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After two years of contentious public meetings, the Community Education Council, an elected panel of parents, has come up with a courageous and long overdue plan to ease overcrowding and foster racial and economic integration of three elementary schools in District 3 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It is a bold attempt to balance competing interests and to resolve one of the city’s most intractable social problems. City Hall and the City Department of Education (DOE) should back the plan, which the CEC devised only after it found every zoning plan the DOE offered to be unacceptable. City leaders should also take immediate, aggressive steps to address legitimate concerns raised by local residents.

After weighing multiple perspectives from often angry members of the public, the CEC, responsible for approving attendance zone lines, has taken the unusual step of coming up with its own plan.  This plan could end waitlists at the most popular schools and give hundreds of children better school facilities than they currently have.

If successful, the plan will also break up the high concentrations of poverty that have made it so difficult for one school, PS 191, to gain traction. In the past, most of the children from Amsterdam Houses, a public housing development, have been assigned to PS 191; under the CEC plan they would be assigned to three different schools, all a short walk from one another.

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The last time you read about PS 191 in the news it probably wasn't a happy story. Over the past year, the school has been at the center of a neighborhood in turmoil over rezoning and all the community angst that comes with it. But last Friday, as Principal Lauren Keville and a PS 191 pre-kindergartner cut the ribbon to the school's new pop-up library, there were only smiles as staff and families joined with parents from schools throughout District 3 to celebrate something beautiful they had built together.

"Our parents have done a tremendous job," said Keville, praising not only swiftness of donations that poured in for the project, but also the months of manual labor and planning involved. "We have a place to engage with our kids about books and hold literacy workshops for parents. This really fits in with all the changes we're making in our school."

Several years ago the school's previous library was remade into a state-of-the-art media lab, and while families and staffers embraced this exciting new opportunity, the void left by the missing library was always felt. "Every other school in this neighborhood has a library," said PTA President Kajsa Reaves, "Why not us?"

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Applications for pre-kindergarten for all children born in 2012 are due next Wednesday, March 9 (The Department of Education extended the deadline to apply from March 4.) For those still looking, we can recommend some pre-k programs. [Brooklyn picks are in a separate post.] While some of the most popular programs have many more applicants than seats, these had some space last year and may not be oversubscribed this year. It doesn't hurt to apply, because even if you're not matched in this first application round, your name will be put on a waitlist. Spaces frequently open up, even into the fall.

We've done our best to identify programs we can recommend based on the data available and our school visits. Parents should be sure to visit too: 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.

Families can apply to up to 12 programs online at nyc.gov/prek, over the phone at 718-935-2067, or in person at a Family Welcome Center.

THE BRONX

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by Clara Hemphill and Nicole Mader

In multi-ethnic New York City, why are so many elementary schools segregated by race and class? For years, school officials and researchers have assumed that school segregation merely reflects segregated housing patterns—because most children attend their zoned neighborhood schools.

However, new research by The New School's Center for New York City Affairs demonstrates that school segregation is not always the result of housing patterns. In fact, as these interactive maps show, there are dozens of high-poverty elementary schools that serve mostly black and Latino children that are located in far more racially and economically mixed neighborhoods.

In Harlem, for example, the estimated household income of children enrolled at PS 125 is barely half that of all the households in the school zone, based on median household income estimates from the most recent American Community Survey by the U.S. Census. PS 125's pupils are 84 percent black and Latino; the proportion of black and Latino people living in the school's attendance zone is just 37 percent.

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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.

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(This article first appeared on the Urban Matters blog at the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School).

Everyone knows gentrification causes friction. And as recent clashes over proposed changes to attendance zones in Manhattan and Brooklyn demonstrate, the public schools are where gentrification battle lines sometimes get drawn.

But there's another side to the story. Gentrification also occasionally leads to better schools for everyone in the neighborhood, rich and poor. The city should follow the example of these success stories as it crafts solutions for other schools in changing neighborhoods.

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On paper, the rezoning plan makes a lot of sense: PS 8 in Brooklyn Heights (which is 60 percent white) is very overcrowded and nearby PS 307 (which is 90 percent black and Latino) has room to spare. So why not shrink the PS 8 zone—one of the largest in the city—and enlarge the PS 307 zone—now a tiny speck that includes the Farragut housing projects—to make room for future growth in the school-age population?

Unfortunately, the Department of Education has done a lousy job presenting the plan to the District 13 Community Education Council (the elected panel that must approve any zoning changes) and parents in both school zones worry about what the changes mean for their children. If the plan is going to be successful, officials must do a much better job at the next CEC meeting on September 30, explaining what the benefits might be for everyone involved. Just as important, the city must commit the staff and resources necessary to address parents’ legitimate fears.

Some PS 307 parents worry that a community institution that has long nurtured black and Latino families will be “taken over” by outsiders. Will the new PTA be dominated by wealthy whites who organize fancy auctions that current parents can’t afford to attend? Will the administration cater to the newcomers, neglecting the concerns of the neediest children?

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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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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.

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The call to action is different for every parent. For Naila Rosario of District 15 it was overcrowding and a lack of pre-k that led her to run for a Community Education Council seat four years ago. For Deborah Alexander of District 30, it was attending her first CEC meeting as a kindergarten mom and seeing parents fight on behalf of families whose needs were very different from their own.

“I was blown away by that kind of selflessness and commitment to a broader cause,” Alexander said. “When it was over I wanted to do the same. Then when you get in you see how tricky it is.”

Talk to any CEC member and you’ll hear that educational advocacy in New York City is much like parenting itself: fulfilling but frustrating. “It’s a lot of work,” said Alexander. “It’s daily emails and phone calls. That’s one thing parents don’t realize.” Add to that, election process glitches (at press time the DOE had only posted 95 percent of applicant profiles online more than a week after the application deadline), strict voting laws (only three PTA officers from each school can actually vote for district CEC reps) and a lack of real legislative power on many issues, and it’s enough to thwart even the most well-meaning of parents.

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