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Skip Card

Skip Card visits and reviews schools for Insideschools and writes the Elementary Dad column. Skip is a longtime newspaper reporter and editor, who until 2010 worked as a copy editor for the New York Post. He is also the author of the trail guide Take a Hike: New York City, which will have a second edition published in spring 2012. Skip lives with his wife and daughter on the Upper West Side.
Sunday, 09 September 2012 20:18

Elementary Dad: Supplies you'll really need

Thank you, dear parent, for providing classroom school supplies. But in addition to the paper, felt-tip markers, pencils, tape, baggies, folders, notebooks, Kleenex, toilet tissue, hand sanitizer, bandages, splints, slings, surgical sponges, latex gloves, lice combs, coxsackie detection kits and four bottles of cabernet that we requested for the classroom, we’d like to recommend you stock up on a number of items for your own home.

Among them:

-- A damn good pencil sharpener: Sure, this seems simple, but this crucial item actually will be difficult to find. The solid, trusty pencil sharpeners with those finger-swallowing rotating blades that you recall from your own school days have gone the way of Atari Pong. In their place are battery-operated bits of cheap plastic that put safety ahead of sharpness. They’re no match for the hardwood in a No. 2 Ticonderoga. To find the Real Deal, we suggest you scour antique stores or salvage yards, or perhaps bring a screwdriver and a sack with you next time you visit your old school during homecoming week.

No graduation ceremony was held when my daughter’s class finished 1st grade, so I was not invited to give the commencement address. But if I had been the featured speaker, I would have said something like this:

Thank you, Chancellor Walcott, for that kind introduction. Parents, principals, teachers, classmates, janitors, Mayor Bloomberg, thank you all for coming today. Most of all, to you graduating 1st-graders: Congratulations! Job well done! Most of you probably recognize me, because I’m the father of — yes, that’s right! But let’s not shout. Always raise your hands, because — OK, that was a mistake, because now all of your hands are up. Instead, let’s put on our listening ears, sit down, and let me say something really important.

The completion of 1st grade is truly a historic moment in your academic career. When you look back, you’ll realize that kindergarten, which seemed seriously important only last year, was just a warm-up for the grade you just completed. In kindergarten, teachers had to reinforce basic ideas such as “Share” and “Take turns” and “No ankle biting” and “Don’t laugh when another kid burps loudly in class.” First grade marked the start of REAL education — as I’m sure you realize, because you faced homework every weeknight. You learned to read and write. You learned basic addition. And you learned that, if a kid actually does burp loudly in class, it is OK to think it is funny so long as you don’t actually laugh out loud. These lessons will serve you well in the future.

Nothing dulls the luster of my club's reading room quite like a spot of bad news. So it was no surprise that, upon spying the recent Times article about “The $1 million PTA,” and seeing my youngling’s venerable institution mentioned prominently, I spat out the afternoon’s gin & tonic and summoned my manservant.

“Jeeves!” I bellowed, and in an instant that reliable fellow was at my elbow. “Remind me how one obtains a retraction from New York newspaper czars. Do I post a letter, or is it mandatory to storm the editorial offices, smoke oozing from my nostrils? Have you read this inflammatory bit of yellow journalism?”

“Indeed I have, sir,” Jeeves replied. “The piece was rather informative regarding the large sums some parents raise for their children's schools. I am sorry to learn it distressed you.”

For New York parents, the approach of summer also brings appeals (like this one for OLSAT bootcamp for 3-year-olds) from tutoring services that promise to keep your child’s synapses from petrifying during July and August. Don’t be surprised if your mailbox contains a letter like this:

Dear concerned parent,

Are you doing everything you can to let your son or daughter succeed? In an environment where “competition” is a fact of daily life, have you made sure your child has all the tools necessary to reach the top of the academic tree, even if he or she has to step atop other kids’ knuckles on the way up?

If you answer “No” (and, frankly, we’ve phrased the question so it’s impossible to reply “Yes”), then we at Seize Your Birthright NYC stand ready to smooth over the the rough edges left by your inadequate parenting. Our summer tutoring programs put kids on a fast track to success, keeping young minds active during those sunny months when other children are too busy swimming or running to notice they have frittered away their chances for an Ivy League future.

Seize Your Birthright NYC’s programs are structured to provide the maximum opportunity to charge parents a broad range of fees. No matter what your child’s age, we have a program that you will eventually come to believe you can’t live without:

Sandbox to Heaven is designed for children ages 6 months to 2 years. Here, we work to develop important life skills such as sharing, obeying orders, writing with a pencil, filling in little bubbles on white sheets of paper, and not crapping in your pants.

It’s a Jungle Gym Out There is for 3-year-olds who have just one year to prepare for the crucial battery of early intelligence tests that in all likelihood will determine their futures. Here, we focus on recognizing shapes, colors, similarities and subtle cues in the test-giver's face that indicate a wrong answer. We also make your child comfortable with the idea of being handed over to a total stranger in a tiny room and being asked lots of strange questions.

Mental Midgets is a “teach to the test” program created to give 4-year-olds answers to the ERB, Otis-Lennon, Stanford-Binet, Sleater-Kinney, Hope-Crosby and Frazier-Ali exams. To encourage success, we use a positive-reinforcement system in which correct answers earn rewards such as lollipops, éclairs or large slices of cake. (Parents of obese children are encouraged to consult a pediatrician before registering for this program.)

Next Time It’s 99 is for 5- and 6-year-olds who did not achieve the highest possible score on NYC’s Gifted & Talented test. Here we shift away from positive reinforcement for correct answers to an old-school system of shame, harassment and physical punishment for incorrect answers. (Sounds harsh, but your kid is already in school now, so that clock is TICKING!)

Elementary Academy works to prepare kids in 3rd and 4th grades for the New York State exams they will face in the spring. In addition to rigorous academic training, we work to build the physical stamina and mental endurance necessary to endure two hours of tedious and confusing questions. Innovative teaching methods include forcing kids to watch old videos of Jimmy Carter press conferences.

Tutors at Seize Your Birthright NYC often wear a single strand of pearls and use a wide range of clever words like “diagnostic,” so you know we’re perfect for your child. Call or write today to see if you qualify for a spot on our waitlist (Did you catch that? We already have a WAITLIST! Better get cracking!) or to learn about other ways we can make you feel as if you’re child’s future is slipping toward oblivion.

New York’s Department of Education recently announced 24 city schools were given new names. About the same time, 5th-graders learned which middle school they were selected to attend. Combined, the two events might result in letters from DOE like this:

Dear scholar (formerly known as “student”),

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to the Albert Einstein Academy of Integrated Sciences in the Rosa Parks Campus, formerly known as Middle School 525. The ivy-covered walls of AEAISRPC eagerly await you, and we feel sure that your class will set high standards for the five or six future classes who will attend this school before its name gets changed again.

Please note that the Albert Einstein Academy is merely one of several institutes of learning (formerly known as “schools”) at the Rosa Parks Campus (formerly known as George Wallace High School for Accounting and Carpentry, and before that as Washington High). Also sharing the building will be:

- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Academy of Dramatic Arts (formerly Laurel & Hardy High)

- Fashion School of the Bronx (formerly known as Bronx Fashion School, and briefly known as the J-Lo School for Showing You Got It Girl Fashion Academy before the department invalidated the student-run name-selection contest)

- Middle School 32 (formerly MS 23, but the stone carver was dyslexic)

To avoid confusion and metal detectors, we request that you and other Albert Einstein Academy students enter the building through the Relativity Gate (formerly known as “that door near the gym”) and follow Princeton Hall (formerly “the hall”) to your homeroom (formerly a closet).

We hope you are as excited about attending Albert Einstein Academy as we are about the prospect of providing a high-quality educational experience that integrates the new Common Core Standards within a cohesive metric designed for optimal success (formerly known as “teaching to the test”). We believe students in this pioneering middle school will leave 8th grade fully prepared for success at some of the city’s top high schools, including Global Scholars Academy at Flushing, the College and Careers Exploratory Institute at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Campus, and the Academy of Humanities and Applied Science at Shoreline High School in the Ephraim Zimbalist Jr. Campus at Greenpoint West.

We can’t wait to see you this September. So study hard and keep learning right up until the last day of school on June 22 (formerly June 27).

With the permission of the chancellor, many New York City schools are hastily scheduling no classes on June 25 and 26, two of the final three days of the school year, choosing to convert unused “snow days” into two days of professional development for teachers.

For the schools that choose this option, the last day of school will effectively be Friday, June 22, and not Wednesday, June 27, as originally scheduled. All New York City public schools will be in session on June 27, but educators expect a large majority of parents will not send children to school for that final half-day in the middle of the week.

No school on June 25 and 26 is good news for parents and kids eager for an early start to summer vacation. But it is an unwelcome surprise for working parents whose summer plans don’t begin until June 28, and who must now arrange child care during what they had assumed would be two full school days.

Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott issued a surprise memo giving all schools the option to use June 25 and 26 for professional development. Extra days added in case of severe weather had gone unused during the mild winter.

Many schools hastily opted for professional development after conducting a vote among teachers. Some schools also are asking parents to vote on the matter, although such votes typically are arranged with little notice. "It's really up to the principals to decide," said Department of Education spokeswoman Margie Feinberg, adding she didn't know how many schools had decided to cancel classes.

At one Manhattan elementary school, PS 87 on the Upper West Side, a majority of parents attending the Parents Association’s May meeting reluctantly voted Thursday to endorse no school June 25 and 26. The vote came after several parents complained about what they said was a lack of respect for working parents’ time and plans.

PS 87 parents learned about the matter Wednesday afternoon, hours after the school’s teachers voted to approve taking professional development on those two days. Teachers will use the time to review the state’s new Common Core Standards, which will force curriculum changes at most NYC schools.

PS 87 Principal Monica Berry told parents that report cards would be sent home with kids June 22. “We treat that Friday as the last day anyway,” Berry told parents. Berry noted many summer camps open the following Monday, and school attendance is typically low during the final few days of any school year.

Students who do not attend school on June 27 will be counted absent in official records. That could be a factor in some students’ applications to middle school or high school, as elite schools often consider attendance as a factor in admissions.

New York State’s standardized math and English exams for 3rd, 4th and 5th grades are over, except for the scoring and the remaining four years of Pearson’s $32 million contract to provide tests. Here’s a sample question that should be on a state exam but never will be:

Read the following story. At the end, answer four questions.

It was a sunny Monday morning in the Enchanted Forest, and the animal children happily scurried, hopped and slithered to the clearing where Owl taught 4th grade. As usual, Bunny was first to arrive. “I’m so happy, Mr. Owl,” said Bunny. “Monday has music class, so it’s my favorite day.”

Owl looked at Bunny. “We’re not having music class, remember? Today is the annual Enchanted Forest state math test. Instead of singing songs and playing the recorder, you’re going to sit your little cotton tail at a desk for 90 minutes and answer some questions.”

My family's turn to provide afternoon snacks for my daughter’s 1st-grade class comes up next week, and I'm anxiously awaiting the backlash. When you make dietary choices for 23 New York City kids, only one of whom is yours, some other parent will often take exception.

It's easy to frame the classroom snack debate in broad terms such as cupcakes vs. carrot sticks. The prevalence of sugary cupcakes in elementary classrooms received so much attention that one school district banned them outright. But cupcakes are (forgive me for mixing food terms) a red herring. You don't give a kid a cupcake and kid yourself you're serving health food.

The problem occurs when the little kids are served food that appears healthy but is actually more dessert than snack.

April is National Poetry Month. It's also the month many New York elementary schools hold benefit auctions to raise money. Inspired by both events, I composed a poem (much in the tradition of Robert Service, my late father's most beloved balladeer) designed to stir the soul of any parent who ever left a school auction carrying a heavy load after an evening of enthusiastic bidding. Feel free to carry this with you on Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 26.

I got an invitation from the folks at PS 3*
to attend the yearly auction and extend some charity.
I pictured a dry evening at a nondescript bazaar.
Then I beheld a lovely sight: the auction’s open bar!

Next morning, as I tried to soothe the pounding in my head,
I spied a formal document, and this is what it said:
“Your winning silent bids have helped our school an awful lot.
We thank you for your purchases. Now, this is what you bought:

A three-night stay at Ed’s Chalet located near Lake Placid.
A thorough urinalysis of your nucleic acid.
A week at camp. A neon lamp. A rug that’s Oriental.
A round-trip fare to anywhere that’s served by Continental.

An expert consultation to make closets clean and tidy.
A seven-course bonanza at a Bronx TGIFriday.
A wheel of cheese. Five DVDs. Fine wool from Colorado.
Some collard greens and Boston beans. A Spanish avocado.

A ruby ring. A turkey wing. An ancient Chinese bucket.
Some Danish clogs. A scarf from Prague. Two lobsters from Nantucket.
A travel guide. A lantern slide. A chance to see ‘The View.’
A bowler hat. A cricket bat. An outrigger canoe.

A cotton towel. A great horned owl. Fresh corn from Oklahoma.
A Rolex watch. Some homemade scotch. A test for melanoma.
A two-book set on etiquette called ‘What to Tip the Doormen.’
Four tickets plus a chartered bus to see ‘The Book of Mormon.’

A ball of twine. Australian wine. CDs by Justin Bieber.
A scholarly translation of the German ‘Ach du Lieber.’
Two tickets to a matinee that’s showing ‘Mama Mia.’
An in-home test in case you’re stressed that you have gonorrhea.”

My aching head filled up with dread as I read off my tally:
A ballet class. A highball glass. A postcard from Death Valley.
A novel signed by Gertrude Stein. A coat by London Fog.
A weekend at somebody’s house somewhere out near East Quogue.

“This now concludes your purchases,” I read with great relief.
But then I saw a second line, and stared in disbelief.
It seems I’d raised my paddle when they sought a contribution
for items meant to elevate this fine old institution.

I’d bought some new gymnastics mats. I’d bought some spelling books.
I’d paid for nonstick bakeware to be used by lunchroom cooks.
I’d started an endowment for the school’s new marching band.
When all was done, I guess I must have shelled out twenty grand.

“Oh well,” I said, and rubbed my head. “It all goes for the school.”
Then I beheld the final line, and felt like such a fool.
“Next year, we know we’ll see you at our benefit affair.
And we are cheered you volunteered to be the auction chair!”

* Not really. I just needed a number to rhyme with "charity."

Thursday, 15 March 2012 20:57

Elementary Dad: Cameras to spy on kids?

In an effort to prevent the sexual abuse of children, my daughter’s elementary school now requires parents to wear little white nametags when we visit classrooms. I’m pleased to report that Operation Nametag has been a success: No charges of child abuse have been filed since it went into effect.

Well, no new charges. The school is still reeling from the arrest in February of a paraprofessional who has been charged with attempting to molest an 8-year-old boy. As the criminal case creeps through the legal system, parents at my daughter’s school are sad, fearful, confused and, above all, angry that the school can’t guarantee their children’s safety.

I personally don’t expect such a guarantee. I agree with Helen Keller, who wrote, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” But Helen and I hold the minority view. Other parents are proposing a number of reforms that they insist will make my daughter’s school a safer place.

Sadly, many of the ideas are terrible.

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