I am the proud parent of a bright, creative, and unique daughter with learning disabilities. Like many children with high-incidence disabilities, my daughter outperforms in certain academic areas and underperforms in others. From kindergarten until 3rd grade, she relied on these skills and managed in a general education classroom with some extra services. She had caring, committed teachers, well versed in different learning styles. 

By the second week of 3rd grade, however, it became clear that she would have problems. The rapid implementation of Common Core Standards combined with an unsympathetic classroom teacher made her deteriorate—academically, emotionally and socially. The principal told me that an integrated co-teaching (ICT) class—with two teachers, one a special ed expert—did not exist for her grade. I tried to switch to a nearby public school with more services, but because of 2011’s special ed reform, I was told she now had to be served by her zoned school, and they were giving her all that they could. 

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Thursday, 02 October 2014 10:14

Good riddance to A-F school grades!

Say goodbye to the controversial school grading system developed under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Starting this school year, parents will no longer be able to judge schools by their A to F rankings, which were designed to be a simple way to see whether their child's school was succeeding or failing.

Instead, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña wants parents to look beyond test scores to see what is actually happening inside their children's classrooms and promises the Department of Education will do the same. "Schools are not restaurants," quipped Fariña, "they have unique qualities that need to be captured in different ways."

Fariña announced the new plan for evaluating schools yesterday at PS 503/PS 506 in Sunset Park. She said that before the end of the calendar year, new School Quality Snapshots will be released for all schools and available online for parents to read. They will highlight key results from several different data sources the DOE already collects, including the annual school survey and the Quality Review conducted by experts who visit the school. While test scores will still be included, they will not be the sole focus, nor will they be used to penalize a school that does poorly.

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Ahh, it’s that time of year again. The pumpkins are out, and sunscreen and sandals have given way to light jackets and boots. There’s no denying it: gifted and talented testing is upon us.

Two years ago, I documented my elder son’s attempt to penetrate the exciting, if somewhat notorious world of gifted and talented testing in New York City. Several Pearson debacles and rejection letters later, our son ended up happy and thriving at a wonderful neighborhood school. And although the G&T testing experience taught me a great deal and yielded a few laughs, I secretly vowed then that unless my youngest son was clearly a savant—say, reciting Chaucer and analyzing Bayesian statistics—I’d spare him the hours seated with strangers asking him weird questions.

My husband disagrees. In his opinion, “Delta Force”—my sweet little powerhouse of a 4-year-old—gets the shaft in everything. He wears his brother's old shoes and gets less attention, so how dare we deny him this opportunity. "And besides," he explained, "I want to know how smart he is." 

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Thursday, 18 September 2014 13:04

Parents guide to math

Which elementary schools offer a great education in math and science?

We scoured the city for schools that give ordinary kids an extraordinary education—zoned neighborhood schools, not gifted programs or schools with a special application process. We picked schools that are willing to open their doors and share their knowledge—in the hopes that these might serve as models for others. We chose schools with good test scores, but we avoided ones with too much test prep or paper-and-pencil drills. Most of all, we picked schools that foster a love of math and science while giving children the skills they need to be successful later in life.

Here are our favorites.


PS 171, East Harlem
Why we picked it: Where else do little kids use words like "heart valve?"

Teachers at PS 171 know that science lessons build children's vocabularies—and that helps them read better. All children—even pre-kindergartners—go to the science lab three times a week for lessons taught by a certified science teacher. Children build models of cells out of clay and write essays about the use of animal parts in medicine, using sophisticated words like "heart valves" and "livers" to support their arguments. Kids take trips to science museums and study ducks in Central Park, building their general knowledge along with their vocabularies. (Pauline Zaldonis)

PS 42, Lower East Side/Chinatown
Why we picked it: Second-graders learn geometry and physics by studying bridges

PS 42 integrates science and math into well-planned interdisciplinary units. For example, 2nd-graders research bridges of the world, explore bridge geometry and physics, create bridge-inspired 3-D art, hear architects speak about their jobs and take fields trips to Battery Park to see real bridges. Children at the school have outstanding math scores and reading scores that are well above the citywide average—quite an accomplishment since more than one-third of them are learning English as a second language. (Anna Schneider)

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Monday, 15 September 2014 00:00

Parents guide to math and science

Are you confused by your child’s math homework? Is science an afterthought in your child’s school? This guide will help you find out whether your children are getting the math or science instruction they need in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade—and will help you do something about it if they aren’t. It will explain what the new Common Core State Learning Standards mean for your child. No school is perfect, but if you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your child’s school you can help fill in the gaps—even if you don’t know much math and science yourself.

What to look for in the classroom

Whatever your child’s grade level, look for fun-to-read books about math and science, as well as fish tanks, animals such as gerbils, live plants and tools including magnifying glasses, magnets, or electrical circuits. There is more to math and science than what you can find in a textbook. Check the daily schedule, which is usually posted in the classroom. Children should be working on math at least one hour a day. Science lessons should be part of a regular school day, not only a special class once a week. If you see an egg incubator (so children can watch chicks hatch and grow) or caterpillars (which will grow into butterflies), that’s a good clue that science lessons are part of the daily routine.

The best schools find ways to weave science together with math, reading, social studies, and even art. Children may work for long periods on units on birds, or bridges, or Central Park. Look for evidence of these explorations in the classroom. At PS 321 in Brooklyn, for example, kindergartners study trees. They post tree graphs, leaf rubbings, and diagrams based on their frequent trips to the park to observe changes over the course of the year.

Of course you want to see children’s artwork and essays on the walls, but you should see examples of math and science as well. At PS 221 in Queens, a bulletin board had fourth graders’ own questions about science: “How do snails breathe?” and “How does dust form?” and “What started the Black Death?” Science exploration that starts with children’s own questions is more likely to prompt them to ask more.

How to spark kids' curiosity

Most of the science experts we interviewed said it’s more important to spark children’s curiosity than to develop a particular body of knowledge in the elementary school years. Whether your child is studying the solar system or rocks and minerals, it’s important that he is excited and engaged in his work. Learning lots of facts can wait.

“Too much rote learning may well kill interest,” said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University and parent of two children who attended PS 75 in Manhattan. “I would think that the best that can be done is to instill a sense of wonder and interest in the natural world in the kids, that they may be motivated to pursue it more in the future.”

Math is a little different. It’s important for math to be exciting and fun. But there are also specific skills children need to learn each grade in elementary school to prepare them for middle school and high school. A look around the classroom will also help you discern if these skills are being taught.

Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten

In pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, look for blocks and puzzles. Research shows that developing good spatial skills by learning how to put together different shapes is just as important to understanding math as learning to count. You should look for small objects (like buttons, plastic animals, or LEGOs) that children can touch, count, and sort.

Even before children learn to write numerals, they need to get a sense of what numbers are. Counting objects builds an intuitive feel for math that teachers call “number sense.” Young children with good number sense quickly figure out amounts—who has more strawberries, for instance, or which pile of M&Ms is larger. This math sense is an important foundation for developing more advanced math skills later on. In pre-kindergarten, children should learn to count to 20; identify shapes such as circles and triangles; and know relative words including “big,” “small,” “tall,” and “short.” By the end of kindergarten they should be able to count to 100; write numbers from 1-20; and know words like “above,” “below,” “flat” and “solid,” according to the Common Core standards.

First and second grades

In first and second grades, children should be learning to add and subtract. They need to understand the value of coins, learn how to tell time, and know how to measure distances. Look for a math area in the classroom with things like dice, play money, dominoes, and number lines. Also look for counting frames, clocks, pattern blocks, and rulers. Well-equipped classrooms have “manipulatives”—little plastic cubes kids can snap together to learn to add and subtract. Look for bundles of sticks used to represent “tens” and little cubes used to represent “ones” to help young students learn place value. Such tools help children understand the concepts underlying arithmetic, not just the rules for addition and subtraction. Classrooms often have a shelf with puzzles and games such as Sorry or Connect Four, which are fun ways for children to reinforce arithmetic skills, especially when they are indoors a lot during a long winter. Children are learning to talk about math and read word problems at this age, so look for lists of math words posted on the classroom wall to help them remember words like “sum” and “difference.” According to the Common Core standards, by the end of first grade, children should be able to add and subtract numbers up to 20; by the end of second grade, they should be able to add and subtract large numbers.

Third grade

In third grade, children learn multiplication and division. They need quick recall of math facts, so some drill is necessary. Look for worksheets, flashcards, and workbooks so children can practice basic math facts until they have become automatic. Children also need to understand what multiplication and division really mean. For that, teachers may ask children to color rows of squares on graph paper, or to cut strips of paper a certain width and length. Third graders learn to calculate the area and perimeter of a rectangle. Sometimes classrooms have square plastic tiles that children can assemble into rectangles so they can see concretely what area and perimeter mean. Are the desks in rows? That probably means the teacher does most of the talking. But research shows kids understand math better if they talk about it and try different ways to solve problems. If you see desks in groups, it may mean children work on problems together—and that’s a good sign. By the end of third grade, children should have memorized the times tables up to 10 x 10 as well as division facts. They should also be able to calculate the perimeter and area of a rectangle, according to the Common Core standards.

Fourth and fifth grades

Fourth graders need to be able to multiply and divide large numbers, and by fifth grade children should be able to multiply and divide fractions. You might see posters with drawings of problems such as: How can 8 children share 5 hero sandwiches fairly? You may see charts showing the work kids have done to solve big word problems that require them to use all their math skills—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. If children solve problems in different ways, that’s a good sign that they understand what they are doing and have not merely mastered a formula. Research shows children need both a deep understanding of math and the ability to solve arithmetic problems quickly, so look for evidence of both teaching approaches in the classroom. Numbers lined up in neat rows—the way most of today’s parents learned arithmetic—show a quick and efficient way to solve problems. Conversely, children’s written explanation of their work—part of most lessons today—is designed to demonstrate that they get the concepts.

Math textbooks are fine, but good teachers draw on several different math programs or resources (think instructional YouTube videos or sites such as Engageny.com, which offers an array of activities as well as games for helping students practice key skills of the Common Core Standards) because not all kids learn in the same way. Some kids look at numerals on paper and understand them right away; others need pictures and objects to make sense of arithmetic. Some prefer worksheets and workbooks. Others need to count, use number lines, or use a computer. It’s helpful if there is variety. No one set of math books works for all kids; many of the best schools use elements from a variety of math books. One of the best things we can do as parents is to be aware, interested, and open. Learning math and science is a process. Keep an eye on these classroom clues and grade-level milestones, and take note of how your child learns best.

Monday, 15 September 2014 17:06

Parents guide to science

Students who are new to New York City public schools or who are re-entering city schools after a time away, may register at special temporary enrollment centers beginning on Aug. 27 in all boroughs. The centers are open Monday-Friday, 8 am to 3 pm through Sept. 12, with the exception of Sept. 1, Labor Day. Regular enrollment centers will be closed from Aug. 22 to Sept. 15.

All high school students should go to the enrollment centers, along with any elementary and middle school students who do not have a zoned school. Elementary and middle school students who have a zoned school should wait until the first day of school, Sept. 4, to register at the school, the Education Department said.

All special education students who have a current IEP (Individualized Education Plan) may enroll directly at their zoned schools on Sept. 4. Students without a current New York City IEP, need to go to an enrollment center or to a special education site, for those with more restrictive needs.

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When I first found out in June that my son’s elementary school would be ending 30 minutes earlier this year and I would have to pick up two children at the same time, ten blocks apart, my first thought, of course, was, “Yes! Now I can harness those superpowers of time travel I always knew I possessed!” Actually, just one word came into my head, and it's unprintable here.

Apparently I’m not alone. According to The Daily News, about 450 schools will be changing their start and end times this year in order to comply with the new UFT contract. In a nutshell, the contract does two things as far as the school day is concerned: First, it elmininates 37.5 minutes each day that teachers were previously devoting to small-group work and tutoring for students who were behind. Second, it reapportions that time for professional development, parent communication, preparing lessons and all the other behind-the-scenes work that teachers must complete but never have time for.

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Tuesday, 22 July 2014 14:22

Help homeless kids get free backpacks

There are 22,000 kids living in homeless and domestic violence shelters in NYC, according to Volunteers for America. In addition to the trauma and chaos of a transient life, imagine the feeling of arriving for the first day of school in September, seeing all your friends toting shiny, full backpacks ready to learn, and you have ... nothing.

In 2001, Volunteers of America–Greater New York launched Operation Backpack—a fundraising initiative aimed at providing our city's neediest children with the supplies they need to start the school year right. By filling thousands of backpacks with grade-specific supplies, Operation Backpack relieves stressed families of an impossible financial burden, and most important, they help kids living on the fringes get a fighting chance at a solid education.

There are many ways to get involved. Visit the Operation Backpack website for a list of grade-specific supplies and backpack drop-off locations throughout the city. You can also make a straightforward monetary donation to the project, buy supplies for the foundation's amazon wishlist or donate your time in person. It's a wonderful opportunity to do something real and tangible for NYC education, and to show a struggling child you believe in her.

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