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New and improved vocational schools may be on the way

Written by Admin Wednesday, 09 January 2008 04:24

In October, Comptroller William Thompson issued a report lamenting the declining status of vocational education. But now with a new head of Career and Technical Education, the DOE may be planning to bulk up vocational school options, the Sun reports. Students in the city's CTE schools and programs post higher Regents scores and graduation rates, despite the fact that CTE schools are not funded as well as other schools. According to the Sun, rumors are swirling that the DOE plans to build and open "model" CTE schools to seize on these strong results.

The DOE's new head of CTE programs, Gregg Betheil, was until recently a senior vice president of the National Academy Foundation, which coordinates vocational programs in a number of NYC schools, including the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism at Erasmus, where every student participates. Betheil also worked as a teacher and technology coordinator at Martin Luther King before it closed; according to a 1998 Village Voice article, he was the "champion" of integrating technology and education and inspired students.

I've liked the vocational schools I've visited. Kids are engaged in their work and generally seem happy to be at school. This feeling was especially prevalent at George Westinghouse High School when I visited this fall. There, as at many larger schools, enrollment has declined in recent years as kids enjoy more high school options. But the DOE has not slammed Westinghouse with "over the counter" transfers, as it has other, non-vocational large schools. I wonder whether this is because of the DOE's bias against vocational education. Let's hope that if that bias is truly changing — and it should — the DOE doesn't start filling vocational schools with kids who aren't looking for career-based high school programs.

Do we need Backpack Solutions 101?Ask any middle school parent the biggest adjustment their child faces when they leave elementary school, and they are likely to talk about organizational skills.

Or, lack of them.Changing classes, remembering which book to bring home, writing down all the homework in a planner, locating that planner -- all of these tasks can overwhelm 6th graders used to staying in one elementary school classroom and being a bit more coddled.

Apparently, this phenomenon has become so common that pricey tutors and personal organizers have organized a side business -- backpack help for $100 an hour or more.

Seems there is barely a skill related to learning or growing up that can't be outsourced these days.According to a recent New York Times article, parents are shelling out whatever it takes to help their children succeed in school. Most often, its boys who seem to have more trouble organizing and multi-tasking. As the mother of two offenders, I mined the article eagerly for tips. One of my colleagues gave a copy to his chronically disorganized son. He promptly lost it.

For a brief, irrational moment, I considered contacting tracking down the backpack organizers for an appointment. I'm sure their lines were flooded.

Then I wondered if all middle schools should offer a mini-course on backpack and perhaps even locker organization at the start of 6th grade.

My 7th grade son could have used one. He lugged a crammed backpack that may have weighed more than he does throughout his first year at Clinton School for Artists and Writers, which, like many Manhattan middle schools, requires a breathtaking climb because it occupies top floors of an elementary school.

"You will break your back," I insisted, watching him tote textbooks and notebooks for every class, even when there was no homework. Loose change, torn papers, dog-eared permission slips and old exams mingled with soccer gear. The thing smelled.

"I don't want to forget anything," he replied.

My soon-to-be 6th grade son has the opposite problem. He rifles through his backpack searching for a book, his folder, a notebook he needed - only to discover he left it at soccer practice, in music class, at school or at a friend's house.

I am taking comfort in the belief that even without tutors and courses, some middle schoolers eventually do learn their own lessons.

On a recent night, my 7th grader came home carrying only one thing -John Steinbeck's The Red Pony with a permission slip tucked neatly inside. I immediately assumed he lost his backpack.

"I didn't have any other homework," he explained. "So I left my backpack in my locker."

I didn't ask if it was organized.

Some parents are threatening to sue the DOE over the changes to the G&T admissions policy, according to an article in Crain's New York (subscription required). "We feel that redress in the courts is really the only way to get out the message of what the DOE is doing," a PS 166 parent who sits on the District 3 Community Education Council said in the article. The article doesn't specify on what grounds parents are seeking redress, but it's clear that many are frustrated by the change and frightened about where their kids will end up in the fall -- so much so that they are "shelling out thousands of dollars for consultants to help them navigate the application process."

The Crain's article makes sure to point out that not everyone's buying into the "collective madness" in G&T-heavy districts. Still, come the end of March, when parents find out whether their kids have made the 95th percentile cut, I predict the madness will be contagious.

DOE names new, permanent Khalil Gibran principal

Written by Admin Tuesday, 08 January 2008 10:35

In Brooklyn today the DOE announced the permanent replacement for Debbie Almontaser, the inaugural principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy who resigned just before the start of the school year. Holly Reichert, who replaces interim acting principal Danielle Salzberg, taught for one year in the city's schools, headed the English department at a school in Bahrain, and has worked in the DOE supporting literacy and ESL instruction. She's also on New Visions' list of employees, so we can assume that she's played some part in Khalil Gibran's development. (Salzberg was a New Visions employee before serving as principal, as well.) Let's hope the critics can't find anything wrong with Reichert.

And did you see the article about Khalil Gibran in last week's New Yorker? After all the brouhaha earlier this year, is it possible that the only truly reprehensible thing about the school is the character of its namesake?

Bronx charter school says staying home is best test prep

Written by Admin Tuesday, 08 January 2008 03:36

Never mind that today is the start of the elementary grades state ELA exam — what school cancels Monday classes over the weekend? Bronx Preparatory Charter School, apparently. Maybe it was snowing yesterday in Bronx Prep's corner of Morrisania because the school's Board of Trustees canceled classes, giving no explanation to parents and students who were already nervous about the testing, according to an article in the Post today.

As Seth pointed out once, many high school kids skip school the Friday before the SAT to rest and prepare, so perhaps Bronx Prep was just giving its kids the same opportunity that kids at Staten Island Tech have. Still, should charter schools' scheduling autonomy extend to spur-of-the-moment decisions? And I wonder whether the board has gotten a rude awakening about the price of heating oil — the school recently moved into its own (stunning) building.

Here's something new to worry about. Allan Kozinn, a music critic for the New York Times, recently argued in the Times that arts funds are too often going to arts organizations that provide "flyby" arts experiences, instead of building coherent and cumulative arts programs within schools. He writes:

If you look at how music was taught in public schools 40 years ago — and for decades before that — you’ll see exactly what’s needed now. Back then it was simple: Music was part of the curriculum, like math, science and social studies. ... Even more crucial, if you wanted to play an instrument, lessons were free, and the school would lend you an instrument until you felt sufficiently committed to buy your own.

My mother graduated from MS 158 and Bayside High School. Her music training at those schools was strong enough that she was first bass in the Queens College orchestra. Certainly going to see the orchestra perform would not give the same results. But if the many arts organizations offering "flyby" experiences didn't exist, I wonder whether most schools would spend money on the arts at all, especially since there are no longer any special funds earmarked for arts education. A couple of lessons by a "teaching artist" isn't ideal by far, but at least they replace test prep with something that might intrigue kids to learn more.

How does your school teach the arts? Do your kids learn real skills and techniques? Or is Kozinn right that kids are spending too much of their arts time with visiting artists and on field trips?

Queens lawmaker loudly opposes DOE reforms

Written by Admin Monday, 07 January 2008 06:58

Last week, when Chancellor Klein held a press conference to promote the performance bonuses going to schools with top progress report grades, he got a surprise when Assemblyman Mark Weprin, who represents Eastern Queens, where the conference was held, delivered a diatribe against the DOE's school grading system.

“Our schools have turned — I know the chancellor is standing here, but — to Stanley Kaplan courses in a lot of ways,” Weprin said, the Times reported. His impression was not dashed by the PS 46 student who said his favorite thing about his school is that "they help us get ready for the state ELA test.”

I'm surprised that Chancellor Klein was willing to turn over the microphone to Weprin, who has made his objections to recent reforms known for a while. In fact, Weprin's withering testimony last month at the City Council hearing about the progress reports, which you can read in full over at NYC Public School Parents, contained the exact same line the Times quoted. Perhaps if DOE officials had stuck around after their testimony was over, they could have better anticipated what Weprin would have to say.

We're entering crunch time for elementary school students preparing for the state ELA exam. It's being given on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday next week, and of all of the dozen tests over the course of the year, it (along with the state math exam in March) has the highest stakes for kids and schools. Third and 5th graders need passing scores to be promoted; 4th graders' scores are used in middle school admissions. And since 85 percent of progress report grades are based on these test scores, schools have even more riding on the scores than they did in the past.

How to deal with all this pressure? Two different columnists proposed solutions in the Sun today. "Boycott the test," suggests Robert Pondiscio, who recently returned to a career in journalism after several years teaching in the South Bronx. Regular columnist Andrew Wolf doesn't think schools should play fast and loose with their test results but he fears that some will resort to cheating. He notes, "It won't take too much illicit manipulation to yield results for those who stand to benefit." I'm skeptical of Wolf's claim that the dissolution of regional offices will result in less testing oversight but not of his observation that the incentives to cheat are stronger than ever. Certainly, we're more likely to see cheating next week than a school boycott by parents who are fed up with all the testing.

Middle School Muddle: The Lab mystique

Written by Liz Willen Friday, 04 January 2008 03:19

I've toured New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Chelsea twice in three years for my very different sons, and each time I've had a similar reaction to the hothouse of high achievers. I'm fascinated and slightly overwhelmed. I thoroughly wish there could be more middle schools like it. Lab is diverse, eclectic and brimming with excellent teachers and students who enjoy working in groups and swapping ideas. During my visits, I heard enlightened exchanges between teachers and students. I gazed at walls covered with elaborate and worthwhile collaborative projects the school is well known for. I was impressed by the many opportunities for students who love to learn.

Each time, though, I found myself recoiling at tours jammed with high-anxiety elementary school parents already obsessed with high school and college admissions. A battery of obsessive queries about tutoring, test scores and Who-Gets-In dominated conversation, taking away from a truly interesting academic program I wanted to hear more about.

No wonder both my kids rolled their eyes. I had to remind myself the school is for kids, not parents in a city where the supply for high-quality public education does not meet the demand. My older son declared that "cruel stories about hours and hours of homework" turned him off from listing Lab as his first choice two years ago, even though I hoped he’d want to go there. He was probably right to trust his own instincts. He's been delighted with his first choice, the Clinton School for Artists and Writers -- smaller, less selective and strong in two of his favorite subjects-- writing and art.

My 5th grader found himself put off by crowded hallways (mostly with touring parents) along with large class sizes (between 32 and 34 students). He declared the school of 583 to be “too big,’’ in part because Lab also houses a high school (in my mind, a distinct advantage) and he couldn't always tell what he was seeing on the tour.

Both whirlwind visits provided only a small piece of the Lab story, so I consulted my well respected former colleague on the education beat, Joe Williams, author of Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005). He's the father of a Lab 7th grader and we'd swapped middle school impressions last time around.

"The $18 billion question is why there aren't more schools like this," said Joe, a former reporter for the New York Daily News and now the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform.

Joe pays equal attention to larger education obstacles in the U.S. along with the vexing smaller kind city parents face, like keeping your kids from losing multiple Metrocards. Lab, he explains, is built on high expectations and creation of an ideal culture for a school. It has a distinct philosophy, articulated on its website and evident in all instruction.

"It's the kind of place where it's considered okay to be intellectual,"  Joe says. "That alone is hard to pull off." It also adds pressure that in Joe's mind “can be both good and bad. At some level it pushes my son to do as much as he can. The downside is he’s stressed out. The homework is intense. There are a lot of kids who are at that high level without having to try that hard.’’

On balance, Joe said his 7th grader "is very happy at Lab." He hopes he'll consider staying through high school, and that his 4th grader will choose it for middle school as well.

For a New York City parent, that's the ultimate endorsement.

134 schools to get good-grades lagniappes

Written by Admin Thursday, 03 January 2008 11:59

With great fanfare today, Chancellor Klein announced that the 134 schools that earned both an "A" on their progress reports and a "well developed" on their quality reviews would get the cash prizes promised to high performers. (The DOE's press release calls those the "top-performing schools," but we know that isn't quite accurate -- they're really the schools that improved most from 2006 to 2007.) The schools will get $30 per student to use at their discretion, as long as they also share the secrets of their success with schools that didn't get such high marks.

Three times as many elementary schools as high schools are getting the funds, as are more than twice as many schools in Queens as in the Bronx. According to the list of schools the DOE released, schools are taking home chunks of change ranging from $4,458 (East New York Family Academy) to $122,837 (Franklin Roosevelt High School). I wonder why the amounts being disbursed are not all multiples of $30 -- perhaps it's a result of the DOE's class size reduction plan that diminished classes by an average of just a fraction of a kid each?