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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.

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.

Monday, 09 September 2013 11:38

High School Hustle: What are we fighting for?

No matter how you feel about the end of summer (I am always sad and counting the days until the next one), this week marks the start of what may be a four-year fight for parents of high school freshmen.

A fight to make sure they get the right classes, the right teachers and even a lunch period. A fight to make sure they get support for what could be a tough adjustment from middle school.

A fight to make sure they are ready for college; too many U.S. students are not.

For New York City public school parents, it's likely an ongoing battle -- even at some of the city's best and most sought-after high schools.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013 12:20

HS Hustle: Time for parents to back off?

The first week of middle school a few years back, I learned that two cherished rituals were soon to be stripped from our lives: bringing cupcakes to our children's class for birthdays and traveling to school together with them.

"Your kids are going to be taking the subway alone to school soon, deal with it,'' the principal told an auditorium full of parents on day one, as some cowered in fear and uncertainty.  

Soon enough, parents got used to the subway ritual, after following close behind for a few days – just never close enough to be seen. The principal just laughed at the parent (me) who asked about bringing cupcakes, and it never came up again.

By the time your child starts high school, you are deep into what I call "The Age of Embarrassment"  and long past cupcakes and drop-off worries. Still, you may be filled with uncertainty about what your role should be during these four critical years. 

Wondering what it might cost to get your kids to help make the world a better place? Parents willing to fund volunteer work might find promises like these:

 

“An unforgettable summer! Kayaking! Horseback riding! Service and Surf!”

 

Over the years, there have been plenty of articles about the price of tagging turtles or monitoring zebras – and how little it will help with college admission. I remember reading about one such trip to Fiji a few years back where a student spent more than $3,295 to work – and enjoyed the infinity pool and view of the ocean.

 

None of this was what I had in mind when we first started contemplating New York City public high schools a few years back. At the time, I was particularly impressed by schools like Beacon, where community service is part of the program. In some parts of the U.S., a minimum of 20 hours of service is required for graduation, so the volunteer work is all part of the curriculum. Some city high schools require it, others simply suggest it.

 

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