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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.

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“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?

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With all of the hoopla that accompanies G&T testing for rising kindergartners every spring, it’s easy to forget that there are opportunities for older elementary school students too. If you have a rising 4th- or 5th-grader who is ready for more of an academic challenge, this Friday, May 22 is the last day to apply for a gifted and talented program for fall 2015.

Unlike applications for the younger grades, the RFP (request for placement) for 4th- and 5th-graders must be made in person at a Family Welcome Center. There is no special test; instead a student’s eligibility is based on three main factors, all weighed equally:

1.         The 2015 NYS English language arts and math exam scores
2.         2015 report card grades
3.         A form, "Descriptors of Exceptional Characteristics,” filled out by the child’s teacher

After you submit an RFP for your child, the Department of Education will collect all the information including test scores, grades and teacher recommendations and will notify families of their child’s eligibility in late summer. Student’s who qualify will receive an application to submit, along with a list of all G&T programs with seats available for 4th- and 5th-graders. 

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The Department of Education is churning out the offers. Last Monday, families began receiving their G&T results, and a week later, kindergarten acceptances are in. This year, 67,907 students applied to kindergarten before the Feb. 13 deadline and more than 72 percent received their first choice, compared to 71 percent last year, according to the DOE. Another 12 percent received one of their top three choices. Families applied to up to 20 schools using an online application.

About 10 percent of applicants— 6,838 families—didn’t receive offers to any of the schools listed on their application. Some received offers to their zoned school, the DOE said, even though they didn't list it. In the three districts where there are no zoned schools, and in overcrowded areas where applicants were edged out of their zoned schools, students were offered slots in another district school.

Families must contact the school directly to make an appointment to pre-register by May 6. Pre-registering does not prevent families from receiving an offer at a school where they are waitlisted, applied for a gifted and talented program or entered a charter school lottery. Families will automatically remain on a waitlist for schools they listed higher on their application than the school to which they were matched.

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It seems the blocks are stacked in Mayor de Blasio's favor. One day into the pre-k enrollment process, nearly 22,000 families had applied, up from 6,500 in the first day last year. By the end of the first week, some 37,000 families had signed up, according to the Daily News. If the mayor gets his wish, the city will serve 70,000 pre-k students in fall 2015. 

Last year, the mayor's fast-paced citywide rollout of more than 53,000 pre-k seats was unprecedented and largely successful, although the timing and logistics were far from headache-free. Some popular schools had far more applicants than seats available, while others remained under-enrolled, and parents had to navigate separate application systems for district schools and early education centers.

Although inconsistencies may persist around the city, this year promises some relief with a (mostly) single application. If you have a child born in 2011, you can apply online, by phone at 718-935-2067 or in person at a family welcome center now through Friday, April 24. You may list up to 12 pre-k programs including district schools and full-day New York City Early Education Centers (NYCEECs). Those interested in charter schools or half-day programs at a NYCEEC, however, should still contact the program directly. 

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It ain’t over yet. The Department of Education extended the deadline for parents to apply for a seat in their district or citywide Community Education Council through the end of today. After years of voting snafus, difficulty attracting members and claims of CEC ineffectiveness, the DOE power players seem ready to start anew—and they want parents to know it. Jesse Mojica, executive director of the Department of Education’s Division of Family and Community Engagement (FACE) answered several questions via email about the CEC application process and emphasized Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s commitment to give the parent-led councils a stronger voice in education policy. Here's what he had to say.

Q: Which districts are particularly in need of more applicants?

A: Our unprecedented outreach efforts have resulted in at least one applicant for every council seat within a shorter time frame than in previous campaigns. We would like to have at least two candidates for every available seat in every council; we are still short of that goal in Districts 16, 17, 18, 23, 26, 28, 32 and Staten Island High Schools.

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Thursday, 12 March 2015 15:16

"Hey, ho! Cuomo's plan has got to go"

Hundreds of children, parents, teachers, and school leaders encircled PS 29 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn before school this morning. Despite the chilly weather, the school community was fired up against Governor Cuomo’s proposed education reform in New York. Many feel it will harm children, teachers and communities—and I am one of them.

Cuomo aims to take teacher evaluation out of the hands of public school leaders and communities and into the hands of computers and outside evaluators. He proposes having teachers’ evaluations consist of: 50 percent student state test–score growth, 35 percent outside evaluators’ observations, and only 15 percent school leader's assessment. Research indicates that the computer calculation that evaluates teachers based on test-score growth has a high error rate (35 percent), because it cannot account for the many other factors in children’s lives. Its accuracy is almost as random as a coin toss. The most reliable evaluators of teachers are experienced educators within schools, who know the context, curriculum and the stakeholders.

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February break is the right time to plan what your children will be doing during the warmer, balmy days of summer. Where to start? Check out our guide to free and low cost programs offered throughout the city. Launched last year, our listings highlight more than 100 free and low-cost programs for children and teens, and include summer and school-year programs in math, science, art, humanities, and academic prep.

To help you get started, here's a sampling of free programs you'll find in our guide:

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Wednesday, 11 February 2015 12:39

Fariña urges parents to run for CECs

Zoning, space-sharing, charters—think you have no say? Since 2004, Community Education Councils (CECs) have offered New York City parents a voice in shaping school policies in their districts and addressing community concerns. Today, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña urged parents across the city to run for an Education Council seat and take a direct role in the education of their children.

“Education Councils make important contributions to their communities and I want to encourage parents across the city to apply for a seat,” the chancellor said in a Department of Education press release. “We need strong CECs in every district and citywide.”

While few dispute CECs' influence on zoning these days, many of the councils' other roles are advisory and have historically been dependent on how much the mayor and schools chancellor were willing to listen. Laurie Windsor, president of CEC District 20, says things are changing. "It was more difficult with the prior administration," she said. "Parents now are more hopeful than in the past about our place at the table with the DOE."

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Wednesday, 11 February 2015 09:53

How I learned to (sort of) love fuzzy math

Like many NYC parents, I was mad at the Common Core math my 1st-grader was bringing home. He is still learning to read Pete the Cat, so damn you, Common Core, why are you giving him word problems?

But after some digging—talking with reading specialists, math specialists, and frankly, doing more math with my son—I realized that word problems help kids think, if they're done right.

“I think all math should be taught in word problems,” Jodi Friedman, assistant principal and math coach at STAR Academy-PS 63, told me when I visited last week. “You have 12 snacks and three kids. How do you share them? Kids can understand that concept even if they're not doing ‘division.’”

At this small school with a large number of low-income families, teachers use drawings, objects, and role play to help kids learn math—even before they can read well.

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