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From the minute we dropped our 5th graders off in a sun-dappled elementary school courtyard last September, the search – and the questions – officially began for parents. Would we be able to find a decent New York City public middle school for our 9- and 10-year-olds?

The tours got off to a slow and somewhat confusing start, but one thing became immediately clear as we began to rank our choices one to five: There are far more students who want to get into the most coveted middle schools than there are spots for them.

In recent weeks, a dire picture of the overcrowding lower Manhattan and other areas of the city face and the impact it will have on schools has emerged. The New York Times weighed in, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has announced a meeting next week to discuss the implications.

A report Stringer released last month found the city had approved enough new residential buildings to add up to 2,300 new students in K-8 – while increasing total school capacity by only 143 seats.

Overcrowding is a serious problem, and it's only getting worse as more families choose to stay in the city.

I wish I could tell parents not to worry or stress, and urge them to shun private institutions or moves to the suburbs. The problem is, plenty of us are already staying in the city and fighting for better public schools, just as innovative educators are working hard to make the schools we do have more appealing by attracting grants and specialty programs.

It’s not enough. Supply does not meet demand. The overcrowding in some areas is causing parents to be shut out of kindergarten in some of the most coveted neighborhood schools, as the Times story noted.

Fast-growing immigrant areas in the Bronx, Queens and Upper Manhattan have spent years struggling with overcrowded schools, classrooms and trailers as immigrant populations continue to surge.

Finding a good middle school – and then getting into it – is hard enough now: the best have a long list of children shut out for lack of space.

Without serious attention it may become nearly impossible in years to come.Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

New charter MS coming to District 15

Written by Admin Thursday, 15 May 2008 05:38

From the Sun comes the news that the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, which had its application denied last year, is now cleared to open in District 15 in 2009. The school will open with grade 6 and will eventually serve students in grades 6-12. Founders says Brooklyn Prospect will offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate program as part of the school's mission of giving students "the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind necessary for success in higher education, the workplace, and life in the twenty-first century." Parents of current 4th graders can contact the school now for more information; as at all charters, admissions will be done by lottery, applications for which will be due in April 2009, and residents of District 15 will have priority for admission.

City budget: Testing office jobs pay out big

Written by Admin Wednesday, 14 May 2008 11:30

Eduwonkette's been taking a close look at the city's proposed budget for fiscal year 2009 (pdf)— and she reports today that the $8,287,282 slated for the Division of Assessment and Accountability includes $7,789,623 for 18 staff positions, or $432,757 per position. Eduwonkette uses these figures to point to the DOE's "selective attention to budgeting issues." But I'd prefer to look on the bright side — the money earmarked for DAA isn't going up next year. Not getting a raise is like a cut, right?

If you don't believe already that the economy is tanking, here's proof: the number of college students applying to join Teach for America increased by 37 percent this year. Nearly 25,000 graduating seniors applied for 3,700 spots, making TFA more selective than all but the most elite colleges — though not as selective as some of New York City's most highly coveted high schools. Let's hope the kids who didn't make the cut — based on grades, essays, and an interview — applied to graduate school as a backup plan. About 500 of those TFA has accepted will make their way to one of the city's classrooms by this fall, where they will fill high-need positions teaching math, science, and special education, among other subjects.

In Texas, GPS helps kids get to school

Written by Admin Wednesday, 14 May 2008 03:52

School officials in Dallas have started giving GPS devices to kids who regularly have trouble making it to school — so they can't pass off illegitimate excuses when they're truant. The GPS devices appear to be improving attendance for these students, and one expert notes in the Times article on the subject, “It’s far better than locking a kid up” — not to mention less expensive, despite paying for a full-time case manager to check in on students.

Still, some in Texas have complained about the tracking systems, saying the ankle bracelets used in an earlier iteration of the Dallas experiment, and currently used in a similar program in another Texas city, are reminiscent of slave chains. I, too, am uncomfortable with a program that eases kids to the indignities of being monitored electronically. On the other hand, perhaps if students at Brooklyn's Boys and Girls High School were part of a program like the one in Dallas, they would make it to school in time for the starting bell, after which, according to the Post, students complain they are sometimes barred from admission. (Boys and Girls is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit over illegal pushouts filed in 2005 by Advocates for Children, Insideschools' parent organization.)

The DOE has responded to the frustration voiced by parents who had their rising kindergarteners screened for G&T eligibility, only to find that their district programs start in 1st grade. This week, parents of kids who scored at the 90th percentile or higher received a letter saying, "After careful consideration, we are pleased to inform you that your child will not have to retest next year and will be eligible for a first grade seat in G&T program in your distict for the 2009-10 school year." It's time to give credit where credit's due -- the DOE listened to parents and responded fairly and appropriately. Queens parents, you were particularly vocal on this subject -- are you satisfied with the DOE's response?

Looking for a summer job? The city can help

Written by Admin Tuesday, 13 May 2008 06:43

Every year, teenagers and their parents ask us at Insideschools how to find summer jobs. In fact, Judy recently answered a question about what kinds of work a 14-year-old might look for. An internship can often be a meaningful way to spend the summer both learning and working. And if your child is set on landing a paying job for the summer, the city can help.

Until May 16, kids can submit applications for the city's Summer Youth Employment Program, which places young adults ages 14-21 in positions at community organizations, city agencies, and local businesses. The DOE's Office of Special Education Initiatives will help teens with disabilities find jobs as well; to apply, complete the regular SYEP application and mail it by May 16 to John McParland, OSESI Placement and Referral Center, 145 Stanton Street, Room 223, New York, NY 10006.

I've been tossing around this idea for a while now as I've been finishing up the final classes of my senior year. It's a little out there, so please stay with me till the end.

The test prep culture in our schools is bad and widespread. It detracts from learning. It pervades all of our classes. It impedes good relationships between students and teachers. How do we rid ourselves of this beast? Well, my answer — and I know it is kind of out there — is this: Legitimize it!

What do you mean, Seth? That's ridiculous! Why would we legitimize something that we want to get rid of?

What I am suggesting here is that we legitimize testing by recognizing that for primary and secondary education students it is important to know how to take a test and how to take it well.

Standardized tests in 4th and 7th grade are sometimes the only way to distinguish among such a large and diverse field of applicants in middle and high school admissions. And the SAT and ACT tests one of the current standards for college admissions (except at a couple of amazing liberal arts schools that have made the SAT optional). And right now, the social divide between people with college educations and those without is growing, and in today's world, you're going to have to take some tests in order to get that seemingly magical degree.

Thus, the ability to take a test is quite a valuable one. So why not create a class to teach that skill?

Testing Class, as I will call it, by its very nature would be a process- (instead of content-) based learning class, something we need more of in our schools. It would teach students how to approach many problems and issues. It would also be more helpful in preparing them for standardized tests, by focusing on specific skills rather than today's tactic of vaguely tying it into other subjects, which just confuses students as to what they're supposed to be concentrating on. This aspect of the class could also hopefully improve equality by giving students who can't afford pricey test prep services these helpful skills.

But the most important part of Testing Class will be that it will alleviate the need for test prep in academic subjects. Academic teachers will then be able to focus more on other skills, such as writing, approaching a document, understanding complex conceptual ideas, and taking on creative projects.

Just an idea...

Spreekt u het Nederlands? (Do you speak Dutch?)

Written by Admin Monday, 12 May 2008 11:16

If so, you might want to visit the website of Onderwijs Consumentem Organisatie, or the Education Consumers' Organization of Amsterdam. Schools are very different in the Netherlands -- there, the government supports private and parochial schools -- but parents aren't. There, just as they do here, parents want to find the best schools for their children and help make those schools excellent. For the last two years, representatives of OCO have visited Insideschools to share their experiences running a similar organization, and this year, the two sites created a formal relationship that has been recognized by Amsterdam's alderman for education. (That's Insideschools director Pam Wheaton signing on as a partner with OCO's Han van Gelder in the picture above.) We've already gotten several good ideas from the folks at OCO -- but we probably won't be buying Insideschools-branded bikes to ride to school visits!

Happy Mother's Day!

Written by Admin Sunday, 11 May 2008 04:48

Happy Mother's Day to all Insideschools moms!