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The words middle school strike fear into the heart of otherwise rational parents. It causes some to pack-up and move to the suburbs, afraid that the New York City public school system will fall woefully short of their expectations.Others may declare, "My child needs private school, with all that implies “ smaller classes, more individual attention, a wider range of arts, sports and after school activities, the perception – and in some cases the reality "of a more intensive academic program.

I don't judge or begrudge those choices. It's just that I've come to an entirely different conclusion about what matters most in a middle school, based on a mere year and a half experience as a public middle school parent.

The problem is this: You can't escape this thing that happens when middle school kids become middle schoolers, no matter where they end up going or how much it costs.

At some point, your middle schoolers are likely to no longer resemble the compliant, easy-going children you remember. Maybe they have grown five inches in six months. They have a crush for the first time and start acting weird. They have secrets. They rebel. They lie. They become impossible, petulant, annoying, withdrawn and prickly. They act out to impress their friends. They test you, try you and twist you if you let them.

That's why it's essential they end up in a building where there is someone they can talk to, someone they trust.

No wonder middle school parents get scared. My only advice to parents looking for middle schools anywhere is to watch how the grown-ups in the building relate to the kids.

During tours, does anyone mention the enormous physical and emotional changes that start taking place during adolescence? If they don't, you might want to ask.

If you attend an event at the school (highly recommended) watch to see if the kids are interacting with any of the faculty. Or ask kids at a school how they feel about the staff. Is there someone in the building kids talk to: a coach, drama teacher or guidance counselor?

Maybe the principal likes to shoot baskets with the kids or occasionally go out to lunch with them? Does he or she complain about these kids? Does the staff think these half-grown kids are funny? (They are, truly, even though they make you want to cry as often as you want to laugh.)

My son’s middle school, the Clinton School for Artists and Writers, does not have small classes, athletic fields or other amenities typical of private and suburban schools. But everyone from the school aides to the parent coordinator and the principal has a sense of humor and perspective, the ability to roll their eyes at the awkward stages, behavior and sheer height differences that seem to shift daily.

At school events, I've noticed swarms of kids hanging around the 7th-grade language arts teacher and the social studies teacher, for example. They look really comfortable, laughing and chatting about everything from music and books to friendship.These are teachers who give plenty of homework and expect a lot. But they also look like they are really enjoying these kids.

And I am so relieved that someone does.

Déjà vu all over again for Khalil Gibran school

Written by Admin Friday, 29 February 2008 03:19

Less than a year after struggling to land a location, Khalil Gibran International Academy could become a vagabond again.

The DOE is hoping to move it to PS 287 in Fort Greene for the fall, even though last summer DOE officials said the Dean Street building where it's currently housed would be able to handle a second year of growth. But parents at PS 287 say they don't want Khalil Gibran in the building. The PTA president told the press that the elementary school parents don't want older kids sharing the space.

What they — and the reporters who have covered this so far — haven't mentioned is that for the last four years there has been a high school in the PS 287 building. The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice is moving to a new building in downtown Brooklyn this fall, but since its inception has been located at PS 287. It's possible that the space-sharing has caused problems. If that's the case, we should know. And if it's not the case, parents at PS 287, which according to the DOE is operating at only 42 percent capacity, should come up with a better line for why they don't want to share their space with a school that clearly needs all the help it can get.

Déjà vu all over again for Khalil Gibran school

Written by Admin Friday, 29 February 2008 03:19

Less than a year after struggling to land a location, Khalil Gibran International Academy could become a vagabond again.

The DOE is hoping to move it to PS 287 in Fort Greene for the fall, even though last summer DOE officials said the Dean Street building where it's currently housed would be able to handle a second year of growth. But parents at PS 287 say they don't want Khalil Gibran in the building. The PTA president told the press that the elementary school parents don't want older kids sharing the space.

What they — and the reporters who have covered this so far — haven't mentioned is that for the last four years there has been a high school in the PS 287 building. The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice is moving to a new building in downtown Brooklyn this fall, but since its inception has been located at PS 287. It's possible that the space-sharing has caused problems. If that's the case, we should know. And if it's not the case, parents at PS 287, which according to the DOE is operating at only 42 percent capacity, should come up with a better line for why they don't want to share their space with a school that clearly needs all the help it can get.

Tone-deaf at the DOE: a brief history of middle school reform

Written by Admin Wednesday, 27 February 2008 17:25

First, the City Council recommends realistic, affordable, broadly supported middle school reforms. Then, after earmarking only $5 million to fund a few of the reforms, the DOE rolls out a punitive policy to retain more 8th graders. The mayor then cuts funds that go to support the very programs it says will prevent retentions. Next, the day after a major press conference by a coalition of parents and advocates upset about the retention policy and the budget cuts, the DOE announces an initiative to "re-brand achievement" using cell phones. And finally, in its press release, the DOE notes that cell phones, include those that promote learning, continue to be prohibited in schools.

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Dozens of parents, advocates and students representing the Coalition for Educational Justice crowded the foyer of Fashion Industries High School tonight in Manhattan to hold a press conference calling for middle grades reform. The boisterous conference, which featured speakers who included City Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson and Brooklyn Borough President (and possible mayoral hopeful) Marty Markowitz, among many others, set the tone for the DOE’s first public hearing on the proposed 8th grade promotion policy, held at the school tonight.

CEJ’s plan for middle grades reform was in the works before last month, when the DOE announced the 8th grade promotion policy, which speakers tonight called “punitive” and “a classic case of blaming the victim.” Once the DOE announced the new policy, which sets formal guidelines for retention of failing 8th graders without making clear how the department will intervene to help struggling students, the CEJ plan became all the more timely. The five-point plan calls for increasing the middle school day by 90 minutes; enhancing the Lead Teacher Program; adding counselors to middle schools; reducing class size; and starting a summer program for 6th graders.

Speakers at the press conference connected the promotion policy with the recent budget cuts. Jaime Estades of the Alliance for Quality Education said, “8th grade retention will do nothing without well-funded programs to implement changes.” Several items on CEJ’s platform have been made impossible by the budget cuts; principals told Insideschools that they are cutting extra time for tutoring, and the Lead Teacher Program is on the chopping block centrally.

After 200 or so CEJ representatives and allies, including dozens of small children apparently bused to the scene by the community group ACORN, filed into the auditorium for the formal presentation, DOE officials presented a stultifying PowerPoint on the promotion policy. With slide titles such as “Why preparing students for high school is critical” and “Students prepared for high school perform better once there” — things no parent in the room needed to be told — the slideshow seemed designed to “smoke parents out,” as one advocate suggested to me.

Indeed, the DOE presented little new information. Students who score at Level 1 on state math or reading tests in 8th grade or who do not pass all four of their “core” courses will be required to attend summer school, and those who do not meet those standards after the summer will not be promoted. The DOE has made special plans for students who have already been retained at least once before 8th grade: if they make a sincere effort to improve their scores and grades during summer school, they’ll be “promoted on appeal with intensive remediation” to high school. The DOE’s presentation also addressed students with special needs — their promotion requirements will be set by their IEPs — and English language learners, who will face progressively onerous requirements the longer they have been in the country. Students who have been in the country more than one year, for example, must pass all core subjects, score a 2 or higher on the state math test, and make gains between January and June on the state ELA exam.

During the public comment portion of the evening, which stretched on for hours as many CEJ members took the microphone, many speakers noted that “no one here tonight is in favor of kids going to high school unprepared” but questioned how the new promotion policy will actually help students.

Advocates for Children Executive Director Kim Sweet said, “The proposed policy fails to offer meaningful help to address the root problems of middle grade failure and provides no assurance whatsoever that struggling students will get the help they need.” Instead, she said, the policy “merely erects one more barrier [struggling students] have to cross in order to continue their education,” already a challenge for the many overage students for whom the DOE lacks programs and services. AFC is a member of CEJ.

Norm Fruchter, director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform's Community Involvement Program, which has incubated CEJ, asked for evidence that the retention policies in grades 3, 5, and 7 are working and noted that the results of an evaluation of those policies contracted in 2004 were never made public. If those policies work, he asked, “How do 18,000 students not get there?” (The DOE estimates that 18,000 students would be eligible for retention.) He also asked why the DOE is rolling out a policy that all evidence suggests is likely to cause more high school dropouts as students become overage and remain far from graduation. A later speaker called the plan “a dropout strategy.”

Pedro Noguera, an education researcher who has also signed onto CEJ’s plan, was more pointed. He asked, “Is there any research that you know of that supports what you’re doing?” The DOE officials, who hadn’t spoken except to remind speakers of their time limits, did not answer.

There are four more DOE hearings on the promotion policy scheduled for the next two weeks. See the Insideschools calendar for details on dates and locations.

CPAC dropping out of DOE's Lobby Day

Written by Admin Tuesday, 26 February 2008 05:06

Today is the DOE's annual lobby day, where DOE representatives as well as parents travel to Albany to push the city's schools' agenda in the budget process. Usually, the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council spearheads the effort to get parents up to Albany. But this year, unhappy at the city's response to budget problems — to pass the cuts along to the schools — CPAC voted not to participate in the DOE's lobby day, the Daily News recently reported. Instead, it and other parent groups will send their own delegation to Albany March 11. Is anyone planning to go?

More than 50 new schools opening this fall

Written by Admin Monday, 25 February 2008 06:49

Not content operating only 1,466 schools and programs, the DOE is planning to open 52 new schools this fall. Insideschools has already told you about more than half of those -- the high schools, for which applications are due tomorrow, and the transfer schools that will serve students who have not been successful in traditional high schools. The vast majority of the new schools will open (with the same students) in the buildings of other schools that are closing or phasing out due to poor performance, although the DOE will be using a handful of new sites in Queens and Staten Island. With names like "Brighter Choice Community School" and "Performance School," there's sure to be an option for everyone.

Parents fear DOE cutbacks to District 75

Written by Admin Friday, 22 February 2008 04:30

Is the DOE's next cost-cutting move going to be dismantling District 75, the city's district for students with the severest disabilities? That's what parents and the teachers' union allege in yesterday's Post. They say the "hush-hush" study being conducted now by the Council of the Great City Schools to identify ways to "improve" the district is a first step toward eliminating it and sending disabled students back to their neighborhood schools.

The DOE says it had no particular agenda in commissioning the study by the non-profit research organization that supports urban school districts. But parents remain suspicious, the Post says, and they may be right to, given past chancellors' attempts to dismantle the costly district, the DOE's current preference for CTT classes that include students in both general and special education, and the budget crisis that has left administrators at all levels scrambling to find ways to save money. Either way, those looking out for children with special needs, including Advocates for Children, Insideschools' parent organization, are sure to keep a careful eye on the situation.

Parents — answer a survey to help the arts

Written by Admin Tuesday, 19 February 2008 12:07

Parents — looking for something to do during this week off? Take a survey about the arts in your school. The Center for Arts Education is surveying parents about their opinions on arts education and the role of art at their schools. By taking the survey, you'll be helping CAE advocate for better arts programming in the city's schools — at precisely the time that principals are feeling like they have to cut arts funding.

Parents — answer a survey to help the arts

Written by Admin Tuesday, 19 February 2008 12:07

Parents — looking for something to do during this week off? Take a survey about the arts in your school. The Center for Arts Education is surveying parents about their opinions on arts education and the role of art at their schools. By taking the survey, you'll be helping CAE advocate for better arts programming in the city's schools — at precisely the time that principals are feeling like they have to cut arts funding.