NYC Department of Education Releases a Social Media Guide for Students That Says…Nothing?

A lot of local media press is swirling around the new social media guide put out by the NYC Department of Education this week.  At first glance that sounds great.  Administration is stepping in to help kids navigate social media, provide tips and guidance and empower kids to make smarter choices online – or so you’d think.

But in fact if you read it, it is not a guide – it is a set of cliché ridden guidelines.  Complete with links to multiple Chancellor’s Regulations – because there’s nothing kids won’t enjoy more than reading the A-831 regulation to understand peer sexual harassment.

This guide contains such gems as this advice if you are cyber-bullied and would like to report it to the adult in charge at your school,”If you are not sure who your school’s Respect for All Liaison is, please look for their name on the RFA posters.”

And this warning about crossing the personal-school life boundary, “Sometimes, personal social media use, including off-hours use, may result in disruption at school and the school may need to get involved. This could include disciplinary action such as a parent conference or suspension.”

In other words, this is NOT a social media guide, it is a set of regulatory guidelines, and we shouldn’t be giving the NYC Department of Ed a big hurrah for publishing them.  They are not curriculum or actual teaching tools.

The good news is that there is a media literacy bill right now in the New York Legislature that would mandates the Department of Ed will develop standards and provide resources for incorporating media and social media literacy in K-12 curriculum.  And, it will make teacher training available for media literacy as well.
https://www.facebook.com/rebeccalevey/posts/10202911221120416?stream_ref=10

THIS is worth your time in sharing and talking about so we can actually create media savvy kids.

Million Dollar PTAs – It’s Not All About the Money

This past Sunday The New York Times published an article, Way Beyond Bakesales: The $1 Million Dollar PTA, and my Co-President and I were featured in front of the PS 87 mural.  We’ve been waiting to see how this article would shape up since we gave Kyle Spencer a tour of our school a few weeks ago.  It’s not an easy decision to talk to the press about our PA fundraising because it’s so easily taken out of context and on the surface it looks absurd.  Since Kyle herself is a public school parent at a fairly affluent public school, and the articles she’s written before on the subject seem fair enough, we figured we should show her our absurdly run down, crowded school and be able to explain how and why we use the money we raise as we do.  But, as with anything, it’s incredibly hard to really get a full picture from a brief article – especially one that is meant to attract as much buzz and comments as possible.  Luckily for me, I have my own platform to write about what really goes on and why we raise this money.

First, the issue that bothered every parent at PS 87 – we don’t raise $1.57 million dollars.  We raise about $700K.  An enormous number to be sure, but no where near $1.57 million.  That other $800K or so, that’s our after school program.  It’s pretty amazing, was started over 30 years ago by a group of PS 87 parents, and has about 450 students enrolled across the 5 days.  Parents pay for the classes just like they would any after school program and the program runs on those fees.  No fundraising, no profit.  But we report our income as one to the IRS.  Hence, the total reported on GuideStar.

Second, as I tell all reporters who call us about this issue, I really wish they would look at the official DOE budgets for the schools in question.  Believe it or not the budgets are fairly transparent.  (Though don’t even try to ask a DOE official to explain the budget – they can’t.) No reporter EVER does this!!! Click on over to the budget.  It’s fun!  It’s actually awful, but since my Co-President and I have spent the last 2 years pouring over it, it passes as a good time for us.  Let’s take that bottom number, heck, I’ll even round up to an even $6 Million.  Now let’s divide that by the number of kids in our school:  A super comfy 963.  What does that leave you? $6,230/student.  Take that Horace Mann!   Now, for extra credit go ahead and plug in another school – any school, maybe one that doesn’t raise the kind of money we raise, and see what their per student funding looks like.  Told you this was fun.  Almost as much fun as charting the budget cuts over the last 5 years.  25% but who’s counting.  (Oh yeah, that would be me)

Third – We pay the full price for every program we bring in.  That sounds perfectly normal right?  Well, no.  Many schools in the city and beyond qualify for arts, chess, music, wellness and other programs for free.  And they should.  These foundations raise money from outside sources so they can provide enrichment in our public schools where it’s desperately needed, especially since these are the first programs to go in budget cuts.  But, these programs charge schools like ours full price.  What does that mean?  If we want the Wellness In the Schools healthy lunch program we pay $25K for it.  If we want a coach at recess we pay $30K for it.  If we want chess we pay $30K for it (for only 2 grades, I should add.)  And we are happy to do it, because we can and because our parent body and school have decided it’s a priority.  But if we don’t raise the money we don’t get those programs.

What else wouldn’t we have?  Books, paper, cafeteria tables, most of our chairs and desks, text books, art supplies, substitute teachers (what a luxury), and an endless litany of other things that once upon a time were the responsibility of a government to provide in the name of public education.

So what is the real problem here?  As I’ve written before, raising this kind of money comes with all sorts of problems.  Does it let the city and state off the hook?  I hope not.  And that’s the other bone I have to pick – not with the article but with many of the comments.  If there’s one thing our parent body can’t be accused of it’s being politically apathetic.  Sometimes my Co-President is the ONLY one at all of those ridiculous meetings that the DOE holds at night, where they pretend to care what parents think.  And we are so in the face of the Chancellor, our elected officials, Albany, hell, we’ve even been to DC on more than one occasion, that one fine DOE official sent an email to someone high up I won’t name and told them to tell my Co-Prez to “back the fuck off.” Only he cc’d my Co-Prez by mistake.  OOPS!

The reason we raise so much money is not because people can write a check.  If it were that easy we’d have no fundraising committee and wouldn’t have hundreds of volunteers spending ridiculous amounts of energy and time planning, recruiting for and executing events all year long.  Parental engagement at this level is exhausting and most of our parents work full-time.  One of the most insulting aspects to the ignorant comments was this assumption that the vast majority of parents at our school can afford private school and expect the same experience at their public school.  How being able to make a donation of $1K or even $5K to a school is the same as affording $40K to a private school is beyond me.  But, aside from that – it’s absurd that parents wanting art, gym and text books is somehow akin to privilege.  Everyone should be outraged that this is a reality, not that parents expect this for their children.

I could go on.  And in person, trust me, I do.  But what I want in the end is for everyone to realize that issues like PTA fundraising are NOT the real issue when it comes to inequality in our schools.  Not by a long shot.  Start with the incredibly shameful lack of commitment to quality public early education and Pre-K – that is the big division that is the hardest to ever make up.  You would have thousands of kids entering Kindergarten ready and able to learn and start to recognize letters and numbers – imagine that.  And then take it from there – to the lack of teacher training, kids living in poverty, lack of healthcare, on and on.  Looking to a handful of PTAs to figure out a way to share their fundraising instead of asking Cuomo to pass the millionaire tax to fund our schools at adequate levels is absurd.  And what a gift this whole “debate” has been to those powers-that-be.  When is the New York Times going to do that story?  That’s the real million dollar question.

No More Paper! No More Books! No More Teachers…

It’s the annual song of the last day of school right?  Only this time it’s not about summer it’s about the budget!  Yesterday we were informed by our NYC Schools budget liaison that paper is not a necessity in the classroom.  He didn’t really mean that of course but he couldn’t say what the DOE really means which is lose some teachers, create bigger class sizes to the union max (32 kids in grades 1-5) and then you will have money left over for…paper!

This is the position we find ourselves in now, caught in the middle between the mayor’s fight over LIFO (Last In First Out) and the reality of educating our kids.  Are there teachers we all know should go and I’d gladly trade in for a ream of paper?  Yes.  Can we? No.  But is that the kids’ fault or the parents’ fault?  No.  And parents don’t want to be in that fight pitting us against teachers.  That is a battle that needs to be fought at the political and union level.  Using the budget to force an issue that only hurts the kids in the classrooms is cruel.

This year NYC schools will begin to adopt the Common Core Standards.  This will be a slow process and having looked at the Common Core, well, obsessed over the Common Core, for the last 6 months, I can’t even imagine how a teacher could begin to teach in a completely new way and have a bigger class size than ever before.  And then don’t forget at least 20% but possibly up to 40 % of their evaluation will be based on the standardized tests that will begin to integrate the Common Core Standards goals.  How would you like someone to increase your workload by a third, give you an entirely new methodology and goal, and then provide no supplies to carry out your job but base 40% of your performance review on how the people you are responsible for perform?  That’s crazy but it is what we are asking of our teachers.

We all know many of the teachers aren’t going to make it under this system.  Some of them have deserved to go for a very long time, but many are just finding their way and will be crushed under this implementation.  There has to be a better way.  Our kids can’t be the ones who suffer because the politicians are trying to prove a point.  We can’t have kids without paper.  We can’t run a school without paper. And we all know there are schools where the parents will be able to pick up the slack, to a point.  And there are those that cannot.  But in the wealthiest nation in the world, in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, despite the recession, to have schools choosing between a teacher or paper should be an embarrassment of epic proportions.  Is this what we want to show the world?  Are we really going to talk about raising standards when parents are running around buying soap and paper towels for the bathrooms?  This is shameful.  And we all know the money is somewhere.

When I attended the Mom Congress in DC and met Secretary Duncan he looked at me like I was crazy when I told him the parents at our school paid for the teacher professional development.  “Do you know how much money the federal government spends on PD for teachers?” he asked.  “Well, where is it? ” I asked back.  I never got that answer.

I wonder what he’d say if I asked him where the money is for paper?

Why Aren’t Parents Rioting in the Streets?

PREPARATION: Education Budget Cuts Protest

Image by infomatique via Flickr

This is the question an educator asked me yesterday.  A private school educator in New York City.  We were among over 200 people invited to Barry Diller’s IAC headquarters in Chelsea to have lunch and listen to the presentation for a brand new private school in Manhattan called Avenues The World Schools.  I wasn’t invited to this lunch as an NYC blogger, I was invited as the Co-President of the Parents’ Association of my daughters’ NYC public school and went there with my Co-President.  To be honest, it’s hard to explain this sort of event to people who have never been to a NYC media and money filled event.  This was not red carpet, this was not celebrity – this was the kind of thing that reminds you where the real power lies in this world.  Money.  Bankers, publishers and mostly bankers.  I haven’t been to something like this in more than 10 years – since I worked for a billionaire family here in NYC.  It made me sad.

That sounds weird right?  Here I was at an event where some of the top educators in NYC were pitching their new school.  I happened to be sitting at the table with the new head of their lower school and their head of the entire school.  These are serious people who have spent their life in education – in private, uber-privileged education.  Joel Klein, our ex-Chancellor was there and all I could think was he’s got some nerve.  You see, part of this school’s pitch was to show the incredible growing demographic of children under 5 in the city and the dynamic increase in the number of families staying in the city rather than leaving when school-age hits.  The irony to watching these men use these numbers to sell their school hit my co-president and me in the face.  For the last 4 years public school parents have been trying desperately for the Department of Education (DOE) to recognize this fact but they staunchly denied it.  As schools have become overcrowded and people are now waitlisted for their PUBLIC school the DOE has shrugged and said you can always take your 5 year old on the subway to another school.  Those numbers this school was using to show the need for more seats in Manhattan?  Those were our numbers – the ones we culled independently of the DOE – the ones that they finally admitted were true after years of arguing.  And there was Joel Klein smiling away in the front as these numbers flashed on the screen.

So after they show us the 30% increase in school age child growth what do you think their answer is?  Let’s create a school where the tuition will be $50,000 for kindergarten (yes you read that right.)  A for-profit school costing 100s of millions of dollars.  I won’t go into the curriculum goals or the giant presentation of what the building will look like when it’s completely renovated, etc.  The whole thing just left me sick.  And sad.  I keep coming back to the fact that it made me sad.  When I saw that educator I spoke about in the beginning I knew she’d have a good perspective on the school.  She herself had been involved in the creation of a new private school in Manhattan a few years back – and she still heads a large private preschool group.  We talked about how all schools have these goals and lofty ambitions but at the end of the day any new school is going to take whomever can write a check.  What I wasn’t prepared for her to say was “I don’t understand why parents aren’t rioting in the streets.”  And she meant it.  And she was right.

The same day I went to this event to see the future school which will educate the most privileged children in NYC who already have every advantage imaginable Governor Cuomo announced the steepest cuts to education EVER in New York State.  Most of it cutting the city’s education aid.  I sat in a room full of people eating petit fours and drinking wine who all earnestly talked about the dire state of education and how our children are falling behind in the world – so they were building a school that would service those for whom none of this was true.  And at the same time I thought about the teacher lay offs, crumbling buildings, slashed arts programs and lack of basic supplies that were about to become even more entrenched realities.  The NYC public school system has 1.2 million children in it.  That means there are at least 1.8 million parents I’m thinking who should storm Bloomberg’s office and Cuomo’s office and the White House and demand better.

But here’s the one thing that got me most of all.  In that beautifully windowed room, with gorgeous centerpieces and ladies in Armani and men who have been running the world forever there was a lot of passion about education.  There really was.  That is what made me sad.  Imagine if these resources and talents – and money – were being put towards public education.  Not for charter schools, not for tiny little programs – but a serious discussion about what it’s going to take to change our school system.   And I’m not going to talk here about unions – I know.  Trust me I know.  I used to joke about imagining a city where private school was not an option – how quickly the schools would change if those with the most power to change them had to be part of the system.  Now I’m not joking.  The inequality is so gross and glaring and this event just focused that to such a sharp degree that I almost feel like it’s hopeless.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Look at Egypt this week – now read this article in Think Progress about the greater income inequality in the US.  Then ask yourself – WHY aren’t parents rioting in the streets?

This post was republished, with permission, in the Washington Post. They made me sound a little nicer.  Thanks.

I also have a problem with people telling parents HOW they should be involved.  Check out this post about Thomas Friedman’s misguided op-ed for more.

Parental Involvement in Schools – How Thomas Friedman Missed the Point

This past week Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, U.S.G and P.T.A, about parental involvement making a difference in student achievement.  When I first read the article I yawned.  Tell me something I don’t know.  Kids do better when parents are involved?  Of course.  Kids do better when parents lay down boundaries, set expectations and create study spaces and structure?  Obviously.  None of this is new or interesting to me.  I’m not sure what his point was other than to say American parents have become lazy while first generation parents are way more effective at encouraging and pushing their children to excel.  Again – snore.  What was actually interesting to me in this article was how off the mark and off point it really was when trying to talk about the role of the P.T.A.

As Co-President of the Parents Association of my daughters’ large NYC public elementary school I have seen the benefits and limits of parental participation.  As budget cuts have slashed every cent of our school budget down to the very core – teachers and staff only – parents have had to pick up the slack to pay for everything from paper and supplies to substitute teachers to professional development for teachers.  Our parents are in our school everyday – helping in classrooms, overseeing a new healthy school lunch program, raising money, coordinating assemblies, dealing with overcrowding and rezoning issues – the extent of the involvement goes way beyond the normal into areas that used be covered by actual Department of Education employees but now have to be done purely by volunteers.  Yet, with all of this involvement the one thing Thomas Friedman harps on is perhaps the hardest to achieve – the extension of the school into the home rather than the other way around – and this cannot fully lie at the feet of parents.

Parents can only be as effective as a school lets them be.  A parent cannot help with homework if they themselves do not understand it.  Parents cannot help a child reach academic goals if those goals have not been clearly defined by administration and teachers.  Parents cannot be the regulators of technology in the home unless they have a thorough understanding of how that technology needs to be used for classwork vs. fun.  All of these aspects of helping a child succeed take some teaching from school to parent.  If schools truly want a partnership with parents then they have to be willing to put in the time and thought to let parents know what is expected of them, and the tools to make it happen.

Yes, there has to be some parental responsibility.  I am constantly working and talking with other bloggers about social media and technology in our children’s lives.  I often find myself repeating the same mantra, “Parenting doesn’t stop at the screen.”  So no your kids shouldn’t have their cellphones near them when they work at home, and there are endless ways to track your child’s online activity.  But, in my mind, while parents need to be pushing their kids to excel academically they also need to do something bigger – VOTE.  Vote for candidates that actually have a plan for education, not just charter school mania and Race To the Top.  Show up – at parent teacher conferences, at PTA meetings, at community board meetings – and make your voice heard.

Hold people accountable.  Your kids are a good place to start but don’t stop there. Hold administration and teachers accountable for providing clear and consistent academic goals and curriculum information (we’re still working on this at our school).  And hold yourself accountable for providing a space where your child can do their work, for making it clear that you expect your child to do their best, and to impart to your kids that school is important and that learning is something that never ends.   But, most of all, hold your elected officials accountable for funding schools properly, for giving teachers professional development funding instead of just putting all the money into evaluation systems and for giving our kids and parents the resources to learn at school and at home.

That’s the true power of PTAs – banding parents together to create a deafening voice that cannot be ignored.  Thomas Friedman may be sounding the bell of laziness and apathy (which is ironic since every other day we are told there is an epidemic of helicopter parents) but everyday I see the tremendous efforts of parents to enrich our school, thank and encourage our teachers and make public officials take schools seriously.  I don’t think we need the Education Secretary to tell parents how to get involved, I think we need the Education Secretary to look at successful PTAs and learn from us instead.

Look Out Ahead: Too Many Kids, Too Few Schools : Westside Independent

Look Out Ahead: Too Many Kids, Too Few Schools : Westside Independent

I’m up on my virtual soapbox.  How bad is the school overcrowding situation on the Upper West Side?

Check out my latest parenting column in the Westside Independent.

It’s All About the Teacher

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week.  I’m sure there’s a Hallmark card out there for it, but the only reason I know about it is through the various teachers and educators I follow on twitter.  (Those tech minded teachers are a very chatty and resourceful bunch!)  It’s funny to me that Teacher Appreciation Week is the week leading up to Mother’s Day.  After all, once our children enter Kindergarten they spend more hours per day with their teachers then they do with us moms.

I have twins and that affords me a certain look into classrooms that other parents do not have.  Every year I am comparing two teachers, two approaches to curriculum, two very different classrooms.  My daughters’ school gives quite a bit of autonomy to the teachers so even though they have to cover the same curriculum and reach the same math and literacy goals the teachers have a lot of leeway within those boundaries.  Every year I hold my breath as the first couple of months roll out and the truth about the classroom is revealed.  My daughters are in second grade so I’ve been through 4 years now of watching the same grade unfold in different ways.  (we separated our daughters in pre-K, but that’s a whole other post!)

Almost every year my daughters have been in classrooms that are different, but equal.  With the exception of one horrendous year (the year that shall not be named…) they have both enjoyed their teachers, the learning materials, the field trips and ended up in the same place academically in the end.  I’m telling you someone should use my daughters as research material since they are identical twins and have the same academic abilities you can really suss out the quality of the teaching and its impact on them.  But, in my own little private at home research what I’ve come to realize is that the teacher trumps everything.

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