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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.

Four weeks and counting

Written by Helen Zelon Tuesday, 05 August 2008 05:41

Four weeks from today, the city schools open for the new academic year. As impossible as it seems, it's time to get ready for school.

Above and beyond the basics -- lunchboxes, binders, glue-sticks, loose-leaf -- NYC students, especially kids in middle and high school, often have to navigate the city's transportation system to get to school and home again. Late summer is a perfect time to practice.

With your child, figure out the best way to get to school. (Have a look at subway and bus routes, and check here for commuting advice.) Some kids travel solo, others prefer going with a group. Informal commuting 'clubs' exist at some schools; contact your parent coordinator, who may be able to connect you nearby families.

Don't just talk the talk; walk it (or ride it), and often. Take the trip to and from school with your child. Look for landmarks at transfer points, then (deep breath now) stay back and send them on their way, with a cell-phone for directions or for that most welcome 'safe and sound' call. (Be sure to ask about your child's school's cell-phone policy during the year; many permit phones, provided they're turned off during class hours.)

As hard as it can be to watch your child trundle down the subway steps alone, it's a big first step toward discovering the city -- and toward independence, too. It's a big world out there; you can make moving through it easier for your child, with a little practice.

Follow-Up on DOE: G+T

Written by Helen Zelon Monday, 04 August 2008 09:00

Last week, Insideschools spoke with Anna Commitante (head of DOE G+T), Elizabeth Sciabarra (OSEPO head) and Marty Barr (OSEPO's elementary-schools head) about gifted and talented programs, enrollment, and admissions policies. Here are highlights from our conversation; a longer article in the next alert will answer some new questions, too.

Centralized admissions will still be the mode for grade-school gifted and talented programs in 2009-2010. The two exams currently used to evaluate youngsters, the OLSAT and the Bracken School Readiness Test, will continue in use; there is no plan whatsoever to add a human, subjective eye to assess the effects of, say, a suddenly tongue-tied, shy, or stubborn four-year-old. The OLSAT carries triple the weight of the Bracken, because the former looks at aptitude and the latter, at actual knowledge (letters, numbers, colors, etc.).

Sibling priority enrollment meant, this year, that applicants with older sibs in the program or in the school building (a subject of significant confusion at PS 9, which also houses the Anderson School) were eligible for citywide g+t classes at lower test scores than kids who don't have sibs in the first-choice school. The three citywide g+t schools, Anderson, NEST+m, and TAG, accepted siblings with scores from the 99th to the 96th percentile. Non-sib applicants were admitted at the 99th percentile at NEST and Anderson, with a few exceptions at TAG.

We asked how many of the newest crop of citywide g+t Kindergarten students were younger siblings vs. non-sibs; DOE rep Andy Jacob said he would get us the numbers, and we hope he will.

The question of opening a new citywide g+t school in an outer borough is under discussion, but has not yet been resolved. (We'll know more in a few weeks, promises Liz Sciabarra.) Ditto, for whether gen-ed Kindergarten applications will be centralized or school-based. Pre-K applications will, however, continue to be centralized again this year -- but the timeframe will be earlier, and communication, everyone promises, will be better, clearer, and more consistent.

As parents learned this year, some districts start g+t programming in Kindergarten, and others in first grade. While there's no citywide mandate to regulate when g+t 'should' start (or, for that matter, an official, citywide g+t curriculum, above and beyond grade standards), DOE planners now recognize that their guarantee to seat every qualified student was understood by many parents to mean, starting in Kindergarten, with new classes created where none existed before.

But new K classes were never part of the plan, said Marty Barr. The decision to hold over scores -- the 'exemptions' parents got letters about -- came about in the wake of parent protest. Most kids who qualify for g+t seats will receive them, but in first grade. (Qualifying students in Districts 7 and 14, however, were offered seats in alternate districts, because no g+t programs were offered within 7 and 14, forcing parents to consider commuting challenges and other daunting logistics.)

"It's a communication issue," said Sciabarra, who cited 'lessons learned' and a desire to "take the angst out" of admissions. "We have to do better at that."

We couldn't agree more.

(Readers seeking nitty-gritty answers to fine-tooth questions, watch for an expanded story in the upcoming alert -- too much here to bog down the blog.)

GOP spin on NYC schools

Written by Helen Zelon Monday, 04 August 2008 06:04

John McCain (or his ghostwriter) spun an impressively bold segue from public-school reform to private-school vouchers in this editorial in the Daily News. Touting the Mayor and the Chancellor, along with Rev. Al Sharpton, as visionary ed reformers, McCain cites their efforts as evidence of school failure -- anyone else miss the logic here? -- and promises private- and religious-school vouchers as his vision of public school reform.

Read Sharpton's praise for McCain here, if you're curious.

Even with the spin, the editorial asks a big, legitimate question: Sharpton, Klein et al are at the forefront of the Education Equality Project, which defines education as an essential civil right for all Americans. Barack Obama, whose daughters attend private school, hasn't yet weighed in. As the AFT-endorsed candidate, we'd welcome his views.

'Beat goes on' Dept.

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 01 August 2008 06:33

Newsday asked today what we asked yesterday -- but they're getting about the same answers: Tom Dunn of NYSED said in an email the "target" date for report cards was late next week; in the article, bets are hedged to within the first two weeks of August.

And DOE belt-tightening doesn't seem to extend to travel, according to a July 29th report from City Comptroller (and mayoral hopeful) William S. Thompson. Oversights on travel expenses are presently nil at the DOE, the report said, leading to violations in bidding procedure, expensive out-of-town-retreats that could've been held locally (with no travel or hotel expenses), and DOE staff getaways in the Catskills where about a third of invited (and paid-for) participants didn't show.

The DOE didn't argue with the report's conclusions, and has "generally agreed" with the Comptroller's recommendations for additional oversights (more accountability!) and standard-operating-procedure bidding in the future.

New blog on the block

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 01 August 2008 06:11

A new schools blog has launched here in Gotham City, with Philissa Cramer, well-known to all Insideschools faithfuls, and former teacher Kelly Vaughan, at the helm. Welcome to the fray --

Wish list coming true, part I

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 31 July 2008 05:59

Remember about a month ago, when we asked you for questions you'd like answered by the DOE?

Well, the wheels grind slowly, even in midsummer, but grind they do: This afternoon, we're speaking with Anna Commitante (head of Gifted +Talented for the Department) and OSEPO head Elizabeth Sciabarra. Watch the blog for a brief follow-up of that conversation, and deeper coverage in the next Insideschools alert.

Many thanks to our avid, intelligent, insightful readers for their participation and support.

Middle School Muddle: Seeing Rent as Tuition

Written by Liz Willen Wednesday, 30 July 2008 13:00

by Liz Willen

There's no way of getting around the constant search for schools in New York City -- from getting into pre-kindergarten (far more complicated than necessary this year) to finding a good neighborhood school to choosing a district with enough reasonable middle school choices to mitigate the nagging "what's next?'' anxiety that accompanies raising kids here.

But pluses like diversity, excitement, culture, and the thrill of outdoor movies, music and river-art waterfalls, all within easy commuting distance, become meaningless for parents who do not believe their children can obtain a first-rate education in the New York City public school system. That's why word-of-mouth makes the best schools instantly popular, and why landlords hold enormous power in neighborhoods graced with good schools.

New York City living is a series of trade-offs. You give up on the idea of a backyard in favor of a public park or playground, convince your children that all siblings share their bedrooms (or sleep in rooms that resemble monastery cells), forgo owning a car or move it constantly -- and pay those pesky parking tickets when you forget. It's all a lot easier to take if you feel good about the schools.

All of this became even more sharply apparent to me recently when a West Coast colleague without New York City know-how or connections who was moving here in a big hurry wanted help and advice. She wanted the basics, which can feel impossible: a decent apartment near a good neighborhood public school that would welcome her children as newcomers.

She figured she could accomplish this in one weekend.

I turned her onto to Insideschools.org and gave her a list of some of the most well known and loved schools near hew new job in lower Manhattan -- PS 150, PS 234 and PS 89. A quick look at listings made it clear that a two-bedroom in these areas would cost at least $5,600, so lower Manhattan was quickly ruled out.

Then it was on to Brooklyn, where principals and parent coordinators were warm and welcoming -- and some landlords asked for as many as five months' rent as security, in advance. Prices were still killer -- a fifth-floor walk-up "bargain'' was nearly $3,000 a month. The second 'bedroom' owed its existence to a door on a walk-in closet.

The apartment could not be instantly discounted, though, as it had the huge advantage of being zoned for PS 321, long established as one of the city's best.

Such high prices forced my colleague toward a wider search and scrutiny of other, less-commuting-convenient neighborhoods, with schools that were less well known, but equally loved by hard-working parents and staff.

For a renter in a hurry, it's turning out to be a lot more homework. She's coming back, but convinced she'll have to look at the high cost of renting near the schools she wants as "tuition.''

That's life in New York City.

PS 8 annex -- in 2011

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 30 July 2008 07:21

Yesterday, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and a glittering lineup of civic and state luminaries traipsed over to Brooklyn Heights' rejuvenated elementary school, PS 8, to announce the construction of a new school annex, to be completed in 2011. Overcrowding has been a worry during the school's resurgence, although the most recent data available show the school isn't bursting at the seams -- yet. The school has grown from 62% capacity in 2004 to 85% in 2006.

The school's welcome revival has been the driving force behind increasing demand for seats; Chancellor Klein, quoted on WNYC, said that the new construction shows that the DOE is responsive to neighborhoods, not districts. (We'd like to see him try that logic with parents of high-school students who no longer have zoned, neighborhood high schools to attend.)

The Heights, long one of Brooklyn's best-heeled bedroom communities, proved quite the draw on a sultry summer afternoon. According to the DOE, "Chancellor Klein was joined by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, Chief Family Engagement Officer Martine Guerrier, S[chool] C[onstruction] A[uthority] President Sharon Greenberger, Department of City Planning Director Purnima Kapur, PS 8 Principal Seth Phillips, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, Councilman David Yassky, State Assemblywoman Joan Millman, State Senator Martin Connor, PTA co-President Tim Eldridge, Superintendent James Machen, PS 8 Assistant Principal Robert Mikos, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership President Joe Chan, Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy Deputy Director Nancy Webster, and Community Education Council representatives for School District 13." Whew.

Nearly everyone took a turn at the mic: Klein, Walcott, Grimm, Greenberger, Guerrier, Phillips, Eldridge, Millman, Yassky, and Markowitz all contributed remarks.

Unfortunately, the building boomlet in Brooklyn Heights doesn't include the development of new middle schools. Klein has stated that middle schools are his priority for the balance of the Mayor's term; as summer melts into fall, the time is growing short to prove it.