Tag Archives | DOE

Wanted: Middle School

We have to find a middle school for Liam. His lovely neighborhood school ends at 5th grade, so we have entered the “middle school search.” (Cue ominous music here)

When the process started,  I thought, well, I’ve got a smart kid who “tests well” as they say, and so how hard can it be to find a middle school, really?

Um…needle? Haystack?

First of all, we’re looking in District Two, in Manhattan. If you look on that map (which I found not on the DOE site but an independent school search site)  you can see that the boundaries of District Two were drawn by drunks, or monkeys, or drunken monkeys. District Two stretches from 97th street on the East Side down to about Houston Street (about 100 blocks), then from 57th street down to the southernmost tip of Manhattan, with a little notch carved out for Chinatown, basically.  The boundaries make no geographic sense whatsoever.

Okay, you say, so it’s a big district. At least you have a lot of choices, and that’s a good thing, right? You’re not being shoveled into whatever school is nearby–you can find the school that’s the right fit for your kid.

True dat. Let me ask you, though: have you ever found yourself utterly paralyzed in front of the cereal selection (or the yogurt selection, or the bread selection) at the store? You read the labels and look at the prices and think maybe this one, maybe that one, maybe this one? Or what about in front of the haircare products? Maybe this one will make my hair bouncier, smoother, shinier.

Exactly. Now imagine yourself standing in front of a shelf of middle schools. Some get ruled out right away: too far away, poor academics, unsafe.  But that still leaves us with a shelf full of choices and it’s hard not to be all the wrong choice and he’s going to be living in a box under the Brooklyn Bridge…

So we–and all the other fifth grade families looking in District Two–go trooping off to tour middle schools. Because of course, that’s what we all have lots of time for: spending an hour, or two, at middle schools all over District Two, listening to principals extol the virtues of their schools. I’ve heard way more than I need to know about project-based learning, and collaborative learning, and student-centered learning… Here’s what we want: a clean building, challenging teachers, reasonable students, arts programs, a soccer team. classes with fewer than 30 kids in the class. Doesn’t seem like such an outlandish list, does it? I’m not asking that every student get an iPad or that the entire 6th grade gets flown to Italy to study the Renaissance or anything.

Apparently, however, this list is akin to the Grail: people claim to have seen this school, but no one can be exactly sure where, or if it’s still there.

Right. So I’m standing in front of my shelf of middle schools, hoping that somewhere on that shelf is the Grail School, and then the DOE in its infinite wisdom throws another wrench in the works.

The application process itself isn’t the same from school to school. We make a list, rank our top five choices, and then the schools contact us for more information. Some want an interview. Some want an interview and a test. Some want an interview and a test and a portfolio of writing. Some only want a portfolio. Some only want a test. Some want you to solve a problem in collaboration with four other applicants, while an administrator watches you work. Some want 4th grade test scores, some don’t.  And we go through all this mishegas in order to get what?

A seat in a class with …30, 32, 36, 38 other kids.

Got that?

It’s enough to make a person seriously consider robbing a bank in order to finance the $30,000 for private school. Of course, it would have to be ongoing bank robbery, given the pesky fact that tuition needs to be paid every year.

Middle school grail hunting started in late September. We file our list of five top choices in December. In February, applicants are called for interviews (or tests or portfolio discussions or whatever the hell a particular school requires: bathing suit competitions, perhaps).  Students are notified of the decisions sometime in late May.

After this process, applying to college is going to be a piece of cake.

Continue Reading · on November 16, 2010 in Education, NYC

The Price of Public Education

Caleb’s school is having a fundraising drive. The PTA wants to get 85% of families to donate to its General Fund, which is used for everything you can imagine, short of paying teachers’ salaries. When I was PTA President at Liam’s school a few years back, fundraising was the hardest part of the job (second-hardest part of the job? Not screaming back at people who were–by screaming at me–screaming at the teacher/principal/DOE/their own childhood).

The PTA has been sending out fundraising emails all week, pushing class parents to remind parents that those classes who hit 85% participation will get to attend a magic show in the auditorium…while the non-compliant other classes sit in their desks doing math worksheets. It’s fundraising through parental guilt.

But one class parent has taken this fundraising really quite to heart. Here’s an email that circulated this morning (with all identifying details removed):

…At this stage, I would say that the option of making phone calls to parents who have not contributed should be considered as well. Phone calls would help get something out of at least 50% of those who have not contributed at all. We should aim to get at least a dollar out of everyone as a token of their support for PTA. This strategy will definitely take us over the 80% mark.

III. The three Kindergarten classes deserve applause for their amazing participation rate.

I am surprised to see that XXX class has not attained the 80% mark. The XXX Class parents need to do more. I am sure, with more effort this number can be improved. I am willing to send out emails to XXX class families  but don’t want to override Class parents. We can do it if we think “Failing is not an option here”

Clearly XXX class will be taken to the thumbscrew room and tortured until they all pony up.

To her credit, the Chair of Fundraising (read: volunteer mom, who also has a full-time job) emailed a response that reminded this parent about the reality of life in public school: a huge range of incomes and cash-flow situations; families without easy email access; families for whom English isn’t even the second language but the third or fourth; and so on.

Other than my own college experience, I have never been in a private school, so maybe it’s a whole different vibe in that realm. Maybe when you send your kid to private school you implicitly agree to be part of the phonathons, or to ante up thousands of dollars at the school auction, in addition to giving outright to the general fund–and I imagine that if you’re a family on financial aid at these schools, it might feel a little weird. A friend of mine, whose son went to a really ritzy school for a little while (on a full scholarship) said that the unwritten rule seemed to be financial aid parents did the scut work, while the big donors just… wrote checks.

But public schools are free, right? Our tax dollars at work and all that? Which is why of course some folks (New Jersey, I’m talking to you, but alas,you’re not alone) protest tax hikes aimed at bolstering dwindling education budgets: if they don’t have any kids in schools, then the failing schools aren’t their problem. Other parents think that hey, the school gets its money from school budgets and so why should they throw in extra cash? It’s public school, not private school, so there shouldn’t be any fundraising.

Now I could turn my attentions here to Cathie Black, who went to a private Catholic high school in Chicago, a private Catholic college in DC, sent her kids to boarding schools in Connecticut (to the tune of about 45K per year) — and of course she herself lived in CT until a few short years ago, when she moved to the Upper East Side, a neighborhood not known for its failing schools.  And I could ask what on earth Cathie knows about life in public school or I could wonder, as a friend did this afternoon, about the fact that apparently Bloomberg couldn’t find anyone in the entire five boroughs who had any experience in education and who might be interested in the Chancellor’s job.

But I won’t talk about any of that.

I will only say that in public schools, fundraising has become a fact of life. Parents are expected to give–and give and give and give–because budgets are stretched so thin. My friend Brenna pointed out that on top of being asked to donate to a general fund, there are the slide rulers, the calculators, the twenty-five item “must have” list that teachers hand out on the first day of school (not to be confused with the teacher “wish lists” for the classrooms), the gym uniform fees, the field trip fees, the book fairs (a percentage of every book you buy goes to the school), the bake sales (which can account for thousands and thousands of dollars in any PTA budget)…By the end of the year, many families will have donated thousands and thousands of dollars, one way or another, and the public schools that serve these families are lucky to have them. Because of course, there are many more schools where all they have is what the Board of Ed gives them, and nothing else.

The tone of that email I got this morning, telling me that “failure is not an option,” seems like serious overkill–as if Gordon Gecko (in the first movie, not the second) was somehow a member of the PTA.

But then again, there aren’t many things more important than educating children.  Maybe failure really isn’t an option.

I don’t know the answer. I wish I believed that Cathie Black does.

Continue Reading · on November 14, 2010 in Education, NYC, Politics


DOEUFTDOEUFTDOEUFT isn’t some strange Dutch word or the name of a South African soccer player.

It’s a nonsense word that I think perfectly sums up the state of public school education in NYC:  an indecipherable log-jammed system.

Here’s the latest WTF moment from the annals of New York education:

The first day of school for the 2010 school year is set for Wednesday, Sept 8.  But because Labor Day is late this year (and how does that happen, anyway, that holidays just sort of float around the calendar? ) the school start date bumps up against Rosh Hashanah, which means that the schools will be closed Sept 9 & 10. 

That means that kids have exactly one day of school that week, smack in the middle of the week. How’s that for convenient?  Let’s not even think about the nightmare of arranging childcare that week or the difficulty of trying to help kids who are starting kindergarten. Let’s just think about the zoo-like quality of the classrooms, filled with kids who are still bouncy from summer and even bouncier at the prospect of a long weekend. Would you want to be the teacher in that room? I sure as hell wouldn’t.

Parent groups have petitioned Joel Klein to change the calendar, pleading with him to make this starting schedule slightly more sane and yesterday, we got  our response: a letter from our pal Joel, putting the blame for his inability to change the calendar squarely on…the teachers’ union, that always handy scapegoat. Klein’s letter reads, in part, “the UFT refused our proposal and therefore we are left with no choice but to keep the calendar unchanged.”

Does anyone else find it surprising that the Chancellor of Schools doesn’t have it in his power to change the school calendar? Given that he can close schools pretty much at the drop of a hat, you’d think something like moving the start date on the calendar would be a finger snap.

In response to Klein, UFT President Michael Mulgrew blamed the calendar problem on… Joel Klein (I know, you’re shocked, shocked that he’d do such a thing).  Mulgrew noted that the teacher contracts allow for different schools to choose different start dates, and suggested that different boroughs might start on different days, which Klein said would be “chaotic.”

I’m sure Mulgrew is indulging in some spin of his own, obviously; no one likes to be a scapegoat (and he laid out an interesting pattern of Kleinian blame: when things go wrong, it’s the fault of the teachers and principals, and when things go right, it’s because of Klein’s masterful handling of the system).  But the teachers I know think this starting calendar is ridiculous and all of them voted to change the date–and in fact, none of them know any teachers who voted to keep the calendar as it is. So then you have to wonder: who, exactly, voted to keep the calendar?

For any of us who have encountered the implacable force that is the DOE (thou shalt not get a variance; thou shalt not take anything other than scores into account for gifted-and-talented programs; thou shalt not get special services for your kid unless you sue the shit out of us first, and so on), Klein’s letter, which claims powerlessness in the face of the almighty union, strikes a patently false note.

But Klein blames the union and the union blames Klein, and round we go, swing your partner and do-si-do.  The only people not enjoying this blame dance, with its intervals of finger-pointing and chin-wagging, are the thousands of families who have to deal with this idiotic schedule. And of course, we will deal with it, just as we deal with all the other DOEUFT nonsense, but what a waste of time and energy when there’s such a simple solution available (no, not firing Joel Klein, although it’s a lovely thought).  Just move the start of school to Sept. 13.  Easy-peasy.

But in the world of UFTDOE, easy-peasy doesn’t work.

And they wonder why people move to the ‘burbs.

Continue Reading · on July 1, 2010 in Education, NYC

Seriously, He Banned Bake Sales. No, Really, He Did.

nocupcake.jpgThe other day on the playground, a mommy friend said, “did you hear? Bloomberg banned bake sales in the schools.” 

I thought she was kidding–we’d beeen the PTA Co-Presidents last year, and bake sales had been an ongoing aggravation: when to schedule them, how to staff them, how to scan every donation for potentially lethal ingredients (nuts! sesame seeds! wheat!), how to make sure that all the kids got a chance to exchange their sweaty quarters for a chocolate chip cookie.

But despite the aggravation, we staged those bake sales, yes we did. And there are four thousand, five hundred and twenty-two reasons why we did so: the four or five bake sales we held last year brought in 4,522 dollars.

That’s a lot of sweaty quarters.

That much money allows our PTA to foot the bill for 5th graders whose families can’t afford the price of the 5th grade class camping trip; to pay for kids who might not otherwise be able to join the track team; to fund instrument rental for kids who REALLY want to play the trombone, but whose parents don’t have any extra money in their budgets.

The joke is that this is no joke: the DOE really and truly has put a policy in place that bans bake sales.

Bake sales sell unhealthy food, according to Mayor Mike and his sidekick, Joyless Joe, and so they are going to save our tubby children from further expansion.

Banning monthly or bi-monthly bake sales seems a tad…um…bass-ackward, frankly, if your goal is healthy kids with healthly habits.  What about…having gym class more than once a week? Or a post-lunch recess period that lasts longer than 20 minutes? Oh–right–I forgot. Those activities would take time away from Very Important Test Prep.

So okay, clearly more exercise is out of the question because Data Collection and Accountability matter more.

Let us then consider the school lunch menu for elementary schools in Manhattan, shall we?  Today’s choices are Sweet & Sour Roasted Chicken, Golden Fish and Cheese, White Rice, and if you’re at a SchoolPlus cafeteria you can get collards with sweet tomato.  Anyone want to place bets on how many fourth graders are getting the collards? And could someone define “golden fish” for me? If you drop your kid off for the free breakfast, she could have had a turkey patty with cheese on a biscuit, or pancakes with syrup. Tomorrow’s lunch is something called Southwest Style Beef that comes with something called “Baked Scoops.” Not sure baked scoops of what, exactly, but I’ll bet it’s…healthy. 

And as we peruse our school lunch menus, let’s not even THINK about what all my friends are calling the “scary hamburger article” in Sunday’s Times.  I mean, given the choice, wouldn’t you rather your kid eat a sugar-bomb cupcake than hamburger meat that’s potentially riddled with E. coli or god knows what else?  Can the DOE can guaran-damn-tee me that the burger patties, taco beef, and “baked scoops” on their lunch menus come from utterly safe sources? Given that the USDA is pretty much in cahoots with the beef-packing industry, I’m thinking that’s a promise that will be a long time coming.  

So yeah, let’s ban bake sales instead of equipping school kitchens so that they can actually cook. Right now, most school kitchens simply assemble food from a list of DOE approved ingredients: frozen pre-roasted commodity chickens, for example. Would anyone like to think about the source of something called a “commodity chicken”?

Notice that I’m not even talking about how school organizations and PTAs are supposed to make up the shortfall in their budgets if they can’t hold bake sales. The Times article quotes a school official as saying that maybe schools could hold walk-a-thons to raise money, instead of bake sales. Hmm… let’s see. Collecting money from donors, finding a route, organizing the participants, hoping it doesn’t rain…versus a table in the cafeteria stocked with treats brought in by parents.

Okay, now maybe smokers felt the same way when smoking was banned in bars, but no one yet has said that a cupcake a month causes cancer. Banning bake sales brings to mind the word “draconian” – also ridiculous, farcical, and you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding (if I hyphenate it’s one word, right?)  It’s like cutting off your hand because you’ve got a hangnail.

I’m fighting back, dammit. I’m going to send Liam and Caleb to school EVERY SINGLE DAY with lunchboxes filled with cupcakes, cookies, brownies, maybe even the occasional gummy worm–and I’m telling them to share with all their friends.

Let Bloomberg send the Sugar Stasi after me. They can have my cupcake when they wrestle it out of my fat sticky fingers.


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Continue Reading · on October 7, 2009 in Education, food, NYC

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