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Uh oh. Recently departed DOE deputy chancellor Andres Alonso is having a tough time in his new home, Baltimore.
Only a couple of months into his term as CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools, Alonso has angered the teachers union by trying to get principals to require that they spent 45 minutes a week planning collaboratively with their colleagues. Sounds innocuous enough, but Baltimore teachers are working without a contract and aren't happy that Alonso is stripping them of precious planning time without their consent. Last week, teachers marched to call for Alonso's ouster.
Sounding very much like someone else we know, Alonso told teachers in August that one of his top priorities is to "devolve resources, autonomy and decision-making to schools" -- but he is also trying to expand the role of his office. It sounds like he is trying to collapse both phases of the recent reforms in New York into one but foundering without the unwavering support of a mayor who fully controls the schools.
Good luck to 10th and 11th graders, who are all taking the PSAT this morning, thanks to the DOE, which is paying for the test. The test is used to screen kids for the National Merit Scholarship Competition and is also a useful diagnostic to see how students can prepare for the SAT used for college admission. At last week's Citywide Council on High Schools meeting, one council member expressed concern that kids are taking the PSAT for no reason, and a high school superintendent said schools are getting more instruction this year about how to use PSAT scores to help kids beef up their skills before the higher-stakes SAT.
This is kind of late notice, but if you are interested in education law or just want to show support for David Bloomfield, education professor at Brooklyn College and past president of the Citywide Council on High Schools, head over to Book Court in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, tonight for a party celebrating the release of his new book, American Public Education Law. The book is immensely readable and a great resource for students and teachers as well as legal professionals. Plus, Book Court is an awesome independent bookstore and a very pleasant place to hang out. The party starts at 7 p.m. Map
At this point, you've probably heard that the DOE is rolling out a new program, titled Reach NYC, to reward high-achieving high school students with cash for passing scores on Advanced Placement exams -- ranging from $500 to a just-passing score to $1,000 for a perfect one. The program is privately funded, thanks to the work of reformer Whitney Tilson, who blogged about the launch, and will start this year in 25 public and six private schools in the city. In addition to the student rewards, schools -- and possibly principals -- with large numbers of students who pass AP exams will get cash of their own. This program is similar but not related to the DOE's Opportunity NYC program, which will pay younger kids in needy schools smaller amounts for their academic performance and behavior.
I happen to believe that kids shouldn't get cash rewards for success in school. I especially think that in this case, because passing scores on AP exams can translate into college credits, which can net kids savings in excess of $1,000 an exam. But I can also see potential policy benefits in finding out whether financial incentives improve student performance. The original cash-for-kids plan is troubling but could yield meaningful information. I don't see how the AP initiative could possibly do that because as far as I can tell, the "incentives" will be operating on kids who are already successful.
The new program was announced at the selective Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, where students will be eligible for the money. FDA has about 1,500 students in grades 6-12. Divided evenly, that would mean there are about 215 kids in each grade. AP courses are most typically offered to 11th and 12th graders; only a very few schools nationwide allow students younger than that to take AP courses except in exceptional circumstances. So we know that about half of all students in 11th and 12th grade are taking AP courses at FDA. How does this rate of AP enrollment stack up?
Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has been monitoring AP nationwide for years, using test-taking rates to compile a "Challenge Index" of the nation's high schools. Any school where students take at least one test per graduating senior makes the list; Mathews says only five percent of all high schools qualify. So even if each kid taking AP courses at FDA is taking only one, the school would rank at the low end of the top 5 percent of all schools nationwide, according to Mathews' index. And 80 percent of FDA's test-takers pass their exams, a more-than-respectable rate at any school. (Those are just the numbers in the New York Times article; the Daily News's coverage makes it sound like 350 kids are currently taking AP classes.) Sure, FDA can do better, but in a city where, according to the Times, only 1 percent of black students pass an AP exam, are its kids the ones who need incentives?
Roland Fryer, the DOE's Chief Equality Officer, is absent from the coverage of this new initiative. I wonder if he is involved in it at all. With a Harvard economist on the DOE's payroll, I would hope for more rigorous experimental conditions for an expensive project like this one. Or else the DOE and the private groups distributing money to its students should stop calling cash payments "incentives" and call them what they really are -- salaries for kids.
This week is the national School Nutrition Association's National School Lunch Week. Parents, take a day off from making lunch this week and ask your kid to eat cafeteria food to support efforts by the DOE's Office of SchoolFood to make school lunches healthier, more local, and more appealing. Kids, you can vote for your favorite nutritious school lunch.
And for the Connecticut-based "Two Angry Moms," this week is also the National School Lunch-In. They want parents to "do lunch" with their kids this week to talk about nutrition and investigate the healthiness of school lunches. The two moms, a rabblerouser and a documentary filmmaker, have also made a movie about school lunches that they say "offers an inside look at whatâ€™s on the menu in many of the nationâ€™s school cafeterias." The movie is currently being screened in house parties; you can sign up to host a viewing party in your home.
I thought the controversy and media tug-of-war had died down over at Khalil Gibran International Academy, where this summer founding principal Debbie Almontaser resigned after drawing the wrath of the press for her edgy statements about the Arab world, and I guess some people aren't happy about the peace and quiet. Today, Almontaser will deliver her application for the open principal position and she is bringing along a coalition called Communities in Support of KGIA to support her. They'll be holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall at 5 p.m., where Almontaser will speak out publicly for the first time about what happened this summer. She now says her resignation was forced. KGIA parents will be there, so it seems Almontaser's influence extends into the school even though she is not working there. It could be interesting â€” if anyone goes, please fill us in on what happens!
Last Saturday, I took the test for that small school near my apartment. The test itself was all right, but I felt that the essay question was extremely vague, and I'm not sure if I did my best. The math was fairly simple; however, there were some hard questions that I'd had never seen before. After having this experience, I'm just happy to have gotten through one test. I now have a better feel for exactly what the Specialized High School Admission Test will be like. I know that I am much better prepared for this test, coming up on Oct. 27, than I was for the past one, because of my tutoring, practice tests, and overall better knowledge of the information that's going to be on it.
With roughly two weeks to go, my tutoring is almost up and the stress levels are running high. Students at my school are anxiously awaiting the day of the test, anticipating that feeling of "it's out of my hands now." I guess all I can do now is study!
Some people never learn. Just a month after taking heat for administrators' failure to call 911 quickly when a student suffered a stroke, troubled Jamaica High School is in the news again -- this time because of a new directive aimed at preventing 911 calls from the school. The memo, written by someone new because the author of the last one was removed from the school, outlines four steps school personnel must take before calling 911. The goal is likely to cut down on incident reports and improve the school's numbers, but in a real emergency, as a teacher told the Daily News, "by step four, the kid's already dead." Just another reason for kids not to feel safe in school.
Tis the season for fall festivals, and my kids and I spent a few happy hours this weekend eating cotton candy and seeing old friends, watching rock band karaoke, and seeing if we still fit on the elementary school monkey bars. The parents did a fantastic job running the lollipop toss and cupcake decorating booths, painting faces, and manning a hamburger grill. Fall festivals donâ€™t make all that much money compared with the effort parents put in to organize them; that's why some people call this type of fundraiser a â€œcommunity-builder.â€
Community-builders may not meet all a school's financial needs, but they make people feel closer, proud to be part of the school community. Actually, a bake sale or fall fest can be just as important as a big grant: the money a PTA earns can be spent entirely according to how parents perceive the weak spots, whereas grants usually must be spent on whatever the funder dictates.
Smaller pots of money can be useful to schools in different ways from larger pots. With $100 from a bake sale you can buy a â€œwriting centerâ€ with a nice collection of crayons and markers and paper. With $10,000 from a fall fest you can run a teacher grant program in a medium-sized school, helping teachers buy whatever they dream will improve the classroom: an area rug, books on tape, a grow light and plants, biographies, bright colored posters, printer ink, a digital camera to document class projects. This is found money, a treasure whose value is magnified for the effort that went into getting it.
I've been meaning to share notes from last week's City Council hearing on school safety for days. The press did a pretty good job sharing the central issue of the hearing: it's unclear whether DOE employees or NYPD employees have the final say on school safety and discipline decisions, and the lack of clarity creates flammable conditions in schools that give rise to incidents like the one at East Side Community High School last week.
But the issue is more than one of confusion. Community leaders and students took to the stand in the late afternoon to describe the ways that aggressive policing detracts from a learning environment. Kids described being arrested and hauled out of school by safety agents after breaking minor rules, such as by writing on a desk or cutting class. They also described harassment by school safety agents that didn't result in arrest. Every student mentioned missing class time as one outcome of his or her interaction with police in school.
Kids described psychic losses as well. Jonathan Clark, a senior at Aviation High School, where he is president of the honor society, described the day last spring when radnom scanners came to his school. The scene was one of confusion and screaming, Clark said, with agents unclear about what to confiscate; they took some students' school equipment and birthday cupcakes, while allowing others to choose whether their cell phone or iPod was taken. Students missed hours of class waiting in line, and the day was ruined. Clark said, "Every other day there is such morale and happiness, and on that day it was the exact opposite." Another student echoed Clark's concern when he saw random scanning at Bryant High School: "I thought that something had happened and I was scared."
As the Legal Aid Society's Nancy Ginsberg noted, "You could probably find probable cause for arrest every 20 minutes" in schools. That doesn't mean that having police in schools â€” and there are nearly 5,000 school safety agents in New York City's schools â€” is necessary or wise. Representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which released a report earlier this year decrying "aggressive" policing in the schools, spoke about alternative discipline strategies, such as Positive Behavior Intervention System, that have been successful elsewhere. Those strategies are more flexible and less punitive than giving control to school safety agents, and they are administered by those charged with carrying out schools' educational missions.
Kids from the Urban Youth Collaborative, who said they didn't want to identify their schools out of fear of retaliation, repeatedly said that incidents in their schools "can be solved" if school safety agents were simply more respectful toward them. The student from Bryant said, "I don't think the NYPD knows how to deal with young people." Keeping kids out of class and teaching them that the police are their enemies? With such terrible teachers on staff, NYPD really shouldn't get involved in schools.
One final note: Council members were interested in what happened to a 1998 Memorandum of Understanding between the DOE and NYPD effectively transferring authority over school safety to the NYPD. That memorandum was supposed to be revisited in 2002, but by that time Mayor Bloomberg had been elected and given control of the schools, and no joint committee met to extend the arrangement. Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor for finance and operations, argued that mayoral control made such memorandums unnecessary because the mayor oversees both NYPD and the DOE. So we can attribute some of the reason behind the lack of explicit guidelines for making school safety decisions to mayoral control, touted (at least by mayors) as a panacea for educational problems.
Thanks to Leah Gogel, Insideschools' Zankel Fellow from Columbia University's Teachers College, for her help covering the hearing.