Volume 17, Number 43 | March 18 - 24, 2005

Education council looks for middle school imporvements

By Zachary Roy

Members of the District 2 Community Education Council discussed a possible zoned middle school in Lower Manhattan and listened to presentations about the Middle School Application process last Thursday at their monthly Working Business Meeting, attended by about 40 parents, at the Region 9 Operations Center in Manhattan.

Some parents in Battery Park City are attempting to get a zoned middle school in Lower Manhattan — ideally making I.S. 89 a community school — which would guarantee neighborhood children a coveted spot at the school. Under the current zoning set-up, Downtown students are guaranteed a spot only at Baruch in Gramercy Park. To attend I.S. 89 they must first apply and be accepted.

According to Council President Michael Propper, the Department of Education does not necessarily disagree with the need for a zoned middle school, but it has said that a zoned school in Lower Manhattan might violate segregation laws.

Angela Benfield, who until recently was co-president of P.S./I.S. 89’s P.T.A., believes that the Department of Education is making excuses. “All of the elementary schools in the district are zoned, so wouldn’t those laws pertain to the elementary schools as well,” she said. “Are they saying that they’re already violating the law? That doesn’t make sense.”

Propper, whose group is a successor to the District 2 school board, said the issue will be discussed further at future council meetings.

Earlier in the meeting, council vice president Paul Walsh read a letter that the group had sent to Regional Superintendent Peter Heaney with recommendations as to how the process can be improved.

Recommendations included increased involvement of teachers, guidance counselors and former teachers; staff development time devoted to training teachers about middle school options; parent-to-parent information sessions; increased availability of application information for gifted programs; earlier delivery of fourth grade standardized test results; and open houses at middle schools and district-wide forums during the spring term for fourth-graders.

Brian Kaplan, director of Region 9’s Office of Student Placement, Youth and Family Support Services said that with the exception of earlier delivery of the fourth grade test results, each recommendation was either already in place or will be implemented in the future. The Dept. of Education contracts an outside organization to grade the tests.

The letter also expressed the council’s desire to prevent more of the confusion that parents expressed at the start of this year’s middle school admissions process as a result of District 2’s increased cutoff in Math and E.L.A. scores for the state fourth grade tests.

In a phone interview, Propper, who directed the meeting, said that though increasing the cutoff was necessary to reform the “antiquated” standards, parents were anxious, because many children were no longer eligible for certain schools and programs.

In response to the altered standards, last fall the council worked with Region 9 (which includes the District 2 area) to add more components to the application process than just test scores. Now grades, punctuality, and attendance records, along with teacher recommendations, are considered in the process.

“Our objective at the meeting was two-fold,” Propper explained. “We wanted parents to hear, line-by-line, what the letter consisted of and what changes were being made. The purpose was for parents to be able to begin to prepare for next year’s middle school application. We are advocates of the District 2 community and our objective is always to accommodate the parents and children of District 2, and to navigate through the region to be able to accomplish that end.”

After the letter was read, Middle School Choice Regional Coordinator Jimmy Bueschen explained each step of the application process. Students throughout Region 9 can choose to apply to any five of the region’s 29 middle schools, in addition to the default school to which they are zoned, then the schools choose which students they want through a series of five selection rounds.

Schools are allowed to select only students from their district in the first round, but they also must keep at least 15 percent of their spots open for the remaining rounds, when they are allowed to accept students from any district in the Region. According to Bueschen, many parents work Downtown and want their children to attend nearby schools, so competition for spots at District 2 middle schools is particularly intense.

Kaplan explained that 80 percent of students ultimately get their first choice school, though some parents must first go through an appeals process if they are not satisfied with the school that accepted their children. Efforts to help students make more “realistic” school choices — with the assistance of teachers, guidance counselors and Department of Education officials — have also helped increase the number of children attending first-choice schools, Kaplan told the Council.

At the request of the council, Kaplan and Bueschen vowed to make the Middle School guidebooks, which have information on all of the Region’s middle schools, available before the school year, rather than October as in previous years.

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