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Too busy worrying if you still have a job, your fifth grader got into middle school or the commute to Manhattan for a G&T program is plausible to read the paper? Don’t worry - we’ve flipped through the pages for you. Welcome to the first installment of our education and school news round-up. Look for it every Friday! This week, while Margaret Spellings, Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg were in Disney World speaking at Jeb Bush’s national education reform summit, a paroled felon ran from the cops ran straight into a Brooklyn elementary school, brandishing his loaded handgun. Luckily, everyone at PS 108 was okay, but some older Brooklyn students found themselves behind bars after serving a laxative laced cake that left two teachers hospitalized. While in the Magic Kingdom, Chancellor Klein wished upon a star for the ability to certify teachers and principals without a university. The College Board might wish that the new SAT had proven to be a better indicator of college success; they sure tried to spin their study results that way. At least veterans had one dream come true when Congress greatly expanded their educational grants and permitted the transfer of aid to family members.  In Albany, Gov. Paterson has successfully pushed through legislation that will push sex offenders out of the classroom, but he has been less successful in convincing fellow lawmakers to cap local school property taxes, although a poll shows that 74 percent of voters support the cap. But in "America's first suburb," the property tax debate has been overshadowed. Town officials in Levittown complain of psychological damage to 8th graders, who came across their town name as an answer choice on the state social studies exam and were so upset to see their community associated with Hoovervilles and tenements that they were unable to complete their tests. A high school in Massachusetts, however, has a real problem. Some students supposedly made a pact to become pregnant, and now 17 girls under 17 years-old are expecting. Wendy Kopp and Richard Barth, the Upper West Side-based education power-couple who is devoted to closing the achievement gap through Teach for America and the KIPP charter school network, might wonder why European countries are looking to the US schools as a model of desegregation. Local columnists, meanwhile, muse on Obama’s father’s day speech, and the effect of home life on school achievement. All New York public school students might soon learn more about how to be nice to each other, and a few New York private school students will study Arabic next year. Language skills, however, continue to bar many immigrants from accessing the city’s childcare offerings. And, of course, the topics covered in our blog were also covered in the papers: flaws in the new G&T admissions policy, which left the program even less diverse than in years past; the Robin Hood effect of No Child Left Behind, which has potentially created a boost in low-performing students scores while stagnating high performing students’ academic growth; the middle school placement mess; and the interview with Chancellor Klein, which focuses on Brooklyn schools but is illuminating in general.

Thoughts? Reactions? Opinions?

UPDATE (6/25/08): The story about the teen pregnancy pact has gotten a lot of follow-up ink. Was it a pact or not? Regardless, there are still 17 pregnant teenagers in one high school, several of whom have confirmed that their pregnancy was intentional.

Middle School Muddle: Tips I wish I could give

Written by Liz Willen Thursday, 19 June 2008 08:59

by Liz Willen

After two middle school searches in three years, I wish I could pretend to be the seasoned pro, generous with wisdom, advice and pitfalls to avoid. But even though we did our homework carefully, visited lots of schools in District 2, and listened to the words of teachers, guidance counselors and district officials, we discovered that the middle school admissions process did not work well this year. Confusion and misinformation triumphed.

Part of it is a supply and demand problem, of course. There simply aren't enough good public middle schools in New York City, and as more parents choose to raise their children here and want to support public education, something has to change -- quickly. Demand for the best public elementary schools is on the rise, leading inevitably to crowding and more competition. So clearly, there is a need to improve the city's middle schools.

For the record, my complaints are not directed at the personal situation my family finds ourselves in. My now seventh-grader two years ago chose the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, where the language arts program has been absolutely outstanding. The teachers, principal and parent coordinators are warm, welcoming and approachable. Truth is, there should be more schools like Clinton everywhere. And more like Lab, Salk, MAT and East Side Middle School, to name a few of the terrific schools we've toured, some of them twice.

Two years ago, our middle-school search went well. We gave lots of schools careful consideration before ranking Clinton first of five choices. By April, it was over.

My current fifth-grader's class didn't fare as well. Graduation is Friday and several of his classmates are shut out of all of their choices, as are children all over the city.

The appeals process is underway. No one knows how it will go. This year decisions did not come in until mid-June. Many kids got the wrong letters. Some didn't get letters at all, leaving it to the patient elementary school guidance counselors, parent coordinators and principals to help sort things out.

How were decisions made? No one can say for sure, but we do know that the Department of Education decided to centralize the process -- meaning, take it out of the hands of the schools and districts, even though it was working well.

Did principals even look at applications this year? Was it just a numbers game, test scores and the like? I'm thinking about the carefully crafted hand-written notes my son and some of his friends wrote to their first-choice schools, describing why they wanted to be there. And those art and writing projects they attached?

Julie Shapiro wrote a good piece in the Downtown Express, describing the frustration and shock many families whose children are shut out of schools now feel. If I had a child entering fifth-grade next year, I'd be very concerned. Will the process be changed? If so, how? What should parents know? Whatever is decided, it's critical that schools, district officials, principals, parent coordinators and guidance counselors give out THE SAME INFORMATION, which was not at all the case this year.

My younger son, as it turns out, is also going to Clinton and I feel lucky. But I'm sick about all the great kids left hanging, and the unfortunate impression of contempt the Department of Education is showing to children and families who truly want to be here and support city schools.

G+T K: Your kid, and the city's children

Written by Helen Zelon Thursday, 19 June 2008 04:14

A famously outspoken lot, parents of g+t youngsters had a great deal to say in response to our question yesterday afternoon. Two themes seem clear from the comments which, along with the Times' article on waylaid hopes for diversity in the city's g+t classes, deserve exploration.

First theme: What happened to my kid? With high demand for citywide schools (more on this later) and so many high-scoring children, parents want badly to know how their child stacked up against the competition. We hope the DOE will release data on test scores and admission, but worry about pitting adorable 4-year-olds against their playground pals in the process. How much information is enough, and how much is too much?

Second theme: What about the city's children? Two points emerged here: Is it fair to test, and rely solely on scores, when percentiles are determined by about the same number of points as comprise the test's margin of error? And, why aren't 'citywide' schools truly citywide, in all five boros? (The idea of trekking across bridges and through tunnels for kindergarten is a parent's logistical nightmare -- not to mention, potential mayhem for playdates and birthday parties.) Should the DOE rename the three 'citywide' programs 'Manhattan-wide'? The need for strong programs across all five boros has never been clearer; why is Manhattan the mother lode?

Finally, the DOE's attempt to diversify the programs by reliance on testing has not yielded the desired result; in fact, programs in some districts aren't opening at all.

The process this year was deeply flawed. We wonder how it might change next year, to better serve all children -- yours, your neighbor's, and the folks across town.

Inclusion, exclusion and middle school special ed

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 18 June 2008 18:34

Parents and special-ed committee members met with DOE officials tonight at PS 721, a District 75 school in the far reaches of Brooklyn, to ask about two-week delays in middle-school admissions for students with special needs.

Parents spoke passionately of frustrations in getting information about the process; of second-rate attention for special-needs students; of questions long unanswered, from parents, guidance counselors and principals. Many protested the punishing rate of DOE change, and charged that a similar pace -- four major reorganizations in five years -- would likely have cost a CEO in the marketplace his or her job.

Sandy Ferguson, in his first year as executive director of middle-school enrollment, listened with equanimity and responded with welcome candor. "To be frank, we never expected this [process] would run as long as it did," he said. "We did not communicate with parents. This was a mistake and we will look to correct this for next year." According to Ellen Newman, executive director for special ed enrollment, letters went out to parents and to school guidance counselors today, Wednesday -- except for one set that were hand-delivered to The Children's School, which held graduation today (thanks to a coordinated email campaign spearheaded by parent coordinator Roxana Velandria).

One PS 295 parent noted a "general air of secrecy" regarding special-ed placements, and said that "when the general-ed kids got placed first, that hurt more than anything else." (The parent asked not to be quoted, out of concern that she might somehow threaten her child's still-unknown placement.)

Ferguson agreed, saying "It's the thing I'm saddest about. Frankly, we just ran out of time, and [the burden] came out on exactly the wrong folks. It's something I'm not proud of, and something we plan to correct next year."

Broad and deep issues persist -- space, crowding, access, and the practical fact that students with special needs are essentially excluded from a process ostensibly geared to inclusion, as they're not permitted to interview or audition for middle schools along with their gen-ed peers. Whether these issues can be effectively addressed for the coming year is unknown; for this year, it's moot.

But for those who ask, where does the buck stop? Sandy Ferguson answered, loud and clear, it stops at his desk. He's aware of the problems (although he was unaware of their historic dimensions, as special-ed results have been consistently delayed), and seems sincerely committed their resolution -- next year.

Schools cut teaching positions

Written by Lindsey Whitton Christ Wednesday, 18 June 2008 11:56

It's not just parents and students on tenterhooks waiting for school placements. This week is incredibly stressful for the faculty and staff at many city schools, too. As principals hand out next year's teaching assignments, some teachers are discovering that the proposed budget cuts have left them officially "excessed" -- still employed by the DOE but without an active position. (While teachers historically had been automatically transfered, the 2006 UFT contract gave excessed educators control over their job search.)

Excessed teachers who don't -- or can't -- find a new school can spend up to two years in the "reserve pool," earning full wages and benefits, temporarily assigned to schools where the principals decide their workload. Cost to the city since 2006? $81 million. Predictably, the UFT and The New Teacher Project, which has close ties to the DOE, disagree over whether or not this policy is a waste of funds.

This year, looming budget cuts may mean even more teachers in reserve; this week, when assignments are made known, the atmosphere at many schools is tense.

G+T Admissions: Has the dust settled?

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 18 June 2008 11:19

Readers have commented at length on the vagaries and apparent inconsistencies of the g+t admissions process this year -- both citywide and district placements were delayed, couriered, mailed, faxed and variously communicated, to profoundly mixed results.

How is registration going, for those who accepted seats? For those who declined, what options did you choose instead? We've heard from families who are moving to be nearer their child's school -- and some who, reconsidering a long daily commute with a 5-year-old companion, elected for good local programs.

We're hoping for clarification from the DOE on some of the more pressing issues, like whether any children got into citywide programs with sub-99 or -98 scores, why some school-based programs seems to be closing, and why some kids with 95+ scores were offered seats at schools ranked low on their lists. Let us hear from you; we're sure there's more you'd like to know.

Four down, Queens to go in C4E v. DOE - Round 1

Written by Wednesday, 18 June 2008 10:08

As the last gathering in the opening round of Contracts for Excellence public accountability hearings, tonight’s hearing in Queens could get heated. The final meeting will come 24 hours after a reportedly intense session in Manhattan, where, according to one attendee, protesters marched out of the hearing at 7:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press is picking up on the hearings. Jennifer Medina posted on the Times' City Room blog, while the Post focused on Chancellor Klein and C4E spending.We'll follow the C4E and budget-cut hearings as they unfold; let us hear from you if you attend or have something to say.

Special education meeting tonight!

Written by Lindsey Whitton Christ Wednesday, 18 June 2008 06:48

As families with special needs students continue to wait for their middle school placement letters, officials from the DOE are showing up at the monthly meeting of the citywide council on special education to discuss the delay.Both Ellen Newman, executive director for special education enrollment, and Sandy Ferguson, executive director for middle school enrollment, will be in attendance, and anyone is invited to sign-up at the door to speak.

Patricia Connelly, a member of the council, says she is "furious about this situation." Comments on an earlier blog post about the delay for special education students show that many of you are also infuriated. Tonight is your chance to tell the DOE!

The meeting is today at 6:30 p.m. at PS 721K: the Roy Campanella Occupational Training Center, 64 Avenue X in Brooklyn. Get there early to sign up to speak, and short and sweet is your best bet -- individual public comments will be held to 4 minutes or less.

For the full story on this latest placement debacle, see the article from this week's Insideschools alert.

Parents have long felt that city schools are set up to serve the highest achievers -- via gifted and talented programs and the specialized high schools, for example -- and, particularly in the current Mayoral administration, to analyze and attempt to meet the needs of the city's neediest, lowest-performing students. Thus, an era of high-stakes testing, data-driven accountability, and the basic equation of "progress" with rising scores.

But a large swath of students have been overlooked in the alphabet soup of AYP (annual yearly progress), SURR (schools under Regents review), SINI (schools in need of improvement), and NCLB (No Child Left Behind). As Sam Dillon reported in today's Times, and Eduwonkette put into thoughtful context, we risk losing sight of the kids who are doing well, or well enough. They're not making as much progress as their less-able peers, mainly because the educational target has aimed at proficiency, with less emphasis on pushing the already-proficient to new levels of rigor and achievement.

Clearly, resources are finite, and a large segment of the city's kids need and deserve real attention to the academic basics. But can we afford, as parents and as citizens, to slight the students who are already doing well?

With the Obama/McCain showdown claiming more above-the-fold newspaper space and primetime television minutes each week, I have been considering the delicate relationship between teachers’ personal politics, and their educational obligations to their students. Children have no qualms about asking blunt questions, including “who did you vote for in the last election?” which I was often asked when I taught sixth and seventh grade social studies at IS 143 in Washington Heights.

My students really wanted to know what I believed. Most of them were immigrants or first-generation Americans, and they were learning about democracy and politics for the first time in my class. They struggled in particular to understand modern political parties, and they wanted to know what the adults they looked up to believed, so that they could begin to build their own political opinions.But is it fair for teachers to share their personal political views with students or is it a teacher’s job to present the all of the ideas and arguments and teach the students the skills they need to form their own opinions? According the chancellor’s regulations, it is forbidden: all DOE employees “shall maintain a posture of neutrality with respect to all candidates,” while on the job, but in reality, this is not always followed. And remember what happened when a Bronx high school teacher and his students made a video for the Obama campaign this fall?Stanley Fish, a distinguished professor who has worked at several prominent universities, would also argue against bringing politics into the classroom. Fish writes in his New York Times blog that it is not only possible but critical that teachers don’t share their personal political opinions with their students. Gray Lady readers, particularly those who are also professors, have responded in force, igniting a vigorous debate that Fish has now responded to twice (I have even noticed some of my own professors from college chiming in).

But the relationship between politics and teaching is not just confined to higher-education. The commentators who complain that kids don’t know enough, or care enough, about the democratic process are usually quick to blame elementary, middle and high school teachers. If teachers are passionate about politics, should they share that with their students? I am inclined to side with Professor Fish and argue that politics need to be taught but not partisan ideas. In this presidential election year, do you think that teachers’ political opinions should be shared or silenced while they are at school?