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Written by Helen Zelon Monday, 18 August 2008 08:05

It's safe bet that most readers saw yesterday's New York Times magazine cover story, detailing the vast educational experiment underway in New Orleans. In a similar vein, today at noon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg will announce the opening of 18 new charter schools, which are subject to stringent oversight (read, lots of student testing to measure achievement) but not obliged to meet city-mandated curriculum guidelines -- or or bound by union rules, as most charter school faculties aren't UFT members.

Some schools, like the KIPP charters and Excellence Charter School of Bedford Stuyvesant, have great reputations, while others flounder and struggle. We'd love to hear from readers whose kids attend charter schools; are you happy with what and how your kids are learning? What's happening in your child's classroom?

And in the spirit of behind-the-headlines illumination, see this tiny AP item. Teachers in a Texas district get the official ok to pack heat in the classroom -- ostensibly, to discourage school violence. Anyone else get awfully nervous at this kind of news?

Pre-K round II: News?

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 15 August 2008 07:58

A number of parents have been wondering whether others in the city have heard any placement news on their child's round II pre-K application.

DOE said they'd let folks know by now (mid-August), but many don't have news yet. To connect with other pre-K parents, visit our forums, click on the pre-K thread, and join the conversation. And let us know, please, where the news has arrived -- and where it hasn't.

We've heard reports from parents across the city that some g+t programs in local schools have been shuttered for the coming school year -- for a range of reasons, including low enrollment and g+t funding cutbacks by DOE planners. We've asked the DOE repeatedly for a current list of g+t district programs (they say it's coming), but hear conflicting reports from parents, principals and administrators in the field. That's why we're asking readers to let us know of changes in their districts.

In District 6 in Washington Heights, for example, g+t programs that recently enrolled up to 80 kindergarten students have been pared back to one class (a second class, planned for a far-uptown school, was cancelled when too few families enrolled their children). We've heard of changes, too, in District 18 in Brooklyn and elsewhere.

Our readers are our eyes and ears on the street; please let us know what's happening in your neighborhood.

G+T questions and answers

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 14 August 2008 04:55

In the end of June, we started gathering questions for the DOE on a wide range of subjects. It took a month to set up the interview, but on July 31st, we spoke with DOE administrators about gifted and talented admissions, among other issues. A short blog post gave highlights (and generated dozens of reader comments); for more, see the article in the current alert.

We still have open questions, of course, and have had assurances they will be answered. In particular, we're waiting to hear about the sibling/non-sibling mix of each citywide g+t Kindergarten class (both in terms of seat count and test scores).

In terms of overall takeaway, the DOE heard the anger and confusion of parents stymied by gifted and talented admissions this year: They felt the heat, and they want very much to avoid similar experiences in coming years. All agree that this year's process had flaws.
We have absolute assurances from Elizabeth Sciabarra and Anna Commitante that communication ahead of, during, and after admissions and placement decision-making will be clearer, more explicit and more frequent this year. But how these good intentions will inform actual practice can only be known as the year unfolds.

We look forward to brokering an ongoing conversation between parents and the DOE, and welcome reader responses, questions, observations and comments.

Spinning the numbers

Written by Helen Zelon Tuesday, 12 August 2008 04:16

Interesting to see how the grad-rate report is presented by local media. Facts are facts, but how they're spun reflects how they're seen.

For starters, the Post notes the upward trend -- but sets the NYC data against even greater apparent progress in long-troubled cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. The Sun describes "an uptick" in state and city scores (and a brief moment of mayoral pique), while the Daily News, incredibly, says "the gap between black and white students closed" -- somehow overlooking the 21 percentage points that separate both groups' graduation rates. The Times' headlines the on-time graduation of "most" city students, for the biggest "hunh?" moment of the morning's news. No argument, 52% is more -- but most? Could a student who scored a 52 on a 100-point exam celebrate getting "most" of the questions right? (Would you accept that, as a parent? The DOE doesn't think twice about calling a 52 a failure on a Regents exam.)

The mind reels, as do the perceptions of readers, decision-makers, and parents citywide.

Grad rates at last: Inching up, with caveats

Written by Helen Zelon Monday, 11 August 2008 12:40

The State and the City finally released the 2007 high school graduation rate today, and the news is both heartening and discouraging, on more than a few counts.

First, the good news: The overall graduation rate continues to nudge upward from the swamp where it had long languished. For the city as a whole, 52.2% of students who started high school in 2003 (the 2003 cohort) graduated in four years. Another 3.6% graduated in August, via credit recovery and other recuperative programs (mention of which flummoxed the Mayor briefly at a press conference today). If this seems lower than the 60% that was so widely celebrated last year, it is -- in years past, the city included GED-earners in the grad rate, unlike the State's more stringent criteria, which the city now shares.

More Asian and white students continue to earn diplomas than their African-American and Hispanic classmates (bad news) but the gap between the races is narrowing -- slightly (good news, but not that good): Nearly 71% and nearly 69% of Asian and white students graduate in four years; only 43% of Hispanic kids earn their diploma in the same time, as do just over 47% of African-American students. So while it's true that grad rates are rising for African-American and Hispanic kids, it will be a long, long time before the academic playing field is even approximately equal. And demographics notwithstanding, boys continue to lag behind girls in academic achievement. But back on the good-news side, New York leads the state's biggest cities in academic gains. On the bad-news side, the cities still lag well behind the state's overall grad rate of 79.2%.

Less enthusiastic results were posted for English Language Learners, who Chancellor Klein identifies as "our greatest challenge." ELL grad rates dropped in recent years and now have risen three points, to 23.5% for four-year grads and 32.4% for kids who stay in high school for five years (no typo on those stats). Students with disabilities showed slight change in their graduation rate (from 19.4% in 2006 to 19.1% in 2007. Good news, no drop; bad news, scant improvement.

The general tenor of the announcement this afternoon was celebratory but clear-eyed; the Mayor, sporting a spectacular tan, praised all involved, from Klein (also summer-bronzed) and Weingarten down into the academic trenches -- teachers, principals, APs, parents, and of course the students, especially the kids who stick with high school into a fifth or sixth year. "That they didn't do it in four years is immaterial," said the Mayor, who added that staying longer in high school is "demonstrative of someone who wants to take charge of their life," and graciously crediting Jennifer Medina's Times story today as proof.

Still, Bloomberg acknowledged, "despite this heartwarming progress," there's "enormous room for improvement." Notably, 38% of students don't graduate in four years, and nearly 14% drop out. "It's going to be very hard to get them back," he said. (About 10% stay enrolled in high school beyond four years.) The dropout rate contracted slightly since last year, from 15% to 14.7%; we're waiting for follow-up from the DOE on students who were discharged from school -- and don't show up in DOE records as students or dropouts.

Students now in high school can earn one of three diplomas -- local, Regents, or Advanced Regents. About two-thirds of NYC grads earn a Regents diploma, which is good news -- but not so good for the third who get less-rigorous Local credentials, and moot entirely for the kids starting high school next month, who are not eligible to earn the local diploma at all. We've asked the DOE for diploma and grad-rate details on the new small high schools and Career and Technical Education schools, and for more specific demographic and gender information -- and we'll report back whenever we hear more.

Let us know if you have questions; the State published a thick deck of data slides, and we'll post links to specifics if there's interest.

Update: A correction for clarity: The overall state graduation rate cited above, of 79.2%, reflects the grad rate for schools outside the state's five biggest cities, and not the state as a whole. Regrets for any confusion.

Among the 1.1 million schoolchildren in NYC public schools, 181,000 students with special needs often face unique, daunting, and systemic challenges, and parents of special-needs kids often feel excluded from the mainstream education debate.

To that end, a new coalition (spearheaded by Advocates for Children) has been formed to advocate for special-needs families, share special-ed resources, and raise a collective voice for reform and greater equity in the special-needs community. Visit the ARISE website for more information.

State Senate invites parent voices

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 08 August 2008 05:28

On Tuesday August 12 from 5pm to 8pm, State Senator Martin Connor and members of the State Democratic School Governance Task Force will convene at Brooklyn's Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon Street, to hear parents speak about mayoral control and the state of the city schools.

The Task Force wants to hear about crowded or well-run schools; if parent voices are heard by school leaders; and what's working -- and what's not, from parents' point of view.

In terms of speaking truth to power, this is a pretty direct channel to sometimes-remote lawmakers. And since mayoral control lives or dies in Albany, it's likely a meeting worth attending. We'll be there, in any event, and report back on what unfolds.

New tower, new middle school?

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 07 August 2008 05:06

Families in downtown Brooklyn have long lobbied DOE for new middle schools, especially as local elementaries revive (pace, PS 8's new expansion plans) and the waterfront neighborhoods host new (and massive) housing developments. Now, the Daily News reports there's more support for a new middle school in DUMBO, 45,000 square feet of spanking-new classroom space in a much-criticized project by the Walentas family Two Trees company, headed up by heir apparent, 33-year-old Jed Walentas. Even Schools Construction Authority president Sharon Greenberger has thrown her support behind the Dock St. tower middle school -- and it's safe to bet, the DOE approved her endorsement.

Walentas pere has been steadily, stealthily buying up waterfront and DUMBO parcels for the last two decades, with not a lot of love lost between him and local residents. Cynics wonder, in the quid-pro-quo world of real estate development, what the net gain is for his Dock St. tower, above and beyond the potential benefit to the community.

District 2 overcrowding: Rally this afternoon

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 06 August 2008 05:19

District 2, which encompasses some of Manhattan's prime development turf, has chronically overcrowded elementary schools. Middle schools, often housed on the top floors of primary schools, add to the population pressure.

In a long letter to the Community Education Council, the DOE proposed short- and long-term responses to grade-school crowding -- including moving fifth-graders at jammed schools to less-populous schools two miles uptown, strictly limiting zoning variances, shifting classes to underused space at local middle and elementary schools, as well as plans to add thousands of new school seats and (possible) zoning changes. Safe to say, the issue won't be resolved in the next month, before school begins. For schools like PS 234, which is at 150% utilization, or PS 59, at 192%, close quarters doesn't even begin to describe it.

Local parents and school advocates want the DOE to consider another short-term option not outlined in their D 2 'blueprint,' which focuses on grade school crowding. A state-owned building at 75 Morton St., in the thick of the overcrowded zone, is on the auction block. Parents, teachers, principals, and local pols want the DOE to acquire the building for a new public middle school. (It's fully ADA accessible, to boot.)

Today at 5:30pm, parents and activists will rally in front of 75 Morton. We hope the DOE's School Construction Authority and Office of Portfolio Development are paying attention.