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Oops. Administrators at the Bronx High School for Performance and Stagecraft are in hot water with the DOE after they allowed the Barack Obama campaign to film students discussing a class assignment based on Obama's "Yes We Can" speech. It's against DOE policy for schools to be used in political or promotional films; the 13-minute film has been circulated as a fundraising pitch by the Obama campaign. In addition, students are identified by their full names, and several say they are 9th graders — it's unclear whether the campaign sought releases from those students and their families before filming.Principal Mark Sweeting said he knew the film was against the rules but that getting students to become politically engaged and informed was worth the potential consequences. I agree with Sweeting that inspiring kids to think critically about race and to see themselves as integral to the political process is a great thing. And I think the DOE's rules can be constricting for schools that want to publicize their work. But in this case, I am worried that structuring a class assignment around the speech of a particular candidate and then offering students the chance to speak about that assignment on behalf of that candidate creates a coercive environment that's inappropriate for the classroom.

Man, the DOE just can't keep its mind made up about anything, can it? When DOE officials announced the new policy for admission to gifted and talented programs earlier this year, they were emphatic that research has proven that gifted programs are useful only for students who score in the 95th percentile or above on certain standardized tests. But now the Daily News is reporting that the DOE might be considering children in the 90th percentile and higher.

The Daily News speculates that "officials may be reluctant to exclude large numbers of children" — more than 50,000 kids tested for G&T this spring. If the rumor turns out to be true, I'll wager that the change was made not because of the number of students who would be excluded with the higher cutoff but because of where those students live. In some districts that haven't had robust G&T or test prep cultures, too few students might have scored at the 95th percentile or higher to field an entire class. That wouldn't look too good for the DOE, which explained the policy change as an attempt to create equity across districts.

And perhaps the DOE is responding to the anger of parents and community leaders in districts where the new standard would almost certainly cut down on existing gifted programs, such as District 22 in Brooklyn. Their frustration and anger are nothing, of course, compared to that which the DOE can expect from parents whose kids narrowly missed the cut for G&T, no matter the cutoff ultimately used; letters will go home by the middle of this month, several weeks later than originally planned.

Public schools awash in private school-ish activities

Written by Admin Thursday, 03 April 2008 11:45

To provide public school students with the kinds of activities popular in private and suburban schools, we've got Chess-in-the-Schools, StreetSquash, and youth league soccer in Harlem. Now we learn that cricket recently became the DOE's newest PSAL sport. It's only a matter of time before pole-vaulting becomes a right, not a privilege, for the city's public school students.

Admissions advice for unlucky 8th graders

Written by Admin Thursday, 03 April 2008 04:11

Last week, all 85,000 8th graders who applied for public high school found out where they were matched. This process is nerve-wracking for all, but it's worst for the nearly 8,000 children who didn't get a high school placement at all. Over at Insideschools, we've got instructions and school suggestions for families who are still looking for a high school; applications for the supplemental admissions round are due a week from today.

Unfortunately, our best advice is little consolation for kids who have been burned by a process that seems to favor the academic elite and struggling students over many kids whose mid-80s averages and on-grade-level test scores do little to reflect their talents, interests, and personalities.

There is one way to get answers and explanations about the middle school choice process.

It requires taking a deep breath, agreeing not to try to game the system and ignoring the "I heard this" rumors.

It involves going straight to the source: Jimmy Bueschen, the school choice coordinator whose jurisdiction includes District 2.

For the last 10 years, Bueschen has patiently explained middle school choice to countless elementary school parents. Every year he hears parents cry: "This is too much for 10 year olds!"

He also tries to quell rumors from parents who "heard this" about a change in the process, a new rule or deadline. Most are false. He is quick to tell parents who want to know if putting their second choice first is a better strategy that the answer is no, never.

Bueschen was kind enough to go over all the answers to questions I posed in a recent post, although he reminded me that he’d addressed just about every one of my questions in his excellent and very careful presentation to my child’s elementary school, where he pointed out that 80 percent of kids get into their first or second choice.

Those are pretty comforting odds. So how did I get confused? Perhaps by listening to multiple voices and rumors? Also, many of the schools we visited during tours do things differently, so what holds true for one school doesn’t hold true for the next, so it is easy to get somewhat muddled.

For the record, here are some of Bueschen’s answers to frequently asked questions, including mine.

Q. How seriously do middle schools take the fourth grade state tests?
A. The tests are part of multiple criteria schools used, including lateness and absences. There were cutoff scores at one point. There are no longer cutoff scores.

Q. Do schools really look at report cards, even if there are just checks and no grades?
A. If they ask for them, yes. Lots of report cards don’t contain grades.

Q. Will middle schools really have time to evaluate hordes of first choice candidates?
A. Of course. That’s part of what they do.

Q. If they give a test, how much will it count?
A. There are multiple criteria. Of course, you would think it holds a bit more weight because their screening may be based on the theme of their school. It’s up to the school to decide. Schools have different themes they may want students to demonstrate an interest in, like writing, science or technology.

Q. Will be child be screened at both his first and second choice? We all heard this might happen.
A. They will be screened (which can mean an interview, a test, participation in a project) at their first choice. The second choice school may do screening before they accept students in the second round – which means after they have accepted those who listed them as first choice.

Q. If they don’t hear from their second choice, does that mean they got into their first choice?
A. It’s possible, but it's not over till it's over. A person can get interviewed by first, second and third and STILL get their first choice. Our goal is for everyone to have their first choice. You could hear from the second choice school and still get into your first choice.

Q. Should we have prepared portfolios or letters of recommendation about our children?
A. Only if asked by the school. They likely won’t have time to read them.

Q. When will we find out?
A. Early May.

Finally, Bueschen has a reminder for parents who complain that the process is too much: The alternative is to pack everyone off to zoned schools – something no one wants. The best way to reach Bueschen is via email: He gets hundreds of calls at 212-356-3788 and does his best to answer.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

A sampling of NYC school humor

Written by Admin Tuesday, 01 April 2008 06:55

In honor of April Fools' Day, I'd like to direct your attention toward some of the high quality satire of New York City schools that's out there on the web. But be careful: as with much satire, these links are so close to reality that they almost aren't funny.

  • Billionaires for Education Reform describes Smellington Worthington III's attempts to uncover "the best ways to train the great unwashed." Smellington seems to be on hiatus right now as he explores ways to profit off of the city's schools, but his past entries -- and those of his wife, Muffy -- are worth a read.
  • For more than a year, Gary Babad has been contributing satirical news stories to the NYC Public School Parents blog. Nothing, from the cell phone ban to ARIS to school pizza parties, escapes Babad's cutting wit.
  • And children's musician Tom Chapin, a graduate of the city's schools, has just released a video for his newest song, "Not on the Test." Sample lyric: "Each box that you mark on each test that you take/Remember your teachers, their jobs are at stake/Your score is their score, but don't get all stressed/They'd never teach anything not on the test." Ha ha!

When the public middle school search began this fall, I was not going to be one of those anxiety ridden parents, whispering rumors and comparing notes and test scores of kids who get in.

After all, we are talking about 10-year-olds here. There is plenty of time to get hysterical about high school admissions and getting into college in the years to come.

My kids attend schools in Manhattan’s District Two, I reasoned, where there are plenty of good choices that parents in other parts of the city only wished they had. My older son survived the process two years ago, got accepted into his first choice and is (mostly) thriving in his middle school, as are most of his friends and former elementary school classmates.

I still want to believe everything will work out fine. But now that tours are done and applications in, I see anxiety etched on the faces of 5th-grade parents. Kids are whispering about their tests and interviews and saying things like, "I’m sure I didn’t make it."

Some of us will have to explain to our kids why, if they didn’t get their first choice but their friends did, it they should not be unhappy or feel rejected.

We won’t be able to say exactly why, though, because we’re all a bit confused. The middle school process started later this year than it did in the past, and while many of us have posed questions to principals, staff at our elementary schools and parent coordinators on tours, we haven’t always received clear answers.

We’ve all been told many different things, some with a warning that all is subject to continuing changes in the middle school process from the Department of Education.

Parental chatter on tours and at tests makes for more confusion. For example, several parents told me they listed their child’s first choice school as SECOND on the middle school application, believing they’d have a better chance in the second round.

Some other unanswered questions:

  • How seriously do middle schools really take the fourth grade tests? Can your child simply not get into certain schools if they didn’t score a four on both the ELA and the math? Is there really an absolute cut-off? It seems to vary from school to school. Should you not even apply to certain middle schools even if you really liked them because of lower test scores?
  • Do schools really have time to look at report cards? If the report cards have just checks and no grades, how will these schools know anything about my child?
  • Will middle school officials really have the time to evaluate hordes of first choice candidates, in addition to getting through an already packed day and taking care of the kids already in their charge?
  • If they give a test, how much does it count?
  • Will my child be interviewed and tested more than once? At first we were told they would be only be tested and/or interviewed at their first choice. Then we were told they’d go to both. Then we were told they’d only get a call from school two or three if the child did not get into school one.
  • Will my 10-year-old be assigned a numerical rating, and get accepted or rejected on that basis?
  • Should we prepare a portfolio? Letters of recommendation?
  • If we don’t get our first choice, do we have much of a chance on appeal?

Understandably, selecting an entering class is tough on popular schools that are overwhelmed with first choice applicants.

Parents for the most part truly appreciate the unique offerings and the opportunity to choose the best school for our children. We know it’s time consuming for everyone involved.

A bit more clarity would make this easier for all.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

Last week was a scary one for two Brooklyn high schools.

On Thursday, John Dewey High School was locked down for three hours after a student dropped his gun in class, then picked it up and fled. Dewey doesn't have permanent metal detectors, although the roving detectors recently made an appearance. An insightful student wrote on the Times' City Room blog, "First they manage to take all of our phones away but when someone brings a gun to school they cant find it." Check out the comments there: students are mixed on whether they would like to see metal detectors installed, but there doesn't appear to be any division on the subject of whether Dewey has grown less safe and why. The reason for the decline, commenters say, is an influx of students from Lafayette High School, which is phasing out due to poor performance.

Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn does have metal detectors, but that didn't stop a student from being stabbed during a fight there on Friday; this weekend, he was in critical condition and his attacker had not been arrested. Officials say the attacker may have used scissors as a weapon, but students say the school has so many doors it's possible to sneak illicit items inside.

What's going on with the Discovery Program?

Written by Admin Friday, 28 March 2008 02:49

For many years, the city's specialized high schools have operated a summer program for disadvantaged students who score close to their admissions cutoff on the Specialized High School Admission Test. Successfully completing the program earns those students admission to the city's most selective schools -- and helps keep those schools socioeconomically diverse.

State law allows the schools to operate such a program but does not require them to. And so although this year's specialized high school directory promoted the program, called the Discovery Program, we're hearing rumors that most specialized schools could be axing the program this year. We've heard that only two schools, Brooklyn Tech and Brooklyn Latin, are contemplating accepting students through the Discovery Program.

But we can't figure out who in the DOE can verify — or quell — the rumor. We can't seem to find out the details of why this change is happening, and we don't know whether any students have been invited to apply. Does anyone have any information about the 2008 Discovery Program? Let us know in the comments.

For the last year, parents at PS 154 in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, have been looking for ways to replace the styrofoam trays in their cafeteria with something more environmentally sound — something that takes less than 10,000 years to degrade. This week, they finally rolled out their solution: trays formed out of bagasse, a fibrous byproduct of sugar extraction. The new trays are designed to break down after 45 days in landfill conditions — but I hope parents at PS 154 know that won't happen if the trays are shipped off to landfills in plastic bags. And it looks like the PS 154 parents may be at the vanguard of a food service revolution in New York City — Bill de Blasio, the City Council member who represents PS 154, has sponsored a bill to ban the use of styrofoam by city agencies!