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High School Hustle: Why middle school matters

Written by Liz Willen Wednesday, 24 June 2015 12:38

At one particularly awful moment during my older son's awkward second year in middle school, the principal turned to me as I sat in her office:

"No one goes through middle school unscathed," she said, with empathy.

I tried to laugh, appreciating her sensitivity, but it didn't seem at all funny. In the space of a few months, my formerly angelic child had lost all of his so-called "friends," struck his gym teacher in the head with a ball (accidentally, he insisted, although the teacher begged to differ) and harbored a locker that smelled so foul it should have been condemned.

He'd discovered that cool (read: expensive) sneakers matter, and learned with dismay that most of the girls in his class seemed at least a foot taller. And of course, I wasn't allowed anywhere near the school; we had to designate a meeting place a few blocks away.

That's middle school for you. Middle school hurts, but middle school matters. I had gone to see the principal under the mistaken impression that we were going to have a conversation about math and science. (Tip: When choosing a middle school, find out what math and science courses they offer, including the 8th-grade algebra Regents, or your child could start high school behind in key areas.)

It takes a lot of skill and commitment to be an elementary school teacher. Many who enter the profession love to read, are interested in social studies, civics and art and are adept at managing a room full of small children who are learning and growing at different speeds. Unfortunately there’s something else many early childhood teachers have in common: math anxiety. According to one study, elementary education majors, who are overwhelmingly female, have the highest levels of math anxiety of any college major, and unwittingly pass it on to their pupils, especially girls.

A new policy brief by Insideschools and the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School examines one of the most vexing problems facing elementary school teachers—their own anxiety over math. The brief takes an in-depth look at two elementary schools, PS 26 on Staten Island and PS 63 in Manhattan, and how their leadership and teaching staff confronted the problem head-on through collaboration and retraining—and got results.

Pre-k, Round 2: Apply by July 10

Written by Aimee Sabo Tuesday, 23 June 2015 10:38

Everyone deserves a second chance. If you're not happy with your child's Round 1 pre-k placement, take heart: Round 2 of pre-k admissions is officially open, now through July 10, offering families dozens of new programs to choose from.

Even if you already received a pre-k offer, you can take advantage of Round 2 of the pre-k enrollment process. Round 2 is comprised mainly of new programs that were not listed in Round 1, as well as some sites that did not fill to capacity. The DOE will be adding more programs as they become available. (Check nyc.gov/prek for the latest updates.) As in Round 1, you can apply online, over the phone by calling 311 or in person at a Family Welcome Center. Applications can be updated right up until the July 10 deadline.

A quick look at the Department of Education's Pre-Kindergarten Round 2 Program List showed some interesting additions (and only one closure) with the majority of new programs in Queens. In Brooklyn, we noted 20 full-day seats at PS 112 Lefferts Park, an Insideschools pick and the subject of the 2005 documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom." In District 2, PS 51 Elias Howe and two new schools, PS 340 Sixth Avenue School and PS 343 The Peck Slip School, are housing pre-k centers. (In neighboring District 3, DNAinfo found that there are decidedly fewer options.)

The DOE's pre-k center programs are a central focus of the expansion this year. Exclusively dedicated to serving pre-k students, these free-standing programs are housed in existing schools or leased space and are run by DOE-appointed site coordinators who report to their district's director of early childhood education. All pre-k centers will host open houses in August when families who have been accepted can tour the program, meet staff and register their children, according to the DOE.

Yes, August feels far away. Many parents will be taking a leap of faith this year one way or another, and it's not an easy thing to do when it comes to your child's education. What do you do when you can't tour the school, the program is new and untested, or you are placed in a "failing school"? Aside from reading our reviews when applicable, talking with other parents, and attending any summer open houses, there aren't easy answers. But when it comes to pre-k, it's important to remember that some of the usual rules don't apply. Some things to keep in mind:

1. A failing (or mediocre) school doesn't necessarily mean a failing pre-k. If you're a dedicated Insideschools reader you've gotten used to looking at school surveys, attendance numbers and even test scores. We can tell you from years of combined experience that in many otherwise troubled or so-so schools, pre-k can often be an oasis of skilled teachers, sweet kids and thoughtful programming. Take PS 48 in the Bronx or PS 120 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example. PS 48 has struggled with test scores and discipline in the older grades, but it also has a strong pre-k program in a separate learning annex that our reviewer described as "adorable." At PS 120, where test scores have been low, the pre-k classes we saw had an undeniable spark that was lacking in the upper grades. If you can, take your time to find hidden gems like these. 

2. Pre-k for all doesn't mean pre-k down the block. Who doesn't want to take a leisurely stroll around the corner with their 4-year-old to the best pre-k in the city? We all do, but sometimes you may need to take a train or a bus instead. The city has rolled out an impressive number of programs this year, but mostly where space was available, not where need was highest. Decide on your priorities, and if quality trumps proximity, you may want to open your eyes to great programs further away. 

3. And remember, those wait lists move. As we've said before, you can apply to Round 2 and still remain on a wait list for all the schools you listed above the school your child was assigned to in Round 1. Even as you move forward with other options, an old favorite choice could surprise you with a spot. Stay patient.

Round 2 decision letters will be sent out in early-August. Families will need to pre-register in person with their child and required paperwork by mid-August. In the meantime, good luck and let us know how the process is working for you!

Q: After we spent a lot of money on test prep and our daughter spent a lot of time studying for the SAT, the College Board messed up the June 6 SAT! So all of our effort is for nothing. What is going to happen? What do you suggest we do?

A: By now, everyone is aware of the problem with the administration of the June 6 SAT: A printing error on test booklets forced the College Board to discard two of the 10 sections. It's bad luck all around, and the College Board will do what it will do to make amends, in this case waiving the fee for students who want to retake the exam. It's not the first time something has happened, and I'm sure it will not be the last.

About nine years ago, the College Board erred in its scoring of hundreds of tests, and students received scores that were anywhere from 100 points or more lower than they actually achieved. And I remember when my daughter was applying to colleges about a dozen years ago, and she needed several SAT Subject Test scores. She took three tests, but only two scores arrived. When we inquired, we learned that the College Board had somehow "lost" her literature essay. "And it's really too bad," said the apologetic College Board service representative, "because she scored well on the short answers!" She had to re-take—at no cost, of course—the entire exam. It's almost inevitable that there will be problems from time to time, especially when dealing with huge amounts of data on a national basis.

It's a particular fact of life in New York City that parents in possession of children must be in search of a school.

Talk of where to send your kids often dominates parental conversation—even pre-conception. And it tends to go on all the way to high school—except for the elite minority who get into and thrive at some of the city's highly coveted pre-k–12 private schools that can now cost close to $43,000 annually.

In my family's case, both for financial and philosophical reasons, neither suburbia nor private options were considered. So when my first child was born in 1995, and there was no popular elementary school or publicly funded pre-k in my neighborhood, the search began early—and often.

Fast forward 20 years. If my youngest son manages to pass gym (please don't ask how one fails gym ... it has to do with showing up), I will be the proud parent on June 24 of two New York City public school graduates.

by Clara Hemphill and Halley Potter

This op ed was originally published in the New York Times on June 12, 2015.

The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, campaigned on a promise to provide free universal pre-k classes to more than 70,000 4-year-olds. The city is now poised to meet this ambitious goal.

"This is a proud moment for us all," Mr. de Blasio said earlier this week. " 'Pre-K for All' is the centerpiece of our agenda to confront inequality in our city."

Mr. de Blasio is right to be proud, but more must be done to ensure that pre-k classrooms deliver the results the mayor wants. Unfortunately, in cobbling together different funding sources and different types of preschools, the city has unintentionally reinforced barriers that keep rich and poor children apart, even in economically mixed neighborhoods.

Pre-k offers are out; now comes the next round

Written by Aimee Sabo Thursday, 11 June 2015 12:25

“I learn so much that I can’t even stop,” says a giddy 4-year-old in a promotional video just released by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office. “There are no monsters here. It’s not scary,” explains another. “Maybe if you try school, you might like it.”

This year, more NYC families than ever before seem willing to try pre-kindergarten, and, for the first time, they are guaranteed a seat in a full-day program. About 70,000 children will attend free, universal pre-kindergarten this fall, a majority at their parents’ top choice program. The city reported that 70 percent of families received pre-k offers to their first choice school, and 82 percent got one of their top three. Many families are willing to travel, with 16 percent choosing a site outside their district as their first choice. Early childhood centers and public school programs seemed equally sought-after: Half the applicants listed an early childhood center first on their application; the other half listed a public school, according to the Department of Education

If you’re a policymaker, things are looking pretty good. Larger issues aside—like increasing and measuring diversity, say, or creating permanent and suitable pre-k spaces—the improvement in enrollment numbers seems like the just reward of this year’s more streamlined registration process and the DOE’s massive outreach effort. But what if you’re one of the families whom the stats didn’t favor?

by Emily Frost

UPPER WEST SIDE — Local education leaders are looking to combat school overcrowding and increase classroom diversity by creating a "super zone" — in which students from one part of the district would have a choice of three schools to attend instead of one.

Elementary school students in District 3 are assigned to a school based on where they live, a geographic designation known as their school zone. Each zone typically has only one corresponding school.

Community Education Council 3 leaders, who have ultimate control over zoning lines, are considering shaking up that structure in the southern section of the district, which is experiencing overcrowding and what some have deemed racial segregation.

Two inquiries came in this week from parents wanting to know how the type of high school their children attend will affect their college admissions. The scenarios are different but the answer is pretty much the same, so I'm answering them together.

1. How important is the choice of high school on college options? We have been happy that our children are doing well in middle school and even happier that they are enjoying it so much. This school will transition into a grade 6–12 next year. But we have heard that, coming out of a new school without an established reputation, they will be seen as less appealing to colleges. Many, if not most, parents around us are in a frenzy preparing for the specialized high schools exam, saying that one of these schools is the only pathway to the best college opportunity.

2. My daughter is a happy freshman at one of the specialized high schools. Her grades are in the low 90s in the humanities and in the 80s in math/science. But at her high school, 92 is like the edge of a cliff: 92 and up means you get to do electives, APs, and have a range of college options. Below 92, you do not. It really seems that binary. Ironically, it seems that her chances at a future with choices would be higher elsewhere. Should we seek to transfer out?

Sixty-six percent of eligible students who applied to G&T (gifted and talented) programs in 2015 received offers today, up from 2014 when 60 percent of applicants received offers. Fewer students applied this year: 7,242 students in grades k–3 applied for a spot, a decrease from 8,010 applications last year.

Incoming kindergartners—the first entry point for gifted programs—had the best chance of gaining a seat: nearly 80 percent of the applicants received an offer, as compared to only 36 percent of 3rd-graders.

As in previous years, admission to one of the five citywide G&T programs eludes most eligible students. While more than 1,500 kindergarten test-takers scored high enough—97th percentile or better—to qualify for a citywide seat, there are only about 325 slots. Most offers go to children who score in the 99th percentile, or to eligible siblings of current citywide G&T students. The DOE has not yet released figures for how many were offered a citywide G&T seat this year, but last year roughly 300 earned a spot.