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Ask Judy
Judy Baum

Judy Baum

Ask Insideschools a Question

Judy Baum, Insideschools' longtime advice columnist, passed away on Dec. 20, 2013. Her columns are archived here, under Ask Judy. Insideschools will continue to answer readers' school-related questions. Email us at

By Judy Baum

Dear Judy

I noticed in the Insideschools  poll about how Cathie Black can reach out to parents, responses were all over the place, and not that many parents voted. What is the best way to assure parents that they are heard?

Just wondering....

Dear Just wondering..,

Perhaps the low response rate to our poll is because parents are demoralized by the top down style of management we’ve had for eight-plus years.  Very often, activism around school issues is a parent's first experience in working  to influence public policy. Only as parents  go up through the grades, do they realize that making changes in school policy, like that of any government policy, is slow-going and often discouraging.  Sometimes small victories are a boost, other times, the administrations’ deaf ears make you want throw in the towel. But parents who persist will tell you its worth the effort when they see even small improvements.

The bright side is that there is a new crop of parents every year. To them, and to those currently laboring in behalf of better schools, I say, don’t wait for the legislature or a new chancellor, for that matter, to empower you.  Seize the opportunities that do exist. And to tell the truth, we already have plenty of parent microphones and venues for involvement:  Chancellor’s Parents advisory Committee (CPAC),  Community Education Councils (CEC’s), President’s Councils, school and district leadership teams, Parents Associations and Parent Teacher Association (PA’s).   Granted, under the autocratic approach of the top dogs, most parents think they are shouting into the wind, but unless parents use these avenues to make their points, they, and their institutions will continue to be be discounted. Don’t let others marginalize PA’s, CEC’s  CPAC  --  they and you  have power  --  but only if you participate.

Mark me down as a starry-eyed idealist – I was an active parent when elected community school boards had real power – I know the best and the worst they could do. I continue to believe that there are great things that parents and their representatives can accomplish.  I applaud those who are already making a difference in contentious areas like zoning, class size, and co-locations. Go to it the rest of you.


Dear Judy,

Please help. My daughter’s kindergarten is harmful. Kids are not allowed to play, except for a structured "choice time" at their desks, with a toy the group chooses.  They get little to no recess time - less than 20 minutes. Sitting at desks for three and half to four hours per day is counter-productive and this schedule has turned my child off from school.  What can I do to fix her situation?

Kindergarten  parent

Dear Kindergarten parent

Your letter is a troubling picture of what some kindergartens have become with the emphasis on reading and math to the exclusion of all else. This approach is tough on kids who may be ready to learn, but can't do it  without plenty of time for creative play, exercise, and fresh air.

There are two issues here:  exercise and play. In the matter of exercise, check out the Department of Education's  wellness policy, and also note that the DOE recently reminded principals that the Department of Health advises that children should get as much outdoor exercise as possible, even in cold weather. A recent column by Jane Brody in the  New York Times points out the positive effect of  periodic movement or "instant recess".  In particular, the last three paragraphs  offer simple and effective ways that schools can integrate 10-minute exercise breaks during the school day.  It’s an issue that all School Leadership Teams should be pursuing too.

As for playtime,  here are my suggestions.  Get the support of the other parents in the class and educate yourselves on research that supports your instincts.  One  book that makes the case is "Playing to Get Smart", by Elizabeth Jones and Renatta M. Cooper, Teachers College Press, November 2005. The authors  assert that “play is what young children do best,” and “it’s through play that young children get smart.” Approach the teacher and, if necessary, the principal and even the school support network leader -- as a group. What you seek is simple:  restore some traditional kindergarten activities, dress-up and block corners, circle games, dramatic play, and of course, periodic get-up-from-the-desk- and-stretch time.  And while you are at it, you and others who have the time could volunteer to help out at free play time and recess too.

Will you be successful?  There is no predicting.  Can you affect change in the system?  Your work is cut out for you, but I bet there are other parents out there who would join you.

If all fails at your school,  consider seeking another school that better suits your child's needs. There are some unzoned schools in most districts that may offer a different approach to learning. It's not easy to make a change, but persistence can pay off if you find a better option and are able to travel outside of your neighborhood.

Your child is already in kindergarten but the application period for next year begins on Jan. 10. Now is the time to tour schools and attend open houses for prospective students - even prospective 1st-graders. My advice: look carefully at schools before applying. Check out our Basics suggestions on "what to look for on a school tour".

Insideschools would like to hear from others who are disheartened about the turn kindergarten has taken; and their suggestions for promoting change. What has worked at your school?

Good luck


Dear Judy:

I know it's late, but what should I do about a holiday gift for my child’s teacher? Should my son  choose something on his own or should I make cookies?  Or something else? I am a busy mom and do not remember getting any notice about this.

Busy mom

Dear Busy Mom,

Schools enter a sort of manic state during these last days before holiday break, with performances, decorations, and parties. There is an ecumenical spirit as described by Elementary Dad in "Manger meets Menorah." Gift giving falls in step with the atmosphere. Moreover, most parents and kids find the winter break a good time to thank teachers for their hard work and maybe to cheer them on for the next term, so it's a good time to say "thanks!"

Luckily for elementary school teachers, there is usually a class parent to organize a class wide gift and then it is easy to conform to the city rules on teacher gifts. Middle and high school kids see different teachers for different subjects and gift-giving becomes less common and more complicated.  In any case, before a gift is given, it's helpful to know the city's rules on gifting.

Teachers are governed by City Conflicts of Interest law restrictions and an even more explicit Chancellor’s regulation C-110. Every year, the Department of Education reminds parents that teachers are prohibited from accepting too much in the way of a gift. For instance, the regulation says that teachers may accept presents that are principally sentimental in nature and of small financial value.

If class parents organize a joint holiday present from all parents in the class, parents should not be asked to contribute more than a small amount  or be required to participate  and the gift must be identified as coming from the entire class, not just from the individual students whose parents contributed.

If collaboration is not the norm in your child's class, or it's just too late to get it together, think about home baked goods or handmade crafts. Cookies or bread that the kids bake themselves, or help to bake are a good bet. Try to confine crafts to useful items such as bookmarks or pot holders. Nice kid-made cards with a big thank-you inside are also welcome.

Of course, you can honor teachers and others on your list with donations to your favorite charity or by contributing through some websites that support charities. Websites specific to children include and  Check out Marni's InsideSCOOP post on how to support your favorite charity (including as you shop.

What about the gift of time? If you are not too frazzled by volunteering (check out this week's Pre-K Corner), perhaps you could offer to lead a story time in the classroom, help organize a lunchtime club, or teach the kids how to prepare a special food. The options are endless.

Have a happy holiday to you, Busy Mom, and to all moms and dads and grandmas and aunts everywhere.


Dear Judy,

I am a District 2 parent. I keep reading about the need to rank the schools on the application.  The problem is that many schools won't consider you unless you rank them first.  How does one get around this?   So confusing!

Dear District 2 parent:

Applying to middle school is confusing. The middle school admissions' calendar is standardized but the rest of the process can vary from district to district.  Each district has a different set of choices, some offer mostly zoned schools -- others have no zoned schools at all. Some districts use the OLSAT assessments to place kids in selective programs; others rely on standardized test scores and report card grades.

With middle school applications due on Dec. 17, by now you have digested all of this, visited schools you found interesting,  and you have a list. Now comes the painful chore of ranking the schools.  I do not think there is a way around the "we see only firsts" dilemma.  Principals in District 2 and 3 and a few others around the city, know who ranked their school first. In most cases, from among those who did list the school first, there will be more than enough kids to meet the school's' criteria. These are the highly competitive schools and common sense tells us that if a school can easily fill its ranks with kids who are not only qualified, but eager to attend, there is scant chance that a lesser achiever will make it in. So don't list a school as your first choice unless you think your child can compete with this elite group -- whatever the requirements are.  First choice should be for a school that both suits your child and where your child's record and talents suit the school.

And if you are worried about your child being shut out of his first choice school, make sure you consider all options -- even those outside of your district. In each middle school directory you'll  find a list of  schools to which you  can apply directly.  These schools do not appear on the main application and these principals do not know where else you applied, so ranking is not an issue.

Otherwise, remember to make realistic choices.  Sandy Ferguson, director of middle  school enrollment  at the Department of Education, told us he thinks parents should rank as many schools as are available. My advice is to choose carefully and never use up a space on the application for a school you don't want your child to attend.

And, remember, if you are not happy with the match when you find out in May where your child has been accepted, don't despair --  there is an appeals process.

We'd like other  middle school parents to weigh in on how the process worked for them last year.  If you appealed, were you successful? And, now that we are three months into the school year, how is your child adjusting to middle school, whether or not it was his first choice?

Good luck to all.


Tuesday, 23 November 2010 06:58

Ask Judy: Are grades based on behavior?

Dear Judy,

My son’s teacher told me that his grades were lowered for bad behavior. Is this allowed? What can I do about it?

Upset Mom

Dear Upset Mom,

Any time a child is signaled out for bad behavior, there is a reason to be concerned: Is the teacher picking on him?  Is the teacher’s standard impossibly high so that many children are in the same boat? Or is there a serious problem that should be addressed with the teacher, parent, child and guidance counselor?  I would take it up with the teacher and your son before more of the term progresses.

Should grades be based on behavior?  The Citywide Standards of Intervention and Discipline Measures, otherwise known as the discipline code, says disruptive kids may be removed from the classroom, but it does not say that his/her grade should be lowered. On the contrary, punishments include barring a child from extra-curricular events or communal lunch, but the emphasis is on  guidance interventions, such as parent outreach, conflict resolution, individual  behavior contracts and counseling.

This is not to say that the individual schools and teachers cannot issue their own rules of conduct, in fact they are required to do so.  If the school or teacher has a rule that allows points off for bad behavior, you should have seen that in black and white at the beginning of the school year.

That said,  think about why a teacher might reduce a grade for a child who is behaving in a disruptive way.  I can imagine a student clowning around or teasing or bullying other kids, or otherwise throwing the class into confusion. That kid is not participating and most teachers base their grades on a combination of class participation, homework and tests. I’ll bet that if you speak with the teacher about this, she will point to her three-part system to defend the grade she gave your son.


My son is in 6th grade this fall. Is it too early to be thinking about high school admissions? What can I do to get prepared?

Anxious dad.

Dear Anxious Dad:

It's never too soon for a middle school family to start thinking about high school, however, 6th grade is a big transition year for kids – they are  figuring out  how to fit into a new school and trying to keep up with academic demands. For a while, at least, I would keep thoughts about high school to yourself, even as you familiarize yourself with the admissions process.

Having navigated the search for middle school, you are already somewhat of a pro, and there is much information to help ease you into  high school admissions.  There is a lot to learn.  For starters, track down a copy of  New York’s City's Best Public High Schools by Clara Hemphill and the Insideschools staff, which has in-depth reports on some of the city's finest schools.  Become familiar with the Find a School section on Insideschools, where you'll find profiles of every city high school.  Think about which school will suit your child’s interests and strengths, but realize that kids change a lot in middle school.

Pick up a copy of the annual Directory of the New York City Public High Schools. You can find it online but I recommend getting the very hefty paper copy from the local borough enrollment center.  This telephone-book-size publication is easier to browse and includes various tips that I do not find online.

The High School Directory lists the admission requirements for each school, while the Specialized High Schools Student Handbook is devoted to the eight specialized exam high schools, as well as LaGuardia, the arts school. It includes general procedures on how to apply and a sample exam.

By the way, if the specialized schools are on your radar, and your child qualifies based on his standardized test scores and family income, look into the Specialized High Schools Institute. Your son may apply in the 6th grade, and, if accepted, begin to attend classes during the summer between 6th and 7th grades.

Next year, consider attending the Department of Education admissions workshops for 7th and 8th graders and their parents. Check the DOE website and the Insideschools calendar for schedules. The enrollment office sponsors summer workshops to introduce different types of high schools.

Keep in mind that the 7th grade scores are the ones that appear on the high school application, so help your child focus on studying and maintaining good attendance.  You might also start attending high school fairs in the fallwhere you can meet faculty and students from most schools. New small high schools are usually introduced at fairs in February.

This year, be informed, but not obsessed. Let your son enjoy acclimating to middle school before you start moving on to the next phase.

Good luck!


Dear  Judy -

Recently, my 8th-grade son was scheduled for a dentist appointment first thing in the morning, followed by a medical appointment. He was very late to school  and when  he got there, despite notes  from the doctors he saw, he was marked late. When I asked why, I was told that medical appointments are not excused. He will have to return to the dentist a few times and has medical condition that will require ongoing treatment. How will this affect his applications to high school?  How can I get these latenesses  removed from his record?

Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom:

Lateness goes along with attendance in evaluating a kid’s commitment to education, and schools are looking for students  (and families) who make school a priority. But  just one non-excused lateness won’t make a difference. When rating kids, schools look down on a pattern of persistent lateness and absence.

While 90% attendance was formerly a promotion and graduation requirement, it no longer is.  Now student must be shown to be making progress toward that goal. But the issue remains important, so it is a good idea to make sure that records are correct for both attendance and lateness.

How to determine if your son’s lateness was unfairly categorized?  Your school should have a stated policy about both absence and lateness. According to Chancellor's Regulation A-210, “Each school is required to submit annually, on or before October 31st, an Attendance Plan that delineates the school’s attendance program as a component of the Office of School and Youth Development’s Consolidated Plan.”  You should ask to see this policy so you know in advance what the rules are.

The regulation also states that, “…If students have been absent from school for reasons other than illness, documentation of the reason for the absence is to be presented to the school (e.g., examination schedule of special examination, court order, etc.). Absence notes submitted by parents are to be maintained for one year after the end of the school year.”  My guess is that lateness is part of this plan, but I have not had confirmation of that.

It is important that the guidance counselor enters the specific codes which explain the reasons for the student's absences; admissions staff will be able to see that information. To be certain that the schools you are applying to get the message, write a letter to accompany the application explaining the reason for his lateness and absences and noting the medical excuses that you submitted. Better yet, ask the guidance counselor to write the letter, and make sure that he or she enters the proper code so that the receiving schools can call up the record and see for themselves.

Another strategy: if your son is applying to a school that requires a personal interview, he can bring up the subject - if he feels comfortable about discussing his medical condition. Schools won't hold it against him if the absences are excused and explained.

Bottom line, if you are still uncomfortable with the way your specific incident was handled, contact the office that is responsible for attendance:

Office of School and Youth Development
Mandated Responsibilities Unit
N.Y.C. Department of Education
52 Chambers Street - Room 218
New York, NY 10007
Telephone: 212-374-6095
Fax: 212-374-5751


Dear Judy,
Our high school is overcrowded by the capacity standards in the DOE Blue Book. Our school has corrected the DOE calculation of space twice and our submittal has gone unacknowledged. Meanwhile, our3800  students fill a school with a capacity of 2100. What can be done to have the legal capacity enforced?
Bayside H.S. PTA President

Dear Dave,

It is not useful to argue over the capacity figures since the Blue Book (officially, the  Enrollment-Capacity-Utilization Report) already shows that Bayside is severely over-enrolled.  As far as I can tell, while the legal capacity is based on square footage of each room divided by 20, the standard of the NYC Building code, there are ways to manipulate the figures. Either way, your school is severely overcrowded and you need a solution.

Arguing over the numbers does not solve the problem. As you know, most of the larger high schools in your area and other parts of the city, are also overcrowded. It’s a complex problem, because parents and kids want schools like Bayside, with its proven track record and safe environment, so demand is high. But the current Department of Education policy favors carving small schools out of large dysfunctional ones, and funneling leftover kids to still standing large schools, like yours.

So how to proceed?  As the PTA president of a large, high- performing high school, much of what I say is probably old news to you, but perhaps there is something you missed.

I would start by inviting a representative of the DOE's Office of Portfolio and Planning to speak at a PTA meeting to clarify any plans they have in the works for your area of Queens. It is likely they do, having taken on Forest Hills High School overcrowding with the founding of Queens Metropolitan  High School.   GothamSchools reports that at an October 5 meeting at PS 58 in Queens, DOE Executive Director of School Improvement Alex Shub told parents a new 1,100 seat high school is going to be built in Maspeth. He  acknowledged that parents want a "large comprehensive high school" and "not a bunch of boutique schools..."

Next widen your base and set up a collaborative process with the Borough President’s office, the community board, your local council member, and congressperson.   Work with the School Leadership Team, and rope in the SLT’s from other area high schools because any solution is likely to affect all the high schools in Queens, or at least your part of Queens. SLT support is crucial as it brings the principal and the faculty on board.

Support of the local elected officials adds credibility, expertise, and public pressure. That is important to keep in mind whether you are looking for long term solutions -- involving new buildings or annexes -- or quick fixes such as trailers in the yard, restricting enrollment through screening or zoning, or any other strategies yet to be devised.

Once you have a  a detailed description of the problems that overcrowding is causing, and some ideas for a remedy, bring the issue to the Citywide Council on High Schools for consideration.  According to Andrea Anna Lella, president of the CCHS, no proposal can be considered if it breaks the law, such as making your school, or schools around you, less diverse. On the other hand, it would be a plus to increase diversity through your plans.

Hearings at the CCHS can lead to a formal request to the DOE to develop a plan. Before the DOE acts, it wants assurance that there is good faith resolve to accept a plan. That’s why, at this point your work intensifies, even though the Department of Education takes the lead.  All parties must stay involved, monitor the process, and help devise a workable solution.

Good luck!


Dear Judy:

I have an 8th-grader preparing for high school. I just received her citywide test scores for ELA and math. I understand the grading/scoring scale has changed -- her scores fell by 100 points. I wonder if this is something other families are noticing and how it will affect the admissions process for next year? Is there a way to obtain the test and the answer sheet, or an opportunity to appeal the scores/test?


Dear  Elizabeth:

In order to check the accuracy of your child's scores on the statewide tests, or gain some insight into the answers she gave, first speak to the school principal. According to Grace Pepe, the Department of Education's  director of assessment operations, every principal has an “item analysis” for each child’s tests. You can ask the principal to discuss the test with you, or if this does not yield the detail you are after, I suggest you go the next step to look directly at your daughter's test along with a qualified person who can explain it to you.

To do this, ask your principal for a parent request form to see a copy of the standardized test and the answer sheet. You’ll need proof that you are the student’s parent so you may either get the principal to attest to that or you can have the form notarized.

In either case, the form goes to the Office of Accountability-Scan Center, 44-36 Vernon Boulevard, Room #206, L.I.C., N.Y. 11101, Attention: Grace Pepe.( ) 718-349-5627 It will take some time but the process should result in an appointment to see the tests.

As for how scores will affect high school admission, remember, there is a lot more than standardized tests that high schools look for including course grades and attendance. They also look at raw test scores, not just the Level 1,2,3, or4 designation. This allows them to judge students based on past experience.  However, you should keep in mind that there will be some effect of the “higher bar” and choose schools carefully to match your child’s eligibility and learning style.

With the citywide high school fair scheduled for this weekend, Oct. 2-3, and the borough fairs to follow on Oct. 16-17, I would use the opportunity to speak to representatives from the schools your daughter would like to apply to. Ask them about their selection criteria and how lower test scores will affect admissions this year.

You can also pose that question directly to DOE enrollment officials who will be leading workshops at the fairs. Another option is to attend one of the many admissions workshops the DOE enrollment office is hosting between October 12 and November 10. There is always time for Q&A at the end of the presentations.  Be sure to attend open houses and tours for schools on your daughter's list -- that's another good place to figure out her options. Check out our post: HS update: Workshops, tours, fairs, & deadlines for more suggestions and information.

Good luck


Tuesday, 21 September 2010 08:20

Ask Judy: I hate my school. I want to transfer

Dear Judy,

I'm a currently a freshman and I hate my high school. I really want to transfer out. I want to talk to my guidance counselor about transferring but I have a few questions:
1. Can I get the transferring papers now or do I have to wait for the rest of the year to get it?
2. Can I only apply to 1 high school, or can I apply to more, or will it be like the 8th grade high school application list?
3. When will I get the result for my transfer?
4. Will the high school I apply to check my grades for 8th grade or 9th grade?

from Sadia U

Dear Sadia,

Sounds like your first impressions of high school were really negative. You are right to address the problem right away since the high school admissions process starts soon.

But first, I would urge you to give the school a chance. Most 9th graders need a few months to adjust to high school.  Look for something that you can relate to --  a club or after school sport, or another activity where you’ll have fun and find kids who share your interests. Maybe you'll find a class that you love, or a teacher who is especially inspiring.

If you are still unhappy after giving it a try, then consider applying to another school for 10th grade.  You'll need to fill out an application as you did last year, listing up to 12 choices. The schools will look at your most recent grades and test scores -- those from the 8th grade rather than the 7th.

Ask your guidance counselor to give you an application when they come out in early October.  Check online for dates of high school fairs and application deadlines. Individual school websites will be listing open house and tour dates soon. The citywide high school fair is at Brooklyn Tech on Oct. 2-3. You will hear the results for sophomore year placement in the spring and then, if necessary you can go through an appeals process.

If you apply to one of the specialized high schools and are accepted, you will hear the results of your application earlier, in February. But make sure you get a ticket for the test, or audition, from your guidance counselor before Oct. 6.

Try to get a better sense of the schools before you list them and do not list any school that you are not certain you wish to attend. Limit your choices to schools that you are convinced will be a better fit than your present school. Note that not all schools have openings for 10th graders.

A second way to transfer involves talking to your guidance counselor about a mid-year transfer. But you have to be very persuasive because transfers are usually allowed only for  health, travel, or safety reasons. If you have a documented reason under those categories, or you are able to convince the guidance counselor that the curriculum does not suit you and that there are other schools where you would flourish, you might have a chance – but only a chance.  The school system does not like transfers.

No matter which path you take, you’ll have to spend at least a few months in your current school. Look for ways to make your time productive and bearable. You could be pleasantly surprised.

Good luck