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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.

These not-quite-spring days of March can be terribly anxious ones for eighth-graders and their parents, waiting to hear where and if they are matched for a New York City public high school.

Now’s a good time to spin a few fantasies before harsh realities kick in.

Anyone who has already dragged through the full-time job that touring schools entails already knows the first reality: There’s a real supply and demand crisis in this city’s public school system. There simply aren’t enough high quality high schools, leaving kids vying to get into about a dozen top institutions that don’t have enough spots.

And even these very top, highly coveted schools all are beset by budget problems, large class sizes and an inability to provide sufficient guidance counselors, sports, arts and individual attention.

I’ve concluded that the high school I would love to send my two teenagers to in New York City simply does not exist – yet.

Can they please go back to school already?

Once again this morning, I woke up to a sprawl of sleeping teenagers in my home, their books, music and snowboarding equipment scattered about. They had no school today, due to a "citywide chancellor's conference day for teachers and staff,'' whatever that means.

They had no school last week either. And yet, in the weeks leading up to Regents week, they were buried in finals, while the seniors were simultaneously overwhelmed with essays and college application deadlines.
Not that my gang -- a senior and sophomore -- complained. They were thrilled to have the time off, even if I can't help wondering how once again, how I was caught unprepared for this onslaught of unstructured time.

"By the time we get to college applications, it's going to be so easy,'' friends and colleagues joked over the years, watching -- or participating – in the scramble to find pre-schools, then elementary, middle and high schools for our kids.

Too bad they were wrong.

Starting at age 4, the interviews, tours, tests, essays, letters and lists – it seemed just endless. Yet after years of searching for public schools in a city with more than 1,700 of them, I find myself in the middle of a college search for my oldest child.

And it is anything but easy.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012 12:46

High School Hustle: Surviving freshman year

I took one look at my high school freshman last year – sprawled out on a sofa, soccer cleats still on, papers and books everywhere – and knew there was only one solution to helping him survive in a large and sometimes overwhelming New York City public high school.

Her name was Danielle, and she just happened to be on her way over.

I have enormous empathy for bewildered freshmen and their parents. That’s why everyone needs a Danielle, or a friend or older sibling with proven strategies for success and superior organization skills.

My son did something last month that is apparently unacceptable among driven and high striving high school juniors these days: He failed.

More specifically, he failed the trigonometry Regents by three points – after taking three Advanced Placement exams, six finals, three SAT sittings (one of them unplanned after a testing debacle) and at least four other Regents.

My reaction has surprised me. I'm relieved.

As the recent cheating scandal involving 71 students at high pressure Stuyvesant High unfolds, I'm a lot less concerned about one isolated failure than I am about a "whatever-it-takes to succeed,'' mentality among teenagers bent on success.

I read Alan Schwartz's frightening front page New York Times piece on the kind of Sunday night when I could have used a performance boost myself – something I'm sure lots of working parents feel in the waning weekend hours.

Oh, for a rush of adrenaline to finish unwanted chores in full efficiency mode, instead of a lazy desire to watch the Mad Men season finale curled up with a glass of wine.

Yet here it was, nearly midnight, and I still had stories to edit, laundry to fold, school lunches to make and those endless permission slips and end-of-the-year forms to fill out.

The refrain “I hate tests,” is nothing new in my household, but it’s usually met with an unsympathetic “that’s life – it’s a necessary evil” shrug.

After last week’s SAT exam debacle that invalidated scores for 199 juniors from some 50 schools who took the May 5 SAT exam at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights -- including my 16-year-old -- I’m having a hard time controlling my own rage.

What really happened that caused the Educational Testing Service to throw out the results of all the exams? We’ve been given little information, while witnessing a parade of finger pointing and of adults protecting adults. There is no evidence -- at least that we’ve heard -- of a cheating scandal.

And yet, there has been very little regard for the overstressed juniors who have had their scores invalidated and their test re-scheduled twice, with scant notice and virtually no explanation.

Of course, I want to know what happened and why, but it’s not individuals I want to signal out for blame.

Really, it’s a systemic culture of testing and their use that must be reconsidered.

Tuesday, 06 March 2012 10:25

High School Hustle: Prep for college NOW!

Students who are lucky enough to have actual high school choices can attend open houses this week, where they’ll have a chance to weigh commutes, clubs, classes, homework and social life. Students who haven’t been matched, will be concentrating on where they might get accepted in Round 2.

Others will be thinking about college. Or perhaps they should be.

Wait, Already? After all, most of us who have gone through that second full-time job also known as the hunt for middle and high school may feel entitled to a recovery process, as I noted in my last post.

No such luck. I got another reminder of why living in the moment is not going to fly in today’s crazed admissions landscape when I attended a breakfast last week for a hilarious new book, entitled “The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions,” by J.D. Rothman, who provides a tongue-in-cheek look at what she calls “the most difficult time to get into college in the history of the world.”

Thursday, 26 January 2012 13:26

It's Regents Week...where's the party?

I have a modest proposal for the state and city officials responsible for placing Regents exams a week after finals: Could you please flip the schedule and schedule Regents before finals?

While not all city high school students take Regents exams in January, there are no classes at all in most New York City high schools during the state exams week. Yet nearly all take finals, or midterms in many of their classes a week before.

That means that last week, my two high schoolers had multiple midterm or final exams on the same day, nearly every day. They stayed up way too late studying – or, at least I think that's what they were doing. Their bedroom became a landfill of crumpled paper, flashcards, calculators and notebooks. Tired and cranky, they complained they didn't have adequate time to prepare.

Thursday, 19 January 2012 10:11

High School Hustle: From SHSAT to SAT

Warning to anyone who is awaiting results of the latest round of high school admissions: It's not going to be over soon.

You may wonder what that means. After all, if you've done the required homework, you've probably taken numerous tours of New York City High schools, endured tryout anxiety with your child, and possibly used vacation time for tours. Perhaps you've even shelled out hundreds of dollars on specialized test tutoring for the specialized high schools and discussed how to rank certain schools.

You've already calculated commute times and weighed the odds of admission in seemingly endless discussions with other parents, teachers and students.