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Popular, successful elementary schools are overcrowded because too many families want to attend them. Not really news, is it? It is when kids start getting put on waiting lists at neighborhood schools because the city hasn’t planned for the influx of kids living in new apartment buildings in those neighborhoods.

That's the story in several school zones in District 2 and elsewhere, according to an article in today's Times, which focuses largely on downtown Manhattan, where construction and residential conversions have proceeded at a fierce pace in recent years. The discrepancy between school seats and planned construction has been the topic of several recent policy reports – including one issued today by Comptroller William Thompson’s office, titled “Growing Pains: Reform Department of Education Capital Planning to Keep Pace with New York City’s Residential Construction.”

It was also the subject of a hearing last night in Manhattan's Community Board 2, held at PS 41 in Greenwich Village. I stopped by the meeting, which, in contrast to a meeting in January where parents aired their concerns about overcrowding, focused on concrete steps District 2 residents and elected officials can take to influence the DOE's capital plan. I’ll have more details about the meeting next week, but here’s the short version of what I learned: it takes serious organization and serious work to get the DOE to commit to building new schools, but investing time and energy can pay off. (Yesterday, the DOE announced that it has finalized plans to create new school just up the street from PS 41 -- I'm willing to bet the timing of that announcement had a little something to do with the public meeting on the calendar.)

Mayoral control of schools should allow the mayor to require major developers to fund school creation; since I moved to the city, I’ve been puzzled as to why this is not so. It seems like a total no-brainer, not something that should require policy reports and public hearings and families being locked out of their zoned schools to make happen.

Some hope for waitlisted college applicants

Written by Admin Friday, 09 May 2008 05:02

Good news for the subject of Insideschools' most recent "Ask the College Counselor" column, who was waitlisted by his top three schools: top colleges this year are digging further down onto their waitlists than they have in recent years, which could start a chain reaction that will benefit waitlisted applicants everywhere, the Times reports today.

Do you have a question for the college counselor? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

What's making your kid obese today?

Written by Admin Thursday, 08 May 2008 06:34

It's not the lack of gym classes in schools -- that was earlier this week (and last month). Perhaps it's the changes to school lunches being made because of rising food prices?

"From such healthy staples as fresh spinach to more haute cuisine like cornmeal-encrusted fish and Cuban roast pork, dishes are getting 86'd from school menus as officials scramble to maintain the same quality with cheaper options," the Post reported recently about food in the city's schools.

As we know, of course, canned fruits and vegetables and "imitation" foods like fish sticks and chicken nuggets aren't at all in the same league as fresh spinach and fish in terms of quality. But they do give kids all the calories they would need if ever they were given the opportunity to use them in a game of kickball or tag. (Or if they were allowed to bike to school; parents in England are stopping their kids from riding to school because of safety concerns. Are parents here, with their fear of "free-range kids," making similar rules?)

Overcrowded times at John Dewey High

Written by Admin Wednesday, 07 May 2008 03:29

Today Sam Freedman reprises his jeremiad from earlier this year about what happens to schools when large high schools near them begin to phase out. The only thing that's really different in today's story is the schools involved: Instead of Beach Channel accommodating students zoned for Far Rockaway, to apparently disastrous results, now its kids who would who have gone to Brooklyn's Lafayette flooding into the unconventional, highly rated John Dewey High School. Freedman writes:

Faculty members, students and administrators at Dewey say that the students coming from Lafayette are academically deficient, although Education Department statistics show that the current crop of ninth graders performed essentially similarly to previous cohorts on the citywide reading test. Still, the perception at Dewey is that Lafayette students did not choose Dewey for its quality, but landed there by default because they did not qualify for any of the Lafayette building’s mini-schools. With the overcrowding, Dewey students and staff members say, in many periods of the day there are several hundred students with no assigned room, often roaming the halls. A round of budget cuts this year sharply reduced staffing of the “resource centers.” ...The nadir for Dewey came in March, when a student — not newly admitted from Lafayette — was spotted by classmates and a teacher handling a gun and the building was put under police lockdown for several hours. Though the weapon was never located and no charges were ever brought against the student, a heightened sense of disruption continues.

Reading between the lines, it seems possible that administrators and students at Dewey are using Lafayette-zoned kids as scapegoats for trouble that's not always caused by them and that the problem is just as much a school program that is inflexible in the face of crowding pressures as it is the particular kids who have started enrolling.

But the DOE's response is truly ridiculous: to encourage more overcrowding and a wholesale abandonment of the progressive scheduling that has made Dewey special. Garth Harries told Freedman bringing enrollment down at Dewey is "absolutely a priority" — but implied that the way the DOE plans to execute that goal is by waiting for Lafayette's small schools to become attractive and large enough to draw more kids.

Even worse, Harries noted, “There are many schools that are over capacity, and more over capacity than Dewey, and they can program their students so everyone has a place to be,” he said. “I would be surprised that a school that has just 118 percent utilization has that many students unprogrammed." In other words, Dewey isn't that overcrowded -- why can't it just stuff more kids into its classes? When Insideschools visited in January 2007, school officials told us classes range in size from 28 to 34 students. It doesn't sound like there's much wiggle room in classes that large.

One other similarity between Freedman's story on Beach Channel and this one about Dewey: the sad fact that some at those schools think the pressure they're under is the DOE's way to destroy formerly successful large high schools. True or not, how can you teach or learn when that's what you're led to believe?

Yesterday, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum's office released a report on the state of physical education in the city's schools, concluding what we already know: schools stink at making sure kids get physical activity. But the facts, at least according to the Public Advocate's office, are worse than I imagined. Only 4 percent of 3rd graders get gym daily as required by the state; just 31 percent of middle schools give kids enough P.E. time; and more than half of all middle schools have no sports teams at all. Given the scope of its own failure, it's no wonder the DOE wants to hand off responsibility for fitness to families!

The Times and Khalil Gibran: why now?

Written by Admin Tuesday, 06 May 2008 04:38

Did you catch the 4,500-word story about Debbie Almontaser in the Times last week? If you did, were you as puzzled as I was about why the story was running now? The initial brouhaha over the Khalil Gibran International Academy appears, finally, to have died down; Almontaser's lawsuit alleging unfair treatment when she was pressured to resign as principal was rejected; and the school seems to be improving, an observation that's buried at the end of the Times piece. To me and others I've talked to, the piece read like something the paper had been sitting on until Almontaser surprised the author by offering to go on the record. But given that the school has encountered hostility from its new home, PS 287, stirring up controversial issues, particularly ones that by all accounts, including the Times' own, are now moot, feels like irresponsible journalism to me.

Hey, kids! Big Mother is watching you

Written by Admin Monday, 05 May 2008 11:37

It's getting easier to be a helicopter parent, according to an article in Sunday's Times about the rise of online data systems that allow parents to track their kids' school performance in real time.

Using programs such as ParentConnect and Edline, parents in some school districts can log on to see whether their kids cut class, aced a test, or failed to hand in a homework assignment that day. The programs, which are used in thousands of school districts nationwide, recalculate student averages with each new data point entered, making grade-tracking akin to, as one parent notes in the article, tracking the stock market. School officials say the programs build connections between home and school and allow busy parents to be involved in their kids' lives.

Many students seem to like the fact that the programs let them monitor their own progress and check their teachers' work. But they don't love letting their parents in on their daily lives and decisions. And for good reason -- parents in the article admit getting out of hand, checking obsessively and getting too involved in their kids' schoolwork.

I don't think any of these programs are being used in New York City schools, at least not to any sizable degree. But the DOE did say two years ago when it first unveiled the plan to require interim assessments multiple times a year that "parents will be able to log into a website that will have up-to-date information about their child and their school." I don't think this component of the plan has come to fruition -- but in a city where data, not parents and children, come first, perhaps it's on it's way.

If a computer program like this existed in your child's school, would you use it?

Last week, the mayor released the city's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Calling the numbers describing the city's fiscal situation "scary," Mayor Bloomberg preserved the sizable cuts slated for the schools. Education advocates have only until June, when the budget will be finalized, to reverse the cuts — so they have ramped up the intensity of the Keep the Promises Coalition, originally launched in February when the cuts were first announced.

Last week, the coalition held a rally at the Bronx Courthouse, revealing plans for a major advertising campaign, starting with a slick new radio spot. School funding advocates were successful in Albany, so we can hope they will find similar success closer to home.For his part, the mayor continues to assert that the DOE will be receiving a sizable funding increase. But as Elizabeth Green at the Sun writes, he appears to be using fuzzy math to arrive at that conclusion:

The net amount the public schools are gaining, by Mr. Bloomberg's tally, does not account for losses the education department faced during this fiscal year and projected losses already tabulated into next year's budget. ...

Comparing the budget first implemented last year to this executive budget, the Department of Education's net change is a modest gain of about $56 million.

Considering that the cost of many programs grows larger every year — teacher salaries, slated to see a 5% raise this month, are a prime example — that increase will probably not be enough to spare the public schools from having to cut some programs and services.

What programs and services might principals cut? If this year is any guide, next year we can expect to see reductions in tutoring programs, after school activities, supplies purchased, and more.

Insideschools 2.0

Written by Admin Friday, 02 May 2008 12:24

Are you on Facebook? If so, you can now become a fan of Insideschools!

Searching for schools is fact of life in New York City, one that requires patience, stamina, resilience. At times you need the skills of an investigative reporter, along with the endurance of a long-distance runner.

If you are considering private school, you need many of those qualities as well, along with at least $25,000 grand a year to spend on tuition.

In the city, it's not unusual for parents spend enormous amounts of time thinking about schools and researching options. The truly obsessed may begin their search preconception, or at least around the time they begin investigating that other great New York obsession: real estate.

I didn’t worry much about schools until a girlfriend turned to me in the playground one day more than 11 years ago to ask if I’d completed the nursery school applications yet.

I remember being shocked, because up to this point I’d been happily preoccupied with first steps, solid food and a full night’s sleep. Turns out I missed the deadlines.

I vowed to be on top of all the options from then on, and managed to find a tremendous public elementary school for my sons that gave out-of-neighborhood variances – a rarity these days at the New York City Department of Education.

Now I find myself waiting to hear about middle school acceptance for my youngest son, who is 10. We’ve spent much of this year taking tours, preparing for tests and interviews, weighing multiple factors and discussing moving on and maintaining elementary school friendships.

I grew up in the kind of suburb where everyone stayed together, from elementary school through high school, for better or for worse. No choice existed. Education barely entered the conversation, much less dominating it as it tends to in the city.

Throughout our second middle school search in three years, we’ve managed to block out the scary search around the bend -- high school admissions.

Suddenly, my mailbox is full of upcoming meetings, open houses and Princeton Review tutoring options for high school specialty exams for my 7th-grade son. We’ve missed several already.

A story in The New York Daily News this week contained some startling statistics that snapped me back to the reality check I first experienced in a sun-dappled playground 11 years and some months ago.

Some 7,772 kids did not get into any of their high school choices this year, including one fine student whose angry mother is moving the family to New Jersey, where getting in requires nothing more than showing up to register.

The mother did not sound at all happy about it, though. You are not supposed to drop out of the race before you reach the finish line.

Are there too many obstacles in the way of parents who embrace and support public school and really want to stay in the city?

And so the next search begins.Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle