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Liz Willen

Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of the Hechinger Report, at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a former senior writer focused on higher education at Bloomberg Markets magazine. Willen spent the bulk of her career covering the New York City public school system for Newsday. She has won numerous prizes for education coverage and shared the 2005 George Polk Award for health reporting with two Bloomberg colleagues. Willen is a graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and an active New York City public school parent.

The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald made his way to our dinner table earlier this summer, during a casual chat about the most essential books to read before entering college. We had plenty of recent New York City public high school graduates ticking off their suggestions.

Among them: Bronte's Jane Eyre, Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Heller's Catch-22, Dickens' Great Expectations, James' Washington Square, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Yet it soon became apparent that many of the "Must Reads" hadn't made their way into classrooms, much to my dismay. I pictured a fictional Fitzgerald looking at my younger son in amazement when he acknowledged he'd graduated from high school having never been assigned the author's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.

At one particularly awful moment during my older son's awkward second year in middle school, the principal turned to me as I sat in her office:

"No one goes through middle school unscathed," she said, with empathy.

I tried to laugh, appreciating her sensitivity, but it didn't seem at all funny. In the space of a few months, my formerly angelic child had lost all of his so-called "friends," struck his gym teacher in the head with a ball (accidentally, he insisted, although the teacher begged to differ) and harbored a locker that smelled so foul it should have been condemned.

He'd discovered that cool (read: expensive) sneakers matter, and learned with dismay that most of the girls in his class seemed at least a foot taller. And of course, I wasn't allowed anywhere near the school; we had to designate a meeting place a few blocks away.

That's middle school for you. Middle school hurts, but middle school matters. I had gone to see the principal under the mistaken impression that we were going to have a conversation about math and science. (Tip: When choosing a middle school, find out what math and science courses they offer, including the 8th-grade algebra Regents, or your child could start high school behind in key areas.)

It's a particular fact of life in New York City that parents in possession of children must be in search of a school.

Talk of where to send your kids often dominates parental conversation—even pre-conception. And it tends to go on all the way to high school—except for the elite minority who get into and thrive at some of the city's highly coveted pre-k–12 private schools that can now cost close to $43,000 annually.

In my family's case, both for financial and philosophical reasons, neither suburbia nor private options were considered. So when my first child was born in 1995, and there was no popular elementary school or publicly funded pre-k in my neighborhood, the search began early—and often.

Fast forward 20 years. If my youngest son manages to pass gym (please don't ask how one fails gym ... it has to do with showing up), I will be the proud parent on June 24 of two New York City public school graduates.

As our group of New York City public school teenagers lined up at the foot of a southern Catskill Forest, the guide for the trip I was chaperoning had a question.

“How many of you have never been on a hike before?’’ he shouted. At least nine hands shot up. One student asked if Central Park counted.

I laced my hiking boots in disbelief, glancing down at the footwear my son’s high school classmates sported. Mostly sneakers or inappropriate fashionable booties.

Very few sported footwear proper for a five-mile hike on muddy partially frozen ground with traces of ice and snow. Many hadn’t even bothered with socks.

Yet off we tromped into the woods, a bit unprepared but happy to be on an overnight field trip in the natural beauty of 5,000 acres surrounding the Frost Valley YMCA—all part of preparing for the Advanced Placement Environmental Science exam. Who says test prep has to be boring?

Now that bringing cell phones to school will soon be OK, the calls I dread are finally about to stop.

"Hello, we have your son's cell phone,'' a voice from his high school says. "We had to confiscate it because he was using it. You can pick it up between 4 and 4:30 pm today."

Routinely, the next call comes minutes later from my son, using a friend's cell phone. He'll be begging me to drop whatever it is I am doing, run to his school and get his phone because he simply cannot live without it.

It's the thick of college application season, and your child is diligently churning out common application essays while simultaneously studying for four or five advanced placement exams and researching scholarships, right?

Well, maybe not.

In households of high school seniors across New York City right now, (including my own) there's likely a good deal of procrastination—along with frustration and anxiety about the endless array of essays and electronic forms to fill out. Tasks include the dreaded and still over-complicated federal FAFSA, a federal form with 108 questions and 72 pages of instructions that determine financial aid—all guaranteed to take weeks off your life. (Here's a tip, though: For help, check out this how-to guide from the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.)

After all the hype and hustle of searching for and getting into a New York City public high school, it can be disheartening to find out that for some kids and parents the search continues.

Not the search for another high school, although there are some who brave the arduous process again and transfer. I’m talking about the search to supplement what is often missing in even some of the most coveted high schools—from advanced math and science classes to art or a foreign language.

Savvy parents and kids will seek out everything from individual tutoring to after school art, music and dance programs to courses at CUNY colleges or elsewhere.

Wouldn’t it be nice if one public high school could have it all?

It appears that many New York City public school principals have a great deal to say about this spring's standardized English tests for grades 3–8.

Only they can't, because they are under a gag order.

I wish we could at least informally do the same for students—and parents.

No matter how you feel about standardized testing, I am convinced that it is both bad form and harmful to talk about test scores.

Friday, 13 December 2013 10:22

HS Hustle: Should teens start school later?

It may be a small step, but a Queens principal became something of a hero in my eyes when he acknowledged a reality of life in high-pressure New York City high schools: Kids are exhausted and need more sleep.

Townsend Harris Principal Anthony Barbetta came up with a new policy that forbids teachers from assigning homework one day of the week or giving tests on designated odd or even days, a New York Daily News story said.

"Maybe it will give [kids] more time to perform community service or participate in extracurriculars — or even get a little more sleep," Barbetta said of the new policy

Townsend Harris is one of the most highly regarded high schools in New York City, and students say the workload is formidable.

Wednesday, 09 October 2013 17:54

High School Hustle: Get ready to compromise

When I look back on the full-time job of finding a New York City public high school for my kids, I’m reminded of looking for my first apartment.

Anyone else remember coming to New York City with big dreams and a tiny paycheck? And being shown moldy, tiny apartments, up endless flights of stairs, in neighborhoods no one wanted to visit?

Remember fantasizing about fireplaces, decks and duplexes? Maybe the dreams weren’t even that big. In those early days, I would have happily settled for views of anything other than brick walls, proximity to a subway, and maybe a small washing machine.

Sorry to say that the real estate comparison is valid when you are searching out high schools in Gotham. Your fantasy apartment is out of reach; the perfect high school does not exist.

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