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Lindsey Whitton Christ

Lindsey Whitton Christ

The Daily News editorial board wrote an editorial about Insideschools' funding plight today:

 "The single most valuable independent source of information on New York City public schools is about to go out of business forever. Are we nuts? With advocates raising a hue and cry over giving parents a greater voice in the schools, it is simply unbelievable that no one is rallying to save a Web site called Parents, teachers, advocates and officials should support the group in connecting with donors who'll keep this service going as a trusted and independent help for the school community." 

Are you able to help us out? Please visit our donation page. And if you, or anyone you know, is able to help Insideschools in a "big way," please contact us. We hope to be able to keep helping parents navigate the school system by providing independent school news and reviews. Thank you for your support during this difficult time for Insideschools. 

Monday, 01 June 2009 07:34

Middle school letters out

Families applying to middle school should have letters by now. Since the middle school admissions process varies widely by district, we are curious how smoothly it has gone across the city. A few of the preliminary reports we have heard have included bureaucratic mess-ups (inaccurate admissions letters, contradictory information from the Department of Education offices and individual schools, special education delays). While the DOE is no stranger to admissions-process-bungles, we are hoping these are isolated cases.

Have you gotten your letter yet?

Friday, 29 May 2009 09:06

Poll: budget cuts and grade the mayor

Last week, we asked you what you would cut from your school's budget if you had to make the difficult decision to let something, or someone, go. The most respondents, 39 percent, said that they would cut non-teaching staff, such as office workers and school aides. Twenty-two percent said that they would cut afterschool tutoring, remediation, and test prep. Letting go of arts and other specialty teachers was the least popular option, with only seven percent of respondents choosing it. Click here to see the full results.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, every school is graded annually, but this week, we want you to grade the mayor. Since the mayoral control law sunsets on June 30, school governance is being vigorously debated. Many argue that Bloomberg has staked his legacy on education - how do you think he has performed?

Last week, we asked if you had a plan for saving for college. The most respondents (35 percent) said that they would have to rely on scholarships or more moderately priced schools. Another 18 percent said “We’ve saved, but the tumultuous markets have taken a big bite out of our funds.” Almost 30 percent of respondents would like some help with their planning – 14 percent of them feel that they have no extra money to save and 13 percent said that they have tried to put a little aside but need guidance. A small fraction of respondents – 5 percent – will have family help with tuition bills, and 18 percent have been saving and feel that they are on the right track.

This week, we are wondering what you would cut from your child’s school if you were in charge of slimming down the 2009/2010 budget. Some schools will have to cut up to 5 percent of their budget, and principals will have to make some very difficult decisions. As always, we welcome your comments.

Sean Keaton, the controversial principal of PS 20 in the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn, was arrested Thursday after allegedly knocking a kindergarten teacher off a chair, kicking him in the head, and stomping on him. The teacher, Robert Segerra, is the teachers' union representative at PS 20, and, at the time of the assault, had been in Keaton's office, discussing the case of a special education teacher who had been accused of using corporal punishment against a student.

"Every time I said I'm not hitting you, I got another hit in the head or another punch in the neck or another scrap or another drag me across the floor," Segerra told WABC. (For Segerra's full account of the incident, click here.)

Keaton was charged with misdemeanor assault and reassigned to administrative duties while the investigation is pending, according to the Department of Education.

Keaton has taught at the school since the 1990s and served as principal since 2005, but parents have been sharply divided over his leadership. While test scores have risen, enrollment has declined, and now only 27 percent of eligible kindergarten students in the zone are attending PS 20.

One of the three new citywide gifted and talented programs is scheduled to open as part of PS 20 next fall, which will be under the purview of the PS 20 principal. Parents whose students scored at the 97th percentile or higher on the gifted and talented exam were able to rank the PS 20 program on their forms, which were due on Tuesday. We are following up with the DOE to see if there will be an opportunity for parents to reconsider their choices after new leadership is announced.

The debate over Keaton's administration turned particularly vehement on the New York Times Local Fort Greene/Clinton Hill blog this spring. Yesterday, the Local described the debate's racial and class undertones: "The community conversation about him [Keaton] often seemed to break down along class lines, with new-to-the-neighborhood, more affluent parents finding him difficult to work with and working-class parents defending him. There was often a racial component to the debate as well (Mr. Keaton is black)."

The comments on the Insideschools profile of PS 20 reflect parents' polarized opinions on Kean. Below are excerpts from several of the comments; go to our PS 20 review to read the full text.

"...the principal is a disaster. He is authoritarian, defensive, and almost incapable of taking input seriously. He has been hostile and even abusive to some parents (including the president of the PTA!), sent angry emails to parents who dared challenge his authority, and responded defensively to any suggestions that things might change. He has pitted parents against each other (he was heard complaining about the "nouveau riche" parents who have moved into the neighborhood and are "trying to take over the school") and done nothing to defuse any tension among parents." (May 19, 2008)

"...Although PS.20 has promise which is reflected in the enthusiastic teaching staff and great art and music programs, the principal is overzealous and runs the school with a totalitarian zeal," writes a parent. "He is verbally abusive to the staff and has little respect for the children that attend the school. I have witnessed him verbally abusing children and aggressively pulling them into his office..."(June 6, 2008)

"...I saw comments on here about Mr Keaton, I have never had a negative experience with him. Although we haven't always agreed, but he was always there to listen to my concerns. He is a strong principal very big on discipline & accountability which as a board of Education employee I can tell u is missing from many schoools. Keaton also made me feel as if he cared about not only my child but my family..." (Sept. 20, 2008)

Recently, we sat down with James Merriman, the chief executive of the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, to talk about the politics and policies of charter schools in New York City.

What is a simple definition of a charter school?

A charter school is a public school and, like all public schools, is tuition-free, non-sectarian, admits all comers, and is publicly funded. It differs from other public schools in how it is governed. A charter school is governed by an independent board of trustees, whereas traditional public schools are governed by an elected board, or in the case of New York City, the mayor. Charter schools are characterized by being free from a lot of burdensome regulations, and they have the autonomy to be able to figure out what works best for their particular student population.

Why do you believe that charter schools are good for public education?Chartering is a governance reform and not a pedagogical reform, so there is nothing about charters that say they are going to be good. But because of their autonomy, they allow great educators to single-mindedly organize themselves around improving student achievement and providing students a first rate education. These educators are able to create a school community that is, to the maximum extent possible, able to serve the students who are enrolled in the school.

And in New York City, we have been incredibly fortunate that the opportunity has drawn, overall, an incredible dedicated group of founders, leaders, and teachers, who accept that their only measure of success is how well their students are doing. For the larger system, these charter schools provide examples of what is possible, and the fact that those examples are outside of the traditional system means necessarily that people are forced to pay attention to them.

You keep mentioning autonomy – which is a buzzword in the Department of Education in general these days. Usually when you hear the word “autonomy," it is quickly followed by a reference to accountability. Who makes sure that charter school leaders – especially down the road when the founders move on and new leadership takes the helm – are accountable?Accountability isn’t tied to a specific individual – it is tied to a school. As the founders move on, the accountability measures that the authorizers have set up remain in place.

Are authorizing organizations doing a good enough job keeping schools accountable?New York State overall has had a good record in authorizing, but I would add the State University of New York has taken the lead in setting high standards for the measures that schools must meet, and taking action when schools haven’t met those measures, including closing eight of them across the state. [Merriman is the former Executive Director of the Charter Schools Institute at SUNY.]

So you think authorizers should shut charter schools that aren’t doing well? It is not a pleasant part of an authorizer’s job, but I believe it is part of the authorizer’s job - and is part of the district’s job - that when things are not going well, something has to change. In the charter school world, that means closing schools down.

Do you think that charter schools will remain a political hot rod?

Charters are very political because they are outside of the system and when they are successful, as they are in New York City, they serve as a spur, but also as a rebuke to the schools in the district that aren’t serving students. While this is a distraction from what the real issue is, which is making schools better, the fact that they are political has a positive side, too. It has brought an unprecedented focus on both the failures of public education, as well as ways to make it better.

One of the most frustrating things is that people just don’t understand how much energy charter schools have brought to public education, as well as the hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide in private philanthropy. No one is going to say that they are the silver bullet, but would you really rather a system where every principal says, ‘I don’t have the autonomy to do what I need to?'

What is the biggest challenge facing charter schools?

The biggest challenge is ensuring a pipeline of great school leaders and the highest quality teachers. I don’t think anyone has one comprehensive solution. What has to happen is that teaching attracts ever more qualified people, and that process is likely to be evolutionary and not revolutionary. In the charter sector specifically, we are seeing some hopeful signs that leaders are being developed from within the sector.

The second biggest challenge is facilities. Charter schools aren’t provided with public funding for facilities. If you asked me what has been the impetus for growth in charters and why have they attracted quality educators to New York City, my answer would be the mayor and chancellor’s decisions to offer public space to public charter schools.

There are several charter “chains” in New York and across the nation that sometimes seem to dominate the charter landscape (KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and newcomers like Harlem Success). Is this the future of the charter movement?

The great thing about charter schools is there is diversity, and there is room for a lot of models. I think we will continue to see charter schools that, over time, replicate and create networks to take advantage of the economies of scale, as well as formal structures to share best practices, but there is also room for great individual schools. After all, almost every network of charter schools started from an individual school.

Many charter schools are staffed by relatively young teachers and administrators, and some of these educators plan on pursuing other careers after teaching for a few years. How does this effect the charter movement?

The only answer to that question that matters is whether those schools are getting results for the children, and if they are able to sustain that success over time. I suspect that we are looking at some degree of transformation of the profession, which mirrors the larger trends in employment mobility in the economy as a whole.

Are you saying that a high turn over rate doesn’t matter? Yes. If I were to visit a school where teachers were turning over year after year after year, and test scores were low, and it was a bad place for children, I would look at turnover rate as casualty, but is a high turnover rate by itself bad? No.

Many people believe that charter schools “cream” better students away from public schools and aren’t representative of the general population, since parents have to sign up for the lottery. Do you believe the population at charters is different than the general population?

This claim is always made and is not substantiated by any data. No one has ever shown that, in fact, charter schools as a whole have a different student population, nor do I find it persuasive that the act of filling out an application means that those parents who do care about their child’s education more than those who choose not to. You see it both ways. You see parents, who are extremely motivated and involved, sign up for lotteries, but you also see parents whose children are struggling in their present school and are desperate to find something that works. And as every parent knows, a motivated parent does not make a child easier to educate.

Can charter schools serve all students?

Yes. I think the charter model is potentially applicable to students that, up til now, most charters have not served, including the most severely disabled. And we are starting to see models for that, including the autism charter school and the John W. Lavelle School opening on Staten Island.

How good of a job do charter schools do reaching out to families that don’t speak English? Do they translate everything that goes home like regular public schools?

I don’t think they have to translate everything. They are getting better at reaching out, but not having a large back office at Tweed clearly puts them at a disadvantage.

Recently, there have been questions raised on whether charter schools have actually begun serving a less needy population – fewer students classified as English language learners, qualifying for free lunch and needing special education services. Why do you think this is? I don’t think that it is true. The free and reduced price lunch numbers are nearly equal – they are indistinguishable.

There are definitely fewer students learning English in charter schools. Why do you think?That is clearly happening. Parents choose whether to fill out an application slip to a charter. It is unclear to me why the number of ELL students is lower in charters. We know we need to do a better job of outreach to those communities.

Nobody – not the district or the Center for Charter Schools – thinks that we are doing a good enough job serving ELLs. At the same time, I hope that nobody thinks that the district has done a stellar job of educating ELLs. We have all fallen down.

Obviously – and I don’t think explains the entire amount – charter schools have three main entry points, kindergarten, 5th grade, and 9th grade, although there aren’t a lot of charter high schools, yet. Students learning English are immigrants and come in at different times, which can explain some of the disparity.

Is this something that should be considered if the charter school law is revised? Umm. It could be.

So, is one of the reasons that charters are able to be successful that they don’t have to take new students midyear and at every grade? It is probably something that charters do have the opportunity to do – and some of them do them let student students in mid-year and others don’t.

Are charter schools supposed to serve disadvantaged or at-risk populations? The law directs authorizers of charter schools to provide a preference for those schools that are targeted for serving students that are at risk of academic failure, and in fact, provide a mechanism so that their enrollment can provide a preference for students who are at risk of academic failure. A number of charter schools have taken advantage of that proposition.How many? Oh, I don’t know off the top of my head. Brighter Choice, which is in Albany. Harlem Success gives preference to students who are either enrolled in a zoned elementary school that is failing, or who live in the catchment of a failing elementary school. Another example is Mott Haven Charter School.

Should more schools make provisions in their lottery policies to increase the number of students from underserved populations in the school?Charters are already serving underserved populations, by virtue of the community school districts within which they are located and with their popularity among parents who are impoverished, they already have a high number of students who are in risk of academic failure. But we always welcome specifically targeting students who are at risk.

The Center, for instance, is exploring ways that we can work with District 79 [the district that provides alternative programs for high school students] to open charter schools that serve the specific populations that District 79 serves.

Our research shows that less than 1 percent of the charter school population is homeless, or transitionally housed, whereas this group makes up about 5 percent of the general population. Do you think the charter school admissions cycle – with lotteries in April – makes it more challenging for those in transitional housing to participate? With students who have very high mobility rates, it is likely that the way that the law specifies that charter schools hold lotteries may make it more difficult for students in transitional situations.

Should the law change then? It is certainly something to look at. My sense is – and I don’t know a lot about this – but it is going to be hard for one charter school to serve that population, as opposed to the district, which can move students from school to school. You can’t create that same mobility within an individual charter school. Charter schools have a specific placement and location, by their nature.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009 09:14

Pre-K location search underway

speaker-speaks.jpgCity Council Speaker Christine Quinn has joined the search for new pre-K locations in Greenwich Village, after news leaked last week that the pre-K classes would be bumped from overcrowded PS 3 and PS 41. An emergency task force has been assembled and, according to an email from Quinn sent this morning, they have been busy scouting locations for the Department of Education. Last Wednesday, Quinn showed up briefly at the protest on the steps of City Hall and spoke with a little boy and several parents. Two days later she met with Chancellor Klein and formed the task force.

The full text of the Speaker's email, and a second email from task force member Rebecca Daniels, after the jump:

Friday, 08 May 2009 10:39

Poll: swine flu out, pre-K in

Last week, we asked what you thought the Department of Education should do if the swine flu continued to spread. Most voters agreed that the system should keep running, with 36 percent of voters advising that only children and teachers with symptoms should stay out of school and 30 percent of voters suggesting that individual schools with confirmed cases should be closed. Twenty-two percent of voters, however, thought that the whole school system should be shuttered until the threat passed. See the full poll results here.

This week we are wondering about pre-K. After the news leaked that the Department of Education might close pre-K programs at some overcrowded elementary schools, parents began debating whether pre-K in elementary schools is a right, privilege, or drain on elementary school resources. What do you think? Add your comments here.

Thursday, 07 May 2009 04:41

Rally for more seats at City Hall

Solidarity was the buzzword at City Hall Wednesday afternoon, when parents, children, teachers, and elected officials pressed a range of complaints against the Department of Education’s kindergarten admissions policy. They chanted “buildcity-hall.jpg more schools” and “hey, hey DOE, G&T is not new seats.”

After learning that their children were assigned to waitlists at PS 3 and PS 41, parents got together at a Community Education Council meeting and formed a group called Kids Shut Out to share contact information, develop strategies, and connect with like-minded parent groups across the city.

Parents like Katie Fleischer, who has two sons on the PS 3/41 waitlist, showed up in force. “You start panicking,” she said. “I have twins. That is $60,000 a year for private school. I literally was in shock when I got that letter. They didn’t even send me a letter for my second son, just my first.”

The DOE’s decision on Tuesday to move the pre-K programs from PS 3 and PS 41 to make room for the kindergarten students was criticized by several of the politicians and parent leaders an attempt to undermine the rally.

“They tried to pull a preemptive strike,” said Andy Lachman of the Parent Leaders of the Upper East Side Schools.

“The DOE tried to engineer a cover-up job,” said Henry Sidel of Kids Shut Out. “They tried to neutralize us and make this protest look foolish.”

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, one of the rally's sponsors, put it more bluntly. “We have pre-K parents pitted against kindergarten parents,” he said “We have 5-year-olds pitted against 6-year-olds.”girl-with-sign.jpg

Denise Melroy had been hoping to send her daughter to pre-K in the neighborhood, until she got an email on Tuesday from her nursery school saying that the DOE was planning on cutting the programs. “Here we are in the greatest city in the country, and the mayor isn’t providing seats for the children in the schools,” she said. “They knew this situation was coming. This has been building for years, and they have chosen to bury their heads in the sand.”

Laleynpre-k-mom.jpga Gomez had also been counting on sending her younger daughter to PS 3 for pre-K -- until Tuesday, when the parent coordinator called and told her the program was being cut. She has an older daughter in third grade at PS 3.

“I was in shock,” Gomez said. “It’s too late for another school, but even if she does go to another school, they get out at the same time. What am I going to do? I can’t be at two places at once.”

A teacher from PS 150, Linda Jones, was also at the rally. She said, “We are a really small school. We have 28 kindergarteners and 18 pre-K students. Kids who are already in the pre-K at our school didn’t get into the kindergarten this year. For them, it was devastating to be put on a waitlist. The system doesn’t make sense. It absolutely isn’t sensitive to people.”

Three of the founders of Kids Shut Out said they weren’t satisfied with the news that their children might soon get off the waitlists if the pre-K programs were cut.

“That isn’t even enough any more,” said David Rosenberg. “It isn’t enough to give us a seat at some overcrowded public school because some other person’s kid got the shaft.”

Henry Sidel agreed. “I sent an email to our preschool this week saying that if you are sending your kid to public school, you better be ready to be an activist.”kids-rally.jpg

Meanwhile, as the overall crowd began to dwindle, a group of budding activists had assembled on the steps of City Hall. Holding up signs, dancing around, and shouting as loudly as their 4-year-old voices could, they chanted, “build more schools, build more schools, build more schools!”

Suddenly, one small boy grinned and began shouting “No more schools!” His fellow Lilliputian protesters giggled and covered his mouth with their hands.

“That’s not right!” a little girl told him. “It is build more schools! We want to go to school!”

The Department of Education announced on their website that score notifications for applicants to elementary school gifted and talented programs would not be released today, as scheduled, but on Monday instead. Last year, the process was delayed repeatedly and students' placements were eventually delivered by a courier service. Parents who were closely watching the Department of Education website last night noticed that around 5 p.m. the timeline changed from May 1 notification to notification "shortly".

This morning, the following message appeared: "Gifted & Talented Final Update – May 1, 2009 - Score Reports and Applications (for eligible students) will be mailed to families by Monday, May 4, 2009. Thank you for your patience and understanding."

Amy Rabinowitz, whose daughter is on the waitlist for PS 290, said that the DOE has exhausted all of her patience and understanding. "I have been trying very hard to lay low and say that it will all work out," she said "but at this point I am convinced that it isn't going to work out. I am infuriated."

Rabinowitz had never been convinced that a gifted and talented placement was the best option for her child. She really liked PS 290 and had thought initially that if her daughter was offered a G&T placement then she would have a difficult decision to make. "Now, essentially, the G&T is backup for the local school," she said, "which is a mess."

She is hoping that even if her daughter doesn't score high enough for a gifted and talented program, the G&T placements will result in movement on the PS 290 waitlist. She is furious at the delay in releasing the scores. "To change the date at the end of the day that the schools are supposed to be posted?" she said. "It is like taking the knife and pushing if further in. I question how the Department of Education is going to be able to educate my daughter when there is such poor planning and poor organization."

Parents posting on the Insideschools forum are also finding their "patience and understanding" tested.

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