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Wednesday, 22 May 2013 10:57

Parents win victory in PCB removal

The Department of Education's announcement yesterday that it will accelerate the removal of light fixtures that may be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) from more than 730 school buildings by December 2016 is an important victory for New York City school children and their families.

Prompted by a lawsuit brought by parent and advocacy groups, the city agreed to halve the timeline for the PCB removal from flourescent lights.The clean-up was supposed to be done by 2021 but the city will expedite the process to be completed in the next 3.5 years.

The renegotiated timeline is a result of more than two years of litigation brought by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) on behalf of New York Communities for Change. The advocacy groups sued the DOE in 2011 over its intentions to remove the PCB contaminated fixtures over a ten year period. In March, a federal judge ruled against the city's motion to dismiss the suit, admonishing the city for its "foot-dragging" and "spurious" arguments over the clean-up of school buildings. In a stinging decision, the judge said that he was troubled over the city's dismissive attitude to potential health risks faced by children in schools with PCB-contaminated light fixtures. The settlement will require the DOE to provide semi-annual progress reports and the NYLPI and the court will continue to monitor the city's work until the last light fixture is removed. 

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Q: So we all read the article in the New York Times last week about waiting lists and the extreme things some applicants do to get noticed and maybe picked. This seems to create an unnecessary amount of stress, since so few colleges take students who are waitlisted. And by May 1, we’re enrolled somewhere anyway. So what’s the point? Why don’t colleges either accept or reject people and get it over with?

A: Over the years, colleges have found the use of a waiting list to be quite helpful – well, helpful to them. On the other side of the question, just ask a student who has enrolled at her #2 college if she’d like a chance to go to her #1 school – most would be thrilled!

As colleges have become increasingly conscious of how their acceptance and enrollment rates are perceived, and how these affect the all-holy rankings, they have come to use the waiting list in a variety of ways. In general, applicants are wailtlisted for one of three reasons:

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A group of public school parents and community groups filed a complaint today with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights alleging that New York City’s high school admissions policy discriminates against black and Hispanic students by concentrating them in low-performing schools where they are more likely to fail.

Filed by the Educational Law Center in Newark, N.J.,  on behalf of 13 parents, the Alliance for Quality Education and several community organizations, the complaint takes aim at the city’s complex system of school choice which assigns students to 386 high schools across the five boroughs.

Excluded from the complaint are the eight specialized high schools, including Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech, which require an entrance exam. Admission to those schools is governed by state law, not city policy. Also excluded from the complaint are “international” schools, which serve new immigrants, and transfer schools, which serve students who have been unsuccessful at traditional schools.

“Of the 386 high schools at issue in this sweeping federal complaint, 242 schools (or 63%) have a student population that is more than 90% African American and Latino. Thirty-seven of the 386 high schools (or 10%) have a student population that is more than 24% white, thus more than double the percentage of white students in the district,” the Alliance for Quality Education said in a press release.

Some scholars, including Bruce Fuller, Richard Elmore and Gary Orfield in their 1996 book "Who Chooses? Who Loses?," have suggested that an unfettered free market of school choice tends to increase racial and economic segregation because the best educated and wealthiest parents are best equipped to navigate a complex admissions process.

The Parthenon Group, a consulting firm hired by DOE to examine its NYC high school admissions, wrote in a 2008 report that concentrating students with high needs in any one school increases the overall chances of student failure and school closure. “Yet, despite this evidence DOE has continued to concentrate the highest-need students in minority schools, creating a vicious cycle that has doomed more minority schools to closure,” the press release said.

The Bloomberg administration dramatically expanded high school choice, closed low-performing schools and created hundreds of new small schools in the hopes that competition would force bad schools to close and allow good schools to flourish. Rather than attending school based on their address, all students must now apply to high school. Some selective or “screened” schools rank the students they want to admit based on their test scores and grades; others schools are assigned students at random. Some popular schools may have 5,000 applicants for 125 seats and attract high-performing students; unpopular schools struggle to fill their seats and get mostly low-performing students

The complaint calls this a “hands-off” approach to school assignment which results in disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic children being assigned to low-performing schools.  “There are, apparently, no controls to ensure a distribution of students that will not overwhelm certain schools with high concentrations of students with high needs,” the complaint states.

As a proposed remedy, the complaint suggests the city could institute a system of "contolled choice" that limits the number of high needs students in any school.

The DOE responded by saying that choice has “empowered” families and suggesting that critics wanted to “turn back the clock.”

"This administration inherited an unequal system-–where zip code often determined a child’s fate,” deputy chancellor Marc Sternberg said in a press release. “Today, because of our nationally recognized high school admissions process, every student has the freedom to apply to any school throughout the city.” Sternberg said that graduation rates had increased for black and Hispanic students during Bloomberg’s tenure.

A copy of the complaint can be downloaded below.

 

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A catalogue arrived the other day from Urban Outfitters, the ubiquitous clothing chain that dresses so many U.S. teenagers. Along with hipster uniforms of skinny jeans, chunky jewelry and platform sandals, I saw photographs of long-limbed girls wearing shorts so skimpy they might as well have been bathing suit bottoms.

With so little left to the imagination, I couldn't help asking the teenage boys who reside in my household if this was how girls dress at their New York City public high school.

"All the time,'' was their answer, and I should not have been surprised. Since middle school, I've repeatedly noticed girls coming to school wearing not much at all.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has taken note. A lot of New York City public school officials aren't terribly happy about the scantily clad students whose desire to shed layers increases as the weather warms up.

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Dear Judy,

I know that kids are required to go to school a certain amount of hours and days. Can you tell me how many hours of school are required and if they are different at different grades?

Mary

Dear Mary,

Your question opens a complex set of issues – bound up in state law and regulations, allocation of state aid and New York City's own variations, developed with the United Federation of Teachers and codified in their contract.

Students in New York state are required to attend school from age six. (In NYC the age is five, except that parents can choose to opt out of kindergarten and start their six year olds in 1st grade instead.)

When figuring out the length of the school day and hours of instruction, keep in mind that state laws define minimum hours.  Increased number of days and hours are allowed, provided that the union agrees. Charter schools are not bound by these rules, indeed most charters have extended instruction time, and many non-charter public schools do as well.

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Q: Is there any point in going to a college fair? I went to the NACAC fair held last week at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan. My friends and I waited on line for half an hour just to get in! Then there were hundreds of booths, and huge crowds, and colleges I’d never heard of. The colleges I had heard of had lots of people crowded around so you couldn’t really get to talk to the reps. I got a lot of brochures, but don’t feel I gained any in-depth knowledge about the schools.

A: There are many types of college fairs, and the one you went to is not designed to provide ”in-depth knowledge” but rather to give a huge array of colleges and universities exposure in a large urban market. That is why these large NACAC fairs are held in major cities across the country. For most students, this will be their first exposure to the many possibilities out there in the word of higher education. It’s a good place to start, to browse, and get a general idea. So the purpose of this was to 1) provide publicity for the colleges and 2) to get students to write, go to the website or visit for more information.

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If you are between the ages of 14 and 24, you may apply by May 10 for the New York City Summer Youth Employment program.

Participants work up to 25 hours a week for seven weeks, earning $7.25 per hour. Job sites include government agencies, hospitals, summer camps, nonprofits, small businesses, and retailers. See the NYC Department of Youth & Community Development website for more information and an application.

Still looking for a free summer program for your teen? The Long Island University campus in Brooklyn has several programs that still have space, including one for budding accountants, another on college readiness, a third for artistic kids who will learn to draw and paint from professional artists and a fourth for coursework and class trips on writing, speaking, critical thinking, research and creativity. The Fort Greene-Clinton Hill Patch gives a rundown, including contact information for each program. Deadlines have been extended until June.

 

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Tuesday, 30 April 2013 10:02

High School Hustle: Who is failing gym?

When report cards arrive, vigilant parents turn immediately to what could be a confounding and heart-stopping grade in a subject with no bearing on academic averages: Gym.

That's right, gym, also known as physical education or PE. At least a dozen high school seniors I know are either failing it, coming close or getting lackluster marks like 70. And some of these are terrific students, headed to top colleges.

Can schools please stop giving out grades in gym?

I agree that if students repeatedly don't show up to gym class, they shouldn't pass. I also understand the frustration gym teachers must have when kids show up for gym in impossibly tight skinny jeans or skimpy dresses and platform shoes.

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Fourteen-year-old Marc Brandon Gross, is what's called a “2E,” or twice-exceptional, child: he is a talented singer, dancer and actor who can memorize a script in two days that would take most people two weeks to learn, says his mother Maria Gross. But Marc has trouble communicating and socializing because he is on the autism spectrum.

Marc is thriving as a freshman Talent Unlimited High School -- a sign that children with special needs can be successfully integrated into the city's selective high schools. “They bend over backwards to make sure his needs are met,” says Gross.

While Marc should be a poster child for the Department of Education's new push to enroll more special needs children at the city's selective high schools, his mother is angry that the city is bending the rules for admission to schools like his. Marc passed the demanding audition for the musical theater program last year, but some of the students admitted this year did not.

“That's not right. It's not fair, especially not fair to my kid” who played by the rules, Gross says. At Talent Unlimited, more than 45 students (including 13 special needs students) were admitted who either did not audition or didn't meet the school's audition standards. 

Gross contacted Insideschools to tell Marc's story after hearing that the city placed more than 1,300 students in 71 of the city’s selective high schools as part of a double-pronged effort to match more students to their round one high school picks and to ensure that schools meet the city’s new special education quotas.

Marc has speech and language disabilities as well as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The school offers intensive support: he is in team-teaching classes with two teachers, one of whom is certified in special education. He gets extra help in math and English. The school also provides after-school academic tutoring. The guidance counselor arranged a special peer support group to help Marc work on his socializing skills.

Marc's family expected him to attend high school at School for Language and Communication Development (SLCD), the school for special needs children where he went from kindergarten through 8th grade. But a guidance counselor at SLCD suggested he try out for a public performing arts high schools. 

Just like thousands of other aspiring performing artists, Marc practiced for weeks and attended rounds of auditions to try out for four of the city’s audition schools: Talent Unlimited, Frank Sinatra, Professional Performing Arts School and LaGuardia. All four schools require auditions for entrance but do not have academic screens. Yet, this year DOE officials said the city assigned students to both Talent Unlimited and Frank Sinatra based on test scores, rather than artistic ability. 

Competition at the city's performing arts schools is fierce; 1,500 students typically audition for 125 seats at Talent Unlimited.

Gross is proud to say her son went through the “appropriate channels of auditioning,” and was awarded a seat. And now Gross is concerned that the admission of dozens of students who did not meet Talent Unlimited’s audition standards – or did not even try out – will compromise the integrity of the program.

Because of his IEP, Marc still struggles academically, Gross says, but he is excited to get up and go to school everyday. "My kid loves the school because everyone is at his level. They can sing, they can dance, and they can act." 

Watch video of Marc performing at Talent Unlimited, courtesy of his sister Lauren Gross:

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The Department of Education is forcing most of the city’s selective high schools to accept a certain percentage of special needs students, even, in some cases, if they don't meet the eligibility requirements. Both general and special education students were assigned to top performing arts programs even though they didn't audition, infuriating some parents whose children did.

Beacon High School, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Professional Performing Arts are among the selective schools that have been assigned special needs students outside the regular admissions process, school officials said; Frank Sinatra High School and Talented Unlimited were among the selective schools that have been assigned general education students as well. 

In all, the Department of Education has assigned students not chosen by the schools to about 70 different screened programs for the 2013-14 academic year, said Marc Sternberg, senior deputy chancellor for strategy and policy. Sternberg said most of these programs were assigned special needs children; a few schools with unfilled seats were also assigned general education students. In a follow-up story, the New York Post reported: "about 960 general-ed kids and 300 special-ed students were assigned," to 71 schools. 

This policy is part of an effort to give children with disabilities more access to demanding academic and arts programs and to ensure that screened schools get the "right number" of students, said Sternberg. 

“This is about equity and access,” Sternberg said in a telephone interview. “We want to make sure that all students across the spectrum have access to these very fine schools.”  

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