Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In case you missed it...

The Boston Globe had a story recently about BPS preparing for budget cuts, thanks to less local aid from the state. It looks like they're expecting a $100 million shortfall in their $800 million budget. Hundreds of teachers and staff members could lose their jobs. According to the Globe:

The district will collect budgets from individual schools in mid-January and submit the district's budget to the School Committee in February. The School Department will not cut spending across the board, but base budgets on the size of the school, level, and specific needs.

New musical instruments for Higginson, Curley

The Higginson and Curley have each received $30,000 worth of new musical instruments through VH1 Save the Music Foundation and Comcast, according to BPS.

In exchange for the flutes, clarinets, trombones, trumbets, saxophones, and percussion instruments, the schools agree to pay the salaries of at least one instrumental music teacher.

Amid all the budget cuts that are surely coming down the pike, this is great news for these two schools. I hope other schools are able to hang on to their instrumental music programs next year. Ideally, I would really like my son to attend a school where he can learn to play a musical instrument.

Please not the drums.

Friday, December 19, 2008

BTU pilot school preview - Dec. 15

This is one time when I don’t envy parents making a school choice for their children for next fall. I visited the future BTU pilot school in the Parkman building (currently Young Achievers) this week, and while I think it has potential, there’s a lot that’s still up in the air, like hiring all of the teachers. They anticipate hiring their teachers in late January.

Curriculum is another big TBD since they want the curriculum to come from the teachers. Still, it’s not very reassuring. And I’m hearing the same thing from parents around town.

Next year, they’ll have a single strand for K1-2 and then two classes for grade 6 to deal with all the area elementary schools that end at grade 5 and want another option for middle school. Eventually, the BTU will be a K-8 school. When they are at capacity, they anticipate having three sixth grade classes and two classes for seventh and eighth grade as children leave for exam schools.

Their school day will run 8:30-3:00 with an after-school program run by the Hyde Park YMCA.

They aim to provide more of a liberal arts education. They want to offer a world language, likely Spanish or Chinese, depending on who they hire. I think science and social studies were going to be part of the curriculum.

There won’t be a principal. It will be entirely teacher run. Two teachers are expected to teach part-time and do administrative tasks the rest of the time.

Next year, with the small number of students, it will be difficult to bring in specialists, but they are trying to have physical education, visual arts, and music.

The building currently has a library/computer lab and it sounds like the planning committee wants to keep that configuration.

I will say that I was fond of the Parkman building. The creaky wooden floors made me feel like I was walking around an old house museum. If Wikipedia to be trusted, the city bought the land on which the school was built in 1896.

Naturally, an old building can be a mixed bag. Like in other older schools, the water isn’t drinkable, so they bring in bottled water. The heating system is persnickety. The building has a slightly maze-like feel. They put up a lot of signs in the hallway to direct you to major landmarks in the school (gym, cafeteria, etc.).

The playground is great, much shadier than others I’ve seen. I even saw a compost pile along the side of the school. I love a good compost pile. They didn’t mention whether the compost was also going to make the move to Mattapan with Young Achievers.

The BTU school doesn’t plan on utilizing the St. Andrews’ building across the street like Young Achievers did, according to this JP Gazette article. At first, they’ll probably have more than enough space in the Parkman building.

I’m withholding judgment on this school for another year. I’ll definitely visit again next winter to see how they’ve handled the transition.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Number of schools on wait list expands from two to three

Wednesday night, the Boston School Committee approved expanding the number of wait list schools from two to three. (This discussion is about an hour into the video.)

From my point of view, this is an excellent development.

This means parents with incoming kindergartners don’t have to be as strategic with the first two schools that they list. For instance, if you were to put two very popular schools as your top two choices, (e.g., Kilmer and Lyndon), but you were assigned to a school lower down on your list, you would be waitlisted only at those two schools. By definition, popular schools have long wait lists, so your chances of getting into the school via the wait list were very small. So before this change, parents had to be strategic by putting at least one slightly less popular school in their top two to boost the chances of getting in on the wait list.

Previously, parents with children entering grades 1-12 were able to be on three wait lists if they weren't assigned to one of the schools they chose. This change just extends that policy to all families, whether or not they were assigned a school of their choice.

Now with three wait list schools, I feel like I wouldn't have to be quite as strategic with my top three choices.

Craig Chin, BPS assistant chief operating officer, said that by allowing more students to be on more wait lists, it’s going to increase the number on the wait lists for the more popular schools. He said that Young Achievers had 125 students on the K1 wait list. This change would add 25 more students to the wait list.

In other news, it sounds like they want to revisit assignment issues in the spring.

Superintendent Carol Johnson mentioned that she met with Roslindale parents for two hours earlier this week to discuss the K-8 options for parents in K-5 schools. She didn’t say what came out of that meeting and I’d be eager to hear from anyone who attended.

BPS budget crunch

On Wednesday night, the Boston School Committee got an update on the budget and the financial crisis. You can watch a video of the meeting here.

In short, it ain’t pretty. They're likely looking at a reduction in appropriations and increased costs. “All options have to be on the table,” said John McDonough, chief financial officer for BPS. “There are no sacred cows.”

School principals have been told to anticipate budget reductions from 5-15% for the next fiscal year. BPS plans to release school budgets on Friday. I expect that as we go into registration in January, we'll begin to hear more details that might affect parents' choices. Good questions to ask principals on future tours.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Showcase of Schools - Dec. 13

I entered the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury with that deer-in-headlights look. It was a lot to take in. All of the schools in all zones were represented, and I visited most tables. By the time I was ready to leave several hours later, my bag was several pounds heavier and my eyes felt pretty glazed over.

When I came home and plopped my goodie bag full of school brochures and handouts on the couch, my husband said, “Wow. That’s a lot of recyclables.” Close, but not quite. This would have been more accurate: “Wow. That’s a lot of stuff that will sit in the corner of our office for a year and then be recycled.”

I took this opportunity to investigate some schools I hadn’t yet visited. The Haley folks had a boat in their booth. Kids built boats that actually float and carry people. Man, I had trouble building a proper picture frame in eighth-grade shop, much less a boat. I’m going to try to attend their open house on Thursday, but I’m not certain I can squeeze it into my schedule. That one may have to wait until January.

I spent quite a bit of time speaking with the Haynes Early Education Center. I hadn’t seriously considered enrolling my son in K0 next year, but after speaking with the Haynes people, I gave it some more thought. The Haynes is the only school that offers K0 in the west zone.

My notes aren’t entirely clear, but it looks like there are 13-15 regular ed spots in K0,15 in K1, and 25 in K2. There are also spaces for special education and bilingual students. Special education students are taught alongside regular education students, while bilingual students have their own classrooms. The K0 curriculum appears quite similar to that of K1.

In addition, all students at Haynes can learn violin, which is pretty darn cool, but I can’t imagine what a 3-year-old learning violin would sound like, much less a room full of 3-year-olds. My eardrums hurt thinking about it.

In the end, I don’t think I’ll enter the lottery for K0 next year. We’re very happy at our preschool, and as much as I’d like to save money on tuition next year, I think it’s probably more important for us to minimize the number of school transitions at this age. Honestly, I’m not too keen on bussing my 3-year-old all the way out to Blue Hill Ave. I also feel like there are probably other Boston parents who don’t have access to quality early education programs who would be better served by the Haynes.

Toward the end of my afternoon at the showcase, I discovered a booth for Boston Navigator. It’s a website that locates after-school programs throughout the city by a child’s age and zip code. Right now, they don’t include 4-year-olds or before-school programs.

In my view, the showcase is definitely an optional event, but it’s good if you haven’t done any school tours and want the quick and dirty on a bunch of schools at once.

Teach for America coming to Boston

WBUR reported this morning that two dozen teachers from Teach for America will be coming into underperforming Boston schools next school year. They didn’t mention which schools.

BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson also addressed the recent report card from the Boston Foundation, saying that the achievement gap and graduation rates were her biggest concerns.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Curley school preview - Dec. 11

This was the school preview that wasn’t. We had to leave soon after the introductory remarks because I could tell my son was headed for a world-class meltdown, and I didn’t want to be disruptive. So I grabbed the last Kindergarten packet (in Spanish) and beelined for the door.

He didn't disappoint. As soon as we opened the doors outside, “Up! I don’t want to walk! I DON’T WANT TO WAAAAALK!” That continued the entire three blocks to our car. He’s pushing 35 pounds so he’s beyond the point where I can easily carry him (for three blocks in the rain).

I didn’t get a head count, but this was a large tour group, possibly up to 50 parents.

So as not to leave you with a post completely devoid of school information, I’m posting my notes from a Curley parent’s presentation at a West Zone Parents Group meeting last month, supplemented with information from my packet.

The Curley was two separate schools until last year, when they merged into a K-8 system. The upper school is on Centre Street, and the lower school is on Pershing. The two buildings are connected by a hallway. Co-principals run the schools. The parent said that the merger has made the middle school feel more like a part of the community than it had in the past. In total, there are about 740 students at the Curley with two classes per grade plus an ESL class. They have advanced work beginning in fourth grade with some French instruction. I'm not sure if the French is for all students or just advanced work.

Because they have so many students and used to be two separate schools, they have two cafeterias, two gyms, two libraries, two art rooms, you get the idea.

Their special subjects include art twice a week, and music, gym, and science once a week. I have in my notes that they also have a drama and dance teacher, so I assume that’s a special too (these notes are a month old and not exactly fresh in my head).

The Curley is a Superintendent’s School. This means that the Curley is among those deemed to be at the high risk of state intervention unless they improve student performance. So they have 20 children instead of 22 per class in the youngest grades. They get an extra hour of instruction (8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.). And they get a full-time family and outreach coordinator. They have one more year with this status. If they lose that money, they will likely shorten the day because of teachers’ salaries.

For more information, you can check out their parent-maintained website. Some of the information in the packet is also posted on the website.

They’re getting a new playground soon through the Boston Schoolyard Initiative and are over designs right now. Here is the master plan.

Although it would be nice to be in a K-8 school to avoid the dreaded middle school transition, the Curley isn’t high on my list simply because it’s nearly 5 miles from our house. I’d prefer something closer to home. Nonetheless, I’ll try to attend a later school preview to get a better feel for the place… sans screaming child.

Boston’s Education Pipeline: A Report Card

The Boston Foundation has released an illuminating report called Boston’s Education Pipeline: A Report Card. There is a lot of data crammed in that PDF. My head hurts. I will say I learned quite a bit about Boston’s demographics and the challenges facing the school system, including nearly 50% of households where English isn’t the primary language spoken, a declining number of children in the city, and white flight.

They note that there has been little progress for several important indicators in the past five years, such as third graders being able to read at grade level.

One of the risk factors they mentioned was student mobility. I had seen the student mobility stats on schools’ individual report cards, but I didn’t know specifically what they meant. The mobility rate is the transfers in and out as a percentage of total enrollment. Makes sense. K-8 schools had a much lower mobility rate than K-5 or 6-8 schools. Pilot schools had the lowest mobility rate at 9.4%. If you don’t have kids moving in and out all the time, you’re likely to have a more stable school community.

If you don’t have time to read the whole report -- Lord knows I don’t -- there is a very handy spreadsheet appendix that lists every BPS school and their school characteristics, student support, risk factors, MCAS scores, amenities (e.g., library, renovated school yards, students per computer). My earlier link to the appendix didn't work, so my advice is to go to this press release and click on the hyperlink "comprehensive data" in the fifth paragraph.

Here was a little nugget -- in a section of the report where they discuss the school system's $76 million transportation budget, they note that the school system could save money if schools improved throughout the city and parents opted for schools closer to their homes. "As the BPS increases school quality and expands the range of choice in every part of the City, it may be time to market quality schools close to home." The superintendent tried to do this this year by increasing the walk zone preference from 50% to 60% but she was met with resistance, so it stayed at 50%. I doubt this subject is closed.

The report lists the schools that made Annual Year Progress in total or for subgroups in the 2007 MCAS in English Language Arts and Math. The West Zone schools on the list include Beethoven, Philbrick, Bates, Kilmer, and Hernandez.

The report also gives a quick overview of Superintendent Carol Johnson’s Pathways to Excellence plan and Acceleration Agenda, if you’re not familiar with those.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bates school preview - Dec. 5

It took me five minutes to walk to the Bates from my house, including waiting for the traffic light to change. Upon my arrival, I pulled the door of the main entrance and found it to be locked. I waited around awkwardly before seeing the buzzer to the right. This is the first school I’ve encountered where you have to be buzzed in. (Edited to add: Apparently this is a common feature in many BPS schools. I just hadn't noticed until now. So much for my brilliant powers of observation. I think parents tend to arrive in packs and hold the doors for one another.)

Bates teaches about 300 students, with two strands of nearly every class, minus K1 and fifth. They also have an advanced work program for fourth and fifth graders.

There is only one K1 classroom, which is new this year. Eight of those K1 students are regular ed, and the other seven are special ed. There’s one teacher and one paraprofessional. Physically, it’s a smaller space than the K2 classrooms. On the K2 level, there are 44 open seats, not including the eight regular ed K1 students moving up.

Their special classes include music, science, computers, physical education, and literacy enrichment. Currently, students have weekly PE, but the principal said she’s going to try to formally increase students’ physical activity next year (maybe another PE class?). Unfortunately, there isn’t a dedicated science classroom. The science teacher goes to the regular classroom, or if necessary, does experiments in the auditorium.

The Bates also lacks a library. The principal, who’s in her first year there, said she just wrote a grant for new books, and they’re trying to make room for a little library in the building.

The before- and after-school programs are run by the Y at the Bates. The Y also has a program where you can drop off your child (at the Y) during the summer and on snow days. That could be very useful for days when I need to work from home. The Y doesn’t take kids under 5, so K1ers have to be bussed over to the Roslindale Community Center’s after-school program. The RCC doesn’t have a before-school program. After-school music lessons – mostly piano – are offered through Artisan Music Studios at the Bates.

Through Technology Goes Home, fourth- and fifth-graders get free computer instruction, along with their parents.

Their playground is relatively new, and when the weather gets cold, there is an auditorium for indoor activities.

On the plus side is location. Like I said, I live really close. On the minus side is location. I may catch flack for pointing this out, but the Bates is across the street from the Washington-Beech public housing project. Overall, that development is relatively quiet, but you occasionally hear of a few bad apples. The brick buildings are being replaced by mixed-income townhouses and apartments within the next few years. It’s just something to be aware of. You may remember there was an incident about a year ago where the Bates and Conley schools went into lockdown because of a shooting that happened a few blocks away. Some guys were driving back from a funeral and were shot at in their car, which eventually came to a stop near Washington and Beech.

All that said, the school itself seemed very orderly, clean, and safe. Obviously, it’s in our walk zone, and I think I would feel okay sending my son there.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Philbrick school preview - Dec. 2

I have to stop torturing myself by visiting schools that start at K2. I would really like my son to enter BPS in K1. So that eliminates at least a few great schools that start at K2, including the Philbrick.

The Philbrick sits on a quiet residential street in Roslindale. I liked the school as soon as I walked through the doors. Bright murals line the entryway. A pair of fifth graders greeted us and brought us downstairs.

The school isn’t big -- 148 students in eight classrooms. They’re K2-5 plus two special education classes. They have no plans to add a K1 class because that would mean eliminating a special ed class and then we get into issues of equity.

Their special classes are music once weekly, movement (gym half the year, dance the other half), science two or three times a week, and art once a week for half the year. Instrumental music instruction is offered to every student (grades 3-5) who wants to learn.

We walked into their science classroom where the teacher was explaining to second graders about examining rocks under magnification. Terrariums against the wall held crabs, crawfish, turtles, and millipedes. The Philbrick partners with the Boston Nature Center with occasional science lessons there, and every year, fifth graders go camping in the Berkshires. We had an outdoor ed class like this in my school. It was the first time I'd gone camping.

We peeked in the K2 classroom for a bit. They had cranberries floating in their water table. The teacher explained it was part of learning about their community and the holidays. Children record the number of cranberries they scoop up in the bucket. Along that same vein, this class went on a field trip to the Copley Square farmer’s market in November. According to the K2 newsletter, they planned to make vegetable soup with their purchases. The only thing that could beat that is if they had their own vegetable garden on site.

The school hosts an on-site before-school program from 8-9. Their after-school program is run by two parents from 3:30-6. They have structured homework time, unstructured play time, and enrichment activities, such as dance, computer instruction, and Mandarin Chinese lessons for all grades.

Like other schools, they traditionally lost many of their fourth- and fifth-grade students to schools that offer advanced work. In order to keep more upper-grade students at the Philbrick, they’re meeting with parents to discuss ways to challenge students by differentiating instruction.

They have discussed becoming K-8 partners with the Haley (one would feed into the other), but I get the feeling that this is a very long-term discussion. They’re also asking to reserve seats at the new BTU School for Philbrick students.

Their playyard is newly refurbished and they also have a cafeteria/auditorium for indoor activities.

The only mark in the negative column for the Philbrick is the lack of a library. I did notice shelves of books everywhere in the school, so they don’t have a dearth of reading material, just library space. The principal, who’s in the middle of her second year at the Philbrick, said they started an initiative for all students to get their own cards for the Boston Public Library.

A few days after my visit, I got a thank-you card in the mail. So polite.

A few school tours have helped me see that I’m a sucker for small schools. Maybe they just feel a little less institutional and more warm and cozy to this small-town girl.

Monday, December 1, 2008

BTU Pilot School preview times

The Boston Teachers Union Pilot School will hold open houses at its future site, the Young Achievers School , 25 Walk Hill St., JP:
  • Tuesday, Dec. 9, 5-7 p.m.
  • Monday, Dec. 15, 10-11 a.m.
  • Tuesday, Jan. 6, 5-7 p.m.
  • Thursday, Jan. 8, 10-11 a.m.

Since the BTU Pilot School was just approved last month, these times aren’t listed in the BPS’s school preview schedule.

They have more information on their website. They’ll start out as K1-2 plus grade 6 next year and will eventually grow to a K-8 school.

[If I were savvy enough, I would just integrate these times into a nifty calendar on this blog. The Google Calendar application has confounded me for hours. So this will have to do for the time being.]

Lyndon school preview - Nov. 21

The Lyndon is one of our zone’s pilot schools, which means they get a set dollar amount per pupil and have more flexibility in how they use those funds. This also means they can be more flexible with the curriculum. If you’ve been attending school previews and talking to current BPS parents, you’ve probably heard of TERC Investigations by now. It’s a way of teaching math that’s a lot different than the way we all learned it. Here’s an overview of the Kindergarden curriculum. I hear most kids don’t mind it, but it can be really frustrating for parents trying to help their kids. So Lyndon pulls the best elements from several different math curriculums, including TERC.

Another unusual thing they do is keep students with the same teacher for two years. So students are together from K2-1, then 2-3, and 4-5. I guess that limits the transition time at the beginning of the year.

Lyndon is one of the few existing K1-8 schools in the West Zone. I know a lot of parents, myself included, are concerned about their child transferring to another school for the middle school years, so this is a great option. It’s a rather large school with about 475 students. There are 44 available K1 spots (2 classes, each has a teacher and a paraprofessional). A parent that was along for the tour estimated that about 10 K1 spots (+/- 5) would be filled by siblings next year. Quick reminder – here is how BPS determines priority in a given school: 1) Siblings of current students who also live within the school’s walk zone, 2) siblings, 3) walk zone students (a priority for the 50% of available seats), 4) then random number.

About 16% of their students are in special education. They plan to integrate special ed students into all classes. Right now, all students are together for the special classes (see below) and homeroom. The Lyndon also has a sheltered English program for Spanish-speaking students (about 6% of students are bilingual). They hope to mainstream those students by the sixth grade.

K1 students have weekly music, gym, and art classes. Computers and science as special subjects begin in grade 1. They have band class for students in grades 6-8.

They just opened a new K1 class this year. The new K1 classroom isn’t as well furnished as the other classrooms. For instance, they don’t have a computer in that classroom yet. But it’s certainly a functional classroom.

They’re exploring a comprehensive after school program. They’re looking at something more enriching. I know they have a before-school program across the street at the West Roxbury Y.

The Lyndon loses almost half their students after sixth grade to go to exam schools. Children who qualify for advanced work tend to stay at the Lyndon (which doesn’t have advanced work), rather than transfer to another school.

As I’ve said before, my son’s really active and needs a place to run around. They do have an auditorium and a gym, but I heard that their outdoor playspace is minimal. I don’t think they have much extra room on that property. I didn’t do a full walk-around of the building, so I can’t give you a first-hand account. They said they’re getting a new play yard.

We began our tour in the library. Currently, the library is run by parents because they lost their librarian to budget cuts. I seem to remember another school’s library being parent-run, maybe Ohrenberger’s? I hope this doesn't become a trend at other schools.

As I’ve gone on several of these tours now, I’m beginning to put less stock in MCAS results. There are so many other factors that could make a school a good fit for a family (general vibe, size, parental involvement, extra-curriculars, proximity to home, great teachers and administrators, etc.). That said, Lyndon’s scores are pretty impressive, comparatively speaking. About 85% of the students are passing English. The scores are pretty consistent until you get to 7th grade math – 59% of the students failed in 2007, according to the school’s report card. To their credit, that rate dropped down to 36% the next year. But like I said, a school is not its test scores.