Volume 20, Number 26 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 9 - 15, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Daria Rigney, superintendent of District 2, spoke to parents frustrated over confusion over the new middle school application process. Later, she said “we await the information that the Department of Education gives.”

Changes confuse, frustrate parents and principals

By Julie Shapiro

The changes look simple enough on paper: Rather than applying to middle schools during the fall, fifth graders will apply in the winter.

But the timeline shift has agitated parents who are already on edge about the competitive selection process. Some schools have been giving tours since October, while others say they won’t announce plans until December. One school scheduled admissions tests only to cancel them weeks later — without notifying parents.

“The lack of information is very frustrating,” Barry Skolnick said at last month’s meeting of the C.B. 1 Youth and Education Committee.

The stated goal of the new policy is to centralize and standardize the middle school admissions process. However, in the policy’s first year, each school decided how and when to implement the timeline shift, resulting in a fractured schedule that parents find confusing.

“It’s total havoc,” Skolnick said. “There is no consistency from school to school.”

At I.S. 89 in Battery Park City, Principal Ellen Foote has spoken to many parents who are confused by the process.

“There just hasn’t been any clear policy established, or there wasn’t early on,” Foote said.

Foote started scheduling tours this fall, and then was told that she could not give tours until after the middle school fairs in January. Then the Department of Education told her she could give tours this fall after all.

“It’s more disquieting for fifth grade parents than for the middle schools themselves,” Foote told Downtown Express. “For fifth grade families it’s been very confusing and upsetting.”

Foote isn’t the only administrator who is frustrated by the changes, Skolnick said.

“The principals say, ‘We have no idea—we’re as much in the dark as you are,’” said Skolnick, who did not want to name specific administrators for fear of jeopardizing his fifth grade daughter’s chances. “The parent coordinators say the [Department of Education] hasn’t told them what to do.”

Jennifer Greenblatt, District 2’s family advocate, told C.B. 1 that everything is up to the individual schools, so parents should not blame the D.O.E.

“We are not making these decisions,” she said. “Each school can determine how they want to do it…. The principals are accountable.”

The only information the D.O.E. has released is the revised timeline: Middle school directories will be available in December; school fairs will take place in January; applications will be available in January and due in February; and parents will hear about placements in May.

Linda Levy, mother of fifth grade twins at East Village Community School, said that the changes have made a difficult process worse.

“It’s a very stressful transition time,” Levy said. “The last thing parents need is another thing to be stressed out about.”

The problems with notification — Levy found out about the timeline change not from the school system but from the Web site — are quintessential Department of Education issues, she said.

“They just make these decisions willy-nilly,” Levy said. “They don’t think about what the impact will be on parents and children.”

Most administrators were sympathetic to parents’ concerns, but they emphasized that the new system would be very similar to the old one.

“I totally understand the stress,” said P.S. 42 Principal Rosa Casiello O’Day, who also has a fifth grade child. She said she has not seen “en masse anxiety” about the timeline change at the Chinatown school.

“I’ve heard some concerns but nothing that sounds like a serious, serious problem,” she said. O’Day added that she is still awaiting more information from the D.O.E.

“Anytime you’re making changes, it’s a process,” said Karen Berman, guidance counselor at P.S. 89 in Battery Park City. “In the process of change going on, it may be appearing a little inconsistent.”

Parent coordinator Marilyn Coston, at the Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Chelsea, appreciates the change in timeline.

“It’s made my life easier,” she said.

The later deadline allows Coston to focus on current students during the fall, rather than also working on programs for prospective students, she said.

Coston has dealt with many parents who are impatient with the later application process.

“Parents need to not be so frustrated,” she said. “You will still get a tour. You will still get a response in May.”

But that is just what C.B. 1 does not believe.

“By delaying the submission of applications…we expect notification to be further delayed,” C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin and Youth Committee chairperson Paul Hovitz wrote to Sandy Ferguson, executive director of middle school enrollment. “This is unacceptable to our community.”

The letter is dated Oct. 5, but C.B. 1 did not receive a response from Ferguson until last Friday, after prodding Ferguson to reply.

“Our uniform timeline was carefully constructed to give both families and schools the time they need to participate in a fair, equitable and transparent process,” Ferguson wrote in his response.

Hovitz replied that a later deadline was still unacceptable. He expects his committee to pass a resolution this month that holds the D.O.E. to its projected May decision date.

Ferguson deferred all comments to Andy Jacob, a D.O.E. spokesperson.

“Nothing about the admissions process will change,” Jacob said. “The offers are definitely going to go out in May.”

To expedite admissions, schools will use computers rather than the old paper process.

“That’s how we expect to make up a few weeks,” Jacob said.

He added that the D.O.E. will announce more details in December.

At the Youth Committee meeting last month, District 2 Superintendent Daria Rigney also mentioned the new computerized system, which she said will not change the admissions criteria.

Hovitz, though, is concerned that a computer cannot solve all the potential problems. “A new computer system does not satisfy the issues of the human element here,” he said after the meeting.

C.B. 1 members asked if schools would get extra staff to process the applications on a tighter schedule. Rigney said staff decisions were up to the individual schools and that the district would not provide extra personnel.

“I don’t see that there’s any difference from last year to this year,” Rigney said later.

In response to parent concerns about the lack of information, she echoed several principals, saying, “We await the information that the Department of Education gives.”

Many parents are tired of waiting, and their dissatisfaction could drive changes, Foote said. “Parents need to remain vocal, become more vocal,” Foote said. “They’re going to determine whether or not these policies [continue].”

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