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Charter chatter

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 10 September 2008 08:09

With the news that the Obama campaign aims to double federal dollars for charter schools in concert with the McCain camp's established charter-school support (along with its concerted push for public-school vouchers), more attention is being focused on charters as alternatives to failing mainstream schools. Charters are fairly young institutions -- the first charter school in the U.S. opened its doors in 1992 in Minnesota -- but 4,300 more have debuted in the years since, and a new report by Education Week predicts an "acute shortage of leaders" -- to the tune of up to 20,000 new principals -- in response to the "unprecedented scale-up" in charter school growth. Charter school leaders tend to be younger and less experienced than principals of traditional public schools; nearly 60 percent have less than five years experience as school leaders.

Lumping all charters under one expansive umbrella risks oversimplifying the issue: For starters, some are run by veteran administrators, others by mission-driven idealists; some are sponsored by profit-making business entities and others by non-profit philanthropic or community-based institutions; and because most do not use union teachers, there's  enormous variability in pay, hours, and what's expected on the job. Philosophically, charters can be ultra-structured and traditional, as many are, or more progressive. So while it's convenient to talk about charters as a single bloc, it's important to realize the variability in each school's mission, staffing, teaching practices, and the community it serves.

Charter schools have become a fixture of the public-school landscape. Their exponential growth gives some serious pause, but many families find much to praise, as evidenced by jammed lotteries for prized schools. Yet whether charters truly serve all the city's students, or only certain swaths of historically undeserved communities, remains an open question. And given the location of the 18 charters opened by the DOE this fall, it's one that won't likely be answered anytime soon.

Public school versus private school

Written by Lindsey Whitton Christ Wednesday, 10 September 2008 06:33

Insideschools founder Clara Hemphill weighed in on the debate between public and private education in the current issue of New York Family magazine. The article has good advice for parents grappling with the decision -- we only wish they'd identified our new book correctly in the introduction. (For the record, it's "New York City's Best Public Middle Schools: A Parents' Guide.")   

"Middle schools have traditionally been the weak link in the city public school system,"  Hemphill tells New York Family, which makes the new book particularly relevant -- and the DOE's stated goal of revamping middle schools particularly urgent.  (Have a look here  for more on middle-school reform and initiatives like the International Baccalaureate Program.)

Heads up on high school: The process begins

Written by Helen Zelon Tuesday, 09 September 2008 05:16

Yes, the new-school dust is still swirling, but for families of eighth-graders, the high school admissions process looms large on the horizon. Much of what you've heard is true: The process is daunting and potentially confusing; it can be hard to know which of the city's 400+ high schools might best serve your child; and yes, this is the kind of decision that can have a profound effect on your child's life and future. High stakes? No kidding.

The DOE hosts a behemoth, two-day citywide high school fair and fairs for each borough (dates and times to come); we'll have more on the blog next week on how to navigate a fair without feeling swamped. OSEPO's high school admissions head, Evaristo Jimenez, took questions on the DOE website (responding mainly with generic 'see the directory/talk to your counselor/go to registration centers' answers); Insideschools' guide to high school admissions walks you through the basics; and faithful readers will be glad to welcome back Liz Willen, whose Middle School Muddle will morph into High School Hustle this year. We'd also be glad to hear from readers about the process -- what works, what doesn't, and what surprises them along the way.

Stay tuned for more on fairs and open houses, and look for details on our Open House calendar, which is updated often in this pre-tour season. The process is intense and demanding, but at least it's fairly short-lived: By mid-December, your child will have completed his or her application and the decision-making will shift to the schools and to DOE.

Weekly news round-up:

Written by Lindsey Whitton Christ Monday, 08 September 2008 13:37

To herald the new school year, the news last week was filled with first day of school stories. Articles spotlit new schools, new charter schools, and charter school networks new to New York; others described overcrowded schools, school enrollment issues and school scheduling issues; yet more explored poorly performing schools, projected shortages of schools in the future, and traffic problems around schools.

Even in this maelstrom, a significant amount of conversation swirled around mayoral control of the Department of Education and whether it would be renewed, especially in light of the recommendations made by the Public Advocate's commission of experts. Despite the commission's support (with caveats) for mayoral control, Bloomberg slammed their suggestions, saying he "can't take it very seriously." But just one day before his harsh outburst, the Mayor held a press conference decrying school bullies and introducing new anti-bullying regulations.

Although term limits most likely mean a Bloomberg exit from City Hall, some movers and shakers want to put Chancellor Klein up for the job. Parents, meanwhile, are taking school reform into their own hands - in both in legal and illegal ways.



DREAM charter opens in East Harlem

Written by Helen Zelon Monday, 08 September 2008 06:18

It may be less than two miles from principal Josh Klaris' former elementary school, PS 183, to the brand-new DREAM Charter Schoolopening today with a visit by Chancellor Joel Kleinbut the challenges of opening a charter school in East Harlem differ greatly from managing a thriving, Upper East Side elementary school, where the PTA raises about $300,000 a year.

The DREAM school draws its students, by lottery, largely from Manhattan's District 4. In a new spin on the collaborative-team-teaching model, which pairs gen-ed and special-needs teachers in a shared classroom, each of DREAM's four classes is led by two instructorsone general-education and one certified to teach English as a Second Language or Special Education. The curriculum revolves around University of Pittsburgh's Dr Lauren Resnick's Nine Principles of Learning (which marry educational goals and business practices) and with a strong focus on health and wellness (including an on-staff bilingual social worker). One of the school's eight teachers is Jerry Phillip, ex- of the embattled charter Ross Global Academy, which spent its first year at Tweed under the DOE's watchful eye.

The DREAM charter school, which opens with 100 kindergarten and first-grade students, will eventually grow up to eighth grade, adding a class a year as children 'age up.' The school is an outgrowth of Harlem RBI's nearly two decades in community recreation, education and enrichment; Harlem RBI founder Richard Berlin sits on the school's Board, along with Skadden, Arps counsel Josh Goldstein and Eric Wiengartner, the executive director of the Mayor's Office of Comprehensive Neighborhood Economic Development.

Lottery admissions limit enrollment; it's not known whether younger siblings will enjoy enrollment preferences or be part of the general applicant pool. How the school fares in its first year will determine future demandand shape its future as an East Harlem institution.

First week: Bus bust

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 05 September 2008 11:46

So it's Friday afternoon and the first week of school is very nearly behind us. But it seems that bus problems never quite fade away -- a parent on a Brooklyn blog wrote in to say that his child spent 2 1/2 hours on the bus ride home, the Times covered a charter-school bus driver who got lost with a bus-load of kids and finally returned to the school around 9pm, and WNYC reported on parents in the Bronx whose special-needs kids got on the bus just fine but weren't permitted to attend the school where the bus delivered them, for reasons that continue unclear.

Parents in the Bronx have been trying to contact DOE since the first day of school with little progress. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's take on the situation is sobering, to say the least.

The art of parent involvement

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 05 September 2008 06:30

Who doesn't want more arts education for our city's students? Parents as Arts Partners, via the Center for Arts Education, brings the creative process to thousands of kids and families every year. It's a great way to get involved in the life of your child's school and to make a real contribution to the school culture. It's also a lot of fun.

Last year, PAAP grants funded fine arts and performing arts programs that spanned the gamut: think book-making and collage workshops, videography and architecture projects, and dance and folk-tale performances. Have a look here for successful programs.

Funding shortfalls mean that two-thirds fewer grants will be awarded this year than in years past. Grants of up to $3000 are available to 50 public schools provided they have never been CAE-funded in the past. The CAE website has tips, information and application materials; they'll also host pre-application seminars starting later this month.

Mayoral governance: Support, with strings attached

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 04 September 2008 10:31

While some of the Mayor's closest supporters launched a $20 million PR effort to maintain mayoral control of the city's schools, additional support for mayoral governance has come from Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's office, via her Commission on School Governance, in a report officially released today (and leaked early to the Times). But the Commission's support doesn't come without (proposed) strings, aimed at strengthening parent voices in the public-school debate and creating stronger structures for oversight (of the DOE) and independence (of the Panel for Educational Policy, the Mayorally-appointed group that 'replaced' the old Board of Education).

The Commission, which included Insideschools founder Clara Hemphill and Advocates for Children director Kim Sweet, recognized that mayoral control brings a 'buck stops here' mentality that has improved school funding and collective bargaining efforts and permitted the possibility of change in a "once immovable school system." But the same strength that focused attention, energy, and dollars on the city's schools has muted or excluded diverse voices -- from education leaders to parents and from school district offices to school leadership teams. Accordingly, the Commission recommends greater checks on "the power of the Mayor" -- including appointing PEP members for four-year terms, no longer vulnerable to mayoral ouster -- and more opportunity for parent and community voices in the education debate, largely by restoring Community School Districts (dismantled by Bloomberg and Klein and sorely missed by school administrators citywide) and the reinvigoration of Community Education Councils and school leadership teams.

Commission Chair Stephen R. Aiello said that over months of testimony by parents and advocates, consistent themes emerged:  "Meaningful dialogue and participation are not really taking place" in the current structure,  he said.  Restoring the voices of those with  "something to say about what's taking place in their community" is a signal goal, noting the still-controversial decisions to close schools imposed by the DOE.   

In a recommendation that seems sure to draw critical heat, the Commission encouraged outside oversight of the DOE by the city's Independent Budget Office, which "should be given explicit responsibility to report on the performance of the Department of Education."  According to Aiello, IBO oversight would extend beyond budget, contracts, and bidding questions to issues of testing, student data and research.  "It's a matter of credibility," he said, citing apparent contradictions between the city's stated gains on reading and math scores and flat-lining values on national assessments.  If accountability's the theme, as Bloomberg-Klein declaim loud and often, it seems sensible that it has to work two ways.  

Sensible's one thing, Albany's quite another.  Whether the recommendations become law will be determined by the State Legislature -- and influenced, no doubt, by the myriad interest groups that each have a stake in the issue. 

Gender gap, cont.

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 03 September 2008 10:51

Well, the weekend news about yawning grad-rate gaps between boys and girls sank like a stone in the mainstream press. Now comes this small but earnest effort to bring boys/young men to college -- from veteran reporter and education blogger Richard Whitmire, who says that by 2015, twice as many girls as boys will attend American colleges. (For an oddly-titled counterpoint, consider the Sun's daunting college-tuition economics primer.)

It's no news that the gender gap starts early and widens over time. Jon Sciezka, former teacher and kid-lit rock star, created to help teachers, parents, and boys find compelling alternatives to traditional narratives -- think nonfiction and bathroom humor for starters. If you've got a reluctant boy reader on your hands or a daughter whose literary appetite spans beyond the conventional "girl" books in libraries and bookstores, take a look. Sciezka's anthology of guy-writer and -illustrator recollections alone is fantastically entertaining and inspiring, too, for avid fans of Professor Poopy-Pants and his happy ilk.

Chancellor Klein on a 5-borough school tour

Written by Helen Zelon Tuesday, 02 September 2008 05:47

First day of school, uptown and down-, and Chancellor Joel Klein has ambitious plans to drop in on five city schools, one in each borough, to ring in the new school year.

After starting at PS 62 in the Bronx, Klein next heads to the new, multi-million-dollar Gregorio Luperon High School for Science and Mathematics campus on 165th Street in Washington Heights. Then, it's off to Queens, to visit with students and teachers at Corona's long-embattled, now rising middle school, IS 61. Next stop, 1pm, Brooklyn -- at the all-boys Excellence Charter School of Bedford-Stuyvesant , where classrooms are named for prestigious colleges. Finally, Klein's trek wraps up in Staten Island, at the much-lauded, ADA-accessible PS 58, Space Shuttle Columbia School.

Quite the whirlwind tour! And quite the opening to the administration's final full academic year in office -- mayoral control conversations continue to swirl, but Klein says he's willing to consider staying on as Chancellor, even post-Bloomberg. (Whether the mayor might stay in office is unclear, as Comptroller William Thompson's concerns about term limits highlight.)

From the grand tour to the grass roots: How was the first day at your child's school? Let us know if you've run into bus fiascoes, enrollment tangles, or other logistical problems. And let us know, too, if something went particularly well: Did your child's teacher make a great first impression? Did a lively schoolyard scene make the first day a little more appealing? Any particularly great principals who have reached out to families? Good news more than welcome, as we start fresh, hoping for the best, for our city and our children.