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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.

A catalogue arrived the other day from Urban Outfitters, the ubiquitous clothing chain that dresses so many U.S. teenagers. Along with hipster uniforms of skinny jeans, chunky jewelry and platform sandals, I saw photographs of long-limbed girls wearing shorts so skimpy they might as well have been bathing suit bottoms.

With so little left to the imagination, I couldn't help asking the teenage boys who reside in my household if this was how girls dress at their New York City public high school.

"All the time,'' was their answer, and I should not have been surprised. Since middle school, I've repeatedly noticed girls coming to school wearing not much at all.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has taken note. A lot of New York City public school officials aren't terribly happy about the scantily clad students whose desire to shed layers increases as the weather warms up.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013 10:02

High School Hustle: Who is failing gym?

When report cards arrive, vigilant parents turn immediately to what could be a confounding and heart-stopping grade in a subject with no bearing on academic averages: Gym.

That's right, gym, also known as physical education or PE. At least a dozen high school seniors I know are either failing it, coming close or getting lackluster marks like 70. And some of these are terrific students, headed to top colleges.

Can schools please stop giving out grades in gym?

I agree that if students repeatedly don't show up to gym class, they shouldn't pass. I also understand the frustration gym teachers must have when kids show up for gym in impossibly tight skinny jeans or skimpy dresses and platform shoes.

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.”