(Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Patrick Wall on December 10, 2014)  

The same advocates who helped convince the de Blasio administration to saturate dozens of needy schools with support services now want to make sure the city pulls off its plan.

Even as they applauded Mayor Bill de Blasio for promising to convert 128 schools into service-rich “community schools,” they urged the city on Wednesday to adopt formal guidelines to make sure the schools have similar standards and practices. Other cities that have embraced this model, such as Cincinnati and San Francisco, set official community-school policies, the advocates said.

The call for guidelines, which advocates wrote themselves and said they will ask the city’s education-policy board to adopt if agency officials do not, reflects the delicate position that community school proponents find themselves in. After failing to sell the previous administration on this model, they want to show their support for one that has finally embraced it, while making sure that it is rolled out successfully and with the input of parents and advocates. And they want to guarantee that the community school model continues even after their ally leaves office.

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On Monday the Department of Education released new School Quality Reports for every city school, fulfilling its promise to abandon the labeling of each school with a single letter grade. For parents who appreciated this simple shorthand when seeking out the best school for their children, this new system may appear daunting. But for anyone who ever wondered how those grades were calculated or why some fluctuated wildly when all appeared stable on the ground, the new system will be a breath of fresh air.

The new School Quality Reports are comprised of two separate documents, both intended to make the existing school data more transparent to parents and educators alike. The School Quality Snapshot is a short and straightforward tool intended for parents. Much like InsideStats on Insideschools' profile pages, it seeks to present the most relevant information for parents in a way that is easy to read and understand. On this document, you won't see any statistical analyses or weighted comparisons, only the raw test scores, graduation rates and school survey results that matter to parents most.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday announced his strategy to support the city's schools that are "most in need of help." In conjunction with some additional coaching, oversight and a longer school day, 94 "Renewal Schools" identified for their poor test scores, graduation rates, and School Quality Reviews will receive $150 million to become "Community Schools" that provide additional programs and social services to meet the needs of the "whole child, whole school, whole community."

Yesterday's announcement doubles down on de Blasio's campaign promise to establish 100 new community schools by the end of his first term. This summer, he repurposed state funds dedicated to attendance improvement and dropout prevention into a competitive grant to fund 45 new community schools. When those schools (to be announced soon) and the additional 94 Renewal Schools are underway, the number will far surpass de Blasio's goal and will establish New York City as the largest system of community schools in the nation.

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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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After all the hype and hustle of searching for and getting into a New York City public high school, it can be disheartening to find out that for some kids and parents the search continues.

Not the search for another high school, although there are some who brave the arduous process again and transfer. I’m talking about the search to supplement what is often missing in even some of the most coveted high schools—from advanced math and science classes to art or a foreign language.

Savvy parents and kids will seek out everything from individual tutoring to after school art, music and dance programs to courses at CUNY colleges or elsewhere.

Wouldn’t it be nice if one public high school could have it all?

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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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Wednesday, 16 April 2014 16:23

Our pre-k picks for Brooklyn

Brooklyn is the city's largest borough and the one with most schools. Pre-kindergarten choices are as varied as the borough. In some areas of brownstone Brooklyn, pre-k programs don't meet the demand. Even parents who list 12 schools on their application will be disappointed. In other areas—such as Fort Greene or Bedford Stuyvesant—parents have more options.

Don't be afraid to look at historically low-performing schools: in some cases pre-kindergarten programs are excellent and expanding, even if the school as a whole has a long way to go. Further out in Brooklyn, half-day programs can be the norm, especially in Districts 21 and 22. We haven't found much to recommend in central Brooklyn, where school environment surveys reflect a discontent with the tone of the buildings. We advise you to take a look and let us know what you find.

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Wednesday, 12 March 2014 16:54

Kids win one-quarter of high school appeals

A glimmer of hope for 8th graders who were rejected at their high school choices: Insideschools has learned that one-quarter of the kids who appealed their high school placements last year got a seat at one of the schools to which they originally applied.

Of the 3,028 rising 9th-graders who filed appeals last year, 761 were offered a place at one of the high schools listed on their applications, according to data released by the Department of Education in response to our request under the Freedom of Information Act. Another 783 were assigned to an alternative placement, but not a school they requested.

An appeal won't work if you were rejected at one of the specialized high schools, which require an entrance exam. And it probably won't work if you are assigned to a perfectly good, appropriate school that just doesn't happen to be your first choice--if, say, you are assigned to Bard High School Early College and you wanted Beacon.

But let's say you are assigned to a school that doesn't offer chemistry and physics and you want a college prep curriculum. In that case, you may have a shot.

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Thursday, 06 March 2014 16:06

Special ed reform backfires for some kids

Caleb,* a 14-year-old middle school student in Flatbush, has a seizure disorder and learning delays — the aftereffects of a brain cyst he had removed when he was an infant. He sometimes writes backwards and reads six or seven years below grade level. 

He should be in a special class with 12 children and a teacher certified in special education, according to his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the legal document that lists the services his school must offer him. Instead, he is in a class of nearly 30 students, a mix of general education and special needs children. His mom says his teachers are doing their best to help, but they can't give him the attention he needs.

Caleb is the victim of a well-intentioned reform designed to end the unneccessary segregation of children with disabilities. Two years ago, the Department of Education declared that nearly all special needs children should be educated in their neighborhood schools, rather than being sent to special programs far from home. Across the city, children who were once assigned to so-called "self-contained" classes are now in classes with two teachers that mix general education and special needs children. Many of these children are thriving, school officials and advocates agree. But, by reducing the availability of self-contained classrooms, the reform has backfired for children who, like Caleb, need a smaller learning environment, advocates say.

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