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Ed note: After two years of blogging from the pre-K and kindergarten corners of her school in Brooklyn, Claiborne Milde will also be "stepping up" and moving on to different endeavors. Here's her wrap-up of this pre-K year and the challenges that await next year's crop of newcomers to the public school system. Thanks Claiborne!

The end of a school year always feels strange, those last few days lingering after "Stepping Up" but the classroom emptied of artwork and personal effects: a blank slate awaiting next year’s pre-K class. School, just a week behind us, is already a distant memory for my daughters, who hauled home the last of their projects and mementos, rifled through them sentimentally for a day, and then whirled off to camp and play dates.

 

The garden at PS 29 is thriving and the playground is being renovated after vandals burned the jungle gym.

But for many parents, the school year is not so easy to forget; it has been a rough one for the PS 29 community, which saw a theft of PTA money, a schoolyard fire, and just last week, the announcement of further deep budget cuts. Something has to give, and in this case it will be a kindergarten classroom for next year–expanding the numbers in the remaining ones to nearly 30 kids per class.

For the PTA, whose work never ends, it’s a scramble to come up with more ways to generate funds, to pay for assistant teachers in the larger kindergarten classes, to safeguard arts programs, to supply books and paper. After this punishing round of cuts, how much more can the school take? And another burning question: will much-needed restitution come for the roughly $100,000 in pilfered PTA funds?

On the upside, there are signs of healing around the school: the torched jungle gym has just been repaired, and the renovated schoolyard is newly decked in bright colors, a baseball diamond and track painted onto its surface. The school garden continues to grow and green one corner of the yard. My rising kindergartner, Leia, is blissfully innocent of all the trials her school has gone through. She’ll have wonderful memories from the year, such as the songs she learned from her guitar-playing teacher; trying healthy new foods cooked by Chef Lindsay for the Wellness in the Schools program; and the magical night the rain dried up just in time to watch “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” on the big screen, out in the school yard.

I feel grateful to our principal, school staff, and PTA for steering us through the year and making sure the kids don’t suffer in all of this. I feel fortunate my daughter lucked into a spot for pre-K and had the opportunities she did (for those still in line, a second round of applications is coming up).

With next year's belt-tightening across the city, schools–and parents–are going to have to rely on extra reserves of resiliency and creativity to ease the pinch of the cuts. I've seen this problem-solving in action at PS 29, and I'm confident the same determination will get the community–and others like it–through the challenges to come.

New York City public schools’ age cutoff has never made much sense to me. In the rest of the country (and at most NYC private schools) children must turn five by the fall, or even summer, to enter kindergarten. In our city, the December 31st cut-off means some kindergartners are four years old (and some pre-K students are three) for the first few months of the school year.

Connecticut, one of the last states with an end-of-year cutoff, is considering a change, which would make their kindergartners, on average, an older bunch. This was the subject of a much-discussed recent article on kindergarten readiness.

A year end cutoff wouldn’t be such a big deal if the curriculum in kindergarten were the same as in days past. But many of these cutoffs were established in an era when four- and five-year-olds were learning through constructive play, and in most cases in half-day increments–an extension of preschool, really. Kindergarten today is similar to what 1st grade was 30 years ago.

In my daughter’s pre-K class kids are expected to sign their names each morning, identify letters and numbers, and recognize the names of their teachers and 17 other classmates (flashcards were sent home mid-year for reinforcement). Yet some of these children are still in strollers, and during my two years of volunteering, I have dealt with a few children who didn't quite know how to use a toilet on their own.

In kindergarten, with much less play time, much more sitting still and concentrating, and no rest period at all, the less mature children (very frequently the youngest boys) tend to fall apart or act out.

It's generally pretty easy to tell the December kids from those born in January. My April daughter is fine in this structured, pre-academic environment, but my August daughter was not. She was the smallest in the class and unable to sit still for long periods. At the start of kindergarten, she couldn't write her name. Later, when we had found out she had some learning problems in addition to being developmentally “younger,” we asked the school if they would consider holding her back a year to mature. But by their cursory checklist, she was sufficiently at grade level (which we later found to be inaccurate), so they would not consider it; we switched her to a private school.

I’ve heard veteran teachers lament how the early school culture has changed. Two teacher friends have opted to hold their sons back, to give them “the gift of another year.” They did not "redshirt" to give their children some sort of edge over the others, but to ensure they were in developmentally appropriate settings. My parents decided to give me another year of kindergarten–a somewhat novel idea at the dawn of the '80's–and it's one of the best things they ever did for me (I was the runt, with a November birthday)

Certainly, some four-year-olds are ready for kindergarten–and yes, someone will always have to be the youngest or the smallest. But would a case-by-case readiness assessment or at least some individual consideration be too much to ask, given the increased rigor of today’s kindergarten and the tender age of some of the students?

The end of the school year is in sight, and the lingering light is already messing with my kids' bedtimes, even before the joyous anarchy of vacation has set in. These past few bright evenings, I’ve had to field protests of “but it’s not time to go to sleep–it’s still day!” And despite my strongest efforts to maintain order, I feel a healthy bedtime slipping through our fingers.

Jane Brody, in the New York Times last week, reminds us of the all-too-frequent disconnect between how many hours our kids need vs. how many they are actually getting. She suggests using the last few weeks of school and then summer vacation to record a “sleep diary,” to compare how much sleep they get on school days, to how much they will settle into without a schedule. The article also cautions that sleep deprivation poses “three strikes against learning,” because “what is learned during the day is consolidated during sleep.”

As a parent of a child with sleep problems and learning difficulties, such an article is always a special kind of torture, a reproach that my six-year-old Night Owl is being starved for the very nocturnal nourishment that might ease her challenges. Ditto the research suggesting that inadequate sleep may actually worsen attention disorders.

Many children with sensory integration or attention difficulties, and also some children on the Autism spectrum, struggle with quieting their minds and bodies at night and falling asleep on their own–but it took us a while to figure this out. I wish someone had written a book for us when she was a baby, because the battalion of sleep manuals on my nightstand those first couple of years were all but useless. Ditto the well-meaning doctors and therapists we asked. None of the rocking, crying it out, "gradual extinction," or chamomile tea put her any closer to dreamland.

It wasn’t until we entered the realm of occupational therapists and special education teachers (and talked to other parents in the same boat) that we started getting somewhere. It has taken some doing, but we’ve consolidated some of the helpful suggestions we’ve collected into a routine that, with effort and consistency, works for us.

Sleep coach Brooke Nalle, of Sleepy On Hudson, confirms that children with sensory processing issues, or “highly alert” children, often need something extra at bedtime. Drawing from O.T.s' toolboxes, she recommends heavy blankets and massages at bedtime to help organize the nervous system–but more than anything stresses the importance of a nighttime routine that is “100% consistent,” one that has a definite, predictable beginning and end.

As far as summer hours go, this translates as sticking to the schedule as much as possible. She also suggests keeping children out in the daylight during vacation time and, as difficult as it may be, wake them up in the morning at a regular time. These suggestions are especially valuable for children like Night Owl, but can apply to any youngster who is not a dream sleeper.

Usually, my family casts aside thoughts of school during the summer, but this year, reminded of how important sleep is for learning, and knowing the price we pay every fall for our summer freedom, our "work" will be to keep our daughter on track for a smooth September.

The morning of Mothers’ Day, word spread quickly through the neighborhood: a blaze had been set sometime overnight on the playground of PS 29. Outside, a clump of parents and children pressed against the chain link fence, surveying the damage to the jungle gym.

“Why would someone do that?” one small girl asked her mother.

The painted metal was warped and blistered, the rubber matting charred, the slide melted into shreds of blue plastic. The climbing wall and another slide seemed to have vaporized altogether, and an acrid smell still hung in the air. Clusters of people came and went all day, shaking their heads in disbelief.

“I think it’s a good lesson,” I overheard one dad say, “that everything’s not so perfect.”

This “lesson” was especially harsh, though, given the fact that the brand-new playground had been so long-awaited, and the children had just begun to enjoy it to its fullest, after months of a torn-up school yard and the relentless winter weather. The community was still reeling from the recent discovery of a PTA theft and bracing for more budget cuts.

Who did this? What kind of person torches a playground? Speculations abounded, and rumors flew. The children–some scared, some confused, all disappointed–adjusted to using the rest of the schoolyard and avoiding the charred and cordoned-off area. Though we were assured the equipment would eventually be repaired, the non-profit group Out2Play, who had made the playground possible, said it would take at least six weeks for replacement parts to be manufactured.

Then, amid the week’s continued buzz: The Brooklyn Eagle reported that families of the teenagers responsible had stepped forward via a lawyer, to pay for the damage–which, they asserted, was the result of an “accident” (I guess the graffiti and other vandalism that appeared around the school that night were also “accidental”).

If there's a constructive lesson in all of this, maybe this crime will deter our young children from ever engaging in such dangerous mischief, knowing now how it feels to be on the receiving end. As principal Melanie Raneri Woods suggested, this could be an opportunity for the kids to learn a thing or two about "honesty and admitting when you've made a mistake." She hopes that the teens involved will "come forward and apologize" to the students of PS 29.

This incident, unfortunately, may be a hard lesson to the PS 29 community not to be so open and trusting with the playground, which stays open on weekends and evenings (some nearby parents have keys to the schoolyard). It has been a place for neighborhood children to meet, practice riding their bikes, shoot hoops, and sled on snow heaps after storms. But it doesn't always get locked up and occasionally becomes a place for teens to drink and smoke under the cover of dark. The night of the fire, a neighbor had observed the gate unlocked at midnight.

The school is looking into enhanced security measures, including better lighting and a system to ensure the yard gets locked. A couple of other schools in the area have had to start closing their schoolyards altogether on weekends–I hope ours can find a middle ground.

As the last glorious day of Spring Break washed over us in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden–a happy mess of pink petals and muddy feet–an e-mail slid silently into my in-box. At home that evening, I saw it: “your child meets the criteria for entry into a New York City Gifted & Talented program.” I glanced over at said child, who was serenading our dog while decking him in Easter grass, wholly unaware of the meaning behind that little bit of multiple choice she had done a couple of months ago.

Turning back to the laptop, I followed the link to her results, which announced that she had indeed qualified for a district program but missed the cut-off for a citywide seat. No big surprise. In order to qualify for one of NYC’s five citywide programs, such as NEST+m or the Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a child must place in the 97th percentile or above, but even those eligible for a citywide program are not guaranteed one. This year, 1,803 rising kindergartners who met the cutoff will vie for about 300 citywide seats.

My daughter Leia, however, would be guaranteed a seat at one of the three district G&T programs for which she is eligible (for us, that’s District 15), should we decide to apply. Will we? We will do some research between now and the May 10 deadline, but our sense is already "no." Her current school, PS 29, does not have a gifted track but follows a school-wide enrichment model, which provides good exposure to the arts and creative exploration of curriculum topics.

Some parents I've known at PS 29 have tested their children in Pre-K “just to see,” but in the end opted to keep them at the school rather than commuting to a district gifted one; others have made the decision to switch to a citywide program after pre-K. I also know those who have moved their children back into the neighborhood school from district G&T programs.

Many of us question the validity of testing 4-year-olds even as we do it.  The testing process needs a major overhaul, and should be a more thorough and thoughtful examination. What pre-K child can be assessed on the basis of a one-hour test? I've heard from  parents whose children were tracked as "gifted" at an early age, only to reveal themselves as average students later. And what about truly bright children in failing schools who miss their ticket out by one or two points? Google “NYC gifted prep” and you’ll see countless ways to game the system. It's possible that, had we prepped our daughter for the test, a few extra points could have boosted her into a citywide program. But then, would she truly have been in the right setting?

Did your child take the G&T test? Were you surprised by the results, or not? And, do you think the testing process needs an overhaul?

By now, you may have heard about the case of the missing PTA dollars at PS 29 (if you haven’t, you can read about it here and here). For a school that relies on parent fundraising to offset harsh budget cuts, paying for everything from teachers' assistants to school supplies, the roughly $100,000 allegedly pilfered by the former PTA treasurer was no small potatoes.

But the hardest part to take really wasn’t the lost cash–tough as that sum is to swallow. For me, and for many members of the neighborhood I have talked with (I certainly can’t speak for everyone), most devastating has been the breach of trust–as we all want to believe that everyone is invested in the same goal: the growth and well-being of our children, and the success of our school.

It’s easy–and yes, sometimes satisfying–to engage in gossip and snark in a situation like this. I'll admit, my blood was boiling as I walked to the initial meeting called to address the crisis.  But then, as several parents expressed concerns about how we were going to get through this, I realized the most constructive thing was to move forward and figure out how to make the community stronger.  Already, a plan was in place to create an audit committee, to keep a close eye on finances. There were entreaties for more people to get involved with the PTA, please to not poison the atmosphere with cynicism and gossip.

For me, the fact that there are children so closely involved has been the best reminder of all to rise above the anger, to speak carefully, and to not lose sight that the common goal is creating a better place for them to learn.

Monday, 21 March 2011 06:12

Living with a learning disability

The other day, I was on the phone with my daughters’ pediatrician. I had called with concerns about my 6-year-old, Night Owl, who has learning disabilities and motor delays, and in her most reassuring voice the doctor said: “You know, we live in a highly competitive place. A lot of the kids at your daughter’s (special education) school would have been, say, “B” students at a suburban elementary school 20 years ago.”

Though well-intentioned, her comment troubled me, because not only did it downplay the significance of developmental and learning difficulties, but also made me realize that even now, when we have greater knowledge and resources than existed a generation ago, there are still many who just don’t get it. Fortunately, our daughter is getting the support she needs, but there were times when we felt like we were grasping for answers where there were none.

Learning disabilities can be mysterious and complex, as varied as snowflakes – especially in the very young. My daughter, who is an unstoppable reader, has trouble grasping numbers beyond 10, and putting the simplest puzzles together can be intensely frustrating. She may master a task one day and completely forget it the next. Distractibility is a constant theme. But because she’s quiet and compliant, people may not notice all these things without a closer look; she could easily have fallen through the cracks in a large, mainstream class. When we look at her, though, we see a bright, determined girl who remembers everything she learns about nature; has a gentle way with all creatures; and wants to be a veterinarian, actress, and mom one day.

It’s important to know that kids with learning disabilities are not stupid or lazy. They genuinely have difficulty in certain areas of processing and often need a different teaching approach from the rest of the class. At the same time, they may be extremely gifted in other areas. Many highly successful people struggled with learning disabilities growing up, including actor Danny Glover, chef Jamie Oliver, businessmen Richard Branson and Charles Schwab, and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Close.

Sadly, many learning disabled children will never rise above their problems in school, because they are misunderstood–or lack access to vital support services. The steps involved in getting a diagnosis may be daunting for parents, but every child has a right to an evaluation through the public school system. Help is available at younger ages, and studies show that earlier intervention can dramatically improve the outlook for a child who is falling behind.  But funding for early intervention programs is in jeopardy of being cut statewide. Check out the Insideschools special education forum for suggested steps parents can take to protest these cuts.

On April 6, Advocates for Children is holding a free workshop about the different types of learning disabilities and evaluations. Other helpful resources include The Arise Coalition, The National Center for Learning Disabilities, The International Dyslexia Association, and Resources for Children with Special Needs. And the parent group, Citywide Council on Special Education holds monthly meetings around the city.

With so many people -- including pediatricians -- ill-informed about the needs of learning disabled children, we parents have to be  especially vigilant about finding and sharing information about available resources.

Please share your comments and suggestions below!

Monday, 07 March 2011 05:53

Pre-K Corner: Scrambling for spots

Now is the time of year when  parents of 3 and 4-year-olds fill out applications, take deep breaths, and then…wait. The pre-K application period begins today, Monday March 7, but placement letters won’t go out until early June. So how’s a parent to plan ahead?

For some 4-year-olds, winning a spot in a public pre-K program will mean the difference between school or no school next year – end of story. Parents who can afford to (and some who can't) may plunk down hefty deposits at private preschools, in case their public option eludes them. With our first daughter, we had to pay two successive deposits by the time we got the Department of Education letter–and ended up forfeiting the money when she got into PS 29. It was a bitter pill to swallow but worth it in the long run: the alternative was an expensive half-day program that lacked many of the opportunities she had at PS 29.

We were lucky–that year (2008), newcomers actually had a shot. Last year, word spread quickly that younger siblings would entirely fill the pre-K spots – in other words, forget it if you didn’t actually have an older child already enrolled. Things weren't much better at nearby PS 58 or PS 261; families made other arrangements. My friend Millie, who lives right across the street from PS 29, knew her son had a near-zero chance there, so they set their sights on a school they knew might offer space: PS 38, in neighboring Boerum Hill. The school has historically been under-enrolled, but as the neighborhood grows ever more popular, it has popped onto more parents’ radar. Millie reports that her son’s pre-K class “has many kids from PS 29, PS 58, and PS 261 zones.” Her family’s experience has been a happy one, aside from the daily trek across three school zones to get there. The classroom has three teachers for 20 kids, good facilities, and a supportive community.

This scenario isn't playing out just in our little corner of Brooklyn. Even before they enter public school, parents have to become super-sleuths, to figure out which schools may have spots for their preschoolers. The directory of the city's public pre-K programs is now online and available in enrollment offices and at most elementary schools.

When I was in elementary school, I kicked off each day in the classroom by facing the flag, right hand over heart, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. So did my husband, who was (and still is) a British citizen, recently transplanted to New York. Neither of us thought any more about this daily chant than we did, say, brushing our teeth– that was just how the day began.

My daughter’s school, PS 29, has apparently not been observing this little bit of American tradition, though most parents (including us) hadn’t batted an eyelash at the absence. That is, until this month’s PTA meeting when our principal announced that due to a complaint from a parent, the school will soon be reviving the pledge. So far, no official word on what form the recitation will take:  Will it happen daily or weekly? Will classroom teachers take charge, or will there be a school-wide address over the P.A. system?

The Pledge of Allegiance falls under the U.S. Flag Code, in place since 1923: a guide for how our stars and stripes should be honored. It’s not a law, and individual states determine how the Pledge of Allegiance should be instituted–and enforced–in schools. In New York State, saying the pledge in schools is common practice, but according to a Department of Education spokesperson, “schools may opt out.” A child may not be punished for deciding to be a conscientious objector.

Across the country, plenty of controversy has cropped up over the practice of saying the pledge in schools – particularly that bit about "one nation, under God," which some have contended violates the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state. Lawsuits opposing this line of the pledge have been overturned.

I’m all for the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance, or singing the national anthem, for that matter; I look forward to seeing how the school works this tradition into the day. But if my child–or someone else’s–decided to quietly opt out, I would be fine with that, too. After all, that's the kind of free-thinking this country was built on.

Does your child's school recite the Pledge of Allegiance? Do you think schools should, or should not, say the pledge?

On the eve of my four-year-old daughter’s date with the gifted & talented examiner, we sat down together with the Department of Education's sample test, a stack of papers I’d printed out the week before. The goal was not to drill Leia, but to familiarize her with the testing format, so she would be comfortable on the day of the exam.

“What’s that?” she asked, inching closer, “do I get homework today?”

“Sure, this is your homework.” I said, and explained that tomorrow, someone at school would quiz her with questions like these–"kind of like puzzles." Calling this exercise homework was all I needed to pique her interest, since she begs me for evening assignments–something her sister, a first-grader, receives plenty of.

She caught on to the format quickly. As we waded our way through sets of murky diagrams, she attacked each one eagerly, sometimes before even hearing the instructions. We reached the end, and she slumped in disappointment.

“I want some more! Can you print out another one? Please?”

Something became crystal clear to me, and it wasn’t that I believed she would ace the test. I saw how purely my four-year-old loves learning, and I felt a strong urge to preserve this–whether by keeping her at a well-balanced school like the one she attends now, or moving her to a more challenging track, or simply seeking out more fun educational experiences outside of school. I really don't know what she will need down the road, since a four-year-old has plenty of time to evolve–but just as we did for her sister, we will watch her and decide what school environment is the right fit.

The registration numbers for this year's exams are not yet available, according to the DOE. Last year, despite the fact that fewer children took the exam than in 2009 (12,454–down by 2,400), more rising kindergartners actually qualified for spots (3542, 300 more than the previous year). Competition is stiff, particularly for coveted citywide schools such as The Brooklyn School of Inquiry -- and with more children scoring in the 99th percentile than ever, odds are slim that my daughter would even have a shot. I haven't the slightest clue how she fared on the test, only that she seemed to enjoy it.

“I had my homework today,” Leia said, after I picked her up from school on testing day. "You did?" I asked. "How’d it go?”

She shrugged. “It was just like the one we did at home. With the little rainbow and pen pictures near the choices...I know there are some I didn't get right.”

"That's OK," I said, and it was. We went for hot cocoa.

Has your child taken the G & T exam yet this year? Any feedback on how it went? Results won't be in until May.

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