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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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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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Wednesday, 25 February 2015 12:18

Insideschools event: The lowdown on pre-k

If your child turns 4 this year, he or she is eligible for free pre-kindergarten, either in a public school or at a site run by a community organization. You may apply between March 16-April 24. The de Blasio administration gets an A for effort in its rapid expansion of pre-kindergarten, with more than 30,000 new seats last fall and another 20,000 planned for this coming fall. But what is the quality of these new programs?

Even though the city is rapidly expanding free all-day pre-k programs, demand still outstrips supply in many neighborhoods. The staff of Insideschools and a panel of experts will tell you how to find a good program for your child and to navigate the application process. Josh Wallack, chief strategy officer of the Department of Education and an expert in early childhood, will be joining the panel.

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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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Gifted & Talented seats remain open on the Upper West Side -- and elsewhere in the city -- but parents of qualified children who want the seats say they can't enroll.

Last month, we reported that despite the extreme demand for G&T seats this year and the high number of qualifying students, some programs remained under-enrolled a few days before the DOE's Oct 31 deadline for closing school registers. Now, a month later, vacant G&T spots sit unclaimed at both PS 165 and PS 163 on the Upper West Side, according to City Council Member Gail Brewer's office.

Frustrated parent Karen Alicea-Dunn can't get her son -- who scored in the 96th percentile on the exam -- into PS 163's kindergarten G&T program. 

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Tuesday, 02 July 2013 11:40

K-12 charters: No seats for outsiders

If all goes according to plan, about 70 proud teenagers will get diplomas when Success Academy Charter School–Manhattan High School graduates its first class in spring 2018. The moment will likely bring some sadness, though. After all, most of these students will have been together since they entered kindergarten in fall 2007.

Over the years, some students will no doubt have left the group. But, if Success sticks to its announced policies, no new students would have joined the class since 2010, when the graduates were 9 or 10 years old.

Firmly entrenched at the elementary school level, even though they educate only about 6 percent of New York City's public school students, an increasing number of charter operators are seeking to offer a K-12 education for their students.

How they handle this expansion—whether they admit students from other elementary and middle schools—is almost certain to raise new questions and concerns about the role of charter schools and who they serve. Despite those and other questions, the Bloomberg administration is working to put as many charters into play as possible as the clock ticks down to the end of the mayor's term.

Read the rest of this story on City Limits: New Charter High School Will be Closed to Transfer Students

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Families who were closed out of public school pre-kindergarten programs for their children turning four years old in 2013 may still apply to local community based organizations -- known as CBOs -- where there are still plenty of slots available, according to the Department of Education.

While only 30 percent of families who applied to full or half day programs were matched with a public school program earlier this month, odds may be better at the CBOs. A directory of CBOs offering pre-kindergarten programs is here [PDF]. You may apply to CBOs throughout the spring and summer. Admission is first come, first served.

Families still hoping for a pubic school pre-kindergarten program for their four-year-old should contact the school to ask to put on a waiting list. The deadline for accepted students to register is Wednesday, June 19. On the following day, June 20, schools may begin to contact families on the waitlist to let them know if a spot has opened up.

Here's the link [PDF] to a list of public schools that still had available seats as of June 3.

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Valerie Watnick, who blogs for Insideschools.org on environmental issues affecting schools, released a new book this month: This Sh!t May Kill You: 52 Ways to Make Smarter Decisions and Protect Your Family from Everyday Environmental Toxins.

The book contains 52 action items to help safeguard your family from environmental toxins, including a section dedicated to schools. Professor Watnick is the chair of the Law Department at Baruch College, where she teaches environmental law and business law.

Watnick, a public school parent, is a former co-president of the PTA at PS 199, one of the first city schools that was found to have light fixtures contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) in 2008. She has subsequently written about efforts to rid the schools of the contaminated fixtures, including a lawsuit brought by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest that accused the Department of Education of "dragging its feet" to remove suspect fixtures from more than 730 schools. Last week, a settlement was reached and the DOE announced it would accelerate the removal process, completing it by 2016.

Her new book is available on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble, listed at only $2.99 on both sites.

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