News and views
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.
The city's schools are not immune to the wave of hate that has swept the country recently. When the football team from Harlem's Wadleigh Secondary School visited Staten Island Tech earlier this month, Wadleigh players found what appeared to be racist slurs written on their bench. Then last week, someone drew 22 swastikas on doors and walls at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in downtown Manhattan. And today, the papers are reporting that a noose was sent to the black principal of Canarsie High School in Brooklyn; Chancellor Klein has just sent out a statement condemning the attack. These kind of unsettling events are a reminder that schools ought to be teaching more than just the content and skills that appear on standardized tests.
Last week New York City Comptroller William Thompson came out in strong support of added physical education programs in New York City schools. According to a press release that his office issued, he has called for more PE because of the mass health problems of New York City students, especially those from low-income neighborhoods.
This is an important issue and a serious problem, but more physical education is not the way to approach it. This is in no way an attack on Comptroller Thompson, but on the more general and widespread notion that phys ed classes could possibly give students the amount of exercise they need and that more of it will help reduce youth health issues like obesity.
The important function of physical education is to educate students on how to get healthy and take care of their bodies. Students do not need this class five days a week. In many situations, my school included, added phys ed classes have cluttered up schedules so badly that the school had to extend the regular day to 4:10 p.m. Healthier students won't come from more phys ed classes, but from creating a culture of exercise in the younger grades and changing government policies that propagate the unhealthy lifestyles of many students.
Recess, for one, is a great way to create a culture of exercise. As Jonathan Kozol points out in his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, playgrounds and recess are disappearing from low-income schools because the No Child Left Behind Act has increased the need for test preparation. (Linda Perlstein makes the same point in her new book, Tested.) Under this system of high-stakes testing as a gauge of educational "results," recess is deemed unnecessary. In the low-income neighborhoods of New York City and the rest of the country, however, recess is vital in improving student health. It gives students the chance to use their bodies and also gives them time to develop their imaginations (thus leading to better health, mentally and physically, for all).
Other important factors in youth health are the environment and nutrition. As one of my fellow NYCSUers pointed out at Monday's meeting: "My school did have a playground, but it was right next to a highway." Pollution is a real contributing factor to poor health among low-income students and must be dealt with. Right now, asthma rates among Harlem youth are at crisis levels.
And our nutrition can be improved by changing the Congressional Farm Bill that determines what food producers get federal subsidies. This week the Senate is taking a look at the bill, which has been criticized by organizations like Eating Liberally for subsidizing producers of unhealthy foods (Twinkies and fast food come to mind) over those who produce more healthy and nutritious comestibles.
And if legislators care about kids' health, it also might be a good idea for them to renew SCHIP. Just a thought.