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Tone-deaf at the DOE: a brief history of middle school reform

Written by Admin Wednesday, 27 February 2008 17:25

First, the City Council recommends realistic, affordable, broadly supported middle school reforms. Then, after earmarking only $5 million to fund a few of the reforms, the DOE rolls out a punitive policy to retain more 8th graders. The mayor then cuts funds that go to support the very programs it says will prevent retentions. Next, the day after a major press conference by a coalition of parents and advocates upset about the retention policy and the budget cuts, the DOE announces an initiative to "re-brand achievement" using cell phones. And finally, in its press release, the DOE notes that cell phones, include those that promote learning, continue to be prohibited in schools.

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Dozens of parents, advocates and students representing the Coalition for Educational Justice crowded the foyer of Fashion Industries High School tonight in Manhattan to hold a press conference calling for middle grades reform. The boisterous conference, which featured speakers who included City Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson and Brooklyn Borough President (and possible mayoral hopeful) Marty Markowitz, among many others, set the tone for the DOE’s first public hearing on the proposed 8th grade promotion policy, held at the school tonight.

CEJ’s plan for middle grades reform was in the works before last month, when the DOE announced the 8th grade promotion policy, which speakers tonight called “punitive” and “a classic case of blaming the victim.” Once the DOE announced the new policy, which sets formal guidelines for retention of failing 8th graders without making clear how the department will intervene to help struggling students, the CEJ plan became all the more timely. The five-point plan calls for increasing the middle school day by 90 minutes; enhancing the Lead Teacher Program; adding counselors to middle schools; reducing class size; and starting a summer program for 6th graders.

Speakers at the press conference connected the promotion policy with the recent budget cuts. Jaime Estades of the Alliance for Quality Education said, “8th grade retention will do nothing without well-funded programs to implement changes.” Several items on CEJ’s platform have been made impossible by the budget cuts; principals told Insideschools that they are cutting extra time for tutoring, and the Lead Teacher Program is on the chopping block centrally.

After 200 or so CEJ representatives and allies, including dozens of small children apparently bused to the scene by the community group ACORN, filed into the auditorium for the formal presentation, DOE officials presented a stultifying PowerPoint on the promotion policy. With slide titles such as “Why preparing students for high school is critical” and “Students prepared for high school perform better once there” — things no parent in the room needed to be told — the slideshow seemed designed to “smoke parents out,” as one advocate suggested to me.

Indeed, the DOE presented little new information. Students who score at Level 1 on state math or reading tests in 8th grade or who do not pass all four of their “core” courses will be required to attend summer school, and those who do not meet those standards after the summer will not be promoted. The DOE has made special plans for students who have already been retained at least once before 8th grade: if they make a sincere effort to improve their scores and grades during summer school, they’ll be “promoted on appeal with intensive remediation” to high school. The DOE’s presentation also addressed students with special needs — their promotion requirements will be set by their IEPs — and English language learners, who will face progressively onerous requirements the longer they have been in the country. Students who have been in the country more than one year, for example, must pass all core subjects, score a 2 or higher on the state math test, and make gains between January and June on the state ELA exam.

During the public comment portion of the evening, which stretched on for hours as many CEJ members took the microphone, many speakers noted that “no one here tonight is in favor of kids going to high school unprepared” but questioned how the new promotion policy will actually help students.

Advocates for Children Executive Director Kim Sweet said, “The proposed policy fails to offer meaningful help to address the root problems of middle grade failure and provides no assurance whatsoever that struggling students will get the help they need.” Instead, she said, the policy “merely erects one more barrier [struggling students] have to cross in order to continue their education,” already a challenge for the many overage students for whom the DOE lacks programs and services. AFC is a member of CEJ.

Norm Fruchter, director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform's Community Involvement Program, which has incubated CEJ, asked for evidence that the retention policies in grades 3, 5, and 7 are working and noted that the results of an evaluation of those policies contracted in 2004 were never made public. If those policies work, he asked, “How do 18,000 students not get there?” (The DOE estimates that 18,000 students would be eligible for retention.) He also asked why the DOE is rolling out a policy that all evidence suggests is likely to cause more high school dropouts as students become overage and remain far from graduation. A later speaker called the plan “a dropout strategy.”

Pedro Noguera, an education researcher who has also signed onto CEJ’s plan, was more pointed. He asked, “Is there any research that you know of that supports what you’re doing?” The DOE officials, who hadn’t spoken except to remind speakers of their time limits, did not answer.

There are four more DOE hearings on the promotion policy scheduled for the next two weeks. See the Insideschools calendar for details on dates and locations.

CPAC dropping out of DOE's Lobby Day

Written by Admin Tuesday, 26 February 2008 05:06

Today is the DOE's annual lobby day, where DOE representatives as well as parents travel to Albany to push the city's schools' agenda in the budget process. Usually, the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council spearheads the effort to get parents up to Albany. But this year, unhappy at the city's response to budget problems — to pass the cuts along to the schools — CPAC voted not to participate in the DOE's lobby day, the Daily News recently reported. Instead, it and other parent groups will send their own delegation to Albany March 11. Is anyone planning to go?

More than 50 new schools opening this fall

Written by Admin Monday, 25 February 2008 06:49

Not content operating only 1,466 schools and programs, the DOE is planning to open 52 new schools this fall. Insideschools has already told you about more than half of those -- the high schools, for which applications are due tomorrow, and the transfer schools that will serve students who have not been successful in traditional high schools. The vast majority of the new schools will open (with the same students) in the buildings of other schools that are closing or phasing out due to poor performance, although the DOE will be using a handful of new sites in Queens and Staten Island. With names like "Brighter Choice Community School" and "Performance School," there's sure to be an option for everyone.

Parents fear DOE cutbacks to District 75

Written by Admin Friday, 22 February 2008 04:30

Is the DOE's next cost-cutting move going to be dismantling District 75, the city's district for students with the severest disabilities? That's what parents and the teachers' union allege in yesterday's Post. They say the "hush-hush" study being conducted now by the Council of the Great City Schools to identify ways to "improve" the district is a first step toward eliminating it and sending disabled students back to their neighborhood schools.

The DOE says it had no particular agenda in commissioning the study by the non-profit research organization that supports urban school districts. But parents remain suspicious, the Post says, and they may be right to, given past chancellors' attempts to dismantle the costly district, the DOE's current preference for CTT classes that include students in both general and special education, and the budget crisis that has left administrators at all levels scrambling to find ways to save money. Either way, those looking out for children with special needs, including Advocates for Children, Insideschools' parent organization, are sure to keep a careful eye on the situation.

Parents — answer a survey to help the arts

Written by Admin Tuesday, 19 February 2008 12:07

Parents — looking for something to do during this week off? Take a survey about the arts in your school. The Center for Arts Education is surveying parents about their opinions on arts education and the role of art at their schools. By taking the survey, you'll be helping CAE advocate for better arts programming in the city's schools — at precisely the time that principals are feeling like they have to cut arts funding.

Parents — answer a survey to help the arts

Written by Admin Tuesday, 19 February 2008 12:07

Parents — looking for something to do during this week off? Take a survey about the arts in your school. The Center for Arts Education is surveying parents about their opinions on arts education and the role of art at their schools. By taking the survey, you'll be helping CAE advocate for better arts programming in the city's schools — at precisely the time that principals are feeling like they have to cut arts funding.

If it's February, it must mean that the DOE is scurrying to find spaces for all of the new schools it plans to open in September. In addition to the 27 high schools and transfer schools opening in the fall, some number of elementary, middle, and charter schools will also open, and they all need space. Many of the city's schools are officially under capacity, but those schools have been able to make headway in reducing class size and improving performance, and they don't want to compromise their gains. (Official school capacities assume that classes will have the largest legally permitted number of students.)

This year, in response to complaints in the past, the DOE is giving school communities greater warning before placing new schools inside them. As a result, parents afraid of age-mixing, overcrowding, and other tensions have more information earlier — and they're just as angry as they were last year. I don't envy the DOE's Office of Portfolio Development right now.

Here are a few space-sharing issues I've come across this year. I'm sure I'm leaving some out — have you heard of more?

  • When the DOE announced that it was planning to place a new high school devoted to the film industry in Long Island City's IS 204, parents and students there protested. It's still not clear where the school will be located.
  • In Red Hook, Brooklyn, the DOE would like to house a new charter school in PS 15. The widow of Patrick Daly, the PS 15 principal who was killed in 1993 in gang crossfire while searching for a truant student, says he would have opposed the charter school.
  • Without any available space in the North Bronx, where it has been open — and housed in trailers — for the last two years, the Young Women's Leadership School is being moved into IS 162 in the South Bronx.
  • Kingsborough Early College School, previously located on the community college's campus, which lacked many amenities, will be moving to the Lafayette building; according to the Daily News, some parents won't be allowing their kids to move along with the school.
  • When the principal of PS 21 in Queens received a letter that said the DOE was considering putting another school in the building, parents were angry, saying that sharing space would diminish the quality of their excellent school.
  • At PS 84 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where last year middle-class parents reported being made to feel unwelcome when they asked for new programs, the DOE proposed creating a new elementary school. Hispanic parents protested, saying the DOE was trying to create a system of "separate but equal" schools in the building. The DOE now says no new school will open in PS 84 this fall.

Give your time to help schools and students in need

Written by Admin Tuesday, 19 February 2008 03:21

With no funding for tutoring and after school programs for the rest of the year, some schools must be turning to free labor to provide those important services. I just heard that Learning Leaders, the half-century-old organization that places trained volunteers in schools, is urgently seeking volunteers for the rest of this year, especially those who can work one-on-one with high school students or offer math tutoring. If you're interested in becoming a Learning Leader, contact Heather Whyte at 212-213-3370 x337.

Scenes from a student rally

Written by Admin Friday, 15 February 2008 11:38

Arlen Benjamin-Gomez/Insideschools, AFC

This was the scene yesterday at the student-run "Broken Hearts" rally against the budget cuts.
We've heard that the kids there were pretty fired up -- hopefully they can sustain their energy in the coming weeks, as the Keep the Promises Coalition ramps up its work. And check out our blogger Seth Pearce, who made an appearance in a preview article in yesterday's Sun; he says LaGuardia's musical may be on the chopping block for next year.