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Inadequate counseling a persistent problem in NYC schools

Written by Admin Thursday, 17 January 2008 07:17

In Insideschools' most recent college advice column, our counselor noted that guidance counselors in many high schools are responsible for so many students that they often are unable to give each kid the attention he or she deserves. I recently heard from a father who said the same situation persists in middle schools as well. Kids applying to high school or college don't get adequate support, nor do kids who need help solving personal or family problems.

Why doesn't this issue get more attention? Possibly, it's because the situation hasn't changed much in decades. Check out a 1990 New York Times article on the subject, "Trying Times for Guidance Counselors." The article describes a system that is underfunded by the state, where guidance counselors can just barely stay on top of paperwork, much less grapple with the individual and very adult challenges of their students. If that doesn't sound familiar, perhaps this will:

''Our kids are feeling totally alienated and not connected,'' said Caesar Previdi, the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. High School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. ''The schools have gone too far in the direction of judging kids on the basis of test scores and grades. In the schools we should not be ducking our responsiblity to support the family if and when thqe family is crippled.''

Some things never change.

Many of us know that kids with limited English proficiency have limited high school options. But it's a lot easier to understand what that means to immigrant kids and their families after reading Jessica Siegel's article about Ralph Antony Toussaint, who arrived from Haiti in August at age 16, in the Village Voice's education supplement this week.

For weeks this past fall, Ralph Antony and various members of his family ping-ponged around Brooklyn, encountering obstacles at the enrollment center and finding that several schools suggested by the DOE were too crowded to take another student or lacked the special English language instruction that a new immigrant would need. Eventually, it took the help of an advocate to get Ralph Antony admitted into overcrowded Clara Barton High School, which has a Haitian Creole dual language program.

No one should have to spend five weeks finding a high school, but at least Ralph Antony finally landed in a school that was right for him. A DOE spokesperson told the Voice, "If a school is sent a student from the enrollment center, the school should take him or her." But several of the small high schools to which the enrollment office directed the family rejected Ralph Antony because they couldn't provide him the services he needed. Last year, Advocates for Children Director Kim Sweet explained to the Citywide Council on High Schools that the DOE requires kids with special needs to go through the regular high school admissions process without having any assurance that their match will have the services they need. The DOE's thinking in this situation appears to be similar, and kids who need English language services lose out.

(Incidentally, I know that I read this article last fall I read an article on the Voice's website and for a while I tried to find it again to link to it, but it was gone. I guess holding articles for six months is one way New Times is cutting the Voice's costs. It's too bad, because articles like this one deserve to be seen.)

Lunch at 8:59 a.m.? That's what some kids at Richmond Hill High School are scheduled for -- so they've taken to drinking water all day to feel full. In today's "On Education" column in the Times, Sam Freedman continues his crusade against overcrowding in the city's few remaining comprehensive high schools, writing about conditions at Richmond Hill now that it enrolls 3,600 students, twice what it is meant to hold. He last wrote about the impact on Beach Channel High School of being slammed with dozens of poorly behaved students entering through "over the counter" enrollment.

Principal Frances DeSanctis says only a construction project can reduce the crowding pressure. But while DOE officials say it's a "priority" to reduce enrollment, their only plan seems to be to hope that new small schools in the area siphon away entering 9th graders.

This letter, signed by Dana O'Brien, was published last week in the New York Times.

As a public school student myself, as well as on behalf of the New York City Student Union, I would like to commend Assemblyman Mark Weprin on his public statement on the overemphasis on high-stakes testing in New York City public education.

While there are still many great teachers in this city who are working hard to foster critical thinking, creativity, imagination and all of the qualities that make a truly educated person, their efforts are often squelched by Department of Education policies and curriculums that value uniformity and accountability over teaching and learning.

While we at the Student Union recognize and appreciate the need for accountability in such a large system, we believe that a degree of flexibility and subjectivity is necessary in evaluating schools and students. We are working with Chancellor Joel I. Klein's staff on improving aspects of the school report card system, but there is still much to be done.

The Post today has a little more information about charter schools opening this fall. It looks like the Board of Regents is approving a dozen new charter schools: four in Queens, three in Manhattan, three in the Bronx, and one more that is still trying to settle its location. Here are three schools the Post mentions whose approval was news to me:

  • La Cima, a Spanish dual-language school in Queens, opening with kindergarten and 1st grade. According to an October article in the Queens Times Newsweekly, schools in District 24 welcomed the school with "not exactly open arms" because of the district's widespread overcrowding.
  • Voice, in Queens, which will have daily music classes. According to the State Education Department, Voice's proposed principal is currently an AP at PS 131.
  • Ethical Community Charter School, in upper Manhattan or the Bronx, which is being opened by people who are inspired by the philosophy of humanist and reformer Felix Adler.

Check out our earlier post on charter schools opening in 2008 to see the names of more schools that will be opening their doors this fall. We'll let you know about charter school application deadlines and lotteries as soon as we find out about them.

Middle School Muddle: Middle schools and math

Written by Admin Tuesday, 15 January 2008 07:45

Prospective and current middle school parents might want to question math curriculums more aggressively. What topics are covered and what kind of background and training does your child's math teacher have?

Chances are the answer to both questions could be not enough.

A new study, Mathematics Teaching in the 21st Century,’’ by Michigan State University researcher and Professor William H. Schmidt, reminded me why I should be paying more attention to math issues during middle school tours.All too often, middle schools offer an unfocused curriculum taught by unprepared educators who can't help middle school kids make the transition from arithmetic to real mathematics, Schmidt's study found.

Teachers in five other countries are more prepared to teach math than middle school teachers in the United States, the study says.Schmidt believes the existence of a coherent and challenging math curriculum should be a deciding factor for judging the quality of a middle school. Kids who don't get the math they need will have trouble with math in high school and won’t get very far, he warns.

Any parent touring middle schools in New York City can quickly discern wide variation in the way math is taught. Some schools offer more and push students to learn high-level math, like the well regarded NEST+M, which offers a challenging program of Singapore math. Some middle schools provide Regents-level math and others don't.

School of the Future offers a curriculum map for 7th grade, promising a linguistic/real life approach to mathematics.’’ One school I toured handed out a sheet noting that math is part of the 6th-grade curriculum; another simply said it offers “high-quality instruction, without further explanation.

It's easy to get confused and skip the math questions if you don't know what to ask.That's one reason Schmidt has long pushed for specific content standards laying out what every child is expected to learn and know by every grade in mathematics. If such standards existed nationally, parents would know what to expect. The standards would inform teacher training in math, he says.

“It’s incumbent on education schools and on our society to deem math education important enough to have such standards,€™™ Schmidt told me during an interview about his study last week.

“It’s logical,’’ he explains. With clear standards, you would have the whole system organized instead of arbitrary and hit and miss. If you follow Schmidt's logic, choosing a middle school with a particularly strong art or music program should not mean sacrificing math education. Each and every middle school would offer similar math curriculums with properly trained teachers.

Parents who want to know more about math requirements can consult the New York State math standards, which describe should be taught in each grade. That they are somewhat confusing to follow comes as no surprise to Schmidt.

“The problem is the standards are not very accessible to parents,’’ Schmidt says. “And they can be so full of jargon it's difficult for parents to agitate for them.

School officials may tell you it's really hard to find enough highly trained and math teachers, says Schmidt. "But your child shouldn't have to suffer as a result.''

Parents, says Schmidt, should ask questions about math and demand answers.

It's one small way to push for change.

It's too easy to say that this is the DOE's way of shortening the school-to-prison pipeline, right?

Update 1/12: That was fast. After lots of negative feedback, the city has abandoned the plan.

Since the DOE has demonstrated that it will do whatever it wants, a good way to predict future DOE initiatives is to pay attention to what DOE officials say ought to be done. So when DOE bigwig Christopher Cerf participates on a panel about the "dismal" state of teacher evaluations and decries teachers' "deep antipathy" to being evaluated in a meaningful way, we can assume that somewhere inside Tweed, someone is thinking about new ways to rate teachers. Unfortunately for those of us who think the influence of test scores should be limited, Cerf also said he is "unapologetic that test scores must be a central component of evaluation,"
Education Week reports from the panel.

In fact, Cerf said at the panel that DOE leaders are working on an evaluation system that will look at how far teachers raise their students' test scores. As I recall, one of the papers presented at the Research Partnership conference in October drew on data that showed how far individual students progressed within each classroom, so evidently the bones for such a system must already exist. I imagine the larger obstacle for the DOE will be getting the UFT to agree to use a new evaluation system that relies on hard data instead of observation by other teachers. Of course, the UFT hasn't been much of an impediment to any of the DOE's other initiatives, even when those initiatives appeared not to be in the best interest of teachers.

New York State's number 1, no thanks to NYC

Written by Admin Friday, 11 January 2008 03:46

Can we stop testing now, Chancellor Klein? New York rates the highest among all 50 states in a new Education Week report that looked at education funding, policy, and student achievement.

What's that? "The state's rating would have been even better without the lower student-achievement scores of New York City," the Post reports the survey's director as saying. Oh. Back to the bubble sheets.

Randall's Island playing fields deal being argued today

Written by Admin Thursday, 10 January 2008 09:31

Six months after filing suit over the city's deal to lease most of the Randall's Island playing fields to private schools, Harlem residents are enjoying their first day in court today. Norm Siegel, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, is trying to expand the lawsuit to make it a broader attack on the city's proclivity to issue no-bid contracts. But the Sun reports that "in the end, the case will turn on a narrow issue: whether the city circumvented the community board and City Council in approving the lease agreement." It's probably best for the plaintiffs that the key legal issue is technical and not moral: contradicting their claims, the head of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation says the deal will create even more access for public school families than they had in the past. Construction on the fields began this summer.