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Helen Zelon

Helen Zelon

Wednesday, 01 July 2009 04:27

Hindsight, and hope

Just over a year ago, I wrote my first blog post for Insideschools. Now, as the school year's drawn to a close, it's time for me to say "thank you" to all who have written in, commented, and asked good questions; all who have challenged our reporting and made it stronger; all who have shared their stories, and their children's stories, with readers across New York City. I'd especially like to thank the stalwart guest contributors who've helped to make the rich and varied parent resource it is -- and whose independent voices and heartfelt contributions made my job that much easier. We all hope the work has been useful to you.

Insideschools will continue to keep readers apprised of news in the city's schools, even as it's my turn, now, to express my sincere thanks for the opportunity to have served the site and its community.  It's been a pleasure, and I'm sorry to see it end.

What I wrote last June remains entirely true today: "Thanks to all for their thoughts, inspirations, frustrations and wee-hours obsessions — for the willingness to take that leap of faith, and connect."

Here's to summer -- and to brighter days ahead.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009 07:09

Special ed oversight overlooked?

In early June, Insideschools and GothamSchools, among other outlets, reported the nomination of Garth Harries as Assistant Superintendent of New Haven, CT, schools. Harries built a tough reputation as a "systems guy," according to Department of Education spokesperson David Cantor, as portfolio chief at the DOE, when he oversaw the closure of dozens of city schools. Earlier this year, he was given the task of reviewing special education services despite a lack of personal experience in special education.

When the New Haven announcement was made, Harries was expected to serve in New York through the end of the month -- that would be today -- and to release recommendations of his special education review before he left Tweed.

It's the end of June. We've asked Tweed for Harries' recommendations, and whether today is his last day at work. So far, no one's saying. Any wonder that the special education community feels marginalized and overlooked?

This morning at 11 am, a coalition of students, civic leaders and advocacy groups plan to release a 'white paper' and report card on the incidence of bullying and bias-based harassment in the city's schools. Student leaders from the Sikh Coalition and other organizations will speak, as will representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York City Bar Association's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Committee, which collaborated on the project, and City Council members Robert Jackson and John Liu.

The report card asks whether the Department of Education has made sufficient progress implementing the anti-bullying Chancellor's Regulation (number A-832), announced by the Mayor and the Chancellor in September 2008. More than 1,100 students and teachers contributed to the report-card assessment. Notably, three of every four New York City middle- and high-school students report bullying in their schools.

This afternoon at 4:30, vocal opponents of mayoral control plan to celebrate its demise, also at Tweed. Event organizers say they'll serve eviction papers at midnight to oust Chancellor Klein and his staffers; DOE spokesman David Cantor denounced the proposed gathering as "tribal" in an email response. Of course, everything depends on whether Albany legislators actually manage to meet -- forced to do so by a judge's order -- and hinges on new Democratic leader John Sampson's desire to spend more time evaluating mayoral control.

The New York State Senate may be scheduled to reconvene at 3 pm today, but if recent experience is any guide, there's no certainty that actual work will get done on behalf of the State's citizens. Most pressing for many New York City residents, of course, is the law that maintains mayoral control of the schools, set to expire at midnight tomorrow, June 30.

Covered extensively in the Times, Post, News and at Gotham Schools, Gotham Gazette, and other local media, the mayoral control fight has taken on the tinge of French farce: How long can the public bickering and back-room wheeling-dealing continue? How many leaders and activists can line up for, and against, the mayor's control of the schools? Can New York City go "Soviet," to quote the Mayor, if the law's not renewed? And -- we hesitate to ask aloud -- what about the kids?

Pro- and anti-control factions rallied and vented yesterday in Harlem. Will all the politics and posturing make a difference? Will Albany legislators wake up today and decide their duties outweigh their power struggles? Will New York's statehouse denizens cease to be a laughing-stock and step up to their responsibilities?

With less than two days to go, the answers are anyone's guess. The conflict is red meat for the local press, local pols, and pundits and activists on all sides. We still want to know, what about the city's kids?

Friday, 26 June 2009 08:33

Two West Side principals departing

Principal Brian Culot of the Anderson School, one of Manhattan's three citywide gifted and talented schools, has announced his resignation as principal, effective this August. In a letter to the Anderson community, Culot explained that he's taken a position closer to his home, to permit him to spend more time with his family. He acknowledges that his departure, at a time of Anderson's transition, relocation, and growth, comes at a challenging moment in the life of the school.

Additionally, Principal Jacqui Getz of PS 87 on the Upper West Side announced her resignation. Rumors are that Getz will assume leadership of a Manhattan charter school this fall; as of this morning, Getz would not respond to specific questions about her next position. An interim acting principal has yet to be announced.

Friday, 26 June 2009 08:31

Poll: Grade your child's year

In last week's poll we learned that people use both electronic and human resources to get insights into their schools and community. About a third of respondents to last week's poll turn to the Department of Education's website;  the same number  rely on friends, neighbors, teachers, and other school personnel. Internet resources like parent listservs and education-media sites serve about 10 percent and 16 percent of responders, respectively.

Today is report-card day at schools citywide -- and it's your turn to grade your child's school experience this year. Better yet, ask your child!

Friday, 26 June 2009 08:27

New school start date in September

Earlier this week, departing UFT head Randi Weingarten negotiated a contract that will allow the  city's teachers to start their school year after Labor Day.  Previously, teachers reported to work for  two prep days before the holiday, for professional development, and to get organized for the coming school year, a concession that was part of the 2005 teachers contract.

On the heels of that gain for teachers,  the Principal's Union protested, asking (understandably) how the city could expect that school leaders, teachers, and students begin school on the same day, ready to teach and learn. Accordingly, the DOE has elected to delay the start of school by a single day -- the 2009-2010 school year will begin on Wednesday, September 9 -- and extend the year until Monday, June 28.

It's hard to know just how many students will remain in school for that final Monday -- ask all the parents who are packing up kids this weekend for the start of the sleep-away camp season -- but adding the last Monday in June permits DOE to maintain their 180-day instructional calendar without trimming other vacation time during the academic year.

As readers who've contributed to our comments can attest, myriad questions persist regarding gifted and talented program placement for rising kindergarten and 1st grade students. This is the second year the Department of Education has administered the process, which had previously been managed by individual districts and schools.

First, for those who have not, at this late date, received word on their child's placement status, Andy Jacob of the DOE provided an email address,, as the best point of contact. Telephone calls and actual visits are less welcome, it seems, than email -- despite the experiences of many parents whose emails have gone missing or remained unanswered. Some parents have had success by calling the individual schools to which they applied, and asking for information on their child's placement status. It's not the way it's supposed to work, and it's labor- and time-intensive, but it's working, in some cases.

Andy Jacob also asked that we clarify that there are NO wait lists for G&T programs or schools. This is the DOE's policy, and differs substantially from past years when the schools and the districts administered their own admissions. "There are no wait lists," he wrote in an email message. "Students get only one placement, and if they reject that placement, they do not get another one."

Some students who did not receive placement offers on the first round -- children who qualified for G&T but who were not seated, either because the programs they listed were filled or because they didn't list all district G&T programs on their application -- "might" (according to Jacob) be offered a seat at a district school whose G&T program hasn't filled, due to low acceptances or unanticipated attrition. Simply put, kids who didn't get an offer this month might get one over the summer.  "There is no guarantee that a student ... will be considered for any particular program," Jacob wrote, "or for any program at all." Students who did receive an offer should accept or decline that offer in the knowledge that no other G&T offer or placement alternative will be made. We don't have specifics (yet) on how many summer offers were made last year, or how many offers were ultimately accepted.

We are troubled by reports of high-scoring kids not being placed in both citywide and district G&T programs, and are trying to get answers as to why many top scorers were possibly excluded. We are also looking for guidance on why the DOE placed some students in schools they didn't rank on their applications, and why more seats were offered than some schools have have space to provide. In one case, 70 placement offers were extended for a school's 50 G&T kindergarten seats. We've also asked the DOE for recommendations for parents who are out of town and cannot register their children this week.

We'll stay on it and post new information whenever we learn more.  We sincerely wish the process were easier and less fraught for all of New York City's children and the parents who love them.

Parents of rising 2nd and 3rd graders, take note: the DOE reports that G&T letters for those grades will be sent to families on Friday, July 3.

Thursday, 25 June 2009 08:54

Year-round prep for standardized tests?

Standardized testing in English Language Arts and Math took place this year in January and March, respectively, but the testing calendar is set to change next year, when both tests will be offered in May, according to information sent to school principals by the Department of Education.

According to the DOE's Principal's Weekly, The State's Board of Regents decided to move both tests far later in the school calendar, to May. (The State's official 2009-10 calendar still shows the dates in January and March, however.) For many concerned that test prep already occupies too much space in the classroom, the delayed testing dates can't be welcome news. For those who endorse the predictive strength of standardized test scores, more time to prepare likely seems like a better way to raise test scores. What's not known is the ripple effect on the Department of Education Progress Reports, which use test-score data to assess student and school progress, and how the new testing calendar will affect the release of test scores to families and schools.

The precise dates are not yet determined, but DOE says they will post to their testing calendar (public access restricted) when they're decided. We're curious about the impact of the new schedule on the DOE's assessment and accountability measures; details to follow when we learn more.

Thursday, 25 June 2009 06:32

School's almost out -- and so is Randi

United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten will be leaving the NYC-based teachers union, as has been widely rumored and reported, to focus on her duties as president of the national union, the American Federation of Teachers, a post she's held since last July.  UFT VP Michael Mulgrew, who began his professional life as a carpenter and is a long-time advocate for career and technical education, will step up and serve as president until elections are held in 2010.

Weingarten's most recent achievements cap her decade of service with the UFT: She succeeded in negotiating a new contract that gives teachers Labor Day weekend off (and which succeeded in angering the Principals Union), and she worked with the Department of Education's  Charter Office and Green Dot Public Schools, the California-based charter school entrepreneurs, to secure well-paying union contracts for the new charter's teachers.

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