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So, what about the academics at MAT? And how can a school turn around so quickly?
Fifth-graders in New York City who want a say in where they'll go to middle school spend a lot of time schlepping through buildings and listening to speeches.
They donâ€™t always know what to make of what they see and hear, but they certainly notice and covet extras like web design, fields and sports teams that were on display at a tour we took in Chinatown last week of MAT, also known as the Manhattan Academy of Technology.
â€œWe want to give you what kids in New Jersey and Westchester have,â€™â€™ John De Matteo, MATâ€™s energetic physical education teacher, told parents and kids. â€œAnd if you want a sport we donâ€™t have, weâ€™ll try to get it here.â€™â€™
As a parent, Iâ€™m looking for a balance. Track teams and activities like play production and robotics are great, alongside a strong academic program that pushes kids to succeed and encourages them to think. I prefer small schools where my children are well known. I also want to make sure there is extra help and support if kids are struggling. And I really like hearing that staff enjoys working with awkward, unpredictable and sometimes impossible middle schoolers.
MAT, which moved to its new site after merging with PS 126 in 2003, appears to meet these requirements. It has about 300 kids in grades 6-8, with four classes per grade. The schoolâ€™s newfound stature as â€œhotâ€™â€™ reminds me of a fringe city neighborhood whose reputation soars with the arrival of Starbucks and FreshDirect home delivery.
On our tour, Principal Kerry Decker told us MAT has become â€œa rising starâ€™â€™ â€“ an honor bestowed by Manhattan Media to highlight noteworthy schools.
Success hasnâ€™t been instant, though, and there is still plenty of trial and error. The schoolâ€™s track record is just getting established. By many accounts, math, science and technology are already strong at MAT, with language arts and social studies improving rapidly.
â€œI think we are a somewhat eclectic school, with lots of strengths,â€™â€™ Decker told parents during the tour. She described her biggest challenge: â€œHiring great middle school teachers, especially in math and science.â€™â€™
The staff seemed young and enthusiastic, and the art teacher impressed many of the kids on the tour, with her large, well equipped classroom filled with â€œway coolâ€™â€™ projects.
Decker spoke of priorities I strongly agree with â€“ lots of professional development, which translates into training to help teachers do their job better. â€œIâ€™m in the classroom all the time,â€™â€™ Decker said. That signifies a strong instructional leader -- an issue Iâ€™ve learned about from the Wallace Foundation.
MAT has an honors program, although the tour left some of us a bit confused as to how it works and who is eligible.
Iâ€™m particularly struck by the transformation of MAT because I spent many hours in the building (which also houses the elementary school PS 126) as a journalist, detailing an astonishing turnaround that took place during the tenure of former Principal Daria Rigney.
Rigney, now community superintendent in District Two, pushed hard to raise test scores and infuse a culture of literacy at PS 126. Her success did not go unnoticed: she was featured on PBS and promoted.
Six years later, parents in Battery Park City, Tribeca and elsewhere are choosing MAT over more convenient neighborhood schools or even private education. A friend of mine chose MAT over the middle school in her building.
I asked Rigney if she believes the academics match the amenities, which she wishes all middle schools could offer. She does, crediting principal Decker with maintaining a culture where teachers constantly want to improve. â€œThey arenâ€™t satisfied with just doing okay,â€™â€™ she said.
Success at any school depends largely on the quality of teachers and the continuous training they get, she noted.
When Rigney headed the school, teachers met every Thursday at 7:30 a.m. to discuss best practices and how to improve instruction. They still do.
What is happening at MAT, Rigney said, proves that with hard work, commitment and the right team, a school can be transformed.
â€œMAT is going to get even better,â€™â€™ Rigney said.
Read all of the "Middle School Muddle" series.
"Darth Klein" image from Eduwonkette, who has dressed up several of the city's education leaders.
Happy Halloween! Today marks a holiday that often means fun and costumes in elementary schools and higher-than-usual rates of absenteeism in high schools, where mischief can emerge on Oct. 31. The DOE doesn't have a uniform policy on Halloween celebrations, instead leaving decision-making up to individual schools. (In keeping with the DOE's philosophy of giving more power to principals, this is a change from the recent past, when the DOE attempted to set a uniform, no-costume policy.) According to a Times article, some schools, such as PS 321 in Brooklyn, allow costumes but not toy weapons. Maybe the 321 kids will unsheathe their swords at the Park Slope Halloween Parade instead; it's one of many Halloween events being held citywide. And the anti-sweets crowd has some (fun-killing) suggestions for how to keep Halloween healthy.
One city school where kids won't be celebrating? Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn, where Halloween costumes were banned after a student dressed as Hitler infuriated teachers and classmates last year.
On Monday, the Sun reported that Governor Spitzer is investing billions of dollars into SUNY and other New York colleges to increase their presence in public middle and high schools.
This increased "collaboration" will come in the form of associate degree level classwork and more interaction between the universities and public students, some as young as 12 years old. Students involved in these programs would also receive increased financial aid and a guarantee that they would be able to go to a four-year college.
This IS a good idea.
Some might argue that putting kids in failing schools into college programs is unrealistic. It is not. In order for students to succeed in school it is vital that they have a goal, a future plan. High schools are a common part of middle school culture â€” they become part of a middle school students' future plans and thus a large majority of middle school students end up in high school. In a great number of high schools, college is not a part of the culture. It is not within reach. It is not familiar.
This program could help many high school students, from schools without a college culture, to understand what college means and how possible and important it really is. It could increase the number of students with "college" somewhere in their future plans.
Then, once they have college in their sights this plan throws in a double-whammy. First, you get guaranteed college placement. (Awesome, right?) Second, you get financial aid bonuses. As a senior going through the college process with many of my friends, I see every day how vital these bonuses could be. It could mean the difference between succeeding in college and dropping out or not even going. Any program to encourage students not only to attend but also to succeed in college would not be complete without a financial aid aspect to it.
Getting colleges involved in high schools is always a good idea. For recognizing that, Governor Spitzer, I commend you. You are really doing it.
Looks like Jean Claude Brizard may be the next top DOE administrator to move on to greener pastures. He's one of four contenders for the superintendency of the Rochester (N.Y.) Public Schools, which post a high school graduation rate even lower than New York City's. On Monday, Brizard met with the selection committee in Rochester and told them what he would do to improve the schools, including bolster security, enroll more kids in pre-K, and increase vocational offerings. School board members told the local paper that Brizard "came very close" to meeting all their selection criteria; the board is meeting with the three other candidates this week.
In the last several years, Brizard has been the principal at George Westinghouse High School, a regional superintendent, and the DOE's executive director of high schools. But despite his reputation as a pretty straight shooter (or perhaps because of it?), he didn't land in any of the highest positions after the most recent reorganization. The Rochester Democrat-Gazette has an extended profile of Brizard.
The search for grants can be broken into four basic parts: needs assessment, funder research, grant writing, and implementation or spending the money. In this post, I'll explain the first component, needs assessment.
Needs assessment means deciding what are the biggest problems at your school that can be helped by grants. In some schools, this might be science kits or refurbishing a community room. In my school the principal was going deaf because the lunch room has no sound insulation, so we applied for money to install acoustic panels. Also, kids seemed to never go out on field trips, so we asked for money to send them on field trips to orchards and symphony halls. Some grants are for special programs like visiting artists or conflict resolution training.
One thing I have learned about program grants is they need to fit in a busy teacherâ€™s day, so itâ€™s best if they support the existing curriculum, or else bring in special experiences that will free up teachersâ€™ time to work with small groups of kids. For instance, if children leave the classroom for a piano lesson a half-class at a time, the remaining half can be given their math lesson with more personal attention.
The four parts of the grant search can be delegated to different people working on the grants team: one can canvass parents and teachers for grant ideas, and others can do the internet research for grants. That job is good for people who can only do work on their own time, late at night when the kids have gone to bed.
The consensus on the G+T changes is that they will make the programs more equitable in theory but will likely result in far fewer students being offered seats in gifted programs, especially in the districts that have a lively G+T culture, such as Brooklyn's District 22 and District 3, which covers the Upper West Side.
Parents in those districts are concerned that many of the students who are currently thriving in gifted programs would not be eligible for them under the new plan, reducing the number of programs and seats in those districts. â€œI think it would be a shame if not a crime to in any way eliminate any of the gifted programs that District 22 has nurtured over the last 40 years," a member of District 22's CEC told the Times. But all seem to agree that expanding access for poor students and kids in districts with only a handful or even no G+T programs is a good thing. ""When I started here kids who took the test were fundamentally kids whose parents would pay for the tests," Chancellor Klein told the Sun, and even now less than 10 percent of kids in some districts apply for gifted programs; in contrast, more than 60 percent of families in District 3 applied, the Sun reports.
The DOE has just released its long-awaited proposal for reforms to admission processes for the city's gifted and talented programs, and parents have until Nov. 25 to comment on the proposal. The goal of the proposed changes, according to the DOE, is to "expand access to gifted programs and create a single, rigorous standardâ€”based on national normsâ€”for 'giftedness.'" You can take a look at the DOE's slideshow about the changes, but here are the highlights:
- All students will be tested for G+T at their schools, not at off-site testing centers.
- Evaluations will continue to be based on two assessments (as they were last year for the first time). Children will continue to take the OLSAT. The Gifted Rating Scale will be replaced by something called the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, which the DOE says is "easier to administer in schools to many children."
- Children who take both tests will be given a composite score (75 percent OLSAT, 25 percent BSRA). Any child whose scores place him in the 95th percentile nationally will be guaranteed a slot in a gifted program in his district. Children whose scores are in the 97th percentile will be able to apply to the three citywide gifted schools: TAG,
HunterAnderson, and NEST.
- Families will rank their choices from among the district and citywide options.
- OSEPO will place students. Parents will know whether their child is guaranteed a G+T slot by March 31 and will get their placement offers by May 31.
To make the process even more equitable, beginning in 2008, all students -- not just those whose parents request an evaluation -- will be tested for G+T eligibility.
The DOE says it also plans to enhance the quality of instruction in self-contained G+T programs citywide -- quality, like admissions procedures, has varied from district to district -- and to expand enrichment opportunities for all students, not just those whose scores qualify for G+T programs.
After the state decided to forgo federal funds that would require schools to teach abstinence-only sex education, the DOE has announced that it is recommending a "research-based" high school sex ed program that Newsday says is "designed to encourage students to delay sexual activity while at the same time providing information about contraception and disease prevention." The program, called Reducing the Risk, does not offer the comprehensive sex ed that advocates have called for, but it at least recognizes that teenagers need to learn about contraception and protection. However, the state still doesn't require sex ed for high schoolers, so it's anyone's guess how many schools will choose to offer the program.
Gotham Gazette's featured education article right now is about the lack of -- and need for -- quality sex ed in the city's schools. One kid quoted in the piece works as a Teen Advocate for Planned Parenthood and describes some pretty incredible misinformation that she's heard from other young people. If you're a teen interested in improving the information kids get about sex issues, Planned Parenthood has three different programs you can join.
Saturday was the Specialized High School Admission Test! I think it went fairly well, considering the rain was pouring and I was really nervous.
The reading section of the test seemed pretty easy to me, at least easier then the sections that I had been studying off of, and that kind of caught me off guard. The math went smoothly too, for the first half; the next quarter of questions were challenging, and the last quarter were near impossible â€” some just because they were difficult problems, and some that I could have figured out with more time. In the end, I can only hope that the last couple of problems didn't completely trip me up.
I only put down two schools on the specialized high school application, because I really had no interest in the others. Now, all that I can do is wait!
Yesterday, the Post confirmed something that many of us who are concerned about schools' environmental impact have long suspected: few schools recycle, and the city doesn't care that they aren't following local laws or DOE directives. Even at Brooklyn's Academy of Environmental Leadership, recyclables and trash are mixed together and thrown to the curb. The DOE could really be a leader in reducing its environmental footprint, but instead its lack of a recycling program is an embarrassment and evidence in a time of massive decentralization that some functions might be better carried out centrally.