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For me, the clearest indication that my son's childhood as he knew it was a thing of the past started with the cupcakes.

At a middle school orientation two years ago, I was the ridiculously out-of-touch mother who raised my hand in a crowded gym and innocently asked if it was still okay to bring cupcakes to celebrate a birthday in sixth-grade.

The crowd laughed. The principal rolled his eyes. I blushed and learned an important lesson about this next stage of life, which I've dubbed The Age of Embarrassment. It's time for parents to back off.

Parents are all over the best elementary schools, organizing fund-drives and bake sales and penny drives, going on field trips, and yes -- carrying in those giant tupperware boxes filled with cupcakes.

Not so in middle school. Two years ago, I took my sixth grader on the first day. On the second day, I walked a few blocks behind. (Could anything be worse than being seen with an actual parent?) and after that, he traveled mostly with his friends or alone. Now, if I want to stop by the school, I can't take the same entrance.

Birthdays? Forget it. He doesn't want anyone to know.

Not all middle schoolers become this self-conscious, of course, and none of this means middle schools don't need support from parents -- they do, more than ever! My best advice to soon-to-be middle school parents is to ask other parents how they handled the transition -- and find out from the principal, parent coordinator and the PTA what's most needed. Trust me, there is plenty to do.

Today, we said goodbye to my younger son's elementary school, to teachers, parents and staff we knew for so many years they felt like family. There were hugs, tears and presents and then it was over.

It's almost time to pack up all the stuffed animals and Dr. Seuss books too, reminders of the elusive and transitory nature of childhood. But first, though, I'm going to bake a batch of cupcakes. They may not be for a class party, but they'll still fill the kitchen with the smell of childhood.


Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 27 June 2008 04:20

School's out. The kids have their report cards. But official school report cards, that show school stats and test scores? Not just yet.

State-generated school report cards are built on 2005-2006 numbers. City-generated Annual School Reports use old data, too -- data that predate the creation of dozens of new, small high schools, and omit principals posted since '05, and current counts of students and teachers. (This is especially crucial for young, growing schools; some have tripled in size and staff since the report cards were posted.) The New York State Department of Education has repeatedly said that updated report cards will post "around" the end of June. That's Monday; we're skeptical. (Last year, they posted before the end of May.)

We're also waiting for the city and state to release the much-anticipated high school graduation rate, the benchmark against which Bloomberg and Klein measure their Children First reforms. For the first time in decades, NYC's DOE and the NYSED are actually using the same basis for counting grads (in prior years, each defined grads in different ways, making direct comparison dicey). When will the grad rate post? According to Chancellor Klein, that's up to the State, too.

Grade the kids, grade the schools; rate the principals, rate the teachers. Along with reports on how their kids progressed, parents deserve current knowledge on how the city's schools are doing. Why is the wait for these reports stretching into summer?

It all depends on your point of view...

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 26 June 2008 10:42

An ebullient Chancellor Klein quoted ol' Blue Eyes this morning -- "it was a very good year"-- and lauded the praises of students at Bronx Lab High School (whose graduates he addressed) as well as the city's teachers. Celebrating "the boldest changes yet" in terms of school reform, he cautioned nay-sayers, "Don't call it experimentation. You never want to stop innovation -- it's what drives success."

What Klein sees as success, though, can appear otherwise to other eyes. For example, he said "g+t program [admissions] ran much more smoothly than ever before"-- an assertion with which we'd bet plenty of parents would differ. For middle school admissions, he prescribed a "do it earlier" timeframe and stronger communications, advice that would've been useful when so many parents seeking answers weren't able to reach DOE and OSEPO officials.

The Chancellor celebrated gains by ELL students, as well as test-score gains overall. The 43% grade 8 ELA proficiency, while "not a great number," still represents a gain over the 30% proficiency when Klein took charge of the city schools. Middle school "is our greatest challenge," he said, and suggested that the DOE might consider breaking large middle schools into smaller ones, similar to ongoing high-school reforms.

Lower numbers of Level 4 scores, especially in middle school, are a concern, says Klein, who faults NCLB guidelines for not rewarding (and thus motivating) progress beyond proficiency. Recognition aside, he didn't offer specific ideas on how to address or even understand lower achievement by high-performing students.

Asked about the 50- to 60-hour week many teachers invest in their jobs, Klein dismissed concerns about sustainability. "When people are part of the world of changing things for children, they don't view it as work." This may come as news to teachers, who work hard to meet and sometime surpass the expectations of their jobs. Surely, even the most idealistic deserve not to work steady 12- or 14-hour days.

Admissions petition: Parents speak

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 26 June 2008 04:49

If you can't make the rally this afternoon at City Hall (and even if you plan to attend), have a look at this parent-organized petition, asking the DOE to reconsider centralized Kindergarten admissions.

Parents of preschoolers, this policy has the potential to directly affect your family's admissions experience.

Even if your kids are past K, consider adding your name. No one should have to go through the confusion that characterized this year's process.

Two steps forward,...

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 25 June 2008 07:17

Persistent declines in level 4 middle school ELA scores and other hallmarks of flagging achievement from the top tier of New York City's students have prompted many commenters' heartfelt concern about the untoward effects of a test-driven education culture.

The point's not lost on academe -- eduwonkette's post today substantiates what we've heard and seen, as does this study. The flip side is, no matter how dogged, test-linked, or slow, real progress is being made among the lowest-performing sets of kids; many connect the NCLB dots to rising achievement.

If moving under-skilled kids forward is the prime educational target, as Chancellor Klein has asserted multiple times, what is the cost to the city's most-skilled students? Why do these students show poorer test scores? And how can the "two steps forward, one back" pace change to one that moves everyone forward, struggling learners and motivated, prepared, and ambitious kids alike?

G+T and other specialized, enriched programs are only part of the answer. Legions of kids just don't ace the tests, and others aren't offered the opportunity. The challenge, we worry, will outlast the Bloomberg era: While seeking to meet the needs of the least able, how can the city better support its top learners?

The kids who are middle- and high-school students today will quickly become the voters that define the city's agenda. How can we best serve them to learn, and to lead, tomorrow?

Budget challenge: Rally at City Hall

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 25 June 2008 05:43

Some folks may opt for picnics or the movies on the last day of school, Thursday June 26th. But if you, like thousands of city parents, worry about threatened school budget cuts, a late-afternoon visit to City Hall may be more your speed.

Join Class Size Matters activists and others to protest the budget cuts and crowded classrooms; meet on Broadway near City Hall at 3:30, ahead of a 4pm press conference.

There's just another week before the City Council wrestles the proposed budget to some kind of compromise conclusion; if you can, before heading off to the beach, summer camp, the cineplex (or the nearest sofa), make your presence known.

Food for thought -- and more

Written by Helen Zelon Tuesday, 24 June 2008 11:50

Every summer since the mid-70s, the DOE's Summer Meals program has provided free breakfast and lunch for city youth at neighborhood schools and youth centers. This year, in light of rising food prices and ever-increasing economic pressures on New York City families, the free meals will be on offer at a range of cultural sites, too, like parks, libraries, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Floating Lady pool in the Bronx.

Starting Friday June 27th and through August 29th, anyone younger than 18 can eat for free; no application or school registration is required. Call 311 to find out the location nearest you.

(squeak) budget passes PEP

Written by Lindsey Whitton Christ Tuesday, 24 June 2008 08:59

The Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) passed the executive budget last night. Only one member, Manhattan representative Patrick Sullivan, voted nay. Sullivan said he was concerned that more resources were devoted to testing and charter schools while the bread-and-butter, general education classes that serve the majority of students would suffer from the cuts. Of course considering the mayor appoints 8 of the members of the panel (the 5 others are appointed by the borough presidents), it is not surprising that they passed his budget - especially in light of the mayor's history of firing members who don't agree with his decisions.

The meeting was scantily attended, despite the uproar over the budget cuts over the past few weeks, and many of the public comments had nothing to do with the budget vote. Meanwhile, one uninvited participant - a small brown mouse - darted around the audiences' feet at the MLK High School Complex auditorium. Chancellor Klein, who looked exhausted, sounded relieved to close the session and the monthly PEP meetings for the school year.

DOE settles lawsuit

Written by Lindsey Whitton Christ Tuesday, 24 June 2008 08:32

Insideschools' parent organization, Advocates for Children of New York, announced the settlement of a lawsuit filed in 2003 against the DOE on behalf of parents with students with disabilities. The lawsuit contended that the DOE was not always following through on the (legally required) orders of independent hearing officers who had been called in to settle disputes over students' special ed. services. The DOE will now follow a series of benchmarks when dealing with these cases and be monitored by an independent auditor.

If this situation sounds familiar, and the DOE has failed to act on the orders of an independent hearing officer in your child's case, you may be entitled to compensation in the form of a voucher. The vouchers - which are for as much as $15,000 - can be used for services like tutoring, career and vocational training, assistive technology, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and other educational services. Insideschool's article on the lawsuit, the Advocates for Children press release and the lawsuit website have more information and claim forms.

Test score bounce: Looking at the numbers

Written by Helen Zelon Tuesday, 24 June 2008 04:28

New York City and State's big gains in test scores lead the news at the Times and Daily News, and are featured at the Post and the Sun, which focuses on charter-school progress. But amid the celebratory, double-digit party (and leaving aside, for the moment, critical questions about score inflation and comparisons with national tests), disturbing trends persist, and -- not surprisingly -- get far less play than testing's great leap forward.

Have a look at the test score "deck" from the DOE's Department of Assessment and Accountability, which breaks out scores by grade and race.

The achievement gap that yawns between white and Asian students and their black and Hispanic peers has narrowed, but continues far too wide: Overall, 80% of white students earned level 3/4 (grade-level and higher) on the ELA, compared with 54% of black students and 53% of Hispanic kids. That's a 26% or 27% gap. Even if it closes at the rate of 2 or 3 points a year (the recent, upward trend), that's 9 or 12 years, or many kids' entire public-school career, before the races achieve parity -- if white and Asian kids' scores don't rise, which they likely will (again, tracking Bloomberg-era trends).

The abyss that separates 8th grade's middling progress from 4th grade's high scores is even more threatening: About two-thirds of white eighth-graders, 65%, earned levels 3/4 on the ELA; just over one-third of black and Hispanic students (36% and 33%, respectively) posted similar scores. Taken together, 43% of the city's eighth graders scored level 3/4 -- which means that nearly six in ten will proceed to high-school officially reading below grade level.

Cue the party horns here (or not).

Update: According to DOE, the scores were embargoed on State directive, meant for school use in planning placements (as if year-round testing didn't yield sufficient data) and available to parents on request, but not publicly released until their presentation to the Regents yesterday.