My family's turn to provide afternoon snacks for my daughter’s 1st-grade class comes up next week, and I'm anxiously awaiting the backlash. When you make dietary choices for 23 New York City kids, only one of whom is yours, some other parent will often take exception.

It's easy to frame the classroom snack debate in broad terms such as cupcakes vs. carrot sticks. The prevalence of sugary cupcakes in elementary classrooms received so much attention that one school district banned them outright. But cupcakes are (forgive me for mixing food terms) a red herring. You don't give a kid a cupcake and kid yourself you're serving health food.

The problem occurs when the little kids are served food that appears healthy but is actually more dessert than snack.

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Tuesday, 03 April 2012 10:12

Ask Judy: My 9th-grader is floundering

Dear Judy,

Our son used to be an A student but now he is getting Ds and Cs. He is a freshman in high school. The teachers tell me he does not do his homework. Sometimes he does it but forgets to hand it in. We can't figure out why he is no longer interested in school and we are getting worried!

High school parent.

Dear High School Parent,

High school is a big change for kids and sometimes they can be thrown off course. There may be any number of reasons your son is doing poorly. He could be affected by the extra work load, by having to deal with many teachers and students (depending on the size of his school), by a teacher who made an offhand comment about his academic skills, or a fellow student who disparaged him.

Indeed, there may be a deeper problem. When kids change their habits so drastically, it can be a mask for behind the scenes worries – most likely trouble with other kids at school. He may be finding it hard to make friends, he may be the target of bullies. He may be hanging around with other discouraged kids. There is lots of talk about bullying these days and his school should have instituted programs and discussions that offer kids a confidential way to report their problems. If not, take steps to see that they do. I recently wrote about this.

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April is National Poetry Month. It's also the month many New York elementary schools hold benefit auctions to raise money. Inspired by both events, I composed a poem (much in the tradition of Robert Service, my late father's most beloved balladeer) designed to stir the soul of any parent who ever left a school auction carrying a heavy load after an evening of enthusiastic bidding. Feel free to carry this with you on Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 26.

I got an invitation from the folks at PS 3*
to attend the yearly auction and extend some charity.
I pictured a dry evening at a nondescript bazaar.
Then I beheld a lovely sight: the auction’s open bar!

Next morning, as I tried to soothe the pounding in my head,
I spied a formal document, and this is what it said:
“Your winning silent bids have helped our school an awful lot.
We thank you for your purchases. Now, this is what you bought:

A three-night stay at Ed’s Chalet located near Lake Placid.
A thorough urinalysis of your nucleic acid.
A week at camp. A neon lamp. A rug that’s Oriental.
A round-trip fare to anywhere that’s served by Continental.

An expert consultation to make closets clean and tidy.
A seven-course bonanza at a Bronx TGIFriday.
A wheel of cheese. Five DVDs. Fine wool from Colorado.
Some collard greens and Boston beans. A Spanish avocado.

A ruby ring. A turkey wing. An ancient Chinese bucket.
Some Danish clogs. A scarf from Prague. Two lobsters from Nantucket.
A travel guide. A lantern slide. A chance to see ‘The View.’
A bowler hat. A cricket bat. An outrigger canoe.

A cotton towel. A great horned owl. Fresh corn from Oklahoma.
A Rolex watch. Some homemade scotch. A test for melanoma.
A two-book set on etiquette called ‘What to Tip the Doormen.’
Four tickets plus a chartered bus to see ‘The Book of Mormon.’

A ball of twine. Australian wine. CDs by Justin Bieber.
A scholarly translation of the German ‘Ach du Lieber.’
Two tickets to a matinee that’s showing ‘Mama Mia.’
An in-home test in case you’re stressed that you have gonorrhea.”

My aching head filled up with dread as I read off my tally:
A ballet class. A highball glass. A postcard from Death Valley.
A novel signed by Gertrude Stein. A coat by London Fog.
A weekend at somebody’s house somewhere out near East Quogue.

“This now concludes your purchases,” I read with great relief.
But then I saw a second line, and stared in disbelief.
It seems I’d raised my paddle when they sought a contribution
for items meant to elevate this fine old institution.

I’d bought some new gymnastics mats. I’d bought some spelling books.
I’d paid for nonstick bakeware to be used by lunchroom cooks.
I’d started an endowment for the school’s new marching band.
When all was done, I guess I must have shelled out twenty grand.

“Oh well,” I said, and rubbed my head. “It all goes for the school.”
Then I beheld the final line, and felt like such a fool.
“Next year, we know we’ll see you at our benefit affair.
And we are cheered you volunteered to be the auction chair!”

* Not really. I just needed a number to rhyme with "charity."

Published in News and views
Thursday, 15 March 2012 20:57

Elementary Dad: Cameras to spy on kids?

In an effort to prevent the sexual abuse of children, my daughter’s elementary school now requires parents to wear little white nametags when we visit classrooms. I’m pleased to report that Operation Nametag has been a success: No charges of child abuse have been filed since it went into effect.

Well, no new charges. The school is still reeling from the arrest in February of a paraprofessional who has been charged with attempting to molest an 8-year-old boy. As the criminal case creeps through the legal system, parents at my daughter’s school are sad, fearful, confused and, above all, angry that the school can’t guarantee their children’s safety.

I personally don’t expect such a guarantee. I agree with Helen Keller, who wrote, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” But Helen and I hold the minority view. Other parents are proposing a number of reforms that they insist will make my daughter’s school a safer place.

Sadly, many of the ideas are terrible.

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Monday, 05 March 2012 10:12

Elementary Dad: DOE memo gets an "F"

Anyone who regularly reads Department of Education documents knows better than to expect fine literature. Many DOE memos and letters are so full of the bureaucratic nonsense known as “eduspeak” that they make an IRS 1040 form look like “Huckleberry Finn.” But a letter recently sent home with my 1st-grader set a new low.

The title, “Newly Identified District in Need of Improvement Year 10,” is parents’ first clue they’re in for trouble. Only the DOE could have a school district in need of improvement for 10 years and describe it as “Newly Identified.” But it gets worse.

I give you the second paragraph, as written, with boldface letters as shown in the original:

"During the 2010-11 school year, English Language Arts was designated as a District in Need of Improvement Year 9 (DINI-9) in English Language Arts. Because the District failed to make AYP at the elementary, middle and high school level in English Language Arts in 2010-11, the District has been designated as a District in Need of Improvement Year 10 (DINI-10) in English Language Arts for the 2011-12 school year."

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Friday, 17 February 2012 14:39

Elementary Dad: Helping kids prevent abuse

I attended two presentations last week at my daughter’s Upper West Side elementary school. The first featured the chancellor in charge of New York City schools, who was on hand to absorb parents’ rage after a paraprofessional at the school was arrested on suspicion of sexual misconduct with a young boy.

Talking to an overflow crowd, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said what you’d expect him to say: The safety of children is his top priority, and steps will be taken to make sure incidents like this never happen again. But less than a week later, a teacher at an elementary school in Queens was arrested on suspicion he inappropriately touched young boys.

Both incidents occurred just weeks after the arrest of a teacher’s aide at an elementary school in Brooklyn. Investigators say the aide possessed child pornography and may have created a sexually explicit video at the school.

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Monday, 06 February 2012 08:00

Elementary Dad: When to help with homework

The nominating committee for Helicopter Parent of the Year should take note: I recently sent a letter to a 1st grade teacher asking whether my daughter’s homework was too perfect.

Let me explain. Four days a week, my 1st-grader comes home from school with a one-page worksheet in her backpack. The assignments are simple: a bit of math one day, some spelling the next, maybe a quiz to see if she remembers the difference between a reptile and an amphibian. But homework is a regular event at her school.

My 6-year-old daughter is still learning to read, so I help her figure out the assignment and sit nearby while she fills in the blanks. When she makes a mistake, I bring it to her attention and guide her toward the correct answer. The work she turns in at school the next day isn’t flawless (her penmanship is pretty bad, and the worksheet bears lots of eraser smudges), but thanks to my intervention the answers are right and the words are spelled correctly.

Published in News and views
Monday, 23 January 2012 11:14

Elementary Dad: Facing the musicals

Parents who unwittingly lead young children into addiction often can pinpoint that horrible moment when they’ve hit rock bottom. My moment came Thursday when my 6-year-old daughter, home from 1st grade with a cold, sat on the sofa watching a DVD of the idiotic musical “Carousel.”

Sometime after the number “This Was a Real Nice Clambake,” my blank-faced child mumbled, “This is my favorite movie.” I froze and wondered aloud, “Oh God, what have I done?”

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Thursday, 19 January 2012 11:32

Poll: Who's responsible for college prep?

After decades of focusing on Regents exams and graduation rates, in 2011 for the first time the Education Department evaluated each high school on "college readiness" - that is, how many of its graduates were actually prepared to do college work. The score on each school's Progress Report didn't carry any weight this year but the numbers are depressing: fewer than half of the 2011 public high school graduates reported that they planned to enter college in the fall. And only one in four 2011 grads were deemed "college ready" — not in need of remedial college courses after four years of high school. The numbers are even lower for black and Latino students.

The City Council is pressing DOE officials to explain what they are doing to improve college-readiness. In turn, the DOE will hold school's accountable: high schools will be docked points for poor college readiness scores on the 2012 Progress Reports.

High schools already struggle to meet other accountability requirements. Some schools, like It Takes A Village Academy in East Flatbush, have a high Regents pass rate (90% graduate in 4 years) and an abysmal college readiness rate (9%).

Should high schools take more initiative to guide students through test prep, college vists and the application process? Whose responsibility is it to prepare kids for college? Take our poll and share your ideas!

Published in News and views
Tuesday, 10 January 2012 16:54

Upcoming school closing hearings

The Department of Education set dates for another round of school closing hearings. On February 9th, the Panel for Education Policy will meet to vote on the future of the 25 schools up for closure.

Here are the dates for the next two weeks:

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