News and views
“You are not going to believe this,’’ my 10-year-old son announced at dinner this week, after his second middle school tour. He was telling his older brother about the impressive, amenities-rich IS 126 in Chinatown, also known as the Manhattan Academy of Technology.
“They have a climbing wall! And a surfing club! They have 34 different sports, and they have actual fields – it’s crazy!’’
Big brother, a jaded seventh-grader at the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, wasn’t impressed, even though his middle school – which he absolutely loves – has few such frills.
“Is that how you are going to judge a middle school?’’ he asked tartly. “You are going to choose a school for a climbing wall? Are the academics any good?"
It’s hard for grown-ups to imagine what it’s like for all these 9- and 10-year-olds, hiking up stairs, visiting different neighborhoods and peering into classrooms. They aren’t thinking about specialized high school placement, curriculum and teacher qualifications.
Our 5th-grade teacher at PS 150 in Tribeca gave parents a little insight into what the kids are thinking about on tours. Seems these little consumers have developed a savvy reserved for New York City apartment hunters: obsession with size, location and, of course, amenities.
A tour – good or bad – can make an enormous impression. And MAT impresses. The kids peered into a math class, saw a large, well equipped art room and heard about clubs, band, fashion design, robotics, web design and a typing class. They learned the classes are smaller (about 25 kids in most cases) than many other middle schools.
But what about the academics?
That’s the most critical question to me and I’ll take a closer look in another post. It’s hard to tell during a whirlwind tour and the tail end of a lesson crammed with visitors.
Here’s how my 10-year-old answered big brother on that question: “They had an amazing science room, with fish tanks and frogs,’’ he said. “And I really liked the principal. She seemed very nice, and very organized. But I don’t think the writing I saw was as good as the writing at Clinton.’’
Then he was back to the amenities: “They already have every sport there is, practically,’’ he repeated. “And they have fields, actual fields. I didn’t know there could be actual fields in New York City.’’
Read all of the "Middle School Muddle" series.
Very sad news from IS 211 in Canarsie, where a student died earlier this month after contracting a particularly vicious form of drug-resistant staph infection that has been spreading in schools across the country. The bacteria is spread through the kind of contact that kids, especially athletes, routinely have, and while most people who are infected recover from the infection, it can kill those with depressed immune system. The state has just issued guidelines for schools to stanch the spread of the bacteria but the best advice is simple: wash your hands and tell your kids to wash theirs frequently, as well. This might be a good time to invest in some bottles of hand sanitizer.
Update: If your child has a wound that is not healing properly, seek medical attention -- the Post says the IS 211 student got the infection from a wound suffered while playing basketball and had what a classmate said were "red and yellow sores ... bad sores" before falling ill. And parents at IS 211 are wondering why it took so long for them to find out about the health issues at the school; the student died Oct. 14 but the school didn't send a letter home until this week.
Last week, I took my last tour before I make my high school decision. (Applications are due Nov. 30.) It was a small school on the Upper East Side, about 45 minutes from my apartment by car. The building was tiny, neat, and clean, and the walls were plastered with photographs and student artwork. The curriculum seemed fairly rigorous, although nothing about it seemed to stand out to me in particular. The students that roamed the halls were polite and informative; however, I sensed a slight lack of interest. There seemed to be a fair amount of science equipment, and there was a beautiful art room filled with unbelievably unique student work.
After touring this school, I think that I would perhaps consider it as a last resort. The student body seemed to be a little bit different than the kinds of people that I am generally used to, but the school did seem like it had a very nurturing atmosphere.
This weekend is the Specialized High School Admission Test and kids and parents are nervous about how to rank the schools on the application. Some schools are saying you should rank them first if you want to be admitted -- this is not true. Filling out the application is intimidating but not complicated. Here's what to do:
Rank all of the schools you want to go and none of the schools you don't want to go to. Rank them in the order you'd like to attend them. Then take a deep breath and do your best on the test. The computer will match you with the school highest on your list for which your score makes you eligible.
And remember to eat a good breakfast because you can't bring in food or drink to the test. You can, however, take bathroom breaks -- just ask the proctor for permission.
With new incentive programs being announced what seems like every other day, it's easy to forget where the city's presentation of financial incentives for good behavior began â€” way back in June, with the announcement of the Opportunity NYC program. The program, which offers cash incentives not just to poor students but to their families as well, has gotten quietly underway this fall; according to a DOE memo, the program apparently is being administered in "bi-monthly periods" and the first one comes to a close at the end of the month. Before then, parents will have a chance to earn $25 for every parent-teacher conference they attend. (Check out the Insideschools calendar for conference dates.) Principals have been instructed to tell their teachers to sign forms documenting parents' attendance. This is the first I've heard about the actual mechanics of the program â€” has anyone come across any other information?
Just a reminder that Chief Family Engagement Officer Martine Guerrier is taking the "Ask Martine and Friends" show to Staten Island tonight. Along with other DOE officials, she'll be giving an overview of the reorganized DOE. There will also be a question-and-answer session where, according to the DOE, "question cards written by parents in the audience will be answered by the panel." The event's at Petrides from 6-8:30 p.m.
The DOE is maneuvering to offer 12,000 "potential dropouts" a year of college courses while still in high school, the New York Times reports today. The $100 million initiative, which the DOE hopes to launch in 2009 with or without state funding, is predicated on the idea that kids in dual-enrollment programs are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll and stay in college. A recent report, based on analysis of data from New York and Florida, advanced this conclusion; the report also found that low-income kids benefit more from dual-enrollment than their wealthier peers but that schools frequently set standards for admission to college courses that exclude many students.
The DOE plans to eliminate those constraints and in fact to push the neediest kids to take the new courses. Many are excited about the initiative because it could help families save on college costs and get disaffected kids excited about school. Others, such as Leon Botstein, who as president of Bard College has pioneered rigorous early college schools in the city, are concerned that most high schools can't provide college-caliber instruction or atmosphere. "The idea would be to improve the quality of teaching and the treatment of students as adults. This is easier said than done," he told the Times. "You canâ€™t do it in the environment of the traditional high school. You need entirely different faculty." It's not clear whether following those recommendations is part of the DOE's plan.
No one can argue that academically proficient at-risk and low-income kids shouldn't have access to AP courses, Regents-level work in middle school, and college courses. I've certainly visited schools that don't offer advanced courses because they think their students can't handle the work. But the key to high expectations is consistency, and kids don't become "potential dropouts" because they've had excellent education since they entered school. How can the DOE can possibly expect kids who are reading and writing far below grade level to complete college-level work? Shouldn't it devote energy (and state and private dollars) to providing engaging high school-level instruction so kids don't have to enroll in remedial courses in college, a major problem in the CUNY schools? Or perhaps the DOE thinks its high school reforms will be sufficiently successful by 2009 that all kids will be ready for college-level work.
I'm also curious about the recent report extolling the values of dual enrollment. I haven't read it yet, but maybe someone who has can answer this question: Is there evidence to suggest enrolling in college courses actually causes students to graduate from high school at a higher rate? Or is there just a correlation between the two outcomes? It seems more than possible that they are simply both products of better academic preparation (possibly gained at home) and higher motivation. If that's true, enrolling kids with low skills who haven't been motivated to excel before might not achieve the same results. Sounds like the DOE will need a benefactor to fund incentives for enrollment in college courses.
The big news today is the uproar in Park Slope over the possibility of strippers at a Halloween festival held at MS 51. The director of Puppetry Art Theatre, a non-profit that provides arts family programming, including in homeless shelters and hospitals, told the Daily News he's happy for any volunteers, even those who work at the nightclub Scores. But when MS 51 Principal Lenore Berner got wind of the invitation â€” and, presumably, the fears of her parents â€” she asked that the dancers be uninvited. Now no Scores dancers (who were planning to wear street clothes to hand out candy), bartenders, or officerworkers will attend the festival. But lest you think all Park Slope parents are nuts, as the gossip site Gawker argued in its post on the saga, take note that one parent sensibly told the Daily News, "As long as they keep their clothes on I don't see the problem."
Another parent, Shelidah Duprey, and I explained some fundraising fundamentals at a conference organized by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer on Saturday (thanks to Stringer, hundreds of parents got to hear some inspiring speakers talk about how the most important ingredient to school success is family members' constant love and involvement). In the fundraising panel, Shelida talked about school-based fundraisers like book fairs, raffles, bake sales, fall festivals, and skating parties that help her small elementary school raise about $17,000 each year.
These events, spaced throughout the year, take a fair amount of parent energy, but the time spent is paid back in community spirit that benefits the children in myriad ways. Shelidah mentioned that a lot of companies are happy to donate to school events if someone from a school is willing to take the time to call the general managers of stores or the corporate giving departments of corporations. Shelidaâ€™s school gets regular donations of drinks, coffee, donuts, ice cream, and more that parents can sell at events that benefit the children. All the money goes straight to the kids (if the DOE wants to know what parents want, it has only to look what successful schools do with their parent-raised funding) for programs like storytellers, violin and piano lessons, and field trips. In her school the older children get to go on two camping trips each year!
Schools can complement these kinds of fundraisers with corporate, foundation, and public sector grants -- the subjects of my next post.