(This article first appeared on the Urban Matters blog at the Center for NYC Affairs at the New School).
Everyone knows gentrification causes friction. And as recent clashes over proposed changes to attendance zones in Manhattan and Brooklyn demonstrate, the public schools are where gentrification battle lines sometimes get drawn.
But there's another side to the story. Gentrification also occasionally leads to better schools for everyone in the neighborhood, rich and poor. The city should follow the example of these success stories as it crafts solutions for other schools in changing neighborhoods.
Mayor Bill de Blasio made a splash with his promise to offer all children classes in computer science over the next decade. But tucked into his education speech on Wednesday was something that may have an immediate, concrete impact: a pledge to hire reading specialists for all the city's elementary schools by fall 2018.
Needless to say, reading is an essential skill. Research shows that children who don't read well by 3rd grade are unlikely to graduate from high school. Unfortunately, New York City has not previously invested in reading specialists—that is, teachers who have a master's degree focused on reading issues.
For years, central Harlem's public schools have been among the worst in the city—and parents have felt powerless to do anything about it. Now, activist parents in District 5 are organizing to demand change.
Community Education Council meetings in District 5—once sleepy, sparsely attended events—have become a forum for parents' anger over the state of their schools. "Parents realize that they have a voice," said Rashidah White, a District 5 parent and former president of CEC 5.
A majority of the newly elected District 5 CEC members, who took office in July, are vocal critics of longtime superintendent Gale Reeves. And, while their role is largely advisory, council members hope that casting light on long-standing problems will force school officials to act.
Brooklyn mom Jordan Scott has spent months searching for pre-kindergarten for her daughter—touring seven schools, scouring websites, and asking friends' advice. One school filled its seats before the city even published the pre-k directory. Another suggested she pay a $1,000 deposit to secure a seat—although pre-k is supposed to be free.
Public schools, charter schools, Catholic schools, Jewish schools, Muslim schools, private nursery schools, Head Start programs, child care centers, settlement houses and community organizations are all taking part in Mayor Bill de Blasio's ambitious effort to offer free pre-kindergarten to 70,000 4-year-olds this year. And, while Scott is thrilled by the prospect, navigating the application process has been a production.
"It's very confusing. This has been my part-time job since last fall," said Scott, one of the 22,000 parents who submitted an application for pre-kindergarten on March 16, the first day of the month-long application period. "I had a spreadsheet and online map. I spent so much money on babysitting that I just took my daughter along on some of the tours."
Don't expect miracles anytime soon, but the new organization of schools announced by schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña on Thursday may spell the beginning of the end to one of parents' most frustrating dilemmas: what to do when you can't get a problem resolved at your school.
Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg's organization of the school system, if your principal couldn't—or wouldn't—fix a problem, you were pretty much out of luck. Principals were "empowered," which means they didn't have supervisors. They only had coaches, called network leaders. If you called the network leader, you'd be told the network works for the principal, not the other way around. If you called your community school district or high school superintendent, you'd be told the superintendent has no authority. If you called your elected official, same story. If you called 311, your complaint would go back to the principal.
So let's say your child wasn't getting special education services, or the playground equipment at your school was dangerous, or the school safety agents were too aggressive with your child. Short of calling the chancellor directly, there wasn't much you could do.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month that the city will add more than 4,200 new full-day pre-k seats at 140 public schools in September. The staff of Insideschools has developed this guide to help you find a high-quality pre-kindergarten program for your child.
We created an interactive map that illustrates where the pre-k programs are located around the city. It shows how many seats are available this year, and how many applicants each school had last year.
We also posted our recommendations for schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, for Brooklyn, and for Queens and Staten Island. (To see the full pre-k directory, including new programs opening in the fall, click here to download the PDF.)
These lists only include pre-kindergarten programs that are housed in ordinary public schools. That's because the deadline for applying for these programs is April 23. The city is also developing thousands of new pre-kindergarten seats in community based organizations, child care centers, libraries and public housing projects — not included here. When the city publishes a list of those programs, we'll let you know.
We recommend that you apply online to the pre-kindergarten programs based in schools. If you miss the April 23rd deadline, there will be other chances to apply, but the most popular programs fill up fast. If you need help on the telephone, we recommend you call the Center for Children's Initiatives, a referral and information service that's a great resource for parents: 212-929-6911. You can also use their website.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the new seats are in schools that have extra room — not in the overcrowded or super-popular schools that can barely fit all the kindergarten students who live in their attendance zones. Parents on the Upper West Side in Manhattan or in much of Brownstone Brooklyn face tough odds if they apply to a lottery for pre-k at their neighborhood schools. Some schools have no pre-kindergarten at all.
What to expect from the new schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, just announced this morning at MS 51? More collaboration between schools--and less competition. Less emphasis on test scores. And more consistent efforts to improve the quality of teaching.
The new chancellor is not against school choice—which expanded under the Bloomberg administration. But her focus during nearly half a century of teaching has been to improve neighborhood schools—not to close the bad ones.
I first met her in the mid-1990s when she was was a principal of PS 6 on the Upper East Side. She transformed a school with lackluster teaching into a national model for writing instruction, a lively place with teachers who willingly adopted new methods. She eliminated “tracking,” or grouping children by ability, insisting that all children could benefit from a challenging curriculum. She replaced textbooks with classroom libraries of children’s literature, and allowed each child to choose a different book based on his or her interests and ability.
The city and state education officials keep saying the new Common Core standards are much tougher. I got a glimpse of just how much tougher on a visit to a Queens elementary school this week.
PS 254 in Richmond Hill has adopted Pearson’s ReadyGen reading program, one of three programs recommended by the city and state. Now, at the very beginning of the school year, 2nd graders are being asked to read Charlotte’s Web. A terrific book, but one that the Scholastic Book Wizard website (which lists the difficulty of different texts) says is written at a 4th grade level. Fourth graders at PS 254 are reading The Tarantula Scientist, a non-fiction book about spiders, which Scholastic says is appropriate for children in the second half of 5th grade.
Parents have been peppering us with questions ever since Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced last week that parents must to apply to kindergarten online starting in January. We don't have all the answers—and the Department of Education is still working out the details--but for now, this is what we know:
--Parents may apply to elementary schools, online or by phone, between January and March for admission in fall 2014. They may apply either to their zoned neighborhood school or to various schools of choice such as dual language programs or magnet schools.
--Parents who are interested in gifted and talented programs will have to sign up to have their child tested, but the Department of Education hasn't said when. That will be a separate application.
--Parents who are interested in charter schools will also apply online or in person—but that's yet another application.