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A 5th-grade boy raised his hand on our last middle school tour and posed a question that took everyone aback. It reminded grown-ups in the room what it must feel like to be 10 or 11 years old, contemplating your educational future.

“Is it easy to make friends at this middle school?’’ the boy wondered.

Kelly McGuire, the energetic principal of Greenwich Village Middle School had already distributed a glossy brochure, articulated his educational philosophy and answered predictable questions about class sizes and whether 6th graders can go out to lunch.

He’d spoken about literacy and math scores. He’d described a small, caring and nurturing community with a commitment to social justice and a “really rigorous approach to academics."

(Every school we’ve toured has a “really rigorous approach.")

The 8th-grade students had answered questions about where they want to go to high school and how much homework they have. They complained about what they least like about their school – all those stairs they must climb to get to it

(Every middle school we’ve toured has also been on the top floor of an old building with no elevator.)

No one really knew how to answer the little boy’s question about making friends, although it laid bare a top priority of 5th graders as they prepare to rank their top five middle choices by Feb. 6.

Hint: It’s not a “content-rich program,” an “integrated theme-based curriculum,’’ a “peer mediation/conflict resolution program," or “collaborative team teaching,’’ to mention a few of the phrases we’ve heard on tours.

For 5th graders, middle school means splitting up from classmates they’ve known for years and finding themselves in an unfamiliar environment.

How, they wonder, will they make new friends?

No principal, parent or student can answer that question for them. No tour guide has the answer.

I’m grateful we have a choice of middle schools, but I strongly wish that 6th graders could remain one more year in their elementary school – the old K-6 configuration that I grew up with and one that is being considered again, as are pre-K-8 schools, like the new one being proposed for Battery Park City. I love the idea.

I’m not sure what is gained by hurtling them into the adolescent world of cell phones, instant messaging, traveling alone and school dances where grinding (if you don’t know what it is, ask any middle schooler) rules. They will face those social pressures far sooner than many parents -- and I suspect educators -- would like.

My 5th-grade son looked weary but relieved after our last tour, which was probably number 7 or 8 -- we slept through one and lost count. Mostly, he wants to go to school with his best buddy or least some of the classmates he’s known since kindergarten. And he'd like to get back to enjoying the rest of elementary school.

That, he told me, was what he was thinking about when the little boy asked his heartfelt question about making friends.

Good news for parents out of a State Supreme Court room in Manhattan yesterday: A judge ruled in favor of East Harlem residents who sued over the city's secretive agreement last year to give 20 private schools almost exclusive access to the playing fields on Randall's Island. As opponents of the plan argued, the deal was made illegally because the city circumvented a required competitive bidding process, the judge ruled, voiding the agreement. According to the New York Times, the city must now resubmit the proposal through the Uniform Land Use Review Process, which requires City Council approval. Given the council's stance on the DOE's habit of entering into costly no-bid contracts, and the press the Randall's Island showdown has gotten, the mayor and chancellor will likely have a hard time pushing the proposal through.

Last night I went to the first of five public hearings held by the DOE about the proposed new system for handling pre-K and kindergarten admission. I was surprised that there were no more than about three dozen parents there but the DOE did just announce the policy at the end of last week.

Read Insideschools' overview for background on the proposal. I learned many more details last night:

  • If the proposal goes through (and the "if" here really means "when"), all pre-K registration activities thus far this year will have been rendered moot. Keep going to open houses, but if principals promise you a slot or ask for your commitment to their school, remember that it probably won't matter. And you'll have to pick up and return a pre-K application, even if you think you've already done that.
  • A large part of completing the application will be trying to figure out your likelihood of admission to the schools you list. If your zoned school has a popular pre-K program, you'll probably want to list it first, because if you list it second, all the seats could be taken by other zoned children before you're even considered. As Marty Barr of OSEPO said last night, it would make sense to try to get into a program outside of your zone only when the program you want is large and doesn't usually have that many people applying which does not describe the most desirable programs, of course.
  • Kids with IEPs will continue to be placed by the Committee on Preschool Special Education their parents won't have to fill out an application.
  • Within each priority level, siblings will receive preference for admission. So after all the zoned children who rank a pre-K program first are admitted, the sibling of a child enrolled in that school from outside the zone would get priority over other out-of-zone students for admission.
  • The DOE says that pre-K programs at community-based organizations will follow the same calendar, so if you want a back-up plan should you not get into any public school pre-K program, you will want to apply to your top-choice CBO programs in March as well.
  • Everyone in pre-K this fall and afterward will have to reapply for kindergarten, including families in their zoned school who want to stay there. A child who gets into an out-of-zone or unzoned school for pre-K will have no assurance or even priority to be allowed to stay there for kindergarten.
  • The DOE has no idea how it will deal with seats that open up due to children leaving the city, enrolling in CBO-run pre-K programs, or choosing private schools. Barr said OSEPO has considered a second round of applications (at this, parents last night booed) or assigning children on an "over-the-counter" basis.
  • The proposal has no built-in appeals process, but OSEPO Director Liz Sciabarra seemed open to adding one. In 2009, if you are assigned to a school for kindergarten that doesn't work for your family, you can apply to transfer. Barr and Sciabarra said the transfer process will remain the same.

The new process may wind up being simpler and fairer, as the DOE says it will be, but it certainly does change the game this year for many families entering the system. What should be the major takeaways for parents? First, schools that have accepted kids on an individual basis will not be able to do so any more; principals will no longer have any discretion to issue variances. In addition, the process is heavily weighted toward keeping kids in their zoned schools. The way to give yourself the best chance of getting into your first-choice pre-K program and kindergarten in 2009 is to move into that school's zone.

What's your take on this proposal? Let Insideschools know in the comments, and then let the DOE know by emailing ES_Enrollment@schools.nyc.gov. You can also attend one of the three remaining public hearings; see our calendar for details on dates and locations.

With troubling news about school budgets percolating (more on this later), let's focus this morning on the city's exceptional students. Four students at Stuyvesant the most at a single school and one at Bronx Science were among the 40 national semifinalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. Kids at MS 318 in Brooklyn beat national chess champs Murrow High School for the city chess title. And kids at IS 98 in the South Bronx take LEGO robotics seriously, as do their peers at 59 other Bronx schools; they're currently raising money to travel to Japan to compete.

Last week, the DOE released results of the Principal Satisfaction Survey that it said proved that principals are happy as clams. Of course, we know the truth is a little more nuanced, and as Diane Ravitch noted after speaking to a number of principals at an event, many principals were hesitant to express their true feelings because they feared retribution; officially, the survey was anonymous, but it was distributed and collected via DOE email addresses.

Still, looking past the sunny picture the DOE painted, Insideschools reporter Vanessa Witenko saw some more unsettling results. In particular, she noticed that only 28 percent of the principals who responded to the survey (who represent 70 percent of all principals) said they were at all satisfied by the way the central student enrollment office handles enrollment of kids with special needs. Check out her full report on principals' dissatisfaction with special ed enrollment.

While adults fought, kids suffered at KGIA; rally tonight

Written by Admin Tuesday, 29 January 2008 03:36

Tonight, supporters of the Khalil Gibran International Academy are holding a "an evening of celebration and support" for the school, which continues to be troubled a semester after it opened. Earlier this month, the DOE finally announced a permanent replacement for original principal Debbie Almontaser. This week, the Post reports that shorted in the chaos of the opening months were the school's 10 students with special needs, who don't have a dedicated teacher and who apparently have not been receiving any of the services mandated by the IEPs. Class size is also around 30 students with only one teacher in the room, the Post reports, and kids in special education and general education alike are having a hard time learning. For more details about the event tonight, see the Insideschools calendar.

8th Grader Izzy: The wait continues, but not for long

Written by Admin Tuesday, 29 January 2008 03:08

Hey everyone! It's been quite some time since I last blogged, mainly because all has been quiet on the high school frontier for a while now. I am currently waiting for the results of the specialized high school exam, which are due back next week (somewhere around Feb. 6), to tell me whether or not I made it into my first-choice specialized high school.

At the same time that I'm pretty jazzed about those results, I'm also anticipating the results of my application to non-specialized high schools. At this point, I will, quite frankly, be happy no matter where I get in. I have confidence that I made it into the small school in my neighborhood, and my excitement concerning acceptance to that school has only risen since I finally decided to put it first. Although I've heard rumors that it will be backbreakingly fast-paced, I've also heard wonderful things about the rich curriculum and able staff.

My one concern is that, if I do somehow make it into both the specialized high school and the regular school, which will I choose? Both schools are overachieving and will undoubtedly get me many places in my future career as a student, but I would have to make certain sacrifices in order to succeed in both places. One will allow for shorter travel time, but more club participation; the other, immense travel time, but possibly less competition among the student body. Only the test results (and some good thinking time!) will tell.

Would you wait in the cold at 4:30 a.m. to sign up for more classes with your elementary school science teacher? That's what parents from PS 261 in Brooklyn did this past week when Carmelo Piazza, known in the neighborhood as "Carmelo the Science Fellow," opened registration for the 8-week summer program he runs. The New York Times reports that parents started lining up around 4:30 a.m., and the entire summer session was full less than 3 hours after registration opened at 9 a.m. Piazza sounds indefatigable (and possibly insane), teaching a full schedule, running after-school classes at his neighborhood science joint, and entertaining at weekend birthday parties. The city needs more teachers like him.

It always surprises me how my fellow students always seem to take much more moderate and pragmatic positions on many of today's more controversial education issues than I would expect.

At last week's New York City Student Union meeting, the issue that came up was mayoral control of NYC schools, which Albany can either reinstate or let sunset in 2009. While much of what we hear on the issue from other members of the education community (parents, teachers, activists) is outright condemnation, most students were supportive of the idea of mayoral control.

I've been on the fence about the issue for a while now, but after hearing my fellow students arguments, I am convinced that mayoral control is not the devil after all.

For starters mayoral control assures that at least someone is responsible and accountable for the success and failure of our education system. It makes education an important issue in the municipal election with both the largest voter turnout and the greatest amount of press coverage and it also serves to keep education in the news because there are always reporters surrounding the mayor.

Mayoral control also centralizes education giving some hope for equal standards citywide and the possibility of important sweeping change.

Don't get me wrong, I do believe it needs some changes. I just took my US History Regents and the idea of checks and balances comes to mind. Since the president has to get his Secretary of Education approved by Congress, why shouldn't the mayor have to get the chancellor approved by the City Council? Makes sense right? I would also advocate that a Chancellor Selection Board be appointed comprising of teachers, parents, students and administrators to publicly review candidates for the position.

Up to now, most of what I have heard as criticism of mayoral control seems more to be criticism of what Bloomberg and Klein have done to our schools. What we have seen with the current Bloomberg-Klein Complex is a complete denial of some of the most important issues in education, especially class size. They have also shown a pattern of disrespect to many of the constituents of our education system and filled the department with bureaucrats, lawyers and businessmen instead of educators.

We know that we need a chancellor who has experience as an educator in the classroom and in the schools. We need one who understands the delicate processes of teaching and learning. So I say, instead of drifting back to decentralization and the disorganization and confusion that comes with it, why not demand a mayor who will give us just that, who will pledge to put an educator in charge of our schools. This in my belief is one of the biggest positives of mayoral control is that we the people can make this statement.

In 2009, Albany will have a tough decision to make. Mayoral control is an extreme system. It is likely to be very good or very bad because under it change comes much more easily. It does not tend towards moderation. However, in our current state of education, in which way too few of us students graduate and fewer leave our schools ready to support ourselves and become able participants in our democracy, we need a system that will enable change to occur. What we have had is not working. We need new solutions, new ideas. Mayoral control is the most effective way to implement the changes we seek in our schools.

So the question before Albany is this: Do we want to abandon a system that has such a potential for good, just because it hasn't been used as such in the past six years?
--Cross-posted at NYC Students Blog

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling this summer raised our hopes that the city's schools would finally receive equitable and more adequate funding, but it's turning out not to be quite the banner year for school funding that some had hoped. First, Governor Spitzer reduced the amount of new money flowing to the city's schools. Now, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a $324 million reduction in the city's education budget, representing a 1.3 percent cut.

According to the Post, Bloomberg sees the cuts as an inducement for principals to spend more efficiently. Speaking as the business leader who amassed a fortune of nearly $12 billion (or $324 million, 37 times), Bloomberg said,

"I'm sorry. You can always cut 1.3 percent. In fact, it's healthy to go and say let's cut a little bit and force the principals and the teachers and the administrators to say, 'Is this program worth it?'"

Bloomberg's sentiment is, of course, offensive to principals and teachers and administrators who are struggling to provide high-quality educations under difficult circumstances and who certainly don't think anything they're doing is worthless (except maybe confiscating cell phones and administering standardized tests under DOE orders). And more than that, it's offensive to children for whom every art class, field trip, and ounce of enrichment means something, even if those expenditures don't always immediately translate into improved "performance."

Elected leaders often have to make difficult decisions that adversely affect their constituents. We understand. But they don't have to sound happy about it.