3.26.2010

Spring Break

It may feel like springtime but we're still paying for winter... due to snow days, Philadelphia public schools will enjoy a shorter spring break this year. School will be in session on March 29 and March 30, days that were previously reserved for spring break.

3.22.2010

Alternative Admissions and Magnet Schools

When the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article citing a change in the admissions criteria for magnet schools (an idea that Superintendent Ackerman later declared "dead"), a friend remarked that such a change was another step towards driving Philadelphia parents to the burbs. I respectfully beg to differ.

You see, I am exactly the kind of student who once benefitted from a similar rule. When I was in junior high, I was at the top of my class at a poor school. I was excited to apply to a magnet school - but my excitement quickly faded when I met some of the other applicants. Those applicants, from the more affluent schools, talked at length about the tutors that their parents hired for them to take admissions tests. I was immediately intimidated.

Those same applicants exchanged stories about school programs where they learned Latin, pre-calculus and physics (in junior high). Many had extensive arts programs with such cool offerings as photography and screen printing. They played a variety of sports including lacrosse (something I'd never heard of before) and field hockey. I couldn't figure out - except for the prestige - why they would ever want to leave their own schools for the magnet school.

These kids were mostly concentrated in a handful of elite schools. You know the type.

My school didn't offer those kinds of alternatives. We had one established foreign language (Spanish) and the school was trying its hand at offering French (it was not going well). There were only a handful of sports - and even then, only the kids with money could play since students had to buy their own uniforms and equipment. There was no established art or music program, except for high school band. Band was really just an option if you didn't want to take shop or home ec.

I wanted to go to the magnet school because I wanted to be exposed to the kinds of things those kids in the "good" schools were already being exposed to. I felt like I was at a major disadvantage because my resume was not nearly as impressive as these uber kids. I assumed that I couldn't compete. I did, however, have one advantage: the magnet school that I wanted to attend was publicly funded and, as a result, was required to spread their acceptance across a range of schools. My test scores were as good as everybody else's but my resume (and the resumes of kids in schools just like mine) were a little bare. But the combination of test scores, essays, interview and yes, geography, ensured that I got in.

Might I have gotten in if I had lived somewhere else? Maybe - we'll never know. Do I consider that an unfair advantage? Not at all. It was more about the disadvantages that I had in comparison.

I quickly learned that I deserved to be at my new school. I loved it and went on to do well, earning accolades along the way. After high school, I went on to attend college (on scholarship) and grad school. It is, for me, a happy story. And that's not a "yaay me!" It's a "yaay opportunity!"

We all know that schools are not created equal. While we tend to compare Philly schools with suburban schools, that statement is true enough on its own inside the city. And that disparity needs to be accounted for somehow - magnet schools are just one piece of that equation.

To clarify, I'm not insinuating that magnet schools should pull kids from under-performing schools for the sake of doing so. I'm also not saying that I necessarily believe in strict quotas or charity cases. But I do believe in alternative entrance criteria, so long as it's evenly and intelligently enforced. It's a mistake to assume that you can identify the City's very best students by simply looking at a test score or a bell curve. The ability - and the eagerness - to learn are often bigger than numbers.

3.14.2010

President Obama "Race To the Top"

Tomorrow is the last day for public schools to apply to be part of President Obama's "Race to the Top" Commencement Challenge.

You can find out more here:

3.10.2010

Parent Teacher Conferences

It's that time of year: parent-teacher conferences are here.

I have to say, as a parent, I'm not a big fan. As I blogged before, I think parent-teacher conferences are too short and scheduled too tightly. It makes the actual conference stressful - you want to get in all of your questions in a short span of time, all while taking in everything the teacher has to say.

I also think results in the belief (whether intentional or not) that teachers are communicating with you about your child effectively when, in some cases, they may not be. The school has my children for almost 7 hours per day, 5 days per week, 9 months out of the year. I get a sum total 20 minutes during the same school year to catch up on my child's progress. A little out of whack, perhaps?

I know that teachers don't have the time in their schedules to have lengthy meetings with parents about each child. But my last parent-teacher conference for one of my children came as a bit of a surprise. Her academics were stellar but her behavior in class was an issue. Somehow, at a parent-teacher conference, in the space of about 10 minutes, we were supposed to get to the root of all of this. It wasn't a productive use of anyone's time.

I left the school that day feeling disappointed - my first (and only) time that I've felt that way in my whole Philadelphia public school "experiment." After a talk with the principal, I felt a little better. And over the course of the year, I've come to terms with the idea that personalities in a classroom matter, that expectations differ and that not all teachers are created equal.

But now, staring at an upcoming appointment to do it all again, I'm still turned off by the whole scene. Long gone are the days when parents would arrange a time to come and chat with teachers about their child's progress. In Philadelphia, at least, appointments are assigned to you (it's up to you to fit it in your schedule) and that 10 minutes may be the entirety of significant information about your child's education that you get for the semester.

If you're lucky - and largely, we have been - teachers make themselves available to you outside of those 10 minutes. But if you're not, you're stuck.

3.08.2010

Computers and Education: How Much is Too Much?

Let me start by saying that my kids are very tech savvy. I'm not saying that's something to be proud of necessarily, just a fact. The world that my husband and I happen to live in means that my children have been exposed to all manner of computers and computer-based products from an early age.

But as tech-y (some might even say geeky) people go, we have set limits that seem strict by comparison to many of our friends. Our children do not have their own computer: we do not even have a "family" computer. My husband and I have laptops and smart phones but those are very clearly "ours" - no kid use allowed without an adult.

I'm thrilled that there are computers at school for my children to use. I love that they associate computers more with communication and academics than games.

But how much of a good thing is too much?

I find myself wondering this because of homework. Last week, my daughter was worried about completing her homework assignment which had to be done on the computer. It turns out that it wasn't mandatory, so crisis averted. But even so, I've noticed an increasing dependency on the computer for both in school and out of school assignments, and that bothers me.

In school, the computer can't be a substitute for real, personal instruction. And out of school, there's something inherently a little disconcerting about 5 year olds begging for computer time instead of outside time.

Of course, there's also the bigger question: what about those kids who don't have computers? Philadelphia, unlike Lower Merion, can't possibly buy laptops for all of its students (and perhaps, thankfully so). And even if there are funds for laptops, what about internet access (many of the assignments are internet-based)?

But those questions are kind of overkill, aren't they? Because the School District shouldn't be rushing out to make arrangements for laptops when there are libraries without books. And classrooms without teachers. We have, I think, bigger fish to fry.