School Stories Wed, 23 Sep 2009 17:52:42 +0000 en hourly 1 Fuzzy Math Sat, 16 May 2009 01:56:13 +0000 Heather Grossmann By HEATHER GROSSMANN

These days New York City straphangers can’t ride the subway without being assaulted by a barrage of cheerfully colored signs advertising hopeful statistics on the city’s school system.

“Because finishing is the start of a better future, New York City public high schools have increased graduation rates by more than 20% since 2002,” reads one bright yellow poster on the L train, which runs from Brooklyn’s Canarsie to 14th Street in Manhattan.

The ads are paid for by The Fund for Public Schools, an independent organization whose stated mission is to attract private investment for the New York City public school system. They tout an increase in everything from money in classrooms to the number of schools. Lara Holliday, the fund’s director, said the goal of the program is to make New York City public schools the number one cause for New Yorkers.

But several academics who have dissected the data believe their facts are misleading and their timing politically suspect. The year cited as the start of the improvements, 2002, corresponds with the year the state legislature handed Mayor Michael Bloomberg the legal reins over the city’s schools. The “Keep it Going NYC” subway ad campaign launched in the fall of 2008, around the same time that the two-term mayor staged his bid to expand the limit on how many terms a mayor could serve from two to three.

“It’s clear that the intent is to persuade the public that great changes have occurred under the Bloomberg/Klein administration,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College. “It’s happening specifically at this moment because of the vote on mayoral control and the upcoming mayoral election.”

Holliday said that while the transit campaign launched this past fall, the original “Keep it Going NYC” campaign began in June of 2007. She said that so far the Fund for Public Schools has paid about $750,000 for the subway campaign. The money came from private donors who contributed the money specifically for the ads.

Pallas pointed out that this sort of advertising is not done in other cities. “The Department of Education here has what I could call a very well-oiled public relations campaign,” he said. “They never admit that anything is less than positive.”

The fund was established in 1982, but Holliday said it has been entirely transformed since Mayor Bloomberg took office.

“It was a much smaller organization used as a pass-through for anybody who wanted to make donations to their alma mater,” said Holliday. Since Bloomberg installed Klein as New York City schools chancellor, Holliday said the Fund has been reinvented as a fundraising instrument for the chancellor’s priority initiatives.

“I imagined that the Fund for Public Schools was an organization created to raise private money to aid public schools directly, as in funding art supplies, computers, field trips,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian, in an e-mail. “The fact that this massive PR campaign happens to coincide with the Legislative debate over mayoral control and the mayor’s re-election campaign makes the Fund a political operation.”

Technically, the Fund for Public Schools is an independent organization, but it is inextricably linked to the Department of Education (DOE) and the Office of the Mayor. Joel Klein serves as chairman of the organization, Caroline Kennedy as vice chair, and the remaining board members have nearly equally impressive resumes and pedigrees — and equally close ties to the mayor. There is media mogul Mortimer B. Zuckerman, who once penned an endorsement of Bloomberg likening the mayor’s reign as a “wonder drug” for the city; Wendi Murdoch, whose husband Rupert supported Bloomberg on countless editorial pages across his portfolio of titles; and Richard Menschel, a senior director at Goldman Sachs who offered the mayor his first job when he moved to New York.

Jennifer Jennings, whose well-regarded Eduwonkette blog is currently on hiatus, likens this blurring of fundraising for schools with the mayor’s political campaign to a possible violation of church and state. “When there’s a crossover between public officials and supposedly independent organizations, you start to worry,” said Jennings. “Whenever you centralize an educational system the way we have in New York City, you end up creating an incentive to over-hype the results.”

Jennings, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Columbia University, said that the DOE has always exaggerated the extent of the system’s improvement, but she does not understand why they misrepresent the facts. She said that progress has been made, and that it was worth noting. Jennings feels that the DOE should work to be more transparent with their statistics rather than inflating them.

“You open some doors for policy intervention and close others,” she said, worrying that when some facts are obscured, there is less public pressure to provide robust educational services in the areas that really need it.

Martha Foote, a researcher for the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which represents schools that use performance-based measures of assessment, was more direct in her appraisal of the campaign.

“It’s propaganda to convince people great strides were made,” said Foote. She refers to the Fund as a mix of Bloomberg’s “business cronies” and people indebted to the mayor for his generous philanthropic contributions.

Foote, Pallas, Ravitch and Jennings, all experts in mining educational data, felt that the current campaign misrepresents the true state of New York City’s public education system.

Following is a deconstruction of some of the current advertisements in the “Keep It Going NYC” campaign:

Because finishing is the start of a better future, New York City public high schools have increased graduation rates by more than 20% since 2002.

New York City has its own formula for calculating graduation rates. The formula is different from the way the state — and the rest of the country — makes these calculations. The graduation rate increase cited on this advertisement includes those that have passed the General Educational Development (GED) tests, students that graduate the summer after the school year, and special education students who go through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is subject to different completion standards. The state does not include these groups. The graduation rate cited by the state for the class of 2007 was 52.2 percent, whereas the graduation rate cited by the city was 62 percent.

The city has advocated a program of “credit recovery,” which allows students who have failed classes to make it up with additional work outside of the classroom. In a hearing on mayoral control this past February, Ravitch, who is also a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, called credit recovery a “dubious practice” which inflates the graduation rate. She quoted a school principal who said that there was “little oversight” and “few standards” when it came to the actual work that ends up being accepted in lieu of a passing grade.

The statistic also includes “discharged” students as graduates. This term designates students who have left the school and have supposedly transferred to other schools. Foote said that it is common for principals to assign a discharged status to students who have simply dropped out. Over a four-year period, about 20 percent of students with an expected graduation rate of spring 2006 were classified as “discharged.”

The New York City school system is the only one that counts the groups mentioned above in their graduation rates.

Both Pallas and Jennings noted that by saying graduation rates had improved by 20 percent, this ad leads readers to believe that graduation rates went from, for example, 42 percent to 62 percent. In fact, the graduation rate — according to the city’s calculations as described above — went from 51 percent to 62 percent. That’s an increase of 11 percentage points.

In response to this, the DOE referred to page 2 of a document they put out to supplement Joel Klein’s response to an editorial by Diana Ravitch. The document stated that the city’s graduation rate has been calculated the same way for more than two decades, and said that according to the State’s methodology, substantial gains had still been made.


Math scores up 30 points since 2002/English scores up 14 points since 2002

Test scores have gone up, but they have gone up statewide, not just in the city. There is speculation that the rise in scores is due to the dramatic increase in test preparation, known as “teaching to the test.” An internal study written by the New York City teachers union in 2006 indicated that New York’s state tests were not as rigorous as those in other states. Several newspaper articles reported that the tests administered since 2002 were easier than those given in previous years.

Unlike the states’ tests, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a federally sponsored measure that is impossible to prepare directly for. NAEP was established to safeguard against states making claims of progress that could not be substantiated.

In the 2007 NAEP, New York school students showed no gain in reading in the fourth and eighth grades and no gain in math in the eighth grade. The only uptick in scores was in fourth-grade math, which has been trending upwards since the 1990s and is only now beginning to taper off. When students hit the eighth grade, the gains disappear.

“You don’t see ads saying ‘Our NAEP scores are flat, Keep it Going NYC,’” Jennings said, commenting on the selectivity of the information presented.

This statistic also implies that the rise in test scores during the 2002-2003 school year was attributable to the work of Bloomberg and Klein, when in fact the previous administration deserves the credit for that success. The reforms instituted by the new regime could not be reasonably measured until 2003.

The DOE, again referencing their response to Ravitch’s article, suggested that the NAEP should not be the dominant means of assessing the city’s results. According to the document, New York State students do not learn some of the information included in NAEP before they take the test. They also noted that the DOE is not accountable to NAEP, but rather the standards set forth by No Child Left Behind and their own accountability standards.


Social promotion ended

The new policy requires that students in the third, fifth, seventh and eighth grades to pass both a state math and English test in order to advance to the next grade.

“This takes the decision-making out of the hands of the people who know the kids best and moves it to the test scores,” said Pallas, who added that there is no evidence that the shift in policy has had the desired effect.

The majority of students entering the eighth grade still do not meet state standards in reading or math.

In 2006, nearly 18 percent of high school graduates were over the expected graduation age.


More money in the classrooms

Over the past couple of years, the city’s education budget has been cut several times. In January 2008, Bloomberg proposed $324 million in cuts. Since then, that number has ballooned to $956 million. The DOE’s projected budget for the next fiscal year, which starts in July, represents a 10 percent decrease from last year.

The accountability budget, which goes towards assessing schools and students, has barely been touched, while funds that directly impact the classroom are the most affected. City Council member Bill De Blasio issued a report in March of this year  saying that the school system could pay the salaries of over a thousand teachers with the money spent on assessment.

The DOE said that they spend only $28.2 million on accountability measures. The remaining money comes from city capital dollars,which are not available to schools.


Because parents should have more and better options, New York City has opened 354 more public schools since 2002.

Over 80 of the new schools that have opened since 2002 are charter schools and small schools. The seats in these schools do not make up for the 25 large — and often successful — schools that have been closed since 2000.

Foote believes that the DOE had botched the implementation of small schools, noting that many of the principals and teachers hired to staff these schools are inexperienced.

Some of these new schools were opened in school locations that already exist, causing overcrowding in shared spaces like gyms and cafeterias.


Because every child deserves an excellent learning environment, New York City public schools have added 66,000 new seats and hundreds of new science labs, gyms and auditoriums since 2003.

An article published in The New York Times on May 1 chronicled the experiences of panicked parents across the city who still do not have their children enrolled in schools for the fall.

Waiting lists for kindergartners are longer than ever this year because of a new policy encouraging early registration, and there seems to be a rise in demand for seats.

The Times’ article cited estimates that 400 children are on waiting lists in Manhattan’s District 2, which includes the Upper East Side and the Village. Public School 151 was supposed to reopen this year after almost a decade of being closed, but the DOE has not been able to procure a space so students zoned for that school must look elsewhere.

]]> Critical Educators Fri, 15 May 2009 13:54:19 +0000 Maura Walz By MAURA WALZ

Midway through his first year as a Teach for America teacher in Brooklyn, Andrew Parsons began to suspect that the way he’d been taught to teach was not helping his first-grade students to learn.

For instance, when it came to teaching a unit on the American Revolution, the curriculum his school required him to use — though full of facts — lacked both context and a coherent narrative.

“Lexington and Concord was the first battle. George Washington was a great general,” Parsons would read aloud to his class from the provided materials, entirely devoid of pictures to spark their imaginations.

“There was no real conceptualization of why these events were taking place and no real story line,” Parsons said.

The unit ended with a 10-question multiple choice assessment. It quickly became clear that something was lost in translation — namely, that his students had not learned what was taught.

“They got a lot of things confused,” Parsons said. “The whole idea of freedom, for example — they got it confused with the Civil War and the civil rights movement. They didn’t understand why there were no black people in the books we had chosen.”

Meanwhile, Parsons began looking for a new approach. During his Teach for America training, he met two other new teachers, Michael Klein and Noah Green, who wanted to incorporate more educational theory into their training as teachers.

During the summer of 2007, between Parsons’ first and second year as a teacher, they started holding informal reading groups to discuss how to incorporate educational theories into their classrooms.

During their meetings, the teachers read theoretical texts about learning through play. And it was right around this time that Parsons began to reflect upon different ways of teaching his first-graders about the American Revolution. By the next year, he overhauled his teaching strategy altogether.

While he was bound by the same curriculum as before, he began the unit with a broader discussion of what the students thought it meant to be free and what freedom looked like in their own lives. From there, they drilled down to the nuts and bolts of history. Instead of just passively reading passages aloud, Parsons had the students act out the key events. The unit culminated in a play depicting the events of the Revolutionary War, written and performed by the first-grade students at the school.

“It was a way for me to align what we had to do in our school and what we have to cover in the curriculum with the theory behind children learning through play, learning through dialogue and talking, and also learning through connections to their own experiences,” he said. “And they did really well on the assessment as a result.”

Parsons, Klein and Green knew that the discussion meetings that helped Parsons reevaluate his teaching methods could help other young teachers, too. So by the spring of the following year, they formalized their reading groups into regular forums, spread the word to other young New York City teachers and called themselves the Critical Educator Network.


Matthew Block discusses teaching poetry at a Critical Educators Network Forum. Photo: Maura Walz / COVERING EDUCATION

The goal is to provide a new model of teacher-driven professional support — one they say was lacking from their own training — dedicated to helping teachers guide their students toward becoming engaged, critical thinkers.

The teachers in the network are products of the rush to fill schools with young, energetic people trained through fast, on-the-job routes to their teaching certificates. They’re also among the first groups of these young teachers to emerge with an organized critique of alternative licensing processes and professional development for young teachers from the inside.

Jean Pallister was in the second year of her Teach for America commitment in the spring of 2008, teaching at P.S. 305 in Bedford-Stuyvesant and completing her master’s degree in teaching at Pace University when a mutual friend introduced her to Parsons, Block and Green.

Like many other teachers entering the profession through alternative certification programs like Teach for America, Pallister came from a liberal arts background that emphasized questioning and discussion. She was startled by the absence of those techniques in the classrooms for which she was being trained. She said she felt the forums filled a void in her training by giving her a theoretical grounding in education.

“For me, and for a lot of teachers I know coming out of Teach for America, you get a lot of support in terms of learning how to meet daily standards and objectives, and you get a lot of support in terms of making sure your classroom is running smoothly and you have good procedures,” Pallister said.

But the program did not provide any wider, theoretical perspective about what she was doing, Pallister said. “I felt that lack of support. And I think there are other teachers out there who feel that way, too,” she said.

Pallister quit her teaching job last fall, she said, in part because she felt unsupported and adrift in her position teaching special education students.

Stories like Pallister’s are exactly what members of the network say they hope to avoid in the future. Members point to estimates that more than a third of new teachers leave the profession within three years. They contend that a lack of professional support is a major factor in teacher attrition.

The teachers are also trying to redefine what professional support looks like. Their vision involves teachers helping each other, sharing resources and reinforcing pride in their profession. They point to their forums as a model for what teacher-driven professional development could look like.

And so roughly twice a month, the teachers gather, usually in the basement of the apartment that three of them share in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. On a recent Saturday afternoon, about 15 teachers settled into couches, folding chairs and floor cushions to discuss ways to teach poetry.

When one teacher questioned why poetry was valuable in the classroom, Lizzy Voegel, a middle school English teacher in the Bronx, quickly countered: “They feel that this is something that they can actually do, which is harder to do when you’re dealing with something longer like a novel.”

Many of the teachers said that they missed this energetic exchange of ideas among teachers in their formal professional development. Parsons cited a survey of teachers in three alternative certification programs including Teach for America that reported those teachers more likely to feel unsupported by other teachers. The forum meetings are explicitly designed to stimulate professional relationships among teachers.

After 90 minutes of free-form discussion about favorite poems and reasons to teach art, Matthew Block jumped from his seat and began tacking large sheets of poster paper to the walls of the basement. Now it was time to get everyone’s ideas on paper. Soon the posters were full of names of favorite poems and how to teach them, exercises teachers can use to begin and end units on poetry and ways of connecting poetry lessons to other curricular goals.

Block and Parsons save these poster sheets and are collecting the ideas generated in the forums with the goal both of making them available online as resources to teachers and working them into a formal professional development curriculum.

In their current form, Parsons said, the forums serve as a place to test drive ideas about how to structure a year-long series of professional development sessions that members of the group hope to pilot at schools and in alternative certification programs starting this fall.

Parsons left his teaching job for a year to focus on developing this curriculum. He spent this year visiting classrooms and teachers, preparing materials, writing the curriculum and reaching out to schools and teacher’s groups. Parsons said that they expect to pilot the program at the start of the coming school year, and said they were in discussion with several schools and programs, though he refused to name specific details.

“We view it as adding an alternative or another option into the development of what teachers have,” Parsons said. “I don’t want to say ‘we’re filling this gap,’ but we see that there is a need for teachers to have alternative professional development. We found that we needed that option and that alternative — and that’s something that we want to provide.”

In their effort they’ve been aided by a seemingly unexpected source: Teach for America’s Social Entrepreneurship Project. Noah Green, a Harlem teacher who has headed the network’s fundraising efforts, said that while the project did originate in response to what some teachers felt was lacking from Teach for America’s training, the program’s support of their effort was not surprising.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Green said. “In some ways, we want to lighten the load for them.”

Green said the teachers of the network are not wholly critical of the training approaches of Teach for America and other alternative routes to teaching. “We want to come off as saying, ‘You’re doing this and it’s very good, but it’s not enough,’” he said. “They want to create effective teachers. We want to create excellent teachers.”

Green said the most important goal of the network and its professional development programs is to create thriving communities of teachers who take pride in their work and feel supported in their creativity.

Voegel, who led the forum on teaching poetry, said that community was what drew her to the forums in the first place. She said that when she came to Teach for America, she immediately started looking for a way to explore the broader perspective.

As the teachers headed upstairs after the forum, Parsons pointed out a letter posted on his kitchen’s refrigerator. “Dear King George,” was scrawled in a child’s hand across the top. A student in Parson’s class wrote the letter the year that he overhauled his American history curriculum. The teachers keep the letter on their fridge, Parsons said, as a reminder of the link between their own training and his original reworking of the American history unit. Teachers’ own creativity leads to the creativity to their students, he said.

“Teachers learn best through on-going professional development,” Parsons said. “Just like children learn best through on-going basis, not through 45-minute workshops — kids can get some takeaways but not conceptual knowledge. And teachers learn best from each other.”

Dancing to Work Fri, 15 May 2009 04:03:59 +0000 Alexandra Fenwick

Olivier Heuts tromps through the snow in Central Park on his commute to work. Heuts walks four and half miles from his home on the Upper West Side to his job teaching dance at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Long Island City every day, in all weather. Photo: Alexandra Fenwick/COVERING EDUCATION


On a recent, cold February morning a few days after a fresh snowfall, Olivier Heuts was dressed for the weather. He wore a fur lined bomber hat over earmuffs and a huge pair of mittens that looked like oven mitts designed for the sub-Arctic.  He stepped out of his Upper West Side apartment and walked right past the corner of 86th and Broadway where, one by one, everyone else on the sidewalk disappeared into the subway below.

Heuts, 52, is a dance teacher at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Long Island City. Every morning he walks from the apartment he shares with his wife and their dog on the Upper West Side to the school across the East River in Queens. The extreme commute takes him an hour and 15 minutes, about thirty minutes longer than taking the subway but even in bad weather, he never takes the train.

“I technically could probably get an extra half hour of sleep but I prefer the walk,” Heuts said. “I know exactly how long it’s going to take, there are no surprises. I used to take the subway years ago but you never know when it is going to get stalled and make you late and you ending up biting your nails.”

Most of the students at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, an audition-only arts high school founded by Tony Bennett in 2001, value their sleep very highly and find such willingness to wake up earlier than necessary to be unthinkable.

“He’s just that extreme in everything he does,” Nathaly Luna, a senior fine arts student said of Heuts. “You’ll see him in the hallway doing splits. It’s a way for him to keep skinny. But it’s not for me. I take the train.”

Heuts’s walk takes him downtown, ziz-zags through Central Park, where he encounters dog walkers and joggers who offer nods of recognition, down Lexington Avenue, past the corner of 64th Street, where Bernie Madoff lives and where Heuts has noticed news trucks have been parked on the corner for months hoping to catch a glimpse of the swindler, past the tram cars that glide through the air toward Roosevelt Island and over the 59th Street bridge into Long Island City. He doesn’t know whether he’ll still be able to walk next year when the school moves to its new home in Astoria.

Heuts like order and routine. Before he leaves his apartment he eats the same three open-faced sandwiches for breakfast every day: one with almond butter, another with tahini and a third with jelly. This fuels him until lunch, which is an oat bran bagel he purchases every morning at a deli on Amsterdam Ave. If the line looks too long, he skips it and eats something from the food carts outside the school for lunch instead.

“Everything is timed by the minute, especially on my shaving days,” Heuts said.

He grew up in Heerlen, a small former mining town in the south of Holland near the Belgian border, where pension fund and insurance funds are now the main industry. As a boy, he says he was “unathletic” and didn’t take up dance until he was 19 years old when, as an art history student at Utrecht University, he was required to pursue some form of exercise. He chose ballet.

“I always liked movement and elegance and was interested in how to move across a room gracefully,” Heuts said.

He flourished in a ballet class taught by a strict, matronly woman in her seventies. At first he considered it a hobby, but inspired by the style of New York-based modern dancers Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, who both started dancing at an older age, he decided to pursue it full-time. Heuts first came to New York City in 1983 for a four-month scholarship to study modern dance and never went back. After years of dancing with the Battery Dance Company, Heuts realized that dance would not sustain him as he grew older, so he enrolled in the now-defunct dance education program at Columbia’s Teacher’s College.

“In my thirties I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this forever,’” he said.

But after four years at his first school, the Washington Irving School in Manhattan, he was looking for a change. Washington Irving didn’t have a very dance-friendly student body or a proper dance program, instead dance was treated like another physical education class. Then, he got “excessed,” his job position was cut and a women 10 years his senior took over. Heuts retained his salary while serving as a permanent sub. With 12 years in the school system, Heuts is now tenured and secure in his job, but when he was struggling in substitute limbo, the news of Frank Sinatra opening up was a godsend.

“A friend told me about this new school and I thought it was great. Here’s a school that’s serious,” he said.

Heuts’s morning walk is full of personal landmarks. The skinny, filigreed facades and pointed roofs of the townhouses on 74th Street remind him of Amsterdam. The profile of the Sheffield building, where he and his wife lived as newlyweds, is visible past the treetops of Central Park. His favorite statue in the park is a bronze called The Falconer, which he passes every morning as cuts across the 72nd Street transverse. A man who operates an impromptu newsstand, selling stacks of papers from a bench on the corner of 72nd and Central Park West, is another the landmark — the only person he encounters every single day, no matter the weather.

“He’s there every day. I can’t believe he sits here in freezing weather. It’s one thing to walk, because you are moving. It’s a different decision to stay in one place,” Heuts said.

He also notices little things, like the burgeoning daylight as spring approaches.
“You become very attuned to astronomical data when you walk every day,” he said.

Dance teacher Olivier Heuts crosses the 59th Street bridge over the East River into Queens on his walk to work every day. (Photo Credit: Alexandra Fenwick)

Dance teacher Olivier Heuts crosses the 59th Street bridge over the East River into Queens on his walk to work every day. Photo: Alexandra Fenwick/ COVERING EDUCATION

As he walked over the bridge, past the familiar criss-crossed ironwork pattern of the struts, he remembered the time a transit strike crippled public transportation and he found himself walking against a tide of people walking from home in Queens to work in Manhattan. Most days, Heuts is one of the few pedestrians on the bridge, especially in winter months. On the day of a big snowstorm about five years ago, he didn’t encounter anyone at all.

“I didn’t see a soul and on my way back, I saw my own footprints,” he said.

“Nothing stops him,” said his fellow dancer teacher at FSSA, a Juilliard-educated ballet dancer named Ani Udovicki. “I don’t think he has ever taken public transportation in bad weather.”

The only day each year that Heuts takes public transportation to the school is audition day, which begins too early in the morning to allow him to walk there. The yearly audition for hopeful students usually falls on Marathon Sunday. So on his return trip, he joins the straggling runners that are still crossing the bridge late in the afternoon and enters First Avenue to cheers.

“I sneak into the runner’s path and sort of run with them,” he said. “I’m the only one without a number.”

As he finally arrived at school, he grabbed his time card, punched in and pointed to a cluster of 10 or so timecards left in their slots that represented teachers who had called in to use sick or personal days. Heuts is sort of the Cal Ripken of his co-workers at the school. He never gets sick and in 12 years of teaching he has only taken two days off — once when he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen and another time when he and his wife moved apartments.

“The kids say, ‘Why are you never absent? Leave us alone for a day,’” he laughed.

Senior dance student Renee Rosenberg has spotted Heuts walking to school in the morning from the window of her mother’s car. She gets a ride to school every day.

“It’s the type of person that he is,” Rosenberg said of his walking habit. “He’s very active, very fit and he doesn’t really take any of our messing around. He makes sure we get work done. It’s not a boring class — with Mr. Heuts, it tends to be more rigorous.”

As Heuts arrived in his shared office, he threw his bag down, disappeared down the hall to

Olivier Heuts instructs his senior ballet class at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts

change and reappeared in navy sweat pants, gray socks and an American Ballet Theater/Frank Sinatra School of the Arts T-shirt, balancing a tambourine and a stack of VHS tapes of ballet performances in his arms. He strode into the dance studio, where students in pale pink tights and black leotards chattered before class, clapped his hands and the day began.

Second Chance Thu, 14 May 2009 21:25:32 +0000 Richie Gergel By RICHIE GERGEL

HOMELESS IN HIGH SCHOOL This story is part of a series of video blogs and articles on homeless high school students in New York City. Click here to see more from this series.

"Homeless and unemployed, Miguel Gabin, has re-enrolled in high school. "When I found a school that took me I saw stars in my eyes," Miguel, 18, said. "I was happy. I was high. I was drunk. I could have fallen over. I wanted to cry."       RICHIE GERGEL/ Covering Education

"Homeless and unemployed, Miguel Gabin has re-enrolled in high school. "When I found a school that took me I saw stars in my eyes," Miguel, 18, said. "I was happy. I was high. I was drunk. I could have fallen over. I wanted to cry." RICHIE GERGEL/ Covering Education

Just shy of 9:30 p.m. on a night in April, minutes before curfew, dozens of chatty teenagers lined up behind the metal detector at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth near Times Square. The security guards riffled through the usual array of belts, crumpled candy wrappers and reused plastic bags, sniffing the insides of shampoo bottles, emptying coat pockets.

A thick book of SAT practice tests stood out on the inspection table. A guard slowly thumbed through its pages. He looked up at the book’s owner, Miguel Gabin, one of the shelter’s newest residents. Then he slowly handed back the book.

Most of the Covenant House youth are not enrolled in high school. Miguel, 18, is one of the few. He returned to classes in January after spending two years working at Wendy’s and IHOP to support his impoverished family of four.

Now two years older than most high school juniors, the long-haired, soft-spoken sophomore is preparing for the SAT for the first time. “I study these books,” he says. “I’ve got to if I’m going to have it down.”

Four months ago, when Miguel enrolled in Independence High School, a alternative school designed for 18- to 21-year-olds, his life was stable for the first time in a while. He is so determined to stay in school now that he made the difficult decision to find shelter in this rescue center, even if temporarily, in order to pursue his high school degree.

“I was so excited to be going forward to not be working for minimum wage,” he says of his decision to stay in school. “I knew I wasn’t going to do that ever again.”

Last January, Miguel moved to the Bronx into his grandparents’ home, his first stable existence in years. Years prior, he had moved with his frail mother and three younger siblings from homeless shelters to apartments they could ill afford. This newfound comfort and stability meant Miguel could return to school for the first time since 2007, the year his mother convinced him to leave school to support his family.

But the education this move enabled is now in jeopardy.Thrown out of his grandparents’ home after an argument over computers – his younger brother’s obsession — Miguel has returned to the transience and instability of a homeless youth.

Covenant House is not a long-term facility. Most residents stay only 30 days. He has no idea where he will go next.


Miguel’s story, like most at Covenant House, is complicated. Much of his life has been spent in shelters.

He moved to Cleveland at the age of nine after his father was sent to prison. His Dominican mother, who spoke no English, took her three children to Ohio after a friend of his father offered a home to the family.

There he spent afternoons with his younger brother in the living room of a home in suburban Cleveland, stuffing small plastic bags with crack cocaine.“They always had us bagging,” Miguel said. “They knew the cops wouldn’t check a little kid, so they took us with them to buy it and sell it too.”

After six months in Cleveland, he fled with his mother and siblings on a bus to Jersey City, where he would spend his childhood moving among Jersey City homeless shelters.

He switched shelters, and schools, at least twice every year.

“One of the shelters would put us in a room for a couple of months and my grades were good,” he said. “And I would think I’m doing better now. But then all a sudden we would have to apply to another shelter and it all starts over.”

The family sustained themselves on the non-perishable diet of food pantry shelves: raisins, powdered potatoes, canned beans. “We were just poor,” he said, “surviving on what we had.”

His mother’s meager income was never enough. She worked minimum wage jobs at factories near Jersey City, but chronic health problems often left her unable to work the hours necessary to support a family of four.

The eldest of three, Miguel soon became the man of the family.


At 15, Miguel found a job as a part-time cashier at a McDonald’s, where he earned $100 a week.

As he earned money of his own, he realized how badly he wanted out of homeless shelters, where his family sometimes slept four to a bed.

Between the money his mother earned from his mother’s factory work and income he earned at McDonalds, they moved into their own apartment. But his mom soon became so ill she was forced into a hospital, leaving Miguel to support and watch after his sister and brother.

“The bills were really accumulating,” he said. “I was taking care of my sister and paying for everything with this little part time job.”

Determined to stay in their apartment, Miguel dropped out of school for a full-time job at Wendy’s.“It was that or we were going back to a shelter,” he said. “My little sister was getting hungrier. I said no. I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t do both.”

But the money he earned at Wendy’s wasn’t enough. His brother, one year younger, soon dropped out to wait tables at IHOP. Their income kept them out of homeless shelters, but out of school as well. They earned enough to eat and pay their rent, but in turn sacrificed their access to education.

When their mother returned from the hospital, she too got a job at IHOP, preparing the orders her soon took. Miguel soon joined, as a dishwasher, working two full time jobs.

“I was ready to drop on the floor,” Miguel said. “I still kept going because I was the man of the house.” He spent mornings and afternoons at IHOP and worked overnight shifts at Wendy’s, sleeping four hours a night.

And then the recession hit.

Miguel, his mother and his brother were all fired from IHOP in the fall. It was the season of layoffs and downsizing, and few employers were looking to hire teenage high-school dropouts.Their mother grew ill and their situation grew more desperate. She contacted their father, recently released from prison, who had not seen his family since a 2005 prison visit. Miguel, who “kind of hated him,” didn’t complain when he agreed to take care of his sons.

They never moved in with their father. He simply left them at his parents’ home instead. But in his grandparents house Miguel found the closest thing to a normal childhood he had ever known. He no longer had to support a hungry family. There were no late nights at the take out window. There was no more pressure to make rent. There was time to relax.

“We were in Bedford Park. We were ok. We ate,” Miguel said, without a hint of irony.

He had time of his own. He watched TV. He took walks.

“We went to the park one day and we saw kids coming out of school,” Miguel said.

Free from the work schedule that cut him off from his youth, he began to realize how unusual his situation was. “I was thinking man, I’m already 18,” he said, “It’s too late for me to go to school. Then I looked at my brother and said ‘it’s not too late for you to go back to school.’”

He took his brother to a Department of Education office in the Bronx to enroll in school. They waited hours for a list of schools they could attend.

“I thought they would just shove you in some school, but you have to call yourself,” Miguel said. “They gave us a big list of schools. So I pulled out my cell phone and we started calling them one by one.”

Because of his age, Miguel struggled to find a high school that would allow him to enroll. He eventually found Independence High School, a “second chance” school designed for 17 to 21-year-old students who left school in the past. “When I found a school that took me I saw stars in my eyes,” Miguel said. “I was happy. I was high. I was drunk. I could have fallen over. I wanted to cry.”

Miguel began classes at Independence High School the next week. He arrived to his first day of class in school in a suit and tie. “I was so excited to be going forward and to not be working for minimum wage. It was like getting your first car. So shiny and new.”


His grades were good. He was settling into a routine. He was making friends and making up for the algebra he had forgotten. “I was thinking this is my chance to actually go to school and keep doing what I can do,” he said. “Get educated. Go to college.”

But the stability that allowed him to enroll in school came to an abrupt end in March. While visiting Miguel and his brother, his father began to argue about the use of a computer.

His father attacked Miguel’s brother, he said. Miguel then struck his father. The argument erupted and the family told the boys to leave.

“They followed us around the house as we grabbed our things,” Miguel said. He left with his brother, his driver’s license and his book bag.

“Clothes would have been too heavy to move around,” he said. “I’d moved enough that I knew what I was doing.”

They found their way to a homeless shelter in Manhattan, where they spent the night. They checked into Covenant House the next morning.

His brother eventually joined his mom in Pennsylvania, where she is staying with relatives. Miguel stayed at Covenant House, alone.

Free of the responsibility to support his family, he says he feels more strained than ever. He says his school days are interrupted by stress-induced nosebleeds.

“I keep thinking I can do this for my family,” he said. “I can study now and then study computers and mechanical engineering later. My mom could come live with me. And I could maintain her. I could pay all her hospital bills. I could prove to my father that even though he’s not there for me I can still go forward.”

His face betrays no anxiety. He looks distant, meditative, almost dazed, as if constantly thinking two things at once.

Charters leave many high needs public school students behind Mon, 11 May 2009 19:59:24 +0000 Kyla Calvert harlem


On a recent sunny afternoon, students ran and shrieked in the playground of P.S. 46 tucked at the foot of the Polo Grounds Towers at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 156th Street. A mural at the school’s front door shows a classroom of diverse children, raising their hands in eager anticipation. Bulletin boards in the hallways show off the students’ lively artwork.

In a neighborhood traditionally known for having some of the city’s most troubled schools, P.S. 46 stands out as an oasis of stability. For much of Principal George Young’s 16-year tenure, his school has clocked in high achievement scores. Most recently it received a “B” on the school report cards. The results for the state’s English Language Arts tests released May 7 showed more than 65 percent of the tested students at P.S. 46 scored at grade level or higher. Still, in the last three years, the school’s enrollment has declined from 840 to 714 students.

People aren’t having children as much as they were years ago,” Young offered as one explanation. But he is not convinced that childbirth rates alone account for the sudden dip. Some of these students, he believes, are drawn to the unusually large number of brand new charter schools that have opened in Manhattan in recent years. Of the borough’s 26 total charter schools, 22 are located in Harlem; 16 opened in the last four years.

Schools like P.S. 46 find it impossible to compete. “Charters have a highly organized promotional process,” Young said. “They are flooding the community with literature, there are people going to the churches selling their schools.”

Along with the declining enrollment comes a shrinking budget as well. Along with the students P.S. 46 has lost over the last few years, it has also lost more than $200,000 from its budget.

And money is not the only thing leaving the school. Young and other principals believe that a disproportionate number of students who are not enrolling in the neighborhood’s charters are English language learners and lower achievers.

Young has no argument with charter schools, as long as they provide viable options. “But they shouldn’t be sending the message that all public schools are bad,” he said. “I know public school teachers who have gone out of their way to clothe and feed their students, to pay fees for college applications. These are the kinds of things people don’t know have been going on in public schools for years.”

At P.S. 76, on 121st Street, eight of the school’s 60 fourth graders from last year transferred to charter schools for the fifth grade. All of the eight students performed at grade level or higher on the state’s standardized math and reading tests.

It is not clear if charter schools are specifically recruiting more academically accomplished students or not. What many administrators suspect is happening, however, is that the public schools are left with more students who have greater needs than before, said Marie Vallone, one of P.S. 76’s assistant principals.

The New York State Department of Education’s School Accountability and Overview Reports released in mid-April support their hunch. According to the demographic data from the 2007-08 school year, Harlem’s charter schools are not serving students with the same level of need as the neighborhood’s zoned public schools. Two groups of students that often struggle to score highly on standardized tests–English language learners and those living in poverty–make up significantly smaller percentages of Harlem’s charter schools’ enrollment than they do at the area’s zoned schools.

The concentration of children in poverty remained higher in Harlem’s 45 traditional zoned schools compared to its charters. Last year, anywhere from 65 to 100 percent of students enrolled in Harlem’s zoned schools were eligible for free lunch, meaning their families qualified for public assistance.

By contrast, 10 of the 14 charters for which 2007-08 data was available had fewer than 65 percent of their students qualifying.

Citywide, 78 percent of the students enrolled in charter schools for the 2007-08 school year were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, said Jeff Maclin, spokesperson for the New York City Charter School Center. Parents of students who are eligible for reduced-price lunch have slightly higher annual incomes than students who qualify for free lunch.

But no Harlem charter school had more than 71 percent of its students qualifying for free lunch, while 41 of the area’s 45 zoned schools had student bodies where 71 percent or more of the children were eligible.

The same trends were true when it came to English language learners. Last year, in 10 of Harlem’s 14 charters, only one percent or less were children learning English. None of the 14 schools enrolled more than 10 percent of that population.

In 35 of the neighborhood’s 45 traditional schools, between 6 to 20 percent of students needed special English training. At P.S. 155 in East Harlem, 48 percent of the students are English language learners.

Citywide, less than 4 percent of charter school enrollees were English language learners last year, said Maclin.

Department of Education officials said charter schools need to work on correcting this disparity between the percentage of students learning English in their schools and the public schools. Melody Meyer, deputy press secretary for the Department of Education, said the department now requires newly authorized charters to provide a written plan for reaching out to the city’s non-English speaking students, in order to increase their enrollment.

While disparities between citywide charter and traditional public school enrollment are not as great, charters are not distributed evenly across the city. They are concentrated in neighborhoods like Harlem and the South Bronx, where the city’s poorest families live. Staten Island, the wealthiest of the five boroughs, will see its first charter school open in the fall.

Some Harlem residents believe the recent proliferation of new charter schools in the neighborhood has exacerbated divisions between neighbors over whether charters or public schools provide better opportunities for their children.

Results on the state’s English Language Assessment showed a higher proportion of charter schools’ students scoring at grade level or higher than students in the city’s traditional public schools. Charters’ critics argue it is easier to push scores higher when the schools serve populations that are not the same as those being served in the city’s zoned schools.

“I think it is pretty clear, if you have a population that is already higher achieving anyway that makes a big difference,” said Sam Coleman, a third grade teacher at P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and a member of the New York Collective of Radical Educators. His organization has been part of a coalition of teacher’s groups organizing conferences and events to challenge school closings and the proliferation of charter schools across the city.

“You also have to look at how much time they spend doing test prep,” Coleman said. “You can get kids to get higher test scores without teaching them anything if you’re teaching them tricks. But, then you’re not teaching relevant content. I don’t think that charters having higher test scores means anything about the quality of education their kids are getting.”

Whether students attending charter schools really have access to better educational opportunities, the fact that there are not enough seats in these schools for the parents who want to enroll their children has led to emotionally-heated confrontations between charter and traditional public school parents in Harlem.

“We’re back to divide and conquer,” said Harriet Barnes, Harlem’s Community Education Council President, about the intense battles that raged this year over placing charter schools in public schools slated to be closed down.

“We have African-American parents in District 5 fighting against each other,” said Barnes, “so the Department of Education can do whatever it wants to do.”

Aside from causing divisions between residents, critics argue that charter schools run the risk of turning neighborhood public schools into places where high needs students are isolated.

A mural greeting students and visitors at P.S. 46. Photo: Kyla Calvert/COVERING EDUCATION

A mural greeting students and visitors at P.S. 46. Photo: Kyla Calvert/COVERING EDUCATION

At P.S. 46, Young said charters had drawn away some the stronger students. However, thanks to parents who feel their children are safe at the school, “we’ve been able to maintain a number of strong students,” he said. Between the 2005-06 school year and last year, the percentage of students eligible for free lunch dropped slightly and the percentage of English language learners was nearly unchanged.

However, P.S. 194 and P.S. 241, two schools that were recently removed from the list of schools slated to close, have seen more dramatic changes. According to the current register information on the Department of Education’s Web site, English language learners now make up more than 24 percent of P.S. 241’s student body, up from 17 percent in the 2005-06 school year. Last year, 81 percent of the school’s students were eligible for free lunch, up from 72 percent the previous year.

At P.S. 194, 92 percent of the students were eligible for free lunch last year, up from 84 percent during the 2005-06 school year. Currently, just over 12 percent of the students are learning English, compared to 7 percent during the 2005-06 school year.

It is unclear what causes the differences in schools’ enrollment. “Traditional public schools may have stronger language programs in place, so charters feel no need to compete,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of politics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. It is also possible that the area’s charter schools may not receive the federal funding for free lunch programs for families on public assistance. Without the funding, charters would have no incentive to encourage parents to complete paperwork verifying their income levels.

Maclin pointed to a recent study of New York City charter school lotteries by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby that concluded that the city’s charters are not ‘creaming’ the most academically able students from the public school population. However, the pattern of Harlem charter schools enrolling fewer high-need students than the surrounding public schools was dubbed “cropping off” by researchers. Henig found the same pattern in his study of charter schools in Washington, D.C.

“There was no evidence of charter schools ‘creaming’ the most affluent kids from the public school system in D.C.,” said Henig. “But there was evidence of schools cropping off the highest expense students. These are students who are going to tend to need more counseling, have problems with absenteeism and are going to be more likely to cause disruption to the classroom as a result. If schools are going to meet the needs of these students, they will either have to raise or divert funds to provide those services instead of directing that spending to the classroom.”

While some neighborhood schools achieve impressive results on standardized tests with high-risk student populations, doing so is not without its difficulties. Schools with high concentrations of children with multiple risk factors including poverty face numerous obstacles.

“In a public school that loses higher achieving students and students who speak English as their native language what ends up happening is that you end up with a classroom that is full of kids who are struggling in one way or another,” said Coleman. “It turns into a tracking system, where charter schools are just the higher track. It’s great for the charter schools’ students, their teachers and their parents. But, it isn’t like they are creating smaller class sizes or hiring more teachers to support those struggling kids.”

The Portfolio Process Mon, 11 May 2009 17:52:07 +0000 Paul Stephens By Paul Stephens and Ami Cholia

Every year the students at Manhattan International High School produce portfolios of their best work and present it to a panel of teachers in place of the mandatory state Regents exams. For the students, who are all recent immigrants, the portfolio represents how far they’ve come from freshman year, when they spoke little to no English. Manhattan International is a member of a constortium of 60 schools in New York state that use portfolio-based assessment for their students.

Can We Buy Grades? Mon, 11 May 2009 17:15:24 +0000 Ami Cholia By AMI CHOLIA and JAMIE OPPENHEIM

Aylin Gonzales, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at M.S. 302, has spent $234.25 on clothes and shoes in the past eight months from money she earned for performing well on math and English tests in school.

Maria Rivera, also 12, has spent $200 on her favorite stores along Third Avenue in the Bronx, like Dr. J’s, Pretty Girl and Payless. Like Gonzalez, clothes and sneakers top her list of indulgences.

Gonzales and Rivera are both part of a citywide program called Spark, a privately funded program created in 2007 by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer for New York City’s public school system. It offers fourth and seventh-graders a chance to earn money for improving their scores on standardized tests.

Nationwide, as school districts try and come up with ways to reduce the achievement gap, the New York City school system is experimenting with whether rewarding good grades with gift certificates, cell phones, pizza parties and MP3 players will kick start achievement across the board.

The jury is still out on whether these programs work in either the short term or the long term. So far, many students that earn high grades report that they would have earned the grades with or without the cash incentive.

Both Gonzales and Rivera said that while the tests have helped them study harder on their vocabulary and math, that they would have studied anyway. To them, the money is merely an added perk. “I have been doing well in school before this year anyway,” said Gonzales.

The Sparks program is an experiment in itself, and with little information out on its successes — the final report on the program’s effectiveness will only be filed at the end of this academic year — educators are going by studies done on past initiatives. Several studies of similar programs in other cities show improvements in academic performances when reward incentives are given along with enhancement in teaching, but most studies show that incentives alone don’t bring out much of a change within the school environment.

A study conducted by the University of York and Johns Hopkins University in February of 2009 compared incentive-driven programs across the world. It found that while financial incentives for attendance and learning are worth trying in developed countries, there is little evidence indicating that the use of financial incentives to increase learning is effective elsewhere — unless the incentives are combined with improvements in teaching.

Similarly, a Stanford University study of 186 charter schools that utilize incentives showed that rewarding students or their teachers for passing rigorous examinations created positive results, though the results are shown to weaken when teachers are excluded or are not supportive of the idea.

In Spark’s case, coordinators chose 58 schools from over 300 schools that applied, all of which serve low-income and high-minority populations, said Spark spokeswoman Debra Wexler. Fourth-graders earn $5 for completing 10 standardized math and English tests each and can receive up to an additional $20 more per test based on their scores. This allows them to earn a total of $250 a year.

Seventh-graders earn $10 for taking each test and another $40 based on their scores, for a potential total of $500. The money the children earn is placed in bank accounts in the student’s name. While financial literacy classes for students are also supposed to be a component of the program, they have yet to begin.

Gonzales and Rivera average between $30 to $40 per test. And while she may be learning along the way, the real reason Gonzales said she is excited about the last two tests of the school year is because she wants to buy tickets to the Jonas Brothers concert.

The five computerized English and math tests are meant to prepare students for New York state standardized tests, where the questions get progressively harder based on every question the student answers correctly.

“It makes them familiar with the format of computerized testing,” said Mr. Larry Thornton, the special programs coordinator at M.S. 302 in the South Bronx. “That makes it easier when they take the actual tests.”

Funded by Mayor Bloomberg, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Starr Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, the Open Society Institute and AIG, Spark has a budget of $6 million, according to the Center of Economic Opportunity. So far, as of 2008, the program has handed out over $500,000 to 8,583 students. With AIG getting government funding, and with non-profits across the board receiving fewer donations, coordinators of the Spark program — like Mr. Thornton — aren’t sure if the program will even survive past its initial run.

“We would love to be a part of this again, but as of now we don’t know if they have enough funding,” he said.

Critics, however, believe that the only way for a child to truly learn is by internal motivation. A study performed by University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci found that once the incentive was taken away, children did not continue to learn because they weren’t internally motivated to do so. Deci gave two groups of college students building-block puzzles. While one group got a dollar for a successful puzzle, the other group got nothing. Deci said that after the experiment, those getting money were most likely to leave the puzzles. Deci said that cash incentives result only in a temporary change in behavior and that, for actual results to occur, comprehensive school reform was necessary.

Nishant Mehta, who runs the middle school at Alexandria Country Day School in Virginia, said, “This is external motivation — while positive reinforcement is good, external motivators over long periods of time develop poor habits, not lifelong learners.”

Similarly, Barbara Marinak, assistant professor of literacy and reading at Penn State University, who studied incentives to encourage third-graders to read and keep reading for a long period of time, argues that in the case of Spark, the money is a reward that is too far removed from academic achievement. She believes that if the rewards were more directly related to the achievement the incentives would have a more direct affect.

In a study Marinak recently conducted, she found that when she rewarded students for reading with a book they usually continued the activity, yet when she rewarded their behavior with something un-related to the desired activity, such as a puzzle, students would be far less likely to return to reading.

“Perhaps if the reward is closer to the activity you want to encourage that will create motivation,” Marinak said in a phone interview. “Intrinsic motivation comes with things such as choice and not external rewards.”

Thornton, however, believes that the program as an incentive to get his students to study. “Anything that can get these kids to learn to study, I’m all for it,” he said.

When asked if the money was better spent on resources, Thornton argues that schools are given a fairly substantial budget, and since most of the schools in this program are Title 1 schools (identified by the state as a school with a significant number of children living in poverty), they receive additional funds. He believes that the money is better spent on the children because many of their parents are very poor. “We have lots of kids from shelters at our school who are poor. If they can make some money and get things their parents cannot afford to get them, why not?”

Over 250 of the 300 seventh graders at M.S. 302 are part of the Spark program. Last year the school topped the program with the highest amount of money earned.

An average child at M.S. 302 earns about $250. Thornton said that he knew the program was working because the seventh-graders outperformed both the sixth and eight-grade students in the standardized tests last year, which wasn’t the case the year before. And though he admits he cannot directly attribute it to the incentives, he does believe they were a contributing factor.

In the 2007 school year at M.S. 302, 25 percent of the sixth-graders and 14 percent of eight-graders performed at grade level in English — as opposed to 26 percent of seventh-graders. Similarly in math, seventh-graders beat sixth and eight-graders with 42 percent of them performing at grade level, versus 38 percent of the sixth-graders and 41 percent of the eight-graders.

But do students continue to work hard even if the tangible incentives are gone? Neither Rivera nor Gonzales thinks the majority of their classmates would work as hard in the eighth grade once the incentives are gone. But test results for M.S. 302 tell a different story. The seventh-grade class from 2007 did better in eighth grade than they had done the previous year. 31 percent performed at grade level in the eighth grade in English and 58 percent in math (compared to 26 and 42 percent the previous year).

“Their personalities seemed to be formed in the seventh grade so it’s a perfect time to do it,” said Lisa Cullen, a seventh-grade teacher at M.S. 302. “I would ideally like them to study on their own anyway, but that doesn’t happen.”

Cullen said that the incentives help the most in the beginning of the school year because it helps the students get into the groove of the academic year.

“While you can argue whether it’s right or wrong to give students rewards is morally right, but the kids here seem to like the incentives. They seem to be motivated by them,” she said.

M.S. 302 gives its students paper money as an award for good behavior, attendance and grades. The students can then spend that money at the in-house school store on things like iPods, sneakers and smaller trinkets to something as expensive as a PlayStation. Rivera said that she has bought herself an iPod and will make sure she follows all the rules so she can get more stuff.

“We’re reinforcing positive behavior by giving kids what they want,” said Esther Torres, who runs the store. “We also bring kids here who don’t have any paper money to show them what they can earn.”

Jeff Henig, professor of political science and education at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, said that he was reluctant to write-off the incentive program as a waste because he said he knew a lot of affluent parents who paid their children for good grades.

“I think incentives are a pretty standard way of how we organize our society,” Henig said. “I think it makes sense, but incentives include taking kids out to dinner after a good report card. The issue is cash incentives.”

But not everyone is necessarily thrilled with the paying kids for grades system. Yolanda Saldana, a parent coordinator at P.S. 137 in Manhattan, said she is not sure if financial incentives create a lasting interest in learning. Instead, among the 33 fourth-graders participating in the Spark program, Saldana sees incongruous results.

“I hope the incentive is, the better I do the more I learn, and not the better I do the more I earn. Instead, we’re getting a lot of ‘Where’s my check,’” she said. “I don’t think it’s about achievement. I think it’s about the money, which makes it negative.”

Saldana said she would have more faith in the program if financial education piece was a more prominent part. Having someone from Spark speak to the students about investing in their future by creating a financial nest egg could give the program some more backbone, she said, but she hasn’t seen that happen.

While results from the Spark program will come out at the end of this year, schools across the country are continuing to experiment with different methods to narrow the discrepancies between low-income minorities and their more affluent white counterparts. Studies show marginal improvements and educators hold drastically different view points about the incentive programs.

But as long as it doesn’t hurt, Lisa Cullen from M.S. 302 doesn’t understand why we shouldn’t continue doing it.

Teaching jobs? What jobs? Mon, 11 May 2009 17:11:32 +0000


A website advertising teaching jobs.

A website advertising teaching jobs.

On Sunday two articles in separate publications painted contradictory portraits of the state of American teaching jobs. One offered bleak predictions in the form of layoffs, the other hopeful. 


            An article in the Sunday New York Times looked to future college graduates and their majors and the graduate programs prospective students applied to as indicators of where the direction the job market would turn now that careers in finance no longer looked appealing. Students were looking to several public service oriented fields: science, public policy, community organizing and teaching. The article mentioned that one Harvard senior, who had initially planned to work as an investment banker, was now looking to Teach for America as his post-graduation plan.

            Another article in Education Week on the state of Detroit’s schools described a much bleaker scene. The article discussed how the city planned to close 23 schools and layoff 600 teachers as a way to consolidate facilities in a school district that is rapidly losing students.  The district is facing a $303 million deficit. 

            Although Detroit may not be exemplary of most U.S. cities, it does signal an alarming disconnect between what is believed to be a safe career in times of a recession and the realities for many teachers.

            In California, more than 26,590 teachers received pink slips in 2009. In New York City, the prospect of teacher layoffs is up in the air.  Mayor Bloomberg said in late March that he would do his best to preserve teaching positions despite possibly having to make serious cuts to the city’s budget once the state budget gets approved. Additionally, Teach for America will reduce its number of New York City teaching positions from 500 to 350 next year.

            And in Monday’s Washington Post, the newspaper said that money from President Obama’s stimulus package going toward local school districts, $100 billion is proposed for education, may not be enough to prevent layoffs because of local budget shortfalls. In addition to job loss, another major worry that comes out of this predicament is that Obama may not have enough funds for the educational reforms he’s promised. And then the even bigger worry is that all that money slated for reforming education could be spent plugging leaks in school districts in need of serious overhauls.

            So, the question still remains: is teaching something that is still a “safe” profession during economic disasters, or is this the one of many indications that this financial meltdown is different than anything that’s come before.  

- Jamie Oppenheim 

A physical fitness snapshot Mon, 11 May 2009 17:06:59 +0000

Last Tuesday inside the gymnasium at East Brooklyn Congregations School for Public Safety and Law, six students stood in a row on the edge of the school’s basketball court and when prompted by a voice from a tape recorder ran to the middle of court. When the voice played again they stopped and ran back.

Other students sat along the wall of the gym and watched as students ran until they were too tired. The voice coming from the recorder kept prompting students to run and counted laps. After lap 10 most of the female students had dropped off. By lap 20, all but two male students kept running. At around lap 40, the final male student, slowed his run and then stopped and caught his breath. 

According to the pacer test rubric, as it’s called, a physically fit 16-year-old male student should running at least 61 laps. In a class of about 25 students, not one student passed the test. EBC physical education teacher William DeFreitas encouraged students to run despite their visible displays of lethargy.

 This exercise was part of the citywide FitnessGram, a test that measures aerobic capacity, muscular strength, endurance and flexibility to name a few other health indicators.

The test was adopted by the city in 2005 as a way to test physical fitness and was developed by the Cooper Institute of Aerobic Research, a Texas based fitness research institute.  Some of the other aspects of the test include abdominal curl ups, push-ups and the test also measures a student’s body mass index.  The FitnessGram takes into account a student’s sex, age and weight when determining his or her ranger of physical health.

According the pacer test, the number of laps a 16-year old girl needed to run to be considered on the low end of the healthy spectrum was 32. In the two groups of six runners that participated in the test, not one female student ran 20 laps.

It was unclear whether it was lack of interest or lack of ability that kept students from reaching acceptable fitness levels. One female student showed up to class wearing dress boots and had to run in those.  After all the students completed the test some students wanted to run again to improve their score. Still, no student achieved a passing score. 


— Jamie Oppenheim

Strides for special education Mon, 11 May 2009 17:00:44 +0000

 Hunter College professor Shirley Cohen presents on the ASD Nest model at the New York City Special Education Conference on Feb. 21. Photo by Andres Beckles, courtesy of Education Update.

Hunter College professor Shirley Cohen presents on the ASD Nest model at the New York City Special Education Conference on Feb. 21. Photo by Andres Beckles, courtesy of Education Update

The news rattled through the crowd of nearly 200 educators and parents at the annual New York City Special Education Conference at Hunter College.

One middle school and 14 elementary schools are now providing a special model of early intervention for students with autism spectrum disorder, said Hunter College professor Shirley Cohen. The growth surprised the audience of special education experts, who are generally unaccustomed to good news when it comes to increased services.

The model, “ASD Nest,” aims to meet the needs of higher functioning children along the autism spectrum. These special classrooms integrate children with autism spectrum disorders with normally developing children. Educators and therapists specially trained in autism spectrum disorders teach alongside general education teachers, using multiple strategies.

Ten years ago, only four out of every 10,000 children were diagnosed with autism, explained Cecilia McCarton, founder and executive director of the McCarton School, a not-for-profit foundational school in Manhattan for 24 children with autism spectrum disorders. Now, she said, one out of every 150 is placed on the spectrum.

“One shoe does not fit all children,” said McCarton, “just as one approach does not fit them all for education.” Rather, an integrated model for education, unifying the many skills and disciplines long associated with special education should be tried. The ASD model fits that bill. It employs everything from applied behavior analysis to speech/language pathology, occupational therapy and sensory integration to reach children with autism.

The tone of the conference was one of joy, characterized best by Dr. Pola Rosen, the founder and editor of Education Update, which sponsored the conference. “I salute all of you here in this room,” she said. “We’ve come a long way.”

— Jodi Broadwater