Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Quick roundup of Globe’s BPS news

The Globe has an editorial today about who should fill the two seats on the Boston School Committee. The editorial board supports two charter school leaders for the position: Meg Campbell, founder and head of the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester; and Mark Culliton, the CEO of the Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses and treasurer of the Boston Preparatory Charter Public School in Hyde Park.

Our local paper also has a story on why BPS decided to take a snow day Monday, but neighboring cities did not. Our preschool follows the BPS schedule, so we were also scrambling for child-care coverage late Sunday night.

Our list and my warped subconscious

In the spirit of the season, we've made our list of schools, and we've checked it twice (and thrice).  Now we're going to put the list away and not think about it again until it's time to register in January.  Seriously, I'm not going to think about it at all.  It's done.

However, I hold no sway over my subconscious in these matters. Last night, I dreamed I was roasting eggplant and as I was taking the cubes of eggplant off the baking sheet, I realized that the eggplant was the Sumner.  I don't even know what that means -- perhaps it has something to do with the Brussels sprouts I roasted last night.

I feel like this could easily turn into an SAT question: Eggplant is to Sumner as ______ is to West Zone ELC.
A) Peas with butter
B) Macaroni and cheese
C) Ratatouille
D) Slowly step away from the oven, crazy lady.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Not to leave you hanging on AWC

It turns out that the Boston School Committee did not hear the report on recommendations for Advanced Work Class on Wednesday. It looked like they had a lot of other business to get through. They postponed the Advanced Work report until a later meeting.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2 boys stabbed at Mary E. Curley school's gym

Universal Hub is reporting that two 13-year-old boys, were stabbed by another 13-year-old boy at the Curley's Upper School gym around 4 p.m. Tuesday. Both were stabbed in their left legs and needed a few stitches. The defendant was arraigned in court today.  Here is the press release from the DA's office.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lyndon school preview - Dec. 11

Finding a parking space near the Lyndon is about as difficult as getting your child into the school. I probably should have just walked. The Lyndon is technically in our walk zone. It really seems farther than a mile as the crow flies. Taking my usual route up to Centre Street, it’s actually a 1.8 mile drive (2.1 miles if you count circling for parking). I’m not about to argue with the walk zone fairies on this point.

I believe that the previous owners of our home actually got their child into the Lyndon, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility for us. But if you look at the lovely Kindergarten Demand Report, it really seems like you might have better luck winning an actual lottery. For every available K1 seat (44), there were 2.4 families who listed the school as their first choice and 6.5 who put the Lyndon in their top three choices. That’s the highest applicants-to-K1-seats ratio in the West Zone, not including the Hernandez, which is city-wide.

So what’s the big deal with this school anyway? Well, they have pretty solid test scores. They offer K1-8, which is in high demand these days. It’s a pilot school, so they have more freedom in curriculum and hiring.

They have a really involved group of parents that does a lot of fund-raising. Last month, we actually went to the first Lyndon Turkey Trot, a short race for children at Billings Field, and had a great time.

The school also has redeveloped playground areas and a gym.

For more details, check out my post from last year's visit.

At first glance, the student body didn’t appear to be all that racially diverse. According to BPS, the study body is actually 52% white, which isn’t monoracial by any means. It just feels whiter than other schools I’ve visited. I guess this is a product of having at least half of the students come from the West Roxbury area.

For parents who are only considering Lyndon or Kilmer (I know you’re out there. I’ve talked to you.), please look at other schools too. I really believe that our schools are only as good as we (i.e., teachers, staff, and parents) make them. For more on this, check out Sandra Tsing Loh’s book, Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ing Story about Parenting. She’s zany, neurotic, and irreverent, but I found her school choice experience in LA very informative. She was one of the inspirations for this blog.

Ok, stepping off soapbox now.

Advanced Work changes to be discussed tomorrow

The Boston School Committee will take up, among other things, potential changes to the district's Advanced Work Class at Wednesday night's meeting. They're also expected to get an update on the so-called "turnaround schools," including Kennedy and Trotter in the West Zone.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

We must be in Lake Wobegon

I was cruising through Universal Hub when I saw this gem of a post from Mommy on the Floor.  On school tours, she has noticed that people are always asking about how schools will accommodate their children, who may be intellectually gifted.  It's so true.

It's a legitimate question, of course, but it does seem like parents may be bragging on their kids just a tad.  Now please excuse me while I watch my child do a reading of the Saint Crispin's Day speech from Henry V.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bates (K1-5) school preview - Dec. 9

Because of the rush hour snow storm on Wednesday morning, it took me nearly an hour to drive from Roslindale to my son’s preschool in JP. Ugh. It made me think hard about convenience in a school.
So after I got back from preschool, I dried myself off and walked over to the Bates (8 min. walk, including a stoplight at Washington Street). This was my second visit to the Bates. I went last year too. I don’t want to repeat everything from my earlier post, so I’ll mainly just update what’s changed.

Because of last year's budget cuts, Principal Hung had to get rid of the music specialist. Then, after funding was restored, they got a visual arts specialist. Now, she’s trying to get a Making Music Matters grant, like Beethoven and Mozart, to bring in musical instrument instruction for the older students.

They have before- and after-school care, but that’s limited to those 5 years and up. They’re working on getting licensed for 4-year-olds by next year, but the principal couldn’t promise that would happen.

The principal also said that she’s working to get families more engaged.

There is one K1 classroom and it’s an integrated class, meaning there are 15 spots total and 8 of those go to general ed students. Then at K2 they have two strands of general ed. They also offer advanced work beginning in the fourth grade.

I’ve always been impressed by the teachers I’ve met in the lower grades. They’ve always been very warm and eager to answer any questions.

It's worth mentioning that last year, the Washington-Beech public housing development across the street from the Bates still existed in its brick form. Since then, the building on the corner of Washington and Beech streets has been razed and rebuilt. From what I understand, that corner building is reserved for seniors. The rest of the housing development will be transformed in the coming years.

For what it’s worth -- and in the eyes of a 3-year-old, it’s worth a lot -- Bates consistently gets my son’s vote for best neighborhood playground.

Convenience doesn’t count for everything in a school, but on wintery days like Wednesday, it’s definitely something. I’m probably more likely to be an involved parent at a school if I don’t have to schlep all over town.

Conley school preview - Dec. 8

This was my final tour of schools within my walk zone (the rest are Bates, Mozart, Sumner, and Lyndon). The pathetic thing was, I got lost on my way back home…. half a mile from my own house. So I got a free (de)tour of Hyde Park, a neighborhood with which I’m not very familiar. Brilliant. Half a mile quickly became five. What did I learn Tuesday? That I should still carry a map in the car to navigate through my own neighborhood.

The Conley’s small at 190 students, grades K0-5. There’s not a lot of space inside. A realtor might call it cozy.

The K1 math is a bit tricky, so please bear with me. For the most part, the school has two strands per grade, and one of those is special education.

But at the K0/K1 level, there are two classrooms that are both integrated special/general ed. Because of the integrated nature, they’re smaller classes at 15 students each: seven are special ed and eight are general ed. That’s a total of 16 total slots for general ed students. Then at the K2 level, the classes go up to the usual 22 students, leaving six extra seats for incoming students.

In one of the kindergarten classes, a small group of students was looking at a Roche Bros circular and writing up a shopping list. Very productive.

We convened in the library, which they’re in the process of refurbishing, possibly transforming into another kind of space. They lost their librarian to the budget cuts last year. Like at the Curley, students at the Conley are required to read or be read to 30 minutes nightly.

Their specialties are science (push-in for kindergarten, big kids go to science lab), visual art, and music. Grades 3 to 5 have violin instruction.

They don’t have a PE instructor. They just got a grant for more outdoor equipment and they’re looking at getting part-time help for physical education.

They’re working to improve their math scores on the MCAS with math tutoring in the upper grades.

At the moment, they have an interim principal, Joe Foley, who’s a former special ed teacher. They’re currently interviewing to fill that spot, and he is among the candidates.

There’s still the question of what happens after grade 5. The Roslindale K-5 schools are working to create a feeder pattern into the Washington Irving middle school, which has a new principal. Students from those Roslindale K-5 schools would automatically be placed in the Irving come 6th grade.

They have a new enclosed outdoor classroom that was covered in snow when I walked by. On warmer days, students can do science experiments or write there. They have a great play structure and plenty of blacktop for free play.

Foley said that food allergies were “a big deal.” The school is a peanut-safe zone. Children with severe allergies eat their lunches in the office, not the cafeteria.

Other crucial facts: Uniform is mandatory, and they have an on-site before- and after-school program run by the West Roxbury YMCA. I’m not clear whether that includes 4-year-olds.

I like the neighborhood, even though Poplar’s kind of a busy street. And I apparently have a tendency to get lost on it. The school's fine. I'm curious as to who they'll put in place as a permanent principal.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kindergarten Demand Report

Now here’s a fascinating document. BPS has posted an Excel file called Kindergarten Demand Report, 2009-10. It lists the number of available seats at every K0, K1, and K2 school in the city (West Zone schools are at the bottom). Then they list the number of families ranking the school as their first, second, or third choices. They have cool statistics (never thought I’d say those two words together) on the number of first-choice and first-to-third-choice applicants per available seat.

It just gives you a glimpse into the popularity of schools and perhaps the likelihood of getting in, not factoring in walk-zone and sibling preferences.

If you click over to the K2 tab on the bottom, you can see what kind of turnover there is between K1 and K2.

Mendell school preview - Dec. 1

I don't know where to begin with this school.  I think it's fair to say that I've never met a principal quite like Ms. Cahill.  She's like this whirlwind of energy.  She's all about improving the school, and I really got the feeling like she's the kind of person who could get a lot accomplished.  She brought in several new teachers recently.

The Mendell is currently an undersubscribed school, but some West Zone parents got together last year and decided to give it a chance. Parents on the tour said there were about 10 families who were really active.  I wish this were my neighborhood school.  I loved it.  For us, it's a tad on the far side. It's near the Stony Brook T stop on School Street in Roxbury. Ultimately, if we were assigned there, we'd make the commute work.

They have a K0-K1 integrated regular ed/special ed classroom and two K1 classes.  There is capacity for two strands of all grades (K-5), but right now, some grades have only one class. The school currently has about 200 students.

I really liked the K1 classroom I visited. The teacher said the kids try to get outside every day. If there's ice on the playground, they might take a walk through the neighborhood instead. There was a poster on the wall with photographs of "A's" they spotted on a recent neighborhood walk.

The K1 teacher said her students have theater and art each twice a week and music once a week. Science is added at a later grade. I have in my notes that PE is also a specialty class, but I'm not sure where that fits in. The specialty teachers come to the classrooms, rather than pulling students out into a separate art room, music room, etc.

They have on-site before- and after-school for all ages at $5/hour. An assistant teacher runs the after-school program for 4-year-olds, and Bird Street runs the after-school program for the rest of the school. They just added twice-weekly martial arts to after school (that's extra).

The PE teacher uses the outdoor space because they don't have a gym. Their playground is fairly new. They're in the process of designing an outdoor classroom. It should be in place by next fall. I think they also got a grant for Playworks for next year.

I peeked in briefly at the basement library.  I think they have or are trying to get library students from Simmons College to help.

They seem to take food allergies seriously. One kindergarten classroom was peanut free. The principal said they were going to have to be more proactive with allergies. (She's an allergy parent too.) The K1 teacher was consulting with someone else on a recipe that the kids could make and suggested they substitute sun butter for almond butter. (As the parent of a child with a nut allergy, thank you!)

Now, this is sort of awkward to bring up.  One of the teachers that was heralded as one of the school's best actually seemed kind of stern with the younger kids. She definitely wasn't the warm and fuzzy type, at least when we were in the classroom. I wasn't the only parent who thought this.  Just thought I'd mention it, in case warm and fuzzy teachers are a priority for you.

Amendment may prevent opening new charter schools in Boston

The Globe has an article on the charter school legislation that the Senate passed last month. Apparently, one of the late amendments added by Boston's Sonia Chang-Diaz could prevent Boston, Lawrence, and other cities from opening new charter schools. The original point of the bill was to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in underperforming districts. Under the amendment, as interpreted by the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association and the state Department of Education, districts would have to be in the bottom 10% of both MCAS scores and improvement of MCAS scores to be eligible for more charter schools. That would whittle the number of eligible districts from 33 to 4.

Chang-Diaz said she was open to changing the language and it was not her intent to exclude Boston. Oops. She said she intended to have a combined list of MCAS scores and test improvement and have the bottom 10% of that list be eligible for charter school expansion.

The House is expected to take up the bill in January.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's budget time again

The Boston School Committee is getting updates on the FY2010 and FY2011 budgets at tomorrow night's meeting. I hope we don't have a repeat of last year, but I'm not too optimistic on that front.

Here's the draft agenda:
5 P.M. Feedback Forum: Five-Year Acceleration Agenda
6 P.M. School Committee Meeting
Call to Order
I. Pledge of Allegiance
II. Superintendent's Report
III. Public Comment on Action Item
IV. Action Item
· Grants for Approval
V. Reports
· Five-Year Acceleration Agenda Update
· Madison Park Admission Policy Update
· FY 2010 and FY 2011 Budget Update
· Education Resource Strategies Overview
VI. General Public Comment
VII. New Business

Thursday, November 19, 2009

List of 'turnaround schools' released, includes Kennedy & Trotter

BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson released the list of 14 "turnaround schools", which have consistently low MCAS scores. Among them are the West Zone's Kennedy school in Jamaica Plain and the Trotter school in Dorchester.  JP's English High was also on the list. The schools are generally concentrated in an area of the city Johnson called, the "Circle of Promise." Here are the types of change proposed for these schools:
  • Transformational change - build on existing staff and programs at the school
  • Comprehensive change - major staffing and program changes
  • Fresh start - all staff reapply for their jobs, greater flexibility in hiring and support. This sounds like an in-district charter school. This depends upon Beacon Hill passing the charter school legislation when they return to session in January.
  • School closure - last resort
Each affected school will have a community meeting to learn about proposed changes (Trotter, Dec. 1; Kennedy, Dec. 7, 6-7:30 p.m.).

Turning around these schools is the first step in a five-year plan presented at last night's Boston School Committee meeting.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Superintendent to reveal plan to turn around underperforming schools tonight

The Globe has a preview of tonight’s School Committee meeting in which the superintendent will unveil a plan to improve ailing schools. Some may be overhauled, others closed. The dozen or so schools targeted will be announced tonight. Roughly two-thirds lie in Roxbury and Dorchester. According to the article:
The range of options under consideration in [Superintendent Carol] Johnson’s plan include major shakeups in a school’s administrative team and teaching staff, extending the school day, or closing a failing school and reopening a new school in its building, a measure that the district imposed on at least two schools earlier this year. That is a way the district can expand successful programs and make wholesale changes to teaching staffs.

It could also involve conversion to charter-like schools, which would be overseen by the district and have reduced union rules. Johnson said she might even recommend shutting down a school and vacating the building to reduce the operating budget. The district has 6,000 to 7,000 empty classroom seats because of a notable decline in enrollment over the past decade.
The School Committee is expected to vote on the matter in December and have some of the changes in place by next school year.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sumner school preview – Nov. 13

The Sumner school (K1-5) is kind of tucked away behind the post office in Roslindale Square. I’d never seen it before, although we spend a lot of time in the square. This is one of our walk zone schools, so I definitely wanted to check it out.

The first thing I will say about the Sumner is that they have a lot of kindergarten classrooms. There is one K1 classes for regular ed students. At K2, there are two regular ed, one integrated classroom, one special needs class, and one sheltered English immersion. Feel free to correct me if I got that wrong. Overall, half of the student body is in regular ed, 28% are in special ed, and 20% are in bilingual ed.

K1 students were singing and doing their morning stretches when we visited.

The kindergartners are on the building’s lowest level so they can be closest to the bathrooms. There is only one set of bathrooms in the building for 500 students. So this requires a lot of coordination and structure. Did school designers in 1931 not consider the tiny bladders of tiny people?

There is no official library, but their after-school program partners with the Roslindale branch library; it’s just a few blocks away. ReadBoston also lends books to students.

Among their specialty subjects: science, gym, computers, art, drama, and music. All students don’t get all of the special classes every week. They rotate. Their gym isn’t full-size, but they had soccer nets and other gear. Older students take instrumental music. I think the band has to practice around the corner at the Roslindale Community Center because of space issues.

Science teachers come to each classroom rather than pull students out to a separate science classroom. Hallways were lined with tables of beans sprouting and aquariums with crayfish. The computer lab had a container of mealworms.

They seem to have a strong focus on integrating arts into the curriculum and the before- and after-school programs. Some of the artwork was quite amazing.

The Sumner runs its own before-school program. After-school is run by the Boys & Girls Club. I wasn’t clear whether K1 students were eligible. However, the nearby Roslindale Community Center does have an after-school program for K1.

Uniforms are mandatory. A nurse is there in the mornings.

In sum, the Sumner was ok. My son’s interests lean a little more toward science than arts, so the Sumner probably won’t be at the top of my list. But it will definitely be on the list somewhere.

[Edited to add: I learned at a West Zone Parents Group meeting that movement, in addition to art, is integrated into the curriculum. For my high-energy 3-year-old, who runs the occasional kiddie road race to burn off steam, this would be a very good thing.]

Haley school preview - Nov. 10

I confess. I’ve had a tiny crush on the Haley school since reading Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorders, a book about how kids today are underexposed to the natural world. The author kind of beats the thesis to death (to the point where you might want to chuck the book and just go live deliberately in the woods), but it’s still worth a read. For a synopsis, check out this Boston Globe article from 2007 about the Haley and the back-to-nature movement.

The Haley has a thematic curriculum (three themes/year) with a strong focus on the environment and community. They partner with the Boston Nature Center, which is right across the street on Walk Hill Avenue. Their activities there are tied into the theme. This fall, for instance, kindergartners study the five senses, and they go on a sensory walk of the Nature Center. In third grade, one of the themes is Wampanoag and Pilgrim life. Students collect seeds at the Nature Center to learn what early Americans might have used. They also travel to Plimoth Plantation.

Fifth grades build their own boats. Real boats. Not bathtub boats. Their winter unit includes African American maritime history. They also study the ecology of the Charles River.

Students go on a lot of field trips called “spark experiences,” meaning they go places with questions and projects in mind. For instance, the second grade goes on a mapping trip to the Arnold Arboretum.

The Haley is a pilot school. They are K1 to grade 5. They only have one K1 classroom, and expand to two classes per grade in K2. The Haley is a full inclusion school, so children with special needs are fully integrated into the classrooms.

They have onsite before-school and after-school programs for all grades, including for K1. City Year helps with the after-school program. After-school enrichment includes chorus and yoga.

The Haley is designated a Peace Zone school. Younger children walk the halls with their arms crossed over their chest to avoid jostling each other. Overall, it’s about respecting each others differences.

Specialties are art, music, computers, and gym. I don’t recall seeing a gymnasium, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means I’m foggy in the evenings. All children have exposure to instrumental music, but formal band and chorus doesn’t begin until fourth grade. They recently received a VH1 grant for musical instruments.

 Other features:
  • They have an outdoor classroom with a garden.
  • Mandatory uniforms, but the “uniform” seems pretty flexible.
  • They’re trying to get funding for a green roof.
The tour I went on was in the evening. It’s a bit harder to get a feel for the school without the regular activity of students and teachers.

I think my son would like this school, especially the nature-related themes. In addition, kindergarteners at the Haley work on robotic LEGOS. That would blow his mind.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Student mobility rates & suspensions in the West Zone

Instead of writing up notes from school previews or doing practice run-throughs of Thanksgiving pies (poached pear tart with chocolate ganache, anyone?), I thought I’d spend some time this rainy Saturday morning culling student mobility rates for all West Zone schools from each school's report card. The mobility rate is the transfers in and out as a percentage of total enrollment.

I guess the mobility rate could be considered an imperfect measure of parent satisfaction -- if the rate is low, parents aren’t pulling their kids out of school to send them to another school. The mobility rate could also just be a reflection of a school’s population as some families may move around a lot. A lower mobility rate could make for a more stable school community.  Then again, you also have to consider students transferring to Advanced Work schools in the fourth grade. It's tough to know what, exactly, to make of this.

The Kilmer and the Lyndon have the lowest mobility rates, followed by citywide (or former citywide) schools.

The second number I’ve included is the number of suspensions for the 2008-9 school year. I thought about creating a separate table, but it didn’t seem fair because the suspensions aren’t presented as rates. And even if they were, it would probably be a skewed statistic, a bit like the divorce rate, because I’d imagine there are students who have more than one suspension. In general, the number of suspensions seems to be higher in schools with higher grades. Not too surprising, I guess. The Irving middle school had 156 suspensions last year. Good luck to the new principal and the group of parents working hard to improve the school.

Student mobility rates/suspensions for 2008-9:
Kilmer K-8: 4.1%, 1
Lyndon K-8: 4.6%, 6
Mission Hill K-8 (now a North Zone school. I’m including it just in case some of you are in the Walk Zone): 4.7%, 1
Hernandez: 4.9%, 7
Mozart: 11.8%, N/A
Philbrick: 12.3%, 6
West Zone ELC: 12.3%, N/A
Haley: 12.5%, 9
Haynes EEC: 12.6%, 2
Ohrenberger: 13.8%, 22
Hennigan: 14.0%, 2
Sumner: 14.0%, 35
Conley: 14.8%, 12
Manning: 15.0%, 16
Irving Middle School: 15.5%, 156
Kennedy: 15.9%, 27
Hale: 16.6%, N/A
Trotter: 16.6%, 21
Bates: 16.9%, 2
Beethoven: 16.9%, 3
Curley K-8: 17.8%, 94
Agassiz: 22.3%, 70
Mendell: 24.3%, 5
Ellis: 29.9%, 30
King K-8: 34.0%, 71

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New 5-year plan and helping underperforming schools

I just got word that BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson will present her new 5-year plan, including a strategy for turning around underperforming schools at the Boston School Committee meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 18 at 6 p.m. The meeting will be at Orchard Gardens K-8 school in Roxbury.

Boston Teachers Union pilot school preview – Nov. 10

When we toured the Parkman building last year, it was still in use by the Young Achievers school, which has since moved to Mattapan. The Boston Teachers Union school hadn’t hired any teachers and still didn’t have a curriculum. It seemed like a big question mark. So seeing the school in action today felt a lot more concrete and less like a concept for an interesting school.

As a pilot school, the BTU school is still part of Boston Public Schools, but it has more freedom when it comes to curriculum and budget matters. Among the biggest differences between the Union school (as I saw it referred to in school literature) and standard BPS schools:
  • The school day is 30 minutes longer (8:30-3:00).  
  • Instead of principals, they have co-lead teachers. These teachers will probably teach about one period a day and spent the rest of their time on administrative tasks.
  •  Instead of TERC Investigations, BTU uses the Think Math curriculum in the lower grades. The co-teachers said that TERC is good at teaching math concepts, but perhaps not so great at teaching math skills. I’ve heard other BPS parents say that some kids pick up TERC concepts just fine – it’s the parents that have the most trouble.
  • They plan to use an advanced work curriculum for all students in grades 3 and up, but this won’t be an official advanced work school in which students from other schools transfer in for AWC.
  • The reading curriculum is based on authentic literature. Tolstoy, here we come.
The BTU school has one regular ed classroom each for K1 through grade 3, plus a primary transition classroom. The upper grades (6-8) will have two strands. Eventually, the school will fill in (K-8) as more students move up to higher grades.

All students have Spanish three times a week. For K1 kids, those are just 20-minute sessions. When we went into the K1 classroom, the Spanish teacher was leading them in a silly song about body parts. The students knew the words and were really getting into it. Many students come from Spanish-speaking homes, but the teachers said that those parents were also eager for their children to have more formal Spanish instruction.

Students also have music every day.

Science and social studies are integrated into the curriculum, rather than having special teachers assigned to those subjects. History lessons start at the K1 level. I feel like social studies and science often get left behind in this age of testing.

The building has a beautiful auditorium/gym. There is no gym teacher, per se, but they do have a full-time Playworks coach who provides guided activities. K1 has Playworks once a week.

Later in our tour, the K1 students came outside for recess. I know I shouldn’t be, but I was so surprised that 4-year-olds could possibly have recess that’s not crammed into their lunch hour.

They have an apple tree in the school yard, as well as two raised garden beds. They hope to add more beds. Students recently picked radishes that were planted by their predecessors. The compost bin did not make the move to Mattapan with Young Achievers, but it looked like it could use a good turning. Say the word, and I’ll be over there with my pitchfork. They hope to have people from the nearby community gardens help with this underutilized area.

Their library is definitely a work in progress. They had a few books on the shelves and were planning on fund-raising to get more. They don’t have a librarian.

There is no art teacher, and I wasn't clear on whether they would be hiring one later. Art is currently integrated into the curriculum. The K2 classroom had a puppet theater set up. Although school had only been in session for nine weeks, there were many student projects hanging in the hallways.

Several classes have already been on field trips to the arboretum and Spectacle Island.

One thing that sets this school apart from most other BPS schools is that it has on-site after-school care for K1. This is a major draw. Schools have to have a separate license for four-year-olds, so K1 kids are usually bussed to separate after-school programs, even if the school offers after-school care for older students. The Union school has on-site after-school care for older children as well, all run by the YMCA.

They also have a half-time nurse. Lunches are trucked in to their cafeteria.

It occurs to me that it might be slightly easier to get into this school than some other popular schools (provided you get a decent lottery number, of course). Because the school still has empty grades, there won’t be as many siblings filling kindergarten seats next year. (Siblings get priority in the lottery.)

In summary, there’s still work to be done, but it seems they have a decent foundation for a school.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Curley school preview - Nov. 6

While the King school felt new and clean, the Curley school felt lived-in and comfortable. There was student art all along the hallways and in the classrooms. It gave me a little warm, fuzzy feeling.

Perhaps I was also feeling warm and fuzzy because my son behaved himself quite well on this tour. Last year, we had to leave the Curley tour before it started because, well, he just wasn’t feeling it and he was 2. Enough said. I think that experience last year left me with kind of an “eh” feeling about the Curley. I feel very differently this year. (About taking kids on tours, I try not to, but if a school only offers Friday tours, I’m stuck.)

First of all, the Curley has a great outdoor play area. They recently had their play yard renovated by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative. There’s an outdoor classroom, a performance area, and active and passive play areas. This is my favorite part -- the K1 classrooms each have doors that go directly outside. There’s no playground equipment there, but it’s a great space to run around.

They have a K1 classroom plus one integrated K1 classroom . Every grade also has a structured English immersion class.

The K1 classes really impressed me because children were playing independently in a lot of different areas. Some were putting together a puzzle of a map of the U.S. (My son was exerting extreme willpower in not joining in. He’s a puzzle fiend.) Some were reading in a corner with the teacher. And others looked like they were doing some imaginative play.
The Curley is a K-8 school, but the Lower (K0-2) and Upper (3-8) Schools have separate entrances and are connected by a ramp, so there’s a bit of separation.

The special classes include theater arts, gym, science, and art throughout the year and music for half the year. In the lower grades, children get vocal music with some rhythm instruments. In fourth and fifth grade, they learn recorders, and in the sixth grade, they can start playing other instruments. The school recently received a grant for 30 instruments. Social studies is embedded within the curriculum.

The K1 curriculum says that every child at the Curley School is “required to read or be read to for 20-30 minutes each night at home.” Love it. There is homework for K1, but it usually involves reviewing poems or songs learned in class. A weekly math newsletter suggests activities to be done at home.

The school has a writing/computer lab, and the K1 classrooms had their own computers. No one was on them when we visited.

We watched an older grade, perhaps 2nd, do a reading lesson. As the students were sitting on a rug, the teacher read them a short story and then asked them to turn to their partners and describe what they just heard. Even though there were visitors in the room, all the students were very attentive and turned to their partners on cue to relate their version of the story.

Lunch is prepared in the Upper School kitchen and then wheeled down to the Lower School cafeteria.

I didn’t tour the Upper School (We left before the entire tour was completed. I didn’t want to push my luck.) The Upper School has several computer labs, as well as a newsroom for a journalism class. As a recovering journalist, the idea of a middle school journalism class warms my cynical heart. Advanced work classes begin in the fourth grade.

The school seems to have a very active group of parents, evidenced by the number of current parents who helped with the tours.

School starts at 8:30, and they have an after-school program run by the YMCA. Like most schools, they aren’t licensed to take K1 students in after-school.

There is a uniform requirement.

I believe I expressed reservations last year about the distance from western Roslindale to the Curley. I'm over it. It's not much farther than our preschool, so if we got assigned here, we'd deal.

My son and I both give the Curley enthusiastic thumbs up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Helpful publication

BPS has published its annual Introducing the Boston Public Schools guide. I'm linking to the PDF, but you should be able to get a hard copy at school previews and at the West Zone Family Resource Center. It has a quick rundown of all the schools in the zone, how to apply for schools, and a handy table on page 19 showing who has after-school programs, start/end times, uniform policy, advanced work, etc.

King school preview - Nov. 4

I was the only parent on the tour of the King school. That’s a first for me. In other schools I’ve toured, there have usually been at least 20 parents. This was the first school preview for the West Zone, so that might have something to do with it. Perhaps the location was also a factor. The King is on the border between Roxbury and Dorchester. I knew nothing about the school and I had a child-free morning, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to check it out.

The King has one K1 classroom and two K2 classes. They also have special education and autism classrooms for grades K0-K1.

The plusses:
  • The school was very clean, new looking, and spacious. They just underwent a renovation over the summer and merged with the Dickerman elementary school. So now they’re K-8 (another plus, I guess). The walls are a little bare and feel a little sanitary, but the principal seemed eager to get some artwork up.
  • They have a huge gorgeous assembly hall.
  • The teachers and staff were all very courteous and helpful.
  • They have an in-house kitchen, and they have a professional chef make lunch every Thursday.
  • They received a grant from VH1’s Save the Music program, so they will be getting keyboards for older students and recorders for younger students.
  • The special subjects for K1 include library, art, music, computers, and Playworks (an adult guides non-competitive activities at recess).
  • They have an advanced work class in grade 6, but not grades 4 and 5. The principal said she is advocating for more advanced work.
  • They have a full-time nurse.
  • They also have a staff librarian and a library. They were still unpacking books from the move from the Dickerman when I went in. 
  • Kindergarteners have their own lunch shift separate from the bigger kids.
  • They have an on-site after-school program run by the YMCA for K2 and up. For the older students, the first hour is devoted to homework. Then they play games. K1ers need to have other after-school care.
  • They have a primary transition class for students who’ve finished kindergarten but may not be quite ready for first grade.
Now for the minuses: In Roslindale, we’re closer to the western side of the assignment zone. The King is over on the eastern side of the zone -- 5 miles from my house. That’s further than I would prefer to go for school.

I did a very unscientific look at crime in the area. My barometer for crime is how it compares to my neighborhood. (Just fyi, we live close to Washington Street, not in some gated community, so we’re not immune.) Looking at crime reports for the past 6 months, there’s a lot more crime in the school’s neighborhood than mine. I want my child to feel safe in school and getting to and from school, so that’s a significant minus.

I also saw some minor discipline issues at the school. Nothing major, just maybe more little things than I’ve seen at other schools. Part of this (like the occasional yelling in the halls) could be a product of having middle school students in the same building. The teachers and staff handled it all very well. But I wonder how much all of that detracts from academics.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

What are my schools?

I just noticed that BPS has updated the What Are My Schools? tool so that you can search for the 2010-11 school year. I think they usually update it for the Citywide Showcase of Schools, which was a week ago.

This tool gives you a list of schools in the zone for the grade you're interested in (K0, K1, K2). It also tells you which schools are your walk schools (those within 1 mile of your home). You can also determine the schools for which you are eligible for bussing.

My walk zone schools stayed the same. (I thought for a while there was some discussion of tweaking the walk zones a tad. Maybe not. Maybe school choice has just invaded my dreams.)

Washington Times article on BPS assignment zones

The Washington Times, of all places, has an article on Boston's repeated attempts to redraw the assignment zones.

They give a little more detail on the $240,000 grant BPS received from the U.S. Department of Education. The district has 12-24 months to use the grant to study school assignment procedures nationwide and speak with school-assignment experts and civil rights advocates. Boston scrapped its most recent attempt to redraw the assignment zones (from three to five) this year.

The article says BPS is facing a projected $100 million shortfall. This is the first I've heard of this. I really hope we're not about to see a repeat of last year's budget battle.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Haley wins schoolyard award

The Haley pilot school has won the first ever Kirk Meyer Schoolyard Award, which was created to recognize a BPS school that best integrates its schoolyard into the life and fabric of the school and community. The Haley's outdoor space was renovated by the Boston Schoolyard Initiative in 1999.

The school definitely has a distinctive look that brightens up the neighborhood, IMO.

BPS gets grant to expand arts ed

Boston Public Schools has received a $750,000 grant to expand arts education in the school system, according to this press release. The Wallace Foundation's Arts for Young People planning grant will be used to "develop a long-term sustainability plan for expanded arts in schools across the system, including best practices in school arts program, professional development, improved coordination of schools and arts partners, communication and funding, and ongoing evaluation to assess progress."

Monday, October 26, 2009

WBUR: Pilot schools stalled in Boston despite high demand

WBUR had an interesting story this morning on pilot schools in Boston. A pilot school is one that gets to operate with more latitude in its curriculum and budget, but it's still part of BPS, unlike a charter school.

The piece said that demand for pilot schools is high, citing data from the Center for Collaborative Education, which found that 27% of parents' first-choice schools were for pilot seats. At the time of the survey, pilots accounted for 11% of BPS seats. Parents who didn't get placed at a pilot school were two to three times more likely to leave the district. "So clearly there’s a growing demand across both race and income for a different kind of school," Dan French, the center's executive director, told WBUR.

The city was supposed to have 29 pilot schools by this year, but there are only 23, according to the article. The West Zone pilot schools include the Lyndon, the Haley (newly turned pilot), and the BTU.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Michael Flaherty's education forum in Roslindale and a tale of two geeks

Probably like a lot of you, I recently received a flier in my mail slot that said, “THE SCHOOL LOTTERY DOESN’T WORK!” It was an invitation to a Q&A forum with mayoral candidate Michael Flattery and his running mate Sam Yoon. Since I write a blog on the lottery system, I felt obligated to attend an event with a title so provocative.

It wound up being part Q&A and part rah-rah political rally -- not too surprising since we’re just over a week away from the election.

In the initial part of the event, there was a lot of gloom and doom about the current state of our school system. Certainly, the dropout rate is high, and there’s a lot that could be better (e.g., more K1 spaces, better infrastructure at some schools, more efficient bussing system). From a political standpoint, I get it. In order to beat incumbent Thomas Menino, they need to get voters to think that the status quo is terrible (on all fronts) and that they have a better way to run things. But something wasn’t sitting well with me as they were talking.

It took another parent to identify that feeling. She said she had several children in BPS. Over the course of registering her children, she visited 17 public schools and she said she would be satisfied sending her kids to any of them. (Parents across the room asked for her list.) She asked whether Flaherty and Yoon were worried that they might scare prospective parents, like myself, from wanting to send their kids to BPS. Ah yes, that’s the feeling I was getting. Complete anxiety.

I feel like during this registration process, I have two little Geeky Mamas on my shoulders. One is the bad Geek who once a year pores over MCAS scores, listens to parents’ stories about being unassigned, looks at the current middle school options, and then screams in my ear, “OH MY GOD!”

Then there’s the good little Geek who diligently visits schools and is impressed by the students, teachers, principals, and parent involvement. That Geek calmly whispers, “See, everything is going to be ok.” I just need to take a deep breath, have an herbal tea, and visualize bunnies hopping through a meadow. And have a solid back-up plan.

Now to the substance of the forum. Flaherty said he would keep the lottery temporarily.

He is proposing getting off current zoning system. Currently 50% of students at a school are required to live within a school’s walk zone (1 mile for elementary schools). Certainly, a school can have more than 50% walkers, but half is the minimum. Flaherty proposes “within a year or two” incrementally raising the percentage of walkers at schools. BPS tried to increase the walk zone to 60% last year and got some pushback, so they kept it at 50%.

Flaherty said that three elongated assignment zones don’t work. Students have to sit on buses too long. In short, it sounds like he wants to take a neighborhood schools approach. Of course, that requires improving schools in all neighborhoods or there become issues of inequality.

He said he wanted to tap into the city’s bond rating to borrow money for capital improvements for schools, e.g., mold, leaks, windows, roofs, as well as building new schools to cope with increased demand.

And I believe I heard him say he wanted full-time K1 for everyone and more citywide schools. BPS seems to be getting away from citywide schools. They recently turned Mission Hill and Young Achievers into zoned schools.

And finally, they’re looking for more transparency in the lottery system, more school-based management, more charter schools, and for waste reduction in the system.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Urban education and the mayoral election

Half of registered Boston voters surveyed by the Boston Globe said they would consider moving out of the city to send their children to public school in another town, according to a poll about the mayoral race.  I guess this isn't entirely surprising, but I wish people would actually visit the schools and not just go on reputation.

In another question, registered voters were asked to rate the quality of education provided by Boston Public Schools:
  • 6% said excellent
  • 21% said good
  • 31% said fair
  • 17% said poor
  • 12% said very poor
  • 13% said they didn't know
A recent Globe op-ed piece by Jim Stergios and Liam Day called education the biggest issue of this mayoral election. I'm sure it will be a topic of discussion in tonight's debate between Mayor Tom Menino and challenger Michael Flaherty, which will be broadcast on NECN, WGBH (Channel 2) and WBUR at 7:00.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Popular West Roxbury schools to expand?

BPS is looking at expanding elementary schools in the West Zone, especially West Roxbury, "where demand currently exceeds supply," according to this BPS press release.
"[Superintendant Carol] Johnson is investigating and costing out modular classrooms and considering other expansion strategies to create more seats in highly chosen elementary and K-8 schools. She also has been meeting regularly with a group of Roslindale families to ensure a strong, seamless educational experience throughout the elementary and middle school years, including possible feeder patterns and improvements to the Irving Middle School."
I wonder what their expected timeframe is.  More seats for next year?  Which schools?  I feel like "highly chosen" in West Roxbury is code for Lyndon and Kilmer, but maybe also Beethoven.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

School preview times announced

BPS has published the list of school preview dates and times. School previews start in November and go through January. The principal usually give little tour, explains a bit about the school, and allows time for questions.

Over time, I'll try to add the previews to the calendar on the right. Be patient with me. And please doublecheck with the school before you head over. I really don't want to be responsible for someone showing up on the wrong time/day.

It looks like the new BTU school hasn't set tour times. The schedule says to call for an appointment. Hmm.  Perhaps a few of us can get together and set up a group appointment.

Auditions for city-wide string orchestra

BPS is piloting some new citywide music programs for students. Most of the programs, including a citywide chorus and marching band, appear to be geared more toward middle schoolers and high schoolers. But a new string orchestra, cosponsored by the Suzuki Institute of Boston and VH1 Save the Music, doesn't give an age limit (if you're interested, you might want to doublecheck this). The flier just says that the student needs to have been playing the instrument for at least a year. On Oct. 17, they'll be holding auditions for violin, viola, cello, and bass.

A Boston Foundation report earlier this year found that arts education varied widely across Boston public schools.

While I was poking around the BPS Arts website, I found mention of several local music teachers who've won awards in the past year:
  • Martha Watson, music teacher at the Beethoven elementary, was among those who won the BPS Teacher of the Year Award in June.
  • Rosalba Solis, music teacher at the Hernandez school, won the 2009 Dennis Wrenn Distinguished Music Educator's Award.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Charter vs. public schools -- Boston's latest hot button education issue

This Boston Phoenix article lays out the current debate between public and charter schools, saying that charter schools have replaced bussing as the city's most heated education issue. (Perhaps they forgot about this year's efforts to redraw the assignment zones.)  The comments at the end are also worth a read.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Agassiz air quality needs improvement

A report by the Massachusetts Department of Health details indoor air quality problems at the Agassiz elementary school. Staff had reported headaches and respiratory issues, and students have a higher-than-average asthma rate.

Carbon dioxide levels at several areas in the school exceeded 800 parts per million, indicating inadequate ventilation. A CO2 level of 600 ppm or less is recommended in schools.

The building also appears to have poor insulation, leading to temperature fluctuations. Because of this, condensation can form on the inside of windows. Over time, this has led to mold growth and rot of wooden window sills in some areas of the building.

The fan units in classrooms aren’t cleaned often enough, or are in disrepair, providing a chance for microbes to grow.

Also, they observed standing water in one classroom.

The school also has a rodent problem.

The report says, “According to [the Bureau of Environmental Health’s] physician, several of the [indoor air quality] conditions observed may contribute to eye or respiratory irritation; these include low levels of humidity, the presence of particulates, [volatile organic compounds] and dust, and conditions conducive to attracting rodents. The five cases reviewed show one commonality, rhinosinusitis (a condition involving inflammation in one or more of the paranasal sinuses) symptoms. Typically, rhinosinusitis is the result of irritation, allergic reaction, or infection.”

The report lists a series of short-term and long-term recommendations. I really hope BPS follows through with them. I've never visited this school, but this doesn't seem like an environment that's conducive to learning.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Around town Sunday; WZPG meetings set

Today, we made our annual pilgrimage to the Haley school's yard sale. It got rained out yesterday, so I hope they still did a lot of business today. It was slow when we were there. (If other parents arrived later to find the slides and playground equipment miraculously dry after yesterday's downpours, it's because my son soaked up all the water with his pants.) This year at the sale we scored a new bike, snow pants, a game, two kids' shirts, 10 books, and a cup of coffee.  Total spent: $9.  The Haley sale never disappoints. Really nice parents too. I highly recommend it.  And this comes from a certified yard sale expert.

Later in the day, we wagonned our way to the Roslindale parade. Several Rozzie schools were represented -- students from the Philbrick and Mozart played instruments aboard a float, while students and parents from Haley and Bates marched and chanted. There may have been other schools, but we left before the end.

In other news, the West Zone Parents Group has set up their meetings for the year. Thanks to the organizers! The meetings will be held at Curtis Hall at 7 p.m. on the following dates: Oct. 19, Nov. 4, Nov. 19, Dec. 1, Dec. 10, and Dec. 17.  I also entered the dates into the little calendar on the right-hand column of this blog.

I went to a couple of these meetings last year and found them incredibly useful.  Parents from different schools give fairly candid appraisals of their school's approach.  I work most nights, so getting to a WZPG meeting is often a challenge. In other words, I won't be blogging every single WZPG meeting. I hope someone will post notes on the WZPG email list.  Please.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The BTU school - two weeks in.

The Bulletin newspaper has an article on how teachers and students are settling in at the new Boston Teachers Union pilot school in Jamaica Plain. Sounds good so far.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Menino, Flaherty to compete in general election

Tom Menino garnered 51% of the Boston vote in the race for mayor, while Michael Flaherty received 24%, enough to secure spots in the general election. Yoon came in close behind with 21%, and McCrea scored 4% of the vote. NECN said they'll be hosting a mayoral debate between Menino and Flaherty on October 19.

In the city councilor at-large race, it appears the following candidates will advance to the general election in November: Connolly, Murphy, Arroyo, Pressley, Kenneally, Jackson, Bennett, and Gonzalez.

Boston School Committee meeting agenda

Here is the draft agenda for the Boston School Committee meeting, scheduled for Wed., Sept. 23, at 6 p.m. at 26 Court Street in Boston.

Regarding the Readiness Schools report to be discussed, this summer, Boston received $36,000 from the state to support creating a grade 6-12 school and converting two high schools into Advantage Schools, in which "school faculty and leadership primarily will be responsible for developing the 'innovation plan' and performance contract under which the school operates." The Massachusetts Teachers Association states its position on Readiness Schools here.

Call to Order
I. Pledge of Allegiance
II. Superintendent's Report
III. Public Comment on Action Items
IV. Action Items
· Grants for Approval
V. Reports
· Vocational Requirements Update
· 2009 MCAS Results
· Readiness Schools Update
VI. General Public Comment
VII. New Business

The polls are open. Now go vote!

Boston is holding preliminary municipal elections today. So vote early, but not often. If you’re unsure where the mayoral candidates stand on education in our city, WBUR had a good story. I also linked to the candidates’ education platforms in an earlier post. In addition, the West Roxbury Transcript has a video of all the mayoral candidates talking about the proposal to rezone the BPS assignment zones.

I confess that I’m not as well versed in the positions of the city council candidates. Time to do some cramming before heading to Mozart to vote. There are 15 candidates running for the at-large seats. This election, in which voters can choose up to four candidates, will winnow the field down to eight. The West Roxbury Transcript had most of the at-large candidates answer two questions (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). 

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nut policies

Either my son has been possessed by the Michelin man's spotted cousin, or we now have a tree nut allergy in the family.  I guess I'll have to start paying attention to every school's nut policy. From what I recall last fall, every school handles nuts differently.  Some are peanut free, some just let the kids with allergies eat at a different table in the cafeteria.

A school nurse on site would be a major plus.

New principal at Washington Irving Middle School

The Roslindale Transcript has an article on Arthur Unobskey taking over as principal of the Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale. I know I don't normally write about middle schools, but a lot of the area elementary schools only go to 5th grade and Irving is the closest middle school. Unfortunately, it's been plagued by discipline problems in recent years. I hope the new principal can turn that around.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beacon Hill to consider allowing more charter schools

The state legislature is considering a bill today that would double the cap on charter school in the lowest-performing school districts, according to a piece written by Gov. Deval Patrick and published in the Boston Globe.

“Only charter school operators with successful track records will be allowed to open or expand charter schools in these districts, and they must make meaningful efforts to attract, enroll, and retain low-income students, students scoring sub-proficient on the MCAS, English Language Learners, special-education students, students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out, and other students who are on the short end of our achievement gaps,” Patrick writes.

In addition, the legislature will also consider a bill on Readiness Schools, which will convert low-performing schools into what sound like in-district charter schools. Boston has already received a $36,376 state grant to convert two high schools to “Advantage” Readiness Schools in which school faculty and leadership are mainly responsible for creating the “innovation plan” and performance contract and create a new grade 6-12 “Advantage” school.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

School-by-school MCAS results released. Sigh.

The state Department of Education released the school-by-school results of last spring’s MCAS. It’s hard not to be a little disheartened looking at the results. Sometimes, it feels like it’s a race to the bottom. I’m sure once school preview season kicks off in November, I’ll forget feeling so despondent about our school district.

I’m providing the rankings of West Zone schools (plus three charter schools) culled from what the Globe published today. I’m listing only 3rd grade results because in 4th grade, some students transfer to schools with advanced work programs, which may skew the results a bit. (Note: I originally listed 4th grade results because I mistakenly thought AWC started in 5th grade.)

Based on the results presented here, some schools are consistently toward the top, some are consistently toward the bottom, and some are all over the place. So I don’t know what the take-home message is. Maybe it’s don’t rely on the MCAS and ignore everything in this post?

[Edited to add: as some other parents have kindly pointed out, it's important not to look at MCAS results in isolation. What I've provided here isn't a very good representation of the quality of a lot of schools because some students take on more students with special needs and English language learners. The Department of Education website does a better job of breaking out the performance of subgroups, which might be a better barometer of a school's performance. Also, if a family declines to take the test, that child is counted as failing. Sometimes it takes a village to write a blog.]

In these charts, first number is state rank. The last number is the percentage of students scoring “Advanced” or “Proficient.”

3rd grade English (out of 979 schools statewide)
105 Boston Renaissance Charter School, 79
303 Lyndon, 69
325 Kilmer, 68
407 Edward Brooke Charter School, 64
407 Dickerman (now part of King K-8), 64
487 Conservatory Lab Charter School, 60
506 Beethoven, 59
532 Manning, 58
532 Mozart, 58
719 Hale, 46
749 Curley, 43
779 Mendell, 40
779 Conley, 40
831 Agassiz, 35
831 Haley, 35
841 Philbrick, 34
857 Ellis, 31
857 Higginson, 31
857 Hernandez, 31
870 Sumner, 30
876 Ohrenberger, 29
908 Bates, 24
954 Hennigan, 14

3rd grade math (out of 981 schools)
185 Kilmer, 78
224 Mozart, 75
245 Edward Brooke Charter School, 74
245 Conservatory Lab Charter School, 74
404 Boston Renaissance Charter, 66
460 Beethoven, 63
673 Lyndon, 51
681 Mendell, 50
681 Hale, 50
772 Curley, 43
803 Dickerman (now part of King K-8), 40
821 Philbrick, 38
879 Agassiz, 30
879 Hernandez, 30
879 Ohrenberger, 30
898 Conley, 27
898 Bates, 27
905 Sumner, 26
905 Ellis, 26
905 Haley, 26
905 Manning, 26
924 Higginson, 23
961 Hennigan,13

I tried to get all the schools, but I may have skipped over some in my haste. Please let me know if you see omissions.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Agassiz air quality investigated

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is expected to release a report sometime this month on the quality of air at the Louis Agassiz elementary school in JP, according to the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

There are questions as to whether there are above-normal levels of mold in the building, and if so, whether this is contributing to respiratory problems in students and teachers at the school. This school environmental inspection report from 2007-2008 indicates that air quality levels were all within the normal range.

Teachers, students, and city officials addressed the issue in a June hearing of the city council’s Committee on Education. At the time, City Councilor John Tobin speculated that poor air quality be part of the reason that only half of the schools seats are filled. School officials denied that assertion.

While looking into this issue, I found this interesting report from DPH that was released in April. It lists the asthma prevalence in every K-8 school, public or private, in the state from the 2006-2007 school year. In Agassiz (if I’m looking at the correct Agassiz school), 19% of the students had a known diagnosis of asthma. This was statistically higher than the state average (10.8%). Certainly, Agassiz was not alone in these high levels. Here are the other West Zone schools that were statistically higher than the state average (I may have missed some):
  • Young Achievers (*I know it’s no longer a West Zone school, but at the time, it was): 20.54%
  • Haley: 24.4%
  • Philbrick: 22.2%
  • Ellis: 17.7%
  • Higginson: 19.4%
  • Hale: 22.5%
Naturally, we don't know how these students developed asthma. I don't want to be seen as saying that these school facilities are sick. I'm just throwing out the numbers for your consideration. By the way, there were also a lot of West Zone schools that had rates lower than the state average. I'll let you dig through the report to find those.

Monday, September 14, 2009

L-minus one year and counting…

Today marks the first day of kindergarten for Boston Public School students. If things go well, around this time next year, I’ll be seeing my son off for his first day of K1 (kindergarten for 4-year-olds). As the school buses have invaded our neighborhood, my son is very excited about the prospect of potentially getting to ride one EVERY DAY.

I did a lot of early school visits last year, but there are still many in the West Zone that I need to see (Conley, Sumner, Haley, among others) and others that I need to revisit because things may have changed (BTU) or I had my son along with me during the tour and wasn’t able to focus well (Lyndon, Curley, Beethoven).

Countdown to Kindergarten says there are more than 2100 K1 seats in the city. But BPS doesn’t guarantee children a K1 spot, only K2. That can leave a lot of parents in a pickle.

West Roxbury Transcript had an article in May about the predicament parents face when trying to get their children a K-1 spot. They’re really West Roxbury/Roslindale-centric, which isn’t exactly fair since students could be assigned anywhere in the West Zone, which also encompasses JP and parts of Roxbury and Dorchester. (The article says it includes Mattapan and Hyde Park… maybe they were relying on the proposed rezoning, which has since been dropped). Anyway, here’s what they said about K1 seats in Westie/Rozzie this past year:

“There are 222 K-1 seats through eight [West Roxbury/Roslindale] schools for this September’s class. All 222 seats were filled after seat assignments went out. The two most desired schools in the Parkway -- the Kilmer and the Lyndon -- had waiting lists of 154 and 152, respectively, for September 2009.

“To put that in context, the Kilmer and Lyndon have only 44 K-1 seats each. Also, 123 of the students had the Kilmer as their first choice, and 107 had the Lyndon as their first choice.

“But the Bates and Sumner elementary schools had waiting lists of 13 and 14 for their K-1 programs. The Bates has only eight K-1 seats and the Sumner has 22. The Bates K-1 grade is an integrated special needs program, and all the others mentioned are kindergarten extended day programs.”

I’m not about to judge the family mentioned in the article for the choices they made for their children. We all have to make decisions we’re comfortable with and do what we think is best for each child.

I think one of our strategies in the coming year will be to cast a wide net and list all the schools that we’re happy with on our registration form. If the lottery doesn’t go well for us, we’ll just reset the countdown clock and try again the following year for K2.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

First day of school for most BPS students; BTU pilot school opens its doors

Most BPS students were back at school today. Among those were children attending the new Boston Teachers Union pilot school in Jamaica Plain.

This year, the BTU school will have 150 students in grades K1, K2, 1, and 2, a Primary Transition Class for special needs children, and two classrooms for grade 6. They’ll expand year-by-year.
The school is unusual in that it won’t have a principal. They’re using two teacher co-leaders instead. The school day will be 30 minutes longer than most BPS schools, the Globe reports. Teachers were recruited from within the district, and most are in their 30s.

The BTU (or as it’s known in our house, British Thermal Units) school will also teach Spanish. They had planned to offer Mandarin Chinese, but I guess they decided Spanish would be a better fit.

I wish them luck. I visited last year when Young Achievers was still in the Parkman building. It was kind of hard to gauge their approach since they hadn’t hired any teachers yet and didn’t have a curriculum in place. I’m going to try to visit during school preview time this year to see if I can get a better sense of the school in its infancy (rather than the prenatal period).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Globe editorial on Menino & education

The Globe has an editorial today on Mayor Tom Menino and the state of public education in Boston. I'll let it speak for itself.

Structured activities during recess better than "just a pole"

It must be back-to-school time (and election season). The Boston news outlets seem to have more stories than usual on public schools.

The latest Globe story is about taking advantage of what little time kids have left for recess. Some area schools hire a coach through Playworks, formerly Sports4Kids, who organizes recess activities, rather than just letting kids spending their freetime chatting. They usually have four or five activities students can choose from.

The story revolves around the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, but many schools in the West Zone have also adopted this program, including the Hale, Mozart, Hennigan, Manning, Haley, and Ohrenberger schools.

My favorite part of the video accompanying this story was the assistant principal saying that before Playworks came to their school, there used to be a pole on the blacktop, "just a pole, and the kids would run around the pole all day long at recess."  I had to laugh because my son would definitely be among those running around the pole nonstop.  But I can see how structured activities are probably better than "just a pole."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Since we’re on the subject of West Zone principals…

The West Roxbury Bulletin had more information on Steve Zrike leaving as principal of Ohrenberger and Eileen Nash becoming principal of both Ohrenberger and Beethoven schools, which are forming a new K-8 partnership this year.

Each school will have their respective vice-principal, and Nash will alternate between both schools. Mornings at one, afternoons at the other.

Globe article on Bates principal

We’re back from a camping trip. So after being snug in a tent for three days, members of my family have retired to their own respective corners of the house. And I’m back at the computer.

I return to find that the Boston Globe has a trend piece on young principals. The story is really based around one principal, Kelly Hung, 33, who is entering her second year as principal of the Bates school. According to the article:

“One of the first lessons Hung learned on the job was that the first key decision every new principal faces is determining: What’s the issue here? Is it building maintenance? Teacher morale? Parental indifference?

“She quickly pinpointed her school’s issue. ‘We really focused on reading and literacy,’ she said. ‘Even in kindergarten, we have kids read aloud and ask comprehension questions. We stay away from yes and no. I worked on a solid writing curriculum that we all use in the same way. Before, it was not taught consistently.’”

From the parents’ perspective, the jury is still out on the new principal’s performance. The article says, “Jennifer Burg, who heads the parents council, which, among other things, fund-raises for Bates, is pleased with Hung’s performance. A survey of parents at the end of year, she said, suggested that some are very positive about Hung, a few negative, while the majority have taken a 'wait to see what happens' attitude. To be sure, there are skeptics. One teacher said Hung started off well, but began to isolate herself as the year progressed. Burg said she had heard that, too, so everyone is watching closely how the young principal does this year.”

The school certainly has its challenges, as the article notes. It didn’t meet its Annual Yearly Progress goals last year.

But this just might be an up-and-coming school. The article says, “Boston parents chose K1 at Bates for this fall in the city lottery system at double the rate of last year. And K2? That was up 50 percent.” (I’m not quite sure what “chose” means in this context. Were placed and then accepted a seat? Ranked it high on their registration list?)

I visited the Bates last year during school preview time. At the time, Hung was saying that they were hoping to increase physical education classes from once a week to twice a week. I hope they're able to follow through on that.

Since last year, the Bates become our neighborhood playground of choice. My son likes using the green path painted on the playground as a race track.

I wish Principal Hung lots of luck as she begins her second year.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Diving into Twitter

I'm experimenting with Twitter as a way to alert people of new posts here. Or maybe just to point people to news articles on Boston education that don't merit a full blog post. I haven't quite figured how I'm going to use it yet.

In any case, if you care to follow me, you can search for my username, "BravingBPS".  The full name of the blog wouldn't fit in the tiny space. That's Twitter for you -- all about the tiny space.

I don't plan on posting much in the coming days, but I hope to pick it up again next week.

Radio Boston talks charter schools

Radio Boston had a fantastic show today on the debate over charter schools. If you’re considering charter schools or are just confused about the whole thing (like why is there all this talk about lifting the charter school cap?), this show clears it up.  There are apparently 9000 students attending charter schools in Boston.

They interviewed Mayor Tom Menino about how he’s now supporting in-district charter schools, a change from his earlier stance. They also had BPS Superintendant Carol Johnson on, along with several others. Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman declined to come on the show, but the unions’ position was represented by the Massachusetts Teachers Association. BTU does not end up looking good on this show.

There was a lot in there about pilot vs. charter schools. If you’re considering sending your child to a traditional public school, a pilot school, or a charter school in Boston, I’d really recommend giving it a listen.

Globe looks into McCrea's claim of school preference for offspring of politicians

The Boston Globe has a short story on mayoral candidate Kevin McCrea's claim that the children/grandchildren of the other three candidates all got into their first-choice public school. In short, the Globe says, the facts don't check out.

Sam Yoon's two children did get into their first-choice school, Lee Academy, but that was before he was officially a candidate for city councilor.

Michael Flaherty's 11-year-old got into his first-choice school, the Richard J. Murphy School. But the 8-year-old twins didn't at first. They eventually transferred to the same school as the 11-year-old due to the sibling preference rule.

And Mayor Tom Menino's grandchildren did not all get their first-choice schools.

That clears that up.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cafeteria food

The Chefs in Schools program is expanding to the King K-8 school in Dorchester, according to the Boston Public Health Commission (It’s a note on their Facebook page. You might have to be signed in to FB to see it. I’m not sure.)

Through this program, chef Kirk Conrad, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, creates healthy, cost-effective, kid-friendly meals for a handful of BPS schools. The meals limit high fat, high sodium, and processed foods, and include more whole grains, vegetables, and fruits -- you know, the good stuff.

Among the West Zone schools, Higginson/Lewis K-8 and Curley K-8 already have this program in place.

The Globe ran a story on Chefs in Schools two years ago. Conrad's fare includes whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies, burgers on whole-grain buns, corn sautéed with onions and peppers, and vegetable-and-egg burritos.

Round-up of first mayoral debate

The four candidates for Boston mayor held their first debate last night, and the state of Boston Public Schools (and what to do about them) was brought up several times.

The moderator, Jon Keller, introduced the education issue halfway into the debate by noting that 8000 Boston families are currently on wait lists for charter schools. So should the cap for charter schools be lifted?

City Councilor Sam Yoon supported lifting the cap, although he said that charter schools “will not be a magic bullet for education in our city.” He said that charter schools with a record of success should be allowed to expand.

City Councilor Michael Flaherty also called for lifting the charter cap. He said he wasn’t just embracing charters. He was embracing good charters schools. He also said principals should be given more autonomy and schools should have appropriate-sized budgets, not a one-sized-fits-all approach..

Contractor Kevin McCrea said that the other candidates use “charter schools” as the latest buzzword to pretend that they care what’s going on in BPS. He’s against raising the charter school cap. “We know what works – longer school days, longer school years, and greater parental involvement.” He promised not to cut the school budget and to visit every school in the district.

Mayor Tom Menino said he supports the idea of turning underperforming schools into in-district charter schools, which would be controlled by BPS, unlike traditional charter schools, which have more autonomy.

At the end of the education discussion, McCrea said that Flaherty, Menino, and Yoon all got their kids into their first-choice schools in Boston. Whaaaat? Is this true? WBZ had to go to commercial break, so no one could rebut this point and I’m not sure they would have addressed it anyway, since it’s kind of gossipy and deals with their families. I can’t even think of three families who got their first-choice schools this year.

Now, everything I’ve heard says that everyone (even politicians) are in the same boat when it comes to the lottery. Am I wrong?

Separately, all four contenders also answered questions about food and restaurants for the blog Where to Eat. The final question was about food policy. Menino and Yoon provided answers about local food. All laudable. Flaherty did the same, but in the context of school food. He said, “School cafeterias will have healthy, locally-sourced products and nutrition-based curriculum will be folded into all academic disciplines.”

Are many of the school cafeterias even equipped to deal with a lot of fresh food? It seems like some of them are so tiny that they could only be used to serve food, not prepare it. It’s an admirable goal though. And having nutrition added to the curriculum would be great. (Will that be on the MCAS?)

The first round of the election will be held Sept. 22. The last two candidates standing will then compete for the mayor in the November elections. In future debates, I'd like to see them focus more on BPS and less on charter schools.

Here is the Globe’s story on the debate.
For links to the candidates’ education platforms, see my earlier post.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Boston School Committee's draft agenda - Sept. 2

Call to Order
I. Pledge of Allegiance
II. Superintendent's Report
III. Public Comment on Action Items
IV. Action Items
· Grants for Approval
· School Renaming Proposal: Health Careers Academy
V. Reports
· Welcome Services Update
· H1N1 Update
· Vocational Requirements Update
· English Language Learners
VI. General Public Comment
VII. New Business
*Note: This agenda is subject to change.

Radio Boston show on charter schools rescheduled for Friday

Radio Boston on WBUR has rescheduled its show on charter schools for this Friday at 1 p.m. They switched their programming around last week to do a show on the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy. I'd imagine you can't do a show on charter schools without discussing the state of public schools in the city. I'll be tuning in.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

No new assignment zones this year

BPS Superintendant Carol Johnson has scrapped plans to redraw school assignment zones, at least for this year, according to this Boston Globe article. For the next year, the district will study how other cities deal with transportation and racial and economic diversity. BPS had proposed moving from a three-zone system to five zones, hoping to save on fuel costs associated with bussing students all over the city. The move was pretty unpopular, given that two of the zones had a high proportion of failing schools.

According to the article, "The Rev. Gregory Groover, School Committee chairman, said the committee would launch a robust community process over the next year to elicit opinions on a new plan. He said he did not know how many zones might be in the resulting plan, but if five zones emerged again, he said, the lines would be drawn differently."

So where does this leave us prospective parents?  I guess proceed as planned and focus on current West Zone schools. I had been planning to visit schools down in Hyde Park and Mattapan this fall since they would have been part of the proposed Zone 5 (West Rox., Roslindale, Hyde Park, Mattapan). I guess that won't be necessary for now. I think a smart game plan will be for us to give a very close look at schools within our walk zone and just beyond. Even if zones change later, closer schools seem like a safe bet.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mayoral debate postponed

Tonight's mayoral debate has been postponed because of the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy. They're still working on rescheduling.

(Editor's note: They've rescheduled the debate for Wednesday, Sept. 2, 7-8 p.m., Channel 4.)

New calendar to the right

I've finally added a calendar to the right-hand column of this blog. When school previews really kick into gear, I'll try to add all of the open houses. But please don't rely solely on my calendar. Double-check with the school before you head out the door. I don't want to be held responsible for someone being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

You'll also notice that the year is way off. I don't plan that far in advance, really. I have no idea how to fix it. Just try to live with it, please. Thanks.

DOJ looking into BPS' instruction for English language learners

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an inquiry into how Boston Public Schools teaches English language learners, according to this Boston Globe article. The article says, "42 percent of its nearly 11,000 English language learners were not receiving the help they are legally entitled to."

The school system is implementing the first phase of a three-year plan this year, but that pace may be too slow for federal officials.

Charter school discussion on WBUR this Friday, mayoral debate tonight

WBUR's Radio Boston will discuss charter schools on its program at 1 p.m. Friday. (Editor's note: It looks like this has been postponed due to a special show on the life of Sen. Ted Kennedy.) I haven't toured any charter schools yet, but that's on my to-do list this fall. I would prefer to have my son attend BPS, but we'd be crazy not to have a Plan B, given the unpredictable nature of the lottery.

But the odds don't look good on the charter school front either. According to this April article in the Wall Street Journal, Edward Brooke Charter School in Roslindale had a waitlist of 1000 students. (1000!!! I really don't know whether to laugh or cry.) It looks like they have about 64 spots for K2 students.

Charter schools have become an issue in this year's race for Boston mayor. The candidates -- Thomas Menino, Michael Flaherty, Kevin McCrea, and Sam Yoon -- are having their first debate tonight at 7 p.m. on WBZ. (Edited to add: This has been rescheduled to Wed., Sept. 2, 7-8 p.m.) I look forward to hearing their thoughts on Boston's schools.

So far, here's what I can distill from various sources.

Flaherty: He has proposed lifting the cap on the number of charter schools. I believe this could go before voters in November 2010.
He was against the proposed 5-zone plan.
He wants to develop a universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds.
He hopes to implement more advanced work programs.
Flaherty's education platform

McCrea: He doesn't support lifting the cap on charter schools.
He wants to improve neighborhood schools and work toward eliminating bussing.
McCrea's education press release

Menino: Menino has called for turning some failing public schools into "in-district" charter schools, and if that doesn't work, lifting the cap on charter schools.
Menino's education platform

Yoon: He wants to make the Boston School Committee half elected, half appointed. Right now, these are all appointed positions.
He did not support the 5-zone system proposed earlier.
He supports lifting the cap on charter schools.
Yoon's education platform

For more on lifting the charter school cap, check out this Globe article from earlier this month.

Beethoven's principal becoming principal of Beethoven/Ohrenberger

Eileen Nash, principal of the Beethoven Elementary School, was appointed principal at both Beethoven and Ohrenberger schools this year, Boston Public Schools announced this week. The schools are forming a K-8 partnership beginning this year. (Students starting at Beethoven will move into the upper grades at Ohrenberger.) I was really impressed with Ms. Nash when I visited Beethoven last fall.

The Ohrenberger's outgoing principal, Steve Zrike, Jr., will be finishing his doctoral dissertation, as well as supporting "other work in the district." I hope he stays active in the district after becoming Dr. Zrike. Based on my brief interaction with him, he seemed like another smart cookie.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Mozart playground!

I told myself I was going to take a break from blogging until school preview season really kicked off. So I've held off blogging about the school budget, the assignment zones possibly being redrawn, along with countless achievements of students and teachers around the zone. But this one was too good for me to pass up.

The Mozart school is getting a new playground through Boston Schoolyard Initiative. It's really about time. This is one of our go-to playgrounds within walking distance, and even my 3-year-old realizes that the playground is kind of sadsack. He prefers to walk over to the Bates, where they have more space, better playground equipment, and a green circular path that serves as a racetrack for him.

We're very happy with this development.

Mayor Menino also announced that the Mendell would be among those getting an outdoor classroom.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

BPS getting public input for assignment zone changes for 2010

BPS had been looking at changing the current three-zone student assignment system into a five-zone plan for 2009. That got tabled. Now they're looking to gather public input on a revised assignment plan for 2010.

These changes will definitely affect my family as we go through the registration process for K1 next winter. I don't have a problem being put into a new zone. I like a lot of the schools that are in our neighborhood. I just really wonder how they're going to handle existing students that will suddenly be in a new zone. Will they have to switch schools right away? I hope parents will get more answers this time around.

The first presentation of the revised five-zone proposal is Wednesday, April 29 at the School Committee meeting (26 Court St., 6 p.m.). Then on May 26, Irving Middle School in Roslindale will host a community meeting. (Check the BPS website for meetings in other neighborhoods.) The school committee plans to vote on the zone proposal on June 24.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Budget hearing in JP tonight

A reminder to West Zone families -- BPS is holding a budget hearing tonight from 6 to 8 p.m. at the English High School, 144 McBride St., Jamaica Plain. I had planned on attending this, but child care arrangements aren't feasible for me, so I'm eager to hear feedback from people who are able to go.

There will be two more hearings downtown and in Roxbury, and then the School Committee is expectd to vote on the budget on March 25.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Popularity of West Zone schools by parents' lottery choices

I’ve always been curious about what the most chosen schools actually were, beyond what I hear on the playground (or playspace, now that it's winter). In a document presented to the Boston School Committee last week on the proposed five-zone assignment system, BPS also laid out a map showing schools that had the most (and least) families list them as their first or second choices. It’s like everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. Here are the West Zone and citywide elementary schools in the top quartile for the 1st and 2nd choices in the first round of the lottery for the 2008-9 school year:

Haynes EEC
Mission Hill
Young Achievers

The second quartile:

Third quartile:
West Zone ELC (I think this is in the 3rd quartile. It’s difficult to read.)

Fourth quartile:

The map actually has the city divided into the proposed five-zone system if you prefer to look at schools that way. I still think in three zones.

There’s definitely a lot of data in here on the proposed vs. existing zones. The last page notes all of the outstanding issues associated with this plan, including grandfathering in existing students.

By the way, the superintendant’s meeting with Roslindale parents on K-8 options was postponed until Thursday, March 12th, 7:00 p.m. due to the snow. Judging by the above document, the five-zone system would increase Zone 5's proportion of K-8 schools over the three-zone system from 31% to 40%. Maybe they're taking the BTU school into account. The proportion of the zone’s middle schools would drop from 8% to 5%.