News and views
This week is the national School Nutrition Association's National School Lunch Week. Parents, take a day off from making lunch this week and ask your kid to eat cafeteria food to support efforts by the DOE's Office of SchoolFood to make school lunches healthier, more local, and more appealing. Kids, you can vote for your favorite nutritious school lunch.
And for the Connecticut-based "Two Angry Moms," this week is also the National School Lunch-In. They want parents to "do lunch" with their kids this week to talk about nutrition and investigate the healthiness of school lunches. The two moms, a rabblerouser and a documentary filmmaker, have also made a movie about school lunches that they say "offers an inside look at whatâ€™s on the menu in many of the nationâ€™s school cafeterias." The movie is currently being screened in house parties; you can sign up to host a viewing party in your home.
I thought the controversy and media tug-of-war had died down over at Khalil Gibran International Academy, where this summer founding principal Debbie Almontaser resigned after drawing the wrath of the press for her edgy statements about the Arab world, and I guess some people aren't happy about the peace and quiet. Today, Almontaser will deliver her application for the open principal position and she is bringing along a coalition called Communities in Support of KGIA to support her. They'll be holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall at 5 p.m., where Almontaser will speak out publicly for the first time about what happened this summer. She now says her resignation was forced. KGIA parents will be there, so it seems Almontaser's influence extends into the school even though she is not working there. It could be interesting â€” if anyone goes, please fill us in on what happens!
Last Saturday, I took the test for that small school near my apartment. The test itself was all right, but I felt that the essay question was extremely vague, and I'm not sure if I did my best. The math was fairly simple; however, there were some hard questions that I'd had never seen before. After having this experience, I'm just happy to have gotten through one test. I now have a better feel for exactly what the Specialized High School Admission Test will be like. I know that I am much better prepared for this test, coming up on Oct. 27, than I was for the past one, because of my tutoring, practice tests, and overall better knowledge of the information that's going to be on it.
With roughly two weeks to go, my tutoring is almost up and the stress levels are running high. Students at my school are anxiously awaiting the day of the test, anticipating that feeling of "it's out of my hands now." I guess all I can do now is study!
Some people never learn. Just a month after taking heat for administrators' failure to call 911 quickly when a student suffered a stroke, troubled Jamaica High School is in the news again -- this time because of a new directive aimed at preventing 911 calls from the school. The memo, written by someone new because the author of the last one was removed from the school, outlines four steps school personnel must take before calling 911. The goal is likely to cut down on incident reports and improve the school's numbers, but in a real emergency, as a teacher told the Daily News, "by step four, the kid's already dead." Just another reason for kids not to feel safe in school.
Tis the season for fall festivals, and my kids and I spent a few happy hours this weekend eating cotton candy and seeing old friends, watching rock band karaoke, and seeing if we still fit on the elementary school monkey bars. The parents did a fantastic job running the lollipop toss and cupcake decorating booths, painting faces, and manning a hamburger grill. Fall festivals donâ€™t make all that much money compared with the effort parents put in to organize them; that's why some people call this type of fundraiser a â€œcommunity-builder.â€
Community-builders may not meet all a school's financial needs, but they make people feel closer, proud to be part of the school community. Actually, a bake sale or fall fest can be just as important as a big grant: the money a PTA earns can be spent entirely according to how parents perceive the weak spots, whereas grants usually must be spent on whatever the funder dictates.
Smaller pots of money can be useful to schools in different ways from larger pots. With $100 from a bake sale you can buy a â€œwriting centerâ€ with a nice collection of crayons and markers and paper. With $10,000 from a fall fest you can run a teacher grant program in a medium-sized school, helping teachers buy whatever they dream will improve the classroom: an area rug, books on tape, a grow light and plants, biographies, bright colored posters, printer ink, a digital camera to document class projects. This is found money, a treasure whose value is magnified for the effort that went into getting it.
I've been meaning to share notes from last week's City Council hearing on school safety for days. The press did a pretty good job sharing the central issue of the hearing: it's unclear whether DOE employees or NYPD employees have the final say on school safety and discipline decisions, and the lack of clarity creates flammable conditions in schools that give rise to incidents like the one at East Side Community High School last week.
But the issue is more than one of confusion. Community leaders and students took to the stand in the late afternoon to describe the ways that aggressive policing detracts from a learning environment. Kids described being arrested and hauled out of school by safety agents after breaking minor rules, such as by writing on a desk or cutting class. They also described harassment by school safety agents that didn't result in arrest. Every student mentioned missing class time as one outcome of his or her interaction with police in school.
Kids described psychic losses as well. Jonathan Clark, a senior at Aviation High School, where he is president of the honor society, described the day last spring when radnom scanners came to his school. The scene was one of confusion and screaming, Clark said, with agents unclear about what to confiscate; they took some students' school equipment and birthday cupcakes, while allowing others to choose whether their cell phone or iPod was taken. Students missed hours of class waiting in line, and the day was ruined. Clark said, "Every other day there is such morale and happiness, and on that day it was the exact opposite." Another student echoed Clark's concern when he saw random scanning at Bryant High School: "I thought that something had happened and I was scared."
As the Legal Aid Society's Nancy Ginsberg noted, "You could probably find probable cause for arrest every 20 minutes" in schools. That doesn't mean that having police in schools â€” and there are nearly 5,000 school safety agents in New York City's schools â€” is necessary or wise. Representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which released a report earlier this year decrying "aggressive" policing in the schools, spoke about alternative discipline strategies, such as Positive Behavior Intervention System, that have been successful elsewhere. Those strategies are more flexible and less punitive than giving control to school safety agents, and they are administered by those charged with carrying out schools' educational missions.
Kids from the Urban Youth Collaborative, who said they didn't want to identify their schools out of fear of retaliation, repeatedly said that incidents in their schools "can be solved" if school safety agents were simply more respectful toward them. The student from Bryant said, "I don't think the NYPD knows how to deal with young people." Keeping kids out of class and teaching them that the police are their enemies? With such terrible teachers on staff, NYPD really shouldn't get involved in schools.
One final note: Council members were interested in what happened to a 1998 Memorandum of Understanding between the DOE and NYPD effectively transferring authority over school safety to the NYPD. That memorandum was supposed to be revisited in 2002, but by that time Mayor Bloomberg had been elected and given control of the schools, and no joint committee met to extend the arrangement. Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor for finance and operations, argued that mayoral control made such memorandums unnecessary because the mayor oversees both NYPD and the DOE. So we can attribute some of the reason behind the lack of explicit guidelines for making school safety decisions to mayoral control, touted (at least by mayors) as a panacea for educational problems.
Thanks to Leah Gogel, Insideschools' Zankel Fellow from Columbia University's Teachers College, for her help covering the hearing.
Kids who are fidgety and easily distracted aren't just not paying attention â€” they are paying attention to something else, according to a teacher at the East Village Community School who has made it her goal to help those kids. A recent New York Times article profiles Roberta Valentine's efforts to understand what drives daydreamers. Inspired by child pyschologist Mel Levine's notion of "mind trips," Valentine has her students write books about what they think about when they daydream, instead of or in addition to referring daydreamers to specialists. By doing this, Valentine helps her kids learn what distracts them and how to seek help to stay on task, writes psychologist Susan Engel in the Times. It's an interesting approach and one that sounds to me like it would make kids who march to the beat of their own drum feel included, not alienated, in the classroom.
Over at Edwize, the UFT's blog, Leo Casey describes his trouble trying to find documentation of schools' graduation rates anywhere on the DOE's website. I've grown so accustomed to finding information on the labyrinthine site that I can forget just how impossible it is to figure out for someone who doesn't spend most of her time scouring the internet.
Commenters at Edwize note that the DOE's new website makes data somewhat easier to find, but that schools are unable to update their own information with ease, and that graduation rates, even when available, are notoriously unreliable.
On Saturday, the United Federation of Teachers is holding its annual parent conference, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. This year's theme is "Strengthening the Home-School Partnership." Registration was required but if you're interested in attending the conference, which attracts more than 3,000 parents, you might still be able to get in. For more information, call 212-598-9205. MapAnd Saturday evening, teens in Brooklyn will be throwing a concert to benefit Darfur relief. "Teens for Darfur" is the third annual benefit concert thrown by the vibrant Brooklyn teen rocker community; in previous years teens raised money for street children in the Philippines and relief efforts in New Orleans. This looks like a fun way to support kids' artistic and philanthropic interests, neither of which get enough attention in their schools. 6 p.m. at the Old Stone House in Park Slope. $5 for kids; $10 for grown ups. Map
This is the first in a series of posts on the importance of student government organizations in New York City's high schools. I will also discuss the LaGuardia High School Student Government, for I which I serve, and its actions as a model for other SGOs. Enjoy! -Seth
Effective SGOs are extremely important in the fight for studentsâ€™ rights and more student involvement in NYC schools. Additionally SGOs provide students with an outlet to express their opinions about their schools. By communicating student opinions to administration and faculty and planning events or creating programs for their fellow students they can play a big role in increasing student enthusiasm for their schools and improving the school as a whole.
That is why, this year, the New York City Student Union will be researching the state of student governments in schools around the city and helping develop SGOs or other student advocacy organizations in schools that donâ€™t have them already. They will also be inviting more students actively involved in their schools to join the union.
This project has three stages: research, development and preservation. First, NYCSU will be collecting info on SGOs around the city by talking to SGO reps within these schools and collecting surveys from them. These surveys will include info about the basic everyday functioning of the SGO, the role it plays in the school, and subjective questions about the responderâ€™s opinions on student governments in general. From the surveys, we will also collect contact information to create a citywide Student Government Network.
Once we have received a significant and representative collection of surveys we will begin to create a loose â€œSGO Model.â€ This would serve as an instruction packet on how to run an ideal SGO. We will also be on call to work with students at various schools, especially those who are part of the network, to improve their SGOs and work with them to improve their schools by connecting them with other SGOs around the city.
The final stage of the project is preservation. Each year we must update the network with new student names etc. and keep working on development when needed.