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Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Wistful Ode to Rubber Pellet Season

This may be our last spring soccer season at the Parade Ground. My girls are old enough that I still think of it as mud season, when the Parade Ground was either a rock hard pitted dust bowl or a quagmire free of grass, except for the occasional goal blocking island of weeds. But now we stand on the flat, wide green plastic expanse looking vainly for our team, "Did they say field #11 or #7?" Scanning for parents that are good for an hour long gossip and alternately trying for a spot of sunlight to warm ourselves or a foot of shade to cool ourselves. We have spent the afternoons engrossed in talk of Bat Mitzvahs and Middle School applications, lessons on how to hack into our kid's Facebook and trading SHSAT tutor stories. I remember the season they all got their periods and we all went through menopause. Remember when they could tell an opponent was too old by her eye makeup. When did they all start using black eyeliner? I will miss their coach, with the patience of a saint, trying to get them to stop texting each other long enough to explain how to stop a ball with their chest. That was never going to happen. We didn't mind the losing seasons as long as they checked to see if the injured opponent was okay while the other team scored. They never understood that you couldn't argue with the ref. The righteous indignation of a teenage girl could talk the yellow right off the card.
I will never forget the twilight. They didn't grow up on a suburban deadend street where it is safe to stay out until you heard your mom yell. Standing in the dark listening to my girls play long after they could see the ball. They laughed and ran in the dark. Rubber pellets in the car.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Envelope Day

The hideous tradition of Envelope Day is here. You can almost hear 85,000 8th grade parents grinding their teeth. The lucky few who got their High School placements last month can breath easy. This process is the price we pay for choice. The question is whether it is worth it or not. I'm sure it is not worth it for the kids at the gifted middle schools who don't get offered the Specialized High School seats that seemed to be their right or the siblings that didn't get into the schools that their family members attended, the hard working achievers that chose the overly popular schools and come out of the process with nothing, or the students for whatever reason had too many absences in 7th grade. I can't comprehend the pain of a student who is baffled by the process, or the hopelessness of a hard worker whose grades or test scores don't qualify. For the children who have invested a lot in the process, who feel that their 14 year old self esteem or dignity may be dictated by that letter sent out by computer. Right now I feel sorry for the kids I know that quietly wait for the elation or despair. New York is not easy. I just hope that they don't feel that the envelope is infallible. It doesn't say who they are or what they can be. I hope they aren't sorry and they have good friends and find a teacher that will change their lives and make them love learning for it's own sake. I hope that they will know their own worth no matter what the envelope says.
In Great Britain aren't there exams that you take in middle school that determine what kind of training you will have? How do children there handle the "this test will affect the rest of my life" pressure? It seems like we are getting closer and closer to that.

Sing is sung

We experienced the last "Sing" performance a couple of weeks ago and now that the all of the hubbub has died down, I can jot some musings. This is NOT a review for any "sophfrosh"s out there surfing the web.
"Sing" is an institution in many NYC High Schools. The grades (separately or as teams) write and perform an original musical sung to popular tunes and compete for artistic supremacy. It would not be an understatement to say that these events are loaded with the requisite angst of any lumbering musical comedy and the added pressure of beating the pants off of the seniors.
I had the pleasure of comparing the experience at two of the city's premiere "Sing" competitions. Murrow, Brooklyn's own little "broadWAY" and Stuyvesant, where I am told that in Tim Robbin's senior year they wrote their own music.
Both student bodies were bold and fearless, which as a Broadway professional myself, I found both horrifying and sweet. The sets were beautiful and free in a way that shocked me out of my smug professionalism. I wouldn't have attempted the giant paper mache' man-eating volcano. Really, really, I didn't think teenagers could paint like that. I am not being patronizing when I say that it had the gorgeous freedom of the best children's artwork; unself-conscious with explosive color. The really cool thing was how different the production styles of each school were. The kids at Murrow are Broadway kids. They know their power ballad and the importance of having the chorus "sing out Louise" They used their huge chorus of hundreds to fill the stage with elaborate dance numbers that were as aerobic as they were audible. Stuy on the other hand resembled the Sugar Plum Fairy's, dance of many nations from the "Nutcracker". They assembled clever stories that were a framework for the many, many multicultural vignettes. They say it isn't a Stuy "Sing" until you've seen the "Ballywood" number.
All of the productions had their good points, but I have to give special mention to the Stuy Seniors who did a classic production of a "Head vs. Heart" love story, literally... it takes place in a body... there was a guy playing the role of the Bladder. I knew that we were in for a treat during the first double helix, DNA dance number, soon to be followed by the four Hormones, in their leather jackets and da's singing doo op. My favorite character, after the aerobic pink Pair of Lungs and the Drunken Liver Ladies, was the Appendix wearing a giant "?" on his sweater. He took one for the team during the climactic Virus vs. White Blood Cell dance number. The attention to detail was impressive as my nerdy family observed, because during the dance whenever a virus attacked a cell, the cell would throw off this shirt representing the exploding of the cell wall. I didn't even know that happens, but they assured me that the biology was accurate.
Kudos to all involved. Go FRESH!

Green Brooklyn Schools

Hip, Hip Hoorah for PS 154 and their new lunch trays! They are using lunch trays made of easily bio-degradable materials. "Parents Against Styrofoam in Schools" wants the Bloomberg administration to re-examine the use of styrofoam lunch trays. 850,000 lunch trays are used in the New York City public schools when classes are in session. This is a fantastic effort, but not the only one.
The Children's School has a cell phone recycling program started by a teacher. There is a rare material in cell phones that can easily be recycled and reused. It is initiatives like this started by passionate people that make the difference.
And of course, as a Murrow parent, I have to give a shout out to the Murrow Recycling club. They have been extremely successful working with the school custodial staff in their uphill battle to recycle paper and plastic. They are currently trying to get the word out about bottled water. The energy used to create the bottle, ship it, and dispose of it is extremely wasteful. Just bring your own reusable bottle to school and fill it with award winning NYC Municipal water.

Friday, March 14, 2008

New Urban Team Sport (NUTS)

I invented a new sport in my mind tonight. “In my mind” is my favorite kind sport because I always win. I went to Parent/Teacher conferences at Murrow. We are blessed with a “Type A” perfectionist. I have nothing to complain to her teachers about and it is usually a 3-minute love fest. (Hey, I like my complements cheap and often) The trick is to see all of the teachers in the 2 hours allotted. I need my teacher face time.

Let me explain the rules. You wait with hundreds of other parents in a giant shivering mass outside the school doors like it’s a Who concert with festival seating. (Imagine how those teachers feel, trapped inside with only an endless line of “issues” before them) If you are an “elite” NUTS player like myself, you have a list of teachers and room numbers coded by location. In a school the size of Murrow, this is key. You race to the farthest room, sign your name on the list outside the door and repeat on all lists in the near vicinity. Then you send your husband who is having trouble reading the map to sign up on other floors. (This may be a tactical error) If you are positioned outside the door when your name comes up on the list, you may go in and have your 3 minutes. If you arrive back to the classroom after your name has already been called you go to the end of the now endless list. The art of it is to fit in a couple of the less popular teachers between the majors. The team who finishes all their conferences in the least amount of time gets to go home and have a stiff drink.

10pts off for brow beating the poor student organizing the list outside the door.
5pts for doing the quick switch with the team right behind you on the list when you arrive just a minute too late.
2pts off for getting cornered by the candy sellers
10pts for giving them a $5 and not taking any candy
5pts for snagging a chair
10pts off for erasing names ahead of you on the list
10pts for visiting the phys ed. Teacher
Good Luck and may the GAMES BEGIN!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Billionaires fixing schools

I read the How many billionaires does it take to fix a school system article in the NY Times Magazine with interest this weekend. The article wasn't about the public/private partnerships that are always on my mind. The Park's Dept. has the conservancies and the schools have the billionaires and the PTA grant writers. It has worked for some, which is lovely for the parks and schools in neighborhoods with the cash and the will (in that order) to do something civic minded. The problem is the inequity. Public education is the great democratizing dream. But that isn't what I want to talk about.
It was fascinating to hear how the new billionaires are giving. I like the nibbleness and pragmatic outlook of the Gates Foundation. I like that they don't need their names on a building, that they want to effect change and that is trickier. I thought it was very good advice for them to "spend their money the way they made their money, which means investing in great people, testing out new ideas, being tough-minded in evaluating what's working and what isn't." What makes me nervous is scope of change. I don't like the thought that the NYC school system is a behemoth and we have to turn the whole honking thing around. That the big money goes to developing a strategy that is usually too broad to be effective and not given enough time to develop on the ground. The problem is that every child and every community is different. The school system is not a factory producing widgits. There are no big strategies that will ever work.
The only policy that really makes sense to me is the creation of the Empowerment schools. The principal, the teachers and the parents are the only ones who know what is really working. The article mentioned a "Parent's union" and it made great sense to me. I wish a billionaire would finance a lobbyist for the Parents Union so our needs and wishes would be the first and loudest voice in the room.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

What's new with public school Pre-K

Here is some early news about the Pre-K registration for 2008-2009. From a memo to Principals.

  • All applications for public school Pre-K will be handled in a centralized process through the Office of Student Enrollment. (CBO process is unchanged)
  • Applications for the DOE process will be available in schools and at the Enrollment Offices the week of March 24.
  • Any schools that have already made offers or accepted applications for Pre-k seats must notify parents that these offers are voided. Parents must submit a new Pre-K application to be considered for a seat.
  • April 11: all applications for public school Pre-K seats must be postmarked by this date.
  • Week of May 19: Parents will receive notification about their child’s placement in a public school Pre-K
  • Parents should apply directly to CBOs for spots in their programs. The CBOs will notify parents directly about their application status.
  • For Kindergarten and 1st grade apply directly to your zoned school.
  • For Unzoned schools such as The Brooklyn New School, The Children’s School and Charter Schools, apply directly to the schools for their lotteries.
  • Parents applying for a variance (placement exception request) should get the form from the Enrollment Office in the summer and submit it by the end of Sept. (the deadline was Sept. 28 this year) with lots of supporting documents. You will hear sometime in Oct. whether you receive a placement or not. You do this the year you are attending school, which means that your child will be attending classes at your zoned school while you wait for word about the PER.

    So it looks like this is bad news if you have been given a seat already in a Pre-K for next year because you go right back into the lottery. This is obviously an attempt to make the whole process fairer to the population at large because not all schools have Pre-Ks and if you were out of the zone for a prized Pre-K you had no chance of getting in. There have never been enough seats for everyone who wants one, but keep in mind that the DOE doesn’t have to provide Pre-K at all, and they are the first programs to be cut to make more room for the mandated grades. As the schools get more and more crowded (look no further than the giant sprouts going up all down 4th Ave.) I wonder how long the existing Pre-K classes will last. I don’t see many new elementary schools in the works.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The DOE is giving a cellphone "incentive"

What gives! The DOE which has been fighting parent's reasonable need to contact their middle school age kids on cell phones is now giving away phones, minutes and texting time as a bribe for increased test scores! The Million Program, announced last week will also have product "discounts" offered in text messages according to a report in nycpublicschoolparents. Yeah, yeah, you have to fund the program somehow, but why this program in the first place. The idea is that in some schools, students need an incentive to improve their performance. Ok, I am naive and too idealistic (my children roll their eyes at me everyday) but knowledge is the reward, not a cheap piece of plastic that will suck their attention away from the true prize. And do you think that those 11 year olds are not informed or cynical enough to see this as the disingenuous bribe that it is. What are we telling them? Stand behind your policy until someone offers you a million dollars to ignore it. Shameful.
The phones are being offered to 4 schools in Brooklyn, JHS 234, Ebbets Field Middle School, IS 349 and KIPP AMP Charter School.
On a basic level in general, doesn't paying for grades act as a disincentive to self motivation and altruism? Just asking.

The 14th St. Armory may be open by the spring

The 14th Street Armory Field House has finally been completed and has a sponsoring organization, which seems to have been the biggest holdup. The Prospect Park YMCA is partnering with the Field House in one of the city's largest community recreation and education centers. At the ribbon cutting, Bill de Blasio said, "by spring school groups and people in the community will be using the space." It has been said that local schools will get priority time in the facility. There are plenty of schools in the neighborhood without gyms that need a space for their phys. ed. programs.

Free Ice Skating

To celebrate the Independence Community Foundation's grant to help underwrite design costs for the new Lakeside Center, the Parks Dept. and Prospect Park Alliance is having a free skating day on March 7 at Wollman Rink. The skating season always gets by me. The fall is too full of the holidays and then in a blink it is too warm and the rink is closing for the season on March16. Get out and skate before the crocuses come up. The Lakeside Center is supposed to have two new ice skating rinks
For info 718 965-8999 or 718965-8960

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fight the school budget cuts

I just got an e-mail from the friends of Bill de Blasio. They are having a meeting to strategize about stopping the DOE school budget cuts. It is a community wide event including groups of teachers, parent advocates, union leaders, members of the CEC, PTAs and others.
Thursday March 13, 7-9pm
St. Francis College, Callahan Center
180 Remsen St. 1st floor (between Court and Clinton)
rsvp to Phil Jones 212 788-6969 or email


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