeps but he kept the past in his rearview mirror.

MS. DOROTHY LICHTENSTEIN

Certainly his brushstroke paintings were an ode in some way to abstract expressionism. But, I mean, you could look at the history of art as the history of the brushstroke as well.

STAMBERG

Lichtenstein had some trouble making brushstrokes but he used his dots to reproduce some of his greatest brushy predecessors. Monet, for instance, is his wonderful "Rouen Cathedral" series of the late 1890s. In 1969, Lichtenstein's pale, dotty cathedrals become glowing shimmers. Dorothy Lichtenstein says her husband went to museums in search of the masters.

LICHTENSTEIN

Well, it was actually great going to a museum with Roy because everything was kind of grist for his mind. He was always looking at paintings and art in a way as to what he might, how he might be able to transform it.

COOPER

Picasso was his hero above all, Matisse was right up there. But it was really Picasso he attacked first.

STAMBERG

Attacked, curator Harry Cooper says, not tackled. He was paying his respects to Picasso and Mondrian and Monet and others, but...

COOPER

It's not just homage, it's also bringing these artists down to the level of dots and comic vocabulary.

STAMBERG

Is that a cruel act, bringing them down?

COOPER

I think so. I think artists are always very anxious about their predecessors and the anxiety of influence. So what he said about Picasso is that he realized that he could make it his own and that felt good.

STAMBERG

Dots all folks, sorry. Curator Cooper says Lichtenstein has had a real impact.

COOPER

We can't go anywhere without seeing it, pop art. I mean, he's been taken up in design and in larger culture. Nobody has imitated him but he really opened up and showed that pop art was not just a gimmick, not just a joke.

STAMBERG

Maybe, but you'll still get some good laughs at the National Gallery's Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective until mid-January.

SHEIR

That was NPR special correspondent and occasional "Metro Connection" contributor, Susan Stamberg.

SHEIR

And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Sabri Ben-Achour, Emily Berman, Jonathan Wilson and Tara Boyle along with NPR's Susan Stamberg. WAMU's managing editor of news is Meymo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our brand-new intern is Rachel Schuster whom we're thrilled to welcome abroad here at "Metro Connection" HQ. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.

SHEIR

Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts" and our "Door to Door" theme "No, Girl" are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can see all the music we use if you go to our website, that's metroconnection.org. Just click on a story and you'll find information about its accompanying song.

SHEIR

Also on metroconnection.org you can read free transcripts of stories and if you missed part of today's show you can hear the whole thing by clicking on the "this week on "Metro Connection" link. To hear our most recent episodes click the podcast link or find us on iTunes.

SHEIR

We hope you can join us next week when we'll bring you our annual show on Traditions. We'll meet a local family that manages to hold onto weekly rituals despite living in far-flung corners of the globe. We'll learn how Washingtonians with both Jewish and Christian backgrounds blend and respect both faiths at this time of year. And we'll visit a day shelter with a brand-new tradition, bringing clients stories front and center on the D.C. stage.

FEMALE

We're always trying to find new voices in theater and new stories to tell and we've got a wealth of stories and voices so it seemed like a natural connection.

SHEIR

I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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