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Pre-K letters out; problems apparent already

Written by Admin Tuesday, 27 May 2008 05:32

In keeping with its grand tradition of finding a long weekend during which to mail important letters to parents, the DOE let loose Pre-K admissions decisions at the end of last week. Already, the Insideschools forum is abuzz with discussion of the process. A couple of disappointed parents lament not getting into their top-choice programs or into any program at all.

Other parents describe what we can only hope are problems with the admissions process, the management of which was outsourced to an out-of-state provider. A couple of parents describe receiving rejection letters even though they live in the zone of a school with a large Pre-K program — and who have older children already enrolled in that school! (This year's new rules, finalized midway through the application process, give siblings preference for admission over all other applicants.) Either there are far, far more zoned siblings applying for Pre-K than anyone could ever have imagined, or else the DOE has some cleaning up to do.

If you applied for Pre-K for the fall, we welcome more information about your letter — and we hope your news was good!

Update: A DOE spokesman wrote to me to clarify concerns about the admissions process being outsourced. Parents mailed their applications to Pennsylvania for data entry, he wrote, but the actual applicant-to-program matches were made in-house at OSEPO.

Were you at the beach on Sunday? (I hope you weren't sitting around by your computer reading blogs!) If you were, you might have seen an airplane towing the message "Mayor Bloomberg, keep your promises to our schools." The Keep the Promises Coalition was spreading the word about the budget cuts the schools are facing — cuts that Chancellor Klein recently rejiggered but not relieved. It seems unlikely that the mayor vacations on the city's public beaches, but I suppose it was worth a shot, especially if the effort prompted city residents to call the coalition's toll-free number to register complaints about the cuts.

I'd also bet that there weren't many principals enjoying the beach this weekend -- they were likely too busy figuring out what programs and services to cut for next year, since they only received their budgets late on Thursday.

This morning at 9:30, the education and finance committees of the City Council will be looking at the proposed operating budget for the city's schools. (See the Insideschools calendar for details.) It should be a contentious debate — almost all of the council members have called on the mayor to restore funding to the schools, but he shows no signs of budging. I'm guessing we'll hear council members offering suggestions of where the DOE could trim its fat, in ways that won't affect individual schools. We'll see how productive the debate turns out to be.

Parents have always known they are taking a risk when they put down a deposit at a private school while waiting to hear whether they've been accepted at their preferred public schools. But I didn't know until recently that they can be risking as much as a year's tuition — which can total as much as $20,000 or more. A story in the Times today describes a family who has been paying all year for a seat at the Little Red Schoolhouse that their daughter doesn't occupy, because she got into a citywide gifted program in June. By the time they notified Little Red, they had passed the deadline to pull out without having to pay the full year's tuition. Today on Urban Baby, users are vilifying the family for waiting so long to let LREI know, but earlier this week, readers there were worrying about the same thing happening to them.

Whether private schools would actually plan around the public school schedule if the DOE had a regular schedule is up for speculation, but a spokeswoman for an independent schools organization made a great point when she said in the Times, "Unfortunately, it’s impossible to collaborate on the timing with the public schools when the dates change every year." Of course, the DOE's changing schedules are problematic for lots of families, not just those considering private school.

I do question how familiar Susan Dominus, the story's author, is with the public schools in the Bloomberg-Klein era. She writes, "It would have been nice, from [the parents'] point of view, if Little Red, which ultimately forgave about $6,000 of the $26,000 tuition, ran itself a little bit less like a competitive business; but it would also have helped if New York’s public school system reliably ran itself more like one." Has she not heard that schools are businesses and their principals are all CEOs?

As Helen noted yesterday, Chancellor Klein seems to have come up with a formula for reallocating school budgets that penalizes large, successful schools — and that's the story the papers ran with today. Klein appears to have come up with the gambit to rile up middle-class families — and voters — to support his bid to have the state loosen restrictions placed on school funding by the new Contract for Excellence requirement, which was in turn prompted in part by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. That suit, of course, aimed to equalize funding among schools by giving more money to lower-performing schools with a high proportion of needy students. Klein's plan does seem to move toward equalization — but by taking away from schools that are less needy. And he plans to heighten class tensions in the process. Thanks, Chancellor Klein!

UPDATE: A reader notes: "There is a rally this afternoon to protest the budget cuts in front of the location where Chancellor Klein is meeting with principals to announce these cuts: The HS of Fashion Industries at 225 W. 24th Street in Manhattan between 7th and 8th Ave at 5 p.m." I can't be there, but can someone else who is going fill us in on what happens?

So after a State Supreme Court judge voided the city's deal to give 20 private schools exclusive rights to the playing fields at Randalls Island, you'd think the city would stop work on the project, right? You'd be wrong. Work has continued unabated for the last four months, and now Curbed reports that the project has "taken a sharp left turn into Bizarro World": Yesterday, the same judge who voided the deal said the continued construction was just fine.

The bottom line may be that it won't be legal for the city to take the $45 million promised by the private schools to pay for the playing fields. So as parent advocates and neighborhood activists wanted, the private schools won't get exclusive use of the fields — but at the same time, someone else will have to foot the bill. And as we know, there's not exactly millions of dollars sitting around right now earmarked for the benefit of public school children. I'm sure there are plenty of readers who understand the situation better than I do — what should we expect to see when the first playing fields open, perhaps as early as this fall?

Money woes

Written by Helen Zelon Wednesday, 21 May 2008 13:22

It looks like our early-morning high hopes for the schools budget were premature at best: Chancellor Joel Klein held a press conference this afternoon to explain why, despite increased overall funding for schools, predicted expenses still outweigh available funding by a cool $300 million. The DOE has found ways to restore $200 million of the shortfall that it says won't overtly impact students in the classroom, like less frequent Quality Review reports for strong schools and the paring away of 80+ jobs at the DOE. But that leaves $99 million unfunded.

Millions due to the city from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement -- 14 years in the making, or longer than the academic career of most city students -- are legally restricted by Albany and targeted to high-need schools, often on the State Education Department's failing-schools list. Because of these legal obligations, under the current budget, some schools are due to receive more money than others. In practice, this means that some schools could actually see increases in their budgets, while about 400 could experience cuts of 3% or greater, including 68 schools -- notably, prized high schools like Stuyvesant, Townsend Harris, and Millennium -- could suffer cuts in excess of 5%. For schools with budgets of $10,000,000 -- a reasonable ballpark for some of the city's largest schools -- that means a loss of about three-quarters of a million dollars.

Klein's proposal, which he plans to take to Albany for approval, involves changing the law to spread the budget pain across the city's schools. He says sharing the burden will mean a far more modest 1.4% budget cut for all schools, and he claims to have the support of the city's principals. (He will meet with principals tomorrow afternoon to describe his proposal; the actual, individual school budgets won't be posted until Thursday evening, after the meeting.)

Representatives of the Keep the Promises Coalition were on hand to criticize Klein's budget revisions. UFT head Randi Weingarten decried Klein's actions as "the height of chutzpah. The CFE is not to blame for the budget shortfall. He has not gone to the mayor to beg for money. You have a $4 billion surplus [in the city budget] -- I have to believe there is money to help the schools. If we are being true to the kids who are always being left behind, the state has to say 'No, you have to put in what you promised.'" Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, stressed that the CFE allocations were about more than money. "It's about money AND accountability," said Easton. "He's passing the buck. The state has delivered on its commitment. The city's not delivering on theirs."

Stay tuned. In the interim, we'd love to hear from principals who are facing potential budget challenges and weighing Klein's "share-the-pain" plan.

Taking testing into their own hands in the Bronx

Written by Admin Wednesday, 21 May 2008 07:56

Most of the 8th graders at IS 318 in the Bronx boycotted a practice social studies test last week, the Daily News reports. They complain that they've been taking tests all year, many of which are simply practice or diagnostic tests ostensibly designed to prepare them for the real thing, instead of spending time learning from their teachers. Their social studies teacher has been removed from the classroom and may lose his job over the affair, even though he and students say he never told them to hand in anti-testing petitions along with their blank tests.

From the answers the students gave to the Daily News reporter, it sounds like they've had quality instruction in civics and social studies at IS 318. I'd wager that their tests wouldn't reflect their nuanced understanding of capitalism, authoritarianism, and children's (lack of) rights:

"We've had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year," Tatiana Nelson, 13, one of the protest leaders, said Tuesday outside the school. "They don't even count toward our grades. The school system's just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams." ..."They're saying Mr. Avella made us do this," said Johnny Cruz, 15, another boycott leader. "They don't think we have brains of our own, like we're robots. We students wanted to make this statement. The school is oppressing us too much with all these tests." ...

"Now they've taken away the teacher we love only a few weeks before our real state exam for social studies," Tatiana Nelson said. "How does that help us?"

Could good budget news be on the horizon?

Written by Admin Wednesday, 21 May 2008 04:23

Today's Sun has a comprehensive overview of where the city's school budgets now stand — and it's possible, writes Elizabeth Green, that one reason principals didn't receive their school budgets last week as scheduled is that the mayor plans to restore some funding to schools. That's the hope, at least, of principals and school advocates who want to see an upside to a delay that follows a year of financial uncertainty. Advocates have been relentless in pressuring the mayor and chancellor to restore school funding, planning rallies in every borough, airing TV and radio ads, and getting local Community Education Councils to pass resolutions opposing the cuts.

And all but just a few City Council members signed a resolution opposing the budget cuts; the Council must approve the proposed budget before it is adopted. This morning, the council's education and finance committees are discussing the city's capital school budget. Next week, the council takes on the operating budget. By then, and as early as this afternoon, we should see the mayor or the chancellor address the financial picture the schools are facing. I predict they've gotten the message that it won't be acceptable for them to tell principals and parents again that budget cuts will have "no impact whatsoever."

"Did you get the mail yet?'' my 5th grader asked yesterday, for about the 300th time in the last month.

I did not like the anxious look on his face, but I understand it. For reasons as of yet unexplained and articulated by anyone at the New York City Department of Education, middle school notifications are coming way later this year. As we forge ahead with graduation and birthday plans, end-of-year publishing parties and arts festival performances, a letter from a middle school is on the way.

Hopefully, the envelope will come from one of our top two choices, made after much discussion on our part, after many visits and careful consideration of everything from the commute to the class sizes. We can't be quite sure how that middle school arrived at the decision, as each one seems to do something a bit differently when choosing their 6th graders.

We do know all the top schools have way too many first choice applicants and simply can't take them all.

As the wait stretches on, 5th-grade parents in choice districts throughout the city are all a little anxious. If the news is not what we wanted, we must be nonetheless cheery and optimistic, explaining to our 9- and 10-year-olds that this does not constitute personal rejection and they will be happy wherever they end up. Or, we can choose to appeal the decision and push for one of our top choices nonetheless, prolonging an arduous process even more.

When my older son was going through this process two years ago, he knew by April where he was headed the following year. He was delighted, and promptly forgot about middle school and focused on enjoying the rest of the year with his close friends.

That is what I'm urging my 5th grader to do now. And I am focusing on the rituals of the wonderful elementary school we are about to leave behind, along with moments when my child might still grasp his hand and ask if I'm the one taking him to school or picking him up -- a concept that ends instantly for many parents in middle school.

I'm preparing to bake my last batch of birthday cupcakes to bring to his class on the big day, another ritual that disappears in most middle schools. And when I pick up my 7th grader this week, I'm making sure we meet somewhere not even remotely close to his school but in another neighborhood entirely.

NYC Public School Parents is hosting a copy of the DOE's much-anticipated "Blueprint for District 2 Enrollment and Capacity." At a recent meeting about overcrowding in District 2, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said the fact that such a document was on its way was one "sign of progress" in reducing overcrowding in the district's schools — but I wonder whether he still feels that way, having read what the DOE proposes in the preliminary planning document.

"We know that an appropriate plan for District 2's elementary schools will require not only new construction but also enrollment adjustments and efficient use of current facilities," DOE officials write. Contrasted with district residents' thoughtful identification of existing space that could be used for schools, the proposal is thin on ideas for new construction, describing only the plan, announced recently, to convert part of one Greenwich Village building into a 600-student elementary school and one other new idea for construction, in Kips Bay. (Two elementary schools are already planned to open in Lower Manhattan in 2010, and a middle school expansion project is also underway on the Upper East Side.)

While the DOE says it is planning to add nearly 3,000 new seats in elementary and middle schools in District 2, it also asks for two unpopular commitments from District 2 officials and schools. First, it calls for a reduction in out-of-district enrollment in some of Manhattan's most popular schools, a reduction that is already underway thanks to the DOE's own "proactive oversight" of admissions and one that is sure to undermine schools' efforts to maintain diversity in some of the wealthiest zip codes in the city. The DOE also calls for a rezoning of the entire district to account for new schools and resolve some current sticky issues, such as the zone-sharing between PS 3 and PS 41 in Greenwich Village and the lack of a zoned school for children in the old PS 151 zone on the Upper East Side. And it suggests that 5th graders at overcrowded elementary schools in Lower Manhattan be bused to buildings more than a mile away, an option that is sure to please parents who secured apartments with the neighborhood schools in mind.

The letter is packed with tidbits about what families in District 2 (and beyond) might expect as the DOE continues to centralize admissions procedures. It's definitely worth a look. And if you're in District 2, you can respond to your local community board, the Manhattan Borough President's office, or by taking an online survey about school overcrowding. And if you're in other parts of the city — perhaps you're in South Brooklyn, where anti-overcrowding momentum appears to be mounting — you might start thinking now about what the DOE can, and should not, do to relieve overcrowding in your area.