News and views
Yesterday, thousands of city kids were pulled from class to receive and distribute flowers as part of an initiative to draw attention to the reason why more than 80,000 taxicabs now bear Technicolor flowers on their hoods. The car-art project, part of Garden in Transit, celebrates 100 years of taxis by showcasing flower decals painted by the city's children.
But so many people have been confused about the intentions behind the flowered cabs -- several have told the group they think the flowers are meant to "raise money for something somehow related to the 1960s," Garden in Transit told the Times -- that the group decided to launch a new campaign to clarify the first. Unfortunately, it might not have been any more successful: teacher Ms. Frizzle wrote on her blog, "I wonder if anyone took a moment to picture what two dozen 11-year-olds would DO with flowers for the last hour of the day while I was ostensibly teaching science class? ... I grant that I am not 100% sure WHY we got carnations today, and possibly it could have been handled better within the school, but still! Really!"
If you were paying attention to the news over the summer, you may have heard that Information Technology High School in Queens was constructed in an old warehouse on a toxic site. The DOE insisted that its tests showed the site is safe for students and teachers, but lawyers were seeking confirmation by independent scientists, and families were worried about their kids' safety.
Now Fox 5, which brought the InTech story to light, has put together a report about the "three most toxic school sites" in New York City. According to an independent environmental expert, Beacon High School on the Upper West Side, Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem, and PS 156 in the Bronx are all sitting on top of potentially dangerous levels of various industrial chemicals. The DOE says all three sites are safe. Public advocates are pushing for legislation that would require the city to submit leased sites to public review -- the law already requires this of sites the city owns -- but the Bloomberg administration opposes such a regulation.
Update: We've heard that a retraction from Fox may be in the works about the Beacon site. From our source: "Fox won't do a retraction until the investigation is complete ... but the brownfield site was 2 blocks away and ... the EPA or whatever already gave the okey dokey" to the site. Beacon families, you can relax. No word on whether this is the case for the other schools in the original report.
Update 11/7: No retraction thus far from Fox 5 itself, but the expert quoted on the segment has issued a letter that says Beacon is safe. "There is no indication that any contamination resulting at the [nearby toxic site] is threatening the Beacon School due to the rigorous 'source-removal' clean up that was undertaken," the expert writes. Phew.
Jacquie Wayans, a school reviewer for Insideschools, appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show yesterday to discuss kids who are "talent rich and resource poor." Wayans and her two fellow panelists, a representative from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and the managing director of Uncommon Schools, which supports several charter schools in the city, discussed the special challenges facing low-income gifted children. Wayans described her own school experience and that of her kids, who attended TAG, a selective school that has many low-income students. Listen to the entire show online; her segment begins around minute 14:30.
Is this just a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing? Or is there something else going on in the DOE's chief equality officer's plan to reward high-performing students with free cell phones -- perhaps a conspiracy by the DOE to prop up Motorola?
The DOE's chief equality officer, Roland Fryer, told an audience at Harvard (where he is a professor) last month that he hopes to give high-performing students cell phones -- but they won't be able to use during school hours, when cell phones are banned. Good grades and behavior would mean more cell phone minutes, Fryer said, and the phones won't cost the city any money, reports the Times today. The DOE's press office says the department is considering the idea, but "this is a proposal that neither the mayor nor the chancellor has signed off on," according to the Times article. They had better hurry -- Fryer is hoping to get the first Motorola phones, possibly with Jay-Z-penned ringtones, to kids as early as this month. The Times article doesn't address where kids will be able to stash their phones during school hours.
Kids in the United States are being tutored by college graduates in India -- and neither of them seems to find the situation weird, at least after a little while, the Times reports today as part of a larger article about "the globalization of consumer services." Tutoring companies train highly educated Indians who conference with American students via online chat; the arrangement costs families less than private tutoring here and gets them on-demand services. "I wasnâ€™t sure how it would work,â€ a parent told the Times. â€œBut, shocking to say, itâ€™s gone very well.â€
Check out Insideschools' 2005 article about finding a tutor, where we took a short look at online tutoring services.
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.