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Charter secondary school to open in District 15

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 24 September 2008 10:53

Three 6-12 schools already exist in Brooklyn's District 15 -- The Secondary Schools for Law, Journalism and Social Research, in the old John Jay High School building -- to mixed reviews, but the DOE has approved a new secondary charter, the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, to open in September 2009. It will be District 15's first charter school at any level and only the second secondary charter school in the city. Admission is by lottery, with priority to District 15.

Information sessions are planned for October 6 and 27 from 6-8 p.m. at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope. Tours are moot: There's no actual site for the school just yet. Executive director and co-founder Dan Rubenstein says that he's hoping for a site within walking distance of BAM, their community partner, although he expects the school will incubate in one site in the short term before being assigned its own building.

Led by Rubenstein and Luyen Chou (a founder of the fabled School at Columbia University, ed-tech wizard, and former Dalton faculty member), the new charter will open with 88 students in four sixth-grade classes and grow with a new grade every year. Rubenstein, who describes himself as "a teacher first and a school leader second," says all Brooklyn Prospect teachers will be certified but will not be bound by union contracts, as is common among charters since they often require longer hours and other work not permitted by UFT regulations.

No building seems to be no problem for interested parents. Applications are being accepted for the coming year; to learn more or RSVP for an info session, visit the school's website.

Cash for closing schools

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 24 September 2008 10:50

Should teachers at schools destined for closure double down and teach with greater vigor -- or slouch into oblivion? An article by Jennifer Medina in today's Times highlights the apparently contradictory (and surely embarrassing) fact that the DOE gave significant cash awards, linked to the school progress reports, to teachers and administrators at five DOE-designated 'failed' schools.

The core question -- how can DOE both reward and punish the same schools? -- is well worth asking. And some of the players, notably John Hughes of the newly-renamed Hunts Point School (which was, last year, MS 201), do force questions of ethics and judgment. But for a moment, consider the teachers, the folks in the classrooms, and recognize the dedication that keeps them coming back, despite a school being shuttered around them and the pressure to find a new job.

Teachers who help students learn are to be celebrated. Teachers who help students learn even when the school they share is on the DOE chopping block deserve medals -- and loud praise from the communities they serve.

DOE District 3 rezoning proposal: Check the numbers

Written by Jennifer Freeman Wednesday, 24 September 2008 06:18

The NY Sun yesterday cited DOE enrollment numbers, concluding that "P.S. 87 on 78th Street would be at 50% capacity if only neighborhood students zoned for the school attended." The way that this number turns out to be false reveals a lot about the DOE's preliminary rezoning proposal.

If you kicked out all kids attending the school last year in grades K-5 who didn't live in the zone, according to DOE data, the school would indeed be at 50% capacity. But DOE analysis misses a basic trend: each year, the percentage of in-zone kids has been rising. While 60 lottery seats were offered in 2007-08, only 35 lottery seats were offered for PS 87 kindergarteners for 2008-09.

Of those 35 seats, at least 16 went to siblings. Several others went to children with special needs who are assigned to PS 87 for CTT (collaborative team teaching) classes and other services. So of 175 kindergarten kids, fewer than a dozen, or about 7 percent, are non-sibling, non-special ed "out of zone" children.

The DOE is implying that it can gain scores of seats at PS 87 by limiting the lottery and expanding the catchment zone. But with fewer out of zone kids entering the school every year, redrawing PS 87's zone lines won't be much help in solving district overcrowding (as opposed to building a new school). Last night, parents from most grade schools on the Upper West Side met to discuss the DOE's preliminary rezoning proposal. While each school community has its own unique circumstances, some unifying themes emerged:

· Parents want sibling preference to be grandfathered in during any transition period;

· Schools with successful G&T or dual language programs want to be able to maintain them;

· Zone lines raised more questions than they solved; parents called on DOE to be more specific about metrics used to estimate the influx of children from new housing.

In the coming days, District 3's Community Education Council will look carefully at both the numbers and the underlying assumptions of DOE's proposals. We will scrutinize DOE's brand-new concept of "Target Zone Utilization,"to determine whether this number, which has no history or alignment with other educational goals, is an appropriate benchmark from which to build a plan.

Personally, I take hope from DOE comments that last week's initial proposal was just a starting point, a basis for conversation, and that District 3 families will be able to shape a DOE proposal that is based on realistic numbers leading to a real solution to overcrowding in our schools. Maybe I am naive, or masochistic, but I'm really not upset. At least not yet.

Updates: DOE rep Will Havemann said that DOE representatives would, on the CEC's invitation, come to additional meetings to hear parent and community comment on the rezoning proposal.

The CEC will next meet on October 2, at the JOA Complex (154 West 93d Street), at 6:30 pm. Parents and community members are welcome to attend, but organizers say there will be no opportunity for public comment. -hz

High school hustle: Our Saturday at the fair

Written by Liz Willen Tuesday, 23 September 2008 06:57

Saturday was one of those perfect Indian summer days. The beach beckoned; the greenmarkets overflowed with pungent basil and ripe produce; tourists marched in droves over the Brooklyn Bridge to see the waterfalls. I pulled my reluctant 12-year-old out of bed and headed to the jam-packed citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Tech.

"But I don't want to go to Brooklyn Tech," he complained. The fair, I replied calmly, would be a chance to ask questions of hundreds of students, counselors, principals and others about their high schools all over the city.

The Department of Education has provided lots of opportunities to learn about the high school process, which is far more daunting, overwhelming and confusing than the one we just participated in to find a middle school. The fair was one of them, and I did learn a few things. I spoke to some energetic and devoted teachers at the up-and-coming Brooklyn Latin, and I came away totally impressed. I learned more about specialty high school exams and how to rank the schools. I discovered there are lots of new and innovative high schools worth checking out. I finally found out when some open house dates might be for schools on our (well, let's be frank) on my list.

"So what did you learn at the high school fair?" I asked my son as we huffed up and downstairs to find schools that interest him. It came as no surprise to find they were also the schools with the biggest crowds: for example, Bard, Beacon, Millennium, Stuyvesant and his current obsession, LaGuardia. "I learned a lot of people want to go to LaGuardia," he said.

When we got home, he spent two hours practicing for his audition in November. Our next step will be to visit some open houses and to have another one of those "you can't put all your eggs in basket," talks. It's great to know what you want – even if you have yet to see it or experience it -- but it's also important to get a good sense of different high schools and what they offer.

West Side parents famously covet seats at strong local elementary schools; the DOE, well aware of the constant demand, is "floating" two rezoning proposals to address the District 3 crunch, according to Elizabeth Green in today's New York Sun. (Insideschools' blogger Jennifer Freeman is quoted in the story; she'll give us her take on the situation after the CEC meets this evening.)

One strategy would affect nearly a third of neighborhood families, and could place siblings of different ages at different schools. Another posits relocation of two well-regarded schools -- the Anderson and Center schools -- to allow their currently cramped buildings to accept more local students. As can be imagined, local blogs and street-corners are buzzing: Possible plans to expand the district farther uptown, for example, raise concerns about lottery-driven long commutes.

Any rezoning plans require CEC approval. If you've got something to say, now's the time: The District 3 CEC will meet at 5:30 at the JOA Complex, 154 West 93d St.

Update: See the rezoning proposal here; DOE rep Will Havemann says it's the "first iteration in a long conversation" -- but says a final vote is desired by the end of November, and that kindergarten applications for 2009-10 will be affected by any rezoning plans approved this fall.

College admissions: Will Facebook replace the SATs?

Written by Helen Zelon Monday, 22 September 2008 09:45

A feature in today's Times showcases rising efforts by many colleges and universities to diminish the influence of the SAT exam in college admissions; scholars and journalists have repeatedly documented real advantages to more-advantaged students, and this article mentions the generally slim gains that hired test-prep confers. But the SAT is widely used, especially by schools that screen thousands of applicants, as a benchmark for consideration, making its elimination entirely unlikely. Some schools make the SAT optional and many encourage students to take SAT IIs and ACT exams to bolster or replace less-robust SAT scores.

As it turns out, applicants should pay attention to their Facebook pages along with their prep packets and textbooks: One in ten undergraduate admissions officers at 500 "top" schools (based on US News and World Report listings) say that they look at prospective students' Facebook pages. For grad applications, 9% of business schools say they refer to Facebook and other social networking sites, as do 14% of law schools and 15% of medical schools.

The upshot? About a quarter of admissions officials who use Facebook say they come away with a more positive view of the students that apply. But quite a few more -- 38% -- say that the impact is negative, highlighting what Binghamton University provost Sandra Starke calls a "sticky wicket" -- a theoretically private, actually public web page that's easily accessible (and often a lot more revealing than the well-crafted essay).

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers came to Brooklyn Tech this weekend for the high school fair, with lines that wrapped up Fort Greene Place and along Fulton Street. More than 19,000 people attended on Saturday alone, according to Elizabeth Sciabarra, who should know. (She's the head of the DOE's Office of Student Enrollment and Planning.) Last year, 80,000 students applied for high-school seats; visitors this weekend seemed to include at least as many parents and younger siblings, in reluctant tow, as eighth-graders.

While some precociously prescient kids claimed to have been working on their high-school lists since sixth grade, many others were thinking through their choices as they met with principals and older students. A few middle schools organized school buses to bring students and families to the fair. But plenty of parents were uncertain about the high-school selection and admissions process; one father asked, before going into Tech, "What's all the fuss? Aren't all the high schools the same?"

If you attended the fair this weekend, what did you learn? What surprised you? What would you change? Next month, each borough will host its own high-school fair; what can we tell parents to prepare them for the day -- and help them get the most from the time they invest?

Wall Street may be flailing but this week, many city teachers and principals are flush, thanks to bonuses based on the school progress reports. There also still seems to be enough cash left for Village residents to open a new private high school and parents to apply in record-breaking numbers for spaces in Financial District private kindergarten. For some, spending money still looks like a good investimen; as there are more high school seniors in the United States than ever before, lots of families hiring expensive private college counselors to try to get an edge on the competition.

A teacher at the Bronx School of Law and Finance is using the volatile markets to teach economics lessons. Maybe she can explain how class size in more than half of city schools went up despite state aid to lower class size -- and the revelation that more teachers are receiving paychecks without being given a teaching assignment.

Despite Bloomberg’s "no social promotion" mandate, fewer students were held back this year. Summer school lessons, however, do not seem to be enough to help most students who failed during the regular school year make up the work and move to the next grade.

Charter schools, many of which received top grades this week, may face serious threats in the future, according one advocate. But for now, New York's charters hope to get a little more help from the state and a little less regulation.

Some of the school bus problems may be getting sorted out, but the affected students, many of whom have special needs, now have to settle into their school year routines… three weeks late. Several students with ADHD who attended an NYU summer program are adjusting well to school, however, which their parents credit to their structured summer.

Bloomberg responded to the Times editorial last week that suggested mayoral control of the schools might have a few more checks and balances. Naturally, the mayor disagreed. Several top Boston educators who have moved to New York might add to his case.

Education experts square off on Obama’s plan for the nations schools, and The Sun uncovered Klein’s education policy reading list.

While most of the education news this week circled around the Progress Report grades, when the Times discovered that the Chancellor also grades his own staff on how well they host a press conference, press secretary, David Cantor, was inspired to email the Gray Lady their own grade: “Value of the story: F.”

Pepper spray perils

Written by Helen Zelon Friday, 19 September 2008 05:27

In a disturbing, cross-town coincidence, NY1 reports that students at three high schools have been exposed to pepper spray this week, with more than two dozen kids evaluated for complaints ranging from chest pains to burning eyes, and two 14-year-olds, in separate incidents, detained by the NYPD.

What are kids doing with pepper spray, and what are they doing bringing it to school?

The first step in our family's New York City public high school search did not involve delving into our growing piles of books, papers and test prep brochures, gathered at various information sessions.

We watched the movie “Fame,’’ that 1980 classic set at the old New York City High School for the Performing Arts, which became the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. It seemed like a better idea than shoving a pile of materials in front of my 12-year-old and pointing out that there are more than 400 high schools to choose from. “So, where do you want to go? Take a look and rank them from 1 to 12!’’ My musician son has thought very little about high school (didn't we just choose a middle school?) but he does know about LaGuardia, even if we've never set foot in the place and can't figure out when the next open house is.

"Fame" is a bit outdated. The students looked about 25, as far as we could tell, but we followed their hopes, dreams, and struggles with rapt interest. Afterwards, we talked a bit about competition, and about what auditions for LaGuardia might be like. We discussed the wisdom of entering high school with enormous focus and ambition at such a young age. Well, maybe ‘discussed’ isn’t the right word, I probably talked about the importance of combining passion for the arts with the strongest academic and college-preparatory curriculum possible; my son probably nodded and did his best to ignore me. It's time to take the next step, so we’ll head to Brooklyn Tech on Saturday for the citywide high school fair. Even though there are more than 400 high schools to choose from, I have a feeling the crowds will gather in front of about 20 of the best-known. I doubt it will be as much fun as watching “Fame,’’ but at least it’s a start.

We're happy to welcome back Insideschools guest blogger and school-search veteran Liz Willen. And for the record, LaGuardia has open houses for accepted students; the school does not offer public tours prior to admission.