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A multiracial group of parents in Harlem is working to reinvent their neighborhood school — with none of the rancor that has pitted newcomers and longtime residents against one another in other parts of the city. If you want to see the school for yourself, go to an open house Wednesday, Nov. 25, at 9 am, at 425 W. 123rd Street.

The work by Black, Latino, Asian and White parents at PS 125 shows that integration is possible — and that parents working together can improve a school, even in a district with few good options. Insideschools spoke to three parents about the changes at their school.

“For a long time, it was all Black children here — nothing else,” said Kim Clinton, whose grandson is in the 2nd grade and whose children attended the school. “Then all of a sudden, the whole neighborhood is changing. We have White neighbors, we have Chinese, Japanese. I like it! It’s good to know about other people, other cultures.”

PS 125 has long had a popular pre-kindergarten program, but many parents chose other schools for kindergarten. That’s partly because the upper grades had a traditional approach to education, not the play-based or child-centered approach that many parents said they wanted. “There were so many parents looking for a progressive choice, but one didn’t exist in the district,” said Daiyu Suzuki the father of a 1st- and 3rd-grader.

“I remember parents would get together in the park and talk about ‘Where do we go?’’’ said Tomoi Zeimer, mother of a kindergartner. “Either it’s a super-expensive private school or a really low-rated public school. We thought, ‘Is there a way that we can go into a school and make it better?’”  

Over the past two years, parents lobbied the principal and superintendent to adopt a more progressive approach to teaching. The principal, Reginald Higgins, agreed, and enlisted Julie Zuckerman, the principal of Castle Bridge School in Washington Heights, to serve as a mentor. Higgins worked with Borough of Manhattan Community College to help revise curriculum and coach teachers. The new approaches seem to be working, and this year more pre-k parents opted to stay for kindergarten. Enrollment is inching up, from 193 in 2013–14 to 230 this fall.

The parents have succeeded in getting kids more access to the gym, and have reclaimed a community garden near the school. They are working to raise money to build a new library.  

“We haven’t seen a final product yet,” said Suzuki. “We’re a community in the making.”

“We have so many different people from different backgrounds. It’s nice to hear from the other side and try something different for a change,” said Clinton.

“You know, when we work on something together it becomes a really nice community,” said Zeimer.

Published in News and views
Thursday, 17 September 2015 16:47

Brooklyn Hgts school rezoning plan gets pushback

Parents and community leaders said Wednesday more time is needed to consider the city's proposed rezoning of P.S. 8 and P.S. 307 — a plan that does not adequately address issues of race and class that exist within the communities.

The Department of Education is seeking approval to redraw the two schools' zones, which would affect future District 13 students living in DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill.

At a town hall meeting Wednesday evening, many locals pushed back against the city's plan because they said it neglected the needs of P.S. 307, a school with a high minority population, including children who live in Farragut Houses.

Based on 2014 records, P.S. 307 is 93 percent minority whereas P.S. 8 is predominantly white, according to the DOE's presentation, which also suggested that rezoning would integrate the schools.

Published in News and views

As September looms and school waitlists clear (or don't), many Brooklyn families with rising pre-kindergartners approach a time of reckoning. Maybe you’ve been holding out for a popular neighborhood program but the waitlist hasn’t budged, maybe you just moved to a new area, or maybe something about the program your child was assigned to doesn’t feel quite right.

Have hope, Brooklynites: Established programs have expanded in the borough, while many religious schools, child care centers and free-standing pre-k centers are offering pre-k for the first time and still have open seats. Information on some of these programs is scarce, but we’ve done our best to recommend available pre-k's for your 4-year-old based on insights from our school reviews, Department of Education data and interviews.

Below you’ll find our best bets of available programs organized by district to help you get started, but don’t be shy: It’s always a good idea to call a program and visit yourself. When it comes to your child, you’re the expert. Need more information about districts? Click on our district maps on the homepage.

Published in News and views
Tuesday, 11 August 2015 12:09

Still looking for pre-k? Here are our picks

There are still pre-kindergarten seats available for the fall—not just in public schools but also in religious schools, child care centers and community organizations.

Some of the most popular programs are seriously oversubscribed, and there is a shortage of seats in some neighborhoods (such as the Upper West Side and Bayside, Queens.) Still, it doesn't hurt to put your name on a waitlist at a popular program while you check out others. Families who applied in the second round of pre-k admissions must decide by Aug. 21 whether to accept their offer.

The good news: Some well-established programs have expanded—and still have room. Many religious schools and child care agencies are offering public pre-k for the first time and haven't filled their seats.

Information is scarce on a lot of these programs, but we've done our best to identify a few we can recommend based on the data available. Be sure to visit: It's a bad sign if a program is unwilling to let you see the classrooms. Watch our video on "What to look for in a pre-kindergarten" and read our tips.

Published in News and views
Tuesday, 23 June 2015 10:38

Pre-k, Round 2: Apply by July 10

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 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!

Published in News and views

“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?

Published in News and views
Wednesday, 13 May 2015 21:21

UPK report asks: Where's the diversity?

Mayor Bill de Blasio struck a chord with New Yorkers when he first spoke of universal pre-kindergarten as a means to end the “tale of two cities” that divides our highest and lowest wage earners. Classroom diversity was billed as an integral part of that vision, building on research that middle-class and low-income students in economically integrated classrooms see more academic and social gains. However, a lack of reliable data and the sense that pre-k remains just as economically divided as many elementary schools has led many critics to attack the city for not making good on that promise.

A new report by Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation—a non-partisan social policy research institute—takes an in-depth look at UPK’s progress, focusing specifically on the goal of classroom diversity and what we need to do to get there. 

"The de Blasio administration has pulled off a remarkable feat in expanding free, full-day universal pre-K to roughly 70,000 children by this fall, while also bringing much needed attention to the value of socioeconomic and racial diversity in preschool classrooms,” Potter wrote Insideschools via email. "But there's still much more that the administration can and should do to open opportunities for integrated universal pre-k classrooms, including collecting better demographic data and revising admissions preferences to support diversity."

Published in News and views
Monday, 30 March 2015 21:06

What to look for in a pre-kindergarten

Close to home or far away?

Little kids tire easily, and a long commute to school will be difficult, particularly in the winter. Who will take them home if they get sick during the day? Will weekend or after-school playdates be possible? Still, some parents find good programs near their work, or near a grandmother who can pick them up after school.

Are the children safe?

Is the class clean and orderly or does it have an air of neglect— dusty shelves, torn books and dying plants? Is there a safe, fenced-in playground? Look for a bathroom in the room or no more than three doors away. You don't want to see exposed extension cords and outlets. You can find information on safety and cleanliness by checking out the inspection history of pre-k sites online.

Is the teacher effective?

A good pre-k teacher should be talking to kids and listening to them, repeating back words and full sentences—upping the ante when it comes to language. They should be able to maintain an orderly and predictable routine to help kids feel safe and secure.

Are parents welcome?

You can tell a lot from the moment you step inside a building. Does someone say hello? Do you feel security is thorough? Is there information for parents on display and is there a place to sit and wait? Parents should feel welcome to take part in the life of the school, whether it's attending an event, taking care of the class pet over the holiday or volunteering to read a book to the class.

What is the program leader or principal like?

You want someone who is approachable and easy-to-find, not hidden behind a door. A strong leader brings out the best in each member of the school community. The principal or director should either know something about early childhood or be in communication with an expert in the building.

Are there examples of children's work?

Look for children's work on display, not decorations made by the teacher. Ideally, the work should show individual creativity. You don't want to see lots of fill-in-the-blank worksheets, but kids may be beginning to draw, write letters, or sound out words and label their pictures. Are there science explorations—like drawings of leaves or a graph to show how many seeds are in an apple?

An exciting, orderly classroom

Kids like to explore in a well-organized classroom. Good pre-k's have fun-to-read books and objects organized in baskets on shelves to help them investigate patterns, numbers and shapes. Instead of tracing their names over and over, kids can strengthen their hand muscles for writing by squeezing clay, cutting paper and stretching small hands around big blocks. Look for classrooms with live animals, Legos, water tables, plants and fish tanks to spark curiosity. Tables and rugs give kids choices of where to work. It's great to see a mini kitchen, hospital or wood shop area where children can dress-up and say new words like "construction" and "stethoscope."

A well-balanced day

Often you will see a schedule of the day posted on the wall. Look for a routine with a mix of active and quiet activities. There should be a time to rest in full-day programs but not enforced naptime. Kids should have time to play outside every day and time to explore, often called "choice" or "center" time. All pre-k children eat lunch in the classroom, "family style," where they can chat with friends and practice good manners. 

Opportunities to be independent

Look for how teachers foster independence. Children are able to hang up their own coats, help prepare and serve breakfast or lunch, clean up after themselves, and put on their own coats and shoes. Good pre-k's often label objects so kids can begin to pair objects and words, and provide them with step-by-step pictures for procedures like hand washing. These activities instill good habits.

Published in About pre-kindergarten

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. 

Published in News and views
Tuesday, 20 January 2015 19:01

Don't blame the Common Core

If the Common Core were a person, I think we could be friends. I’d call her CeeCee and take her out for a drink. She needs it. I imagine CeeCee sobbing on my shoulder, saying something like, “I’m just trying to give all our kids a fair shot. Really I am!” Poor CeeCee. She means well and I think she got a lot more right than anyone is willing to admit, but we’re all just having too much fun hating on her.

It’s all the rage to bash Common Core these days. People see the standards, not as a well-meaning mom like I do, but as a thug with a gun in a dark alley shouting, “Make those kids read developmentally inappropriate texts or you’ll be sorry!” A Siena poll cited by Capital New York in mid-January found that 49 percent of New Yorkers statewide think Common Core implementation should be stopped. Not amended, just stopped. I’m left wondering how many of those voters can actually explain what Common Core is.

In New York City, the standards have become a convenient scapegoat for an education system plagued by big problems. Drastic economic inequality, uneven teaching and mass confusion about pretty much any directive handed down by the Department of Education all serve to create a broken education system. Common Core was intended as a long-term, partial solution to schools that vary widely in quality. If all kids are held to the same grade-by-grade expectations, the logic goes, we’ll be five steps closer to making sure all kids who receive a NYC education receive not just a comparable one, but also a great one.

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