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Robin Aronow reports from Manhattan pre-K hearing

Written by Admin Monday, 04 February 2008 04:12

Robin Aronow, a consultant who advises parents on school choice, wrote with additional information from last week's Manhattan pre-K proposal hearing. It sounds like most of the issues raised there are similar to those raised in Brooklyn, which I reported on last week. Parents want more preference for siblings, and they don't want their kids to be forced to switch schools after pre-K because there will be no automatic admission to kindergarten in the same school; they are especially concerned about kids having to leave dual-language programs, where enrollment shifts are disruptive for both students and the school. (There has never been automatic admission, but many principals have used their discretion to admit out-of-zone pre-K children to their kindergarten.)

One thing Robin heard was very different from what I understood to be the plan. She writes, "As for the uniform kindergarten policy for next year, [DOE officials] are still working out many factors, including whether zoned schools will be part of the uniform application process or remain a separate option." At the Brooklyn hearing, DOE officials made it crystal clear that zoned schools would be part of the same application process. Has the DOE realized that requiring parents to apply to zoned schools will greatly limit school choice, or did someone misspeak in Manhattan?

Other new information:

  • In order to be on the same timeline as other school choice processes, the District 3 kindergarten lottery has been pushed back for this year. Applications will now be available at the beginning of March and notifications of placements will happen in May, around the same time as the Gifted & Talented notifications arrive.
  • The DOE has said that community-based organizations will use the same admissions timeline as the DOE, but parents noted that many of the CBO pre-K programs are already filled for next year.
  • Above kindergarten, applicants will have to go through the OSEPO and request a Placement Exception Request, the new name for a variance, to attend a school other than their zoned school.

Finally, Robin notes that in some overcrowded zones, being zoned for a particular school is not always a guarantee that you can attend it — so getting into those schools from out of the zone will be almost impossible. She writes, "For anyone planning to move to a new school zone, I strongly encourage you to do this sooner [rather] than later, and no later than the close of school in June prior to the year your child will attend."

For more on the anxiety parents are starting to feel over the proposed changes, check out Neil deMause's report in the Village Voice. The pre-K hearing in Queens is tonight; hearings in Staten Island and the Bronx will be next week. Let us know what you hear in your borough.

School budgets slashed; CEO principals not given much say

Written by Admin Monday, 04 February 2008 02:23

You must be living under a rock if you haven't heard about the significant school budget cuts that the DOE made last week. In addition to the $324 million that schools will need to cut from their budgets next year, principals were also lost 1.75 percent of this year's budget — before they could even stop to think about where to find the money.

As of early last week, the DOE hadn't actually told principals that they would each have to cut a total of $180 million from their budgets; principals had to learn about the plan from the newspapers. I spoke to a principal on Friday who said she received an email at night informing her that she would have to cut $125,000; when she woke up in the morning, the money was already gone.

While the DOE will be making some cuts centrally, most of the reductions are being passed down to individual schools. The Times reported that the cuts will range from $9,000 to $447,587; for many schools, it's possible that the cuts will undo the Fair Student Funding gains they might have seen earlier this year.

As the mayor suggested earlier this week, Klein told the Times that principals will "have to tighten some programs." He suggested that principals might eliminate after-school activities or Saturday tutoring programs. But even if principals were okay with making those cuts, it looks like the losses might go deeper; Steven Satin, principal at Norman Thomas High School, told the Times that he has to cut the equivalent of "six teachers' salaries for the rest of the term" from his budget. The Daily News reports that schools in Queens have already canceled dance classes, disbanded a class taught by a long-term substitute, and cut tutoring programs. Also on the chopping block centrally: two of the 10 planned citywide standardized tests (NY Times); some ESL teaching positions (NY Times); and the Lead Teacher program (last Monday's PEP meeting).

Principals disagree with the DOE's ideas about what ought to be cut, and they've been circulating emails with sarcastic (and yet eminently reasonable) suggestions for the DOE. From the Times on Friday:

The principals in their e-mail chain of complaints wondered whether their evaluations would take into account constraints because of budget cuts, and also spoke disparagingly of the city’s contracts with I.B.M., which developed the $80 million computer system, and as one principal put it, “a whole host of other private, for-profit corporations that have entered into our world.”

The DOE considers principals the CEOs of their schools, but it sounds like many principals continue to put their students, not the notion of business efficiency, first. Chancellor Klein is testifying at a legislative budget hearing this morning in Albany. For which philosophy will he advocate?

A 5th-grade boy raised his hand on our last middle school tour and posed a question that took everyone aback. It reminded grown-ups in the room what it must feel like to be 10 or 11 years old, contemplating your educational future.

“Is it easy to make friends at this middle school?’’ the boy wondered.

Kelly McGuire, the energetic principal of Greenwich Village Middle School had already distributed a glossy brochure, articulated his educational philosophy and answered predictable questions about class sizes and whether 6th graders can go out to lunch.

He’d spoken about literacy and math scores. He’d described a small, caring and nurturing community with a commitment to social justice and a “really rigorous approach to academics."

(Every school we’ve toured has a “really rigorous approach.")

The 8th-grade students had answered questions about where they want to go to high school and how much homework they have. They complained about what they least like about their school – all those stairs they must climb to get to it

(Every middle school we’ve toured has also been on the top floor of an old building with no elevator.)

No one really knew how to answer the little boy’s question about making friends, although it laid bare a top priority of 5th graders as they prepare to rank their top five middle choices by Feb. 6.

Hint: It’s not a “content-rich program,” an “integrated theme-based curriculum,’’ a “peer mediation/conflict resolution program," or “collaborative team teaching,’’ to mention a few of the phrases we’ve heard on tours.

For 5th graders, middle school means splitting up from classmates they’ve known for years and finding themselves in an unfamiliar environment.

How, they wonder, will they make new friends?

No principal, parent or student can answer that question for them. No tour guide has the answer.

I’m grateful we have a choice of middle schools, but I strongly wish that 6th graders could remain one more year in their elementary school – the old K-6 configuration that I grew up with and one that is being considered again, as are pre-K-8 schools, like the new one being proposed for Battery Park City. I love the idea.

I’m not sure what is gained by hurtling them into the adolescent world of cell phones, instant messaging, traveling alone and school dances where grinding (if you don’t know what it is, ask any middle schooler) rules. They will face those social pressures far sooner than many parents -- and I suspect educators -- would like.

My 5th-grade son looked weary but relieved after our last tour, which was probably number 7 or 8 -- we slept through one and lost count. Mostly, he wants to go to school with his best buddy or least some of the classmates he’s known since kindergarten. And he'd like to get back to enjoying the rest of elementary school.

That, he told me, was what he was thinking about when the little boy asked his heartfelt question about making friends.

Good news for parents out of a State Supreme Court room in Manhattan yesterday: A judge ruled in favor of East Harlem residents who sued over the city's secretive agreement last year to give 20 private schools almost exclusive access to the playing fields on Randall's Island. As opponents of the plan argued, the deal was made illegally because the city circumvented a required competitive bidding process, the judge ruled, voiding the agreement. According to the New York Times, the city must now resubmit the proposal through the Uniform Land Use Review Process, which requires City Council approval. Given the council's stance on the DOE's habit of entering into costly no-bid contracts, and the press the Randall's Island showdown has gotten, the mayor and chancellor will likely have a hard time pushing the proposal through.

Last night I went to the first of five public hearings held by the DOE about the proposed new system for handling pre-K and kindergarten admission. I was surprised that there were no more than about three dozen parents there but the DOE did just announce the policy at the end of last week.

Read Insideschools' overview for background on the proposal. I learned many more details last night:

  • If the proposal goes through (and the "if" here really means "when"), all pre-K registration activities thus far this year will have been rendered moot. Keep going to open houses, but if principals promise you a slot or ask for your commitment to their school, remember that it probably won't matter. And you'll have to pick up and return a pre-K application, even if you think you've already done that.
  • A large part of completing the application will be trying to figure out your likelihood of admission to the schools you list. If your zoned school has a popular pre-K program, you'll probably want to list it first, because if you list it second, all the seats could be taken by other zoned children before you're even considered. As Marty Barr of OSEPO said last night, it would make sense to try to get into a program outside of your zone only when the program you want is large and doesn't usually have that many people applying which does not describe the most desirable programs, of course.
  • Kids with IEPs will continue to be placed by the Committee on Preschool Special Education their parents won't have to fill out an application.
  • Within each priority level, siblings will receive preference for admission. So after all the zoned children who rank a pre-K program first are admitted, the sibling of a child enrolled in that school from outside the zone would get priority over other out-of-zone students for admission.
  • The DOE says that pre-K programs at community-based organizations will follow the same calendar, so if you want a back-up plan should you not get into any public school pre-K program, you will want to apply to your top-choice CBO programs in March as well.
  • Everyone in pre-K this fall and afterward will have to reapply for kindergarten, including families in their zoned school who want to stay there. A child who gets into an out-of-zone or unzoned school for pre-K will have no assurance or even priority to be allowed to stay there for kindergarten.
  • The DOE has no idea how it will deal with seats that open up due to children leaving the city, enrolling in CBO-run pre-K programs, or choosing private schools. Barr said OSEPO has considered a second round of applications (at this, parents last night booed) or assigning children on an "over-the-counter" basis.
  • The proposal has no built-in appeals process, but OSEPO Director Liz Sciabarra seemed open to adding one. In 2009, if you are assigned to a school for kindergarten that doesn't work for your family, you can apply to transfer. Barr and Sciabarra said the transfer process will remain the same.

The new process may wind up being simpler and fairer, as the DOE says it will be, but it certainly does change the game this year for many families entering the system. What should be the major takeaways for parents? First, schools that have accepted kids on an individual basis will not be able to do so any more; principals will no longer have any discretion to issue variances. In addition, the process is heavily weighted toward keeping kids in their zoned schools. The way to give yourself the best chance of getting into your first-choice pre-K program and kindergarten in 2009 is to move into that school's zone.

What's your take on this proposal? Let Insideschools know in the comments, and then let the DOE know by emailing You can also attend one of the three remaining public hearings; see our calendar for details on dates and locations.

With troubling news about school budgets percolating (more on this later), let's focus this morning on the city's exceptional students. Four students at Stuyvesant the most at a single school and one at Bronx Science were among the 40 national semifinalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. Kids at MS 318 in Brooklyn beat national chess champs Murrow High School for the city chess title. And kids at IS 98 in the South Bronx take LEGO robotics seriously, as do their peers at 59 other Bronx schools; they're currently raising money to travel to Japan to compete.

Last week, the DOE released results of the Principal Satisfaction Survey that it said proved that principals are happy as clams. Of course, we know the truth is a little more nuanced, and as Diane Ravitch noted after speaking to a number of principals at an event, many principals were hesitant to express their true feelings because they feared retribution; officially, the survey was anonymous, but it was distributed and collected via DOE email addresses.

Still, looking past the sunny picture the DOE painted, Insideschools reporter Vanessa Witenko saw some more unsettling results. In particular, she noticed that only 28 percent of the principals who responded to the survey (who represent 70 percent of all principals) said they were at all satisfied by the way the central student enrollment office handles enrollment of kids with special needs. Check out her full report on principals' dissatisfaction with special ed enrollment.

While adults fought, kids suffered at KGIA; rally tonight

Written by Admin Tuesday, 29 January 2008 03:36

Tonight, supporters of the Khalil Gibran International Academy are holding a "an evening of celebration and support" for the school, which continues to be troubled a semester after it opened. Earlier this month, the DOE finally announced a permanent replacement for original principal Debbie Almontaser. This week, the Post reports that shorted in the chaos of the opening months were the school's 10 students with special needs, who don't have a dedicated teacher and who apparently have not been receiving any of the services mandated by the IEPs. Class size is also around 30 students with only one teacher in the room, the Post reports, and kids in special education and general education alike are having a hard time learning. For more details about the event tonight, see the Insideschools calendar.

8th Grader Izzy: The wait continues, but not for long

Written by Admin Tuesday, 29 January 2008 03:08

Hey everyone! It's been quite some time since I last blogged, mainly because all has been quiet on the high school frontier for a while now. I am currently waiting for the results of the specialized high school exam, which are due back next week (somewhere around Feb. 6), to tell me whether or not I made it into my first-choice specialized high school.

At the same time that I'm pretty jazzed about those results, I'm also anticipating the results of my application to non-specialized high schools. At this point, I will, quite frankly, be happy no matter where I get in. I have confidence that I made it into the small school in my neighborhood, and my excitement concerning acceptance to that school has only risen since I finally decided to put it first. Although I've heard rumors that it will be backbreakingly fast-paced, I've also heard wonderful things about the rich curriculum and able staff.

My one concern is that, if I do somehow make it into both the specialized high school and the regular school, which will I choose? Both schools are overachieving and will undoubtedly get me many places in my future career as a student, but I would have to make certain sacrifices in order to succeed in both places. One will allow for shorter travel time, but more club participation; the other, immense travel time, but possibly less competition among the student body. Only the test results (and some good thinking time!) will tell.

Would you wait in the cold at 4:30 a.m. to sign up for more classes with your elementary school science teacher? That's what parents from PS 261 in Brooklyn did this past week when Carmelo Piazza, known in the neighborhood as "Carmelo the Science Fellow," opened registration for the 8-week summer program he runs. The New York Times reports that parents started lining up around 4:30 a.m., and the entire summer session was full less than 3 hours after registration opened at 9 a.m. Piazza sounds indefatigable (and possibly insane), teaching a full schedule, running after-school classes at his neighborhood science joint, and entertaining at weekend birthday parties. The city needs more teachers like him.