The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Q's School Tool: Part I of a Series

In which the Q alienates 90% of his audience by talking about something most people couldn't care less about.

Part One of a Six Part Series: Introduction to the Letter K: To Be Followed By In-Depth Unscientific Poorly Planned "Discovery" Tours of Various District 17 Schools

I'll admit that blog post title is aimed to inflame, since I know darn well that no one person could write such a thing, especially not some doofus dad whose oldest kid hasn't even turned 4. I haven't any real qualifications to write such a guide, nor am I going to tell you anything you couldn't and probably shouldn't find out for yourself. I'm just going to use my blog for what I think my blog is for, which is allowing me to air some thoughts publicly, elicit some feedback, and work through some ideas that have been kickin' around in me noggin'

The first being that I have no interest whatsoever in private schools. It's not really a chip on my shoulder thing, or a political thing. Well maybe a little bit. But not really. My vibe from private school admissions so far is that it seems way too caught up in the same stressful groove as competitive colleges, and I just don't see kindergarten as the place for that yet for me and Mrs. Q or our kids. I'm just not ready for that part of life. I like my life now. It's really nice, pretty relaxed considering the constant activity of raising two kids with jobs and blogs and bands, and I certainly don't want to be spending all my time wondering how I'm going to pay for it or resenting my kids for making me change my life in order to pay for it. I currently make too little money for The Blue Schools and Packers and St. Anns of the world, even if I could get in. And of course there's my upbringing. I grew up in the midwest, where school choice was no choice. You went, you got what you got. There were good teachers, o.k. teachers. mediocre teachers. And by the way, the schools in Ames IA were considered very very good. My point is that even good schools have lousy teachers and lousy schools good teachers, so even relying on reputation doesn't mean you GET the reputation personally, know what I mean? Anyhoo, by the time I could read and think I was off and running, learning and dreaming on my own. I was playing guitar and piano and drums a couple hours a day, doing a lot of between the ears dreaming, writing songs and poems. I got into other extra curriculars, no need to elaborate on all of them since they weren't all, uh, productive. If I have a point it's that it wasn't til I came East that I got a sense that schools, and where you went to school, were incredibly important to some people. Like REALLY important. In the past few months I've noticed it again. Even KINDERGARTEN is really important to some people. Even PRESCHOOL. Some people seem to be feel it really intensely. Others not so much. It might be something that's passed down from generation to generation. I'm not feeling it so much, though I can see now after a few school tours that some schools give off better vibes than others. I have yet to get a creepy vibe though. Or a "we hate children at this school" vibe. Maybe those schools are on Staten Island somewhere, over by the ruins of that old psychiatric hospital. I hope I don't have to visit it soon. The school, not Staten Island.

I've heard it said many times through the years that public schools in NYC generally suck. I will go out on a limb and say that they don't generally suck. That person who started that rumor generally sucks. He is not very nice and wants to make parents feel bad about themselves. And he probably hasn't visited any schools, or talked to parents who actually have children at public schools that don't suck, with principals that don't suck, or teachers that don't suck, or students that don't suck. What I've seen, if I may generalize, are adorable children laughing and raising their hands and playing and lining up, teachers who seem both professional and kind, clean and bright and colorful classrooms, loud but happy lunchrooms, joyful playgrounds - in short, I have seen schools. I've gone as parent and blogger, for interviews, open houses, tours, sometimes I've even just gone, like my family did to PS249,  to the holiday talent show (hi Felix!) and I gotta say it's always a good time.

I think it's quite possible that along with all the other big "red hot Brooklyn" stories happening and being told and retold in the media, public school is actually flourishing right along with the music scene, food culture and brownstone values. Lots of new ideas are being tried, from Charters to just plain new modes of thinking in DOE schools (check out the new Common Core curriculum stuff that's headed down the pike, new union rules, union schools that are allowed to directly challenge charters for innovation). I just think about all the schools I've heard of since Little Miss Clarkson Flatbed Jr. came onto the scene that people have told me they're gaga about. Again, it's just hearsay, but partial list includes:

A. PS 321 duh, overcrowded and SO 1990s (joke!)
B. Explore Charter School, right down Parkside at Nostrand
C. PS 107 over in the John Jay by Barnes and Noble
D. PS 133
E. PS 9 (in Prospect Heights - I toured it, adorable)
F. PS 295 (in south Park Slope - toured it, adorable)
G. The Children's School (I know people who go; I know a teacher there; known for 50/50 split of special needs/general population)
H. The Brooklyn New School (BNS) - nothing but raves.
I. Community Roots (lots of folks from Lefferts go there; it's a Charter School, no longer as easy for District 17 kids to get into though)
J.  PS 770 New American Academy (district 17, toured it, progressive, principal's a rock star, wrote about it here)
K. PS 705 (toured it, separate post to come, interviewing principal next week)
L. Lefferts Garden Charter School (LGCS) lovely - getting better - new leader coming - toured it - has giant Madagascar cockroaches as pets
M. PS 130 The Parkside School - Beautiful school, great programming, exceptional, toured it
N. PS 261 in Boerum Hill
O. PS 154 Windsor Terrace
P. PS 11 Ft. Greene
Q. The Arbor School (Williamsburg)
R. Other Billyburg Schools
S. PS 282 in Park Slope, 6th Ave 'n' Lincoln or so
T, There's a bunch in Flatbush, but I'm getting lazy now so here's some from our friends at Ditmas Park Corner.
U. I'm leaving tons out. Please comment your favorites and I'll add them to the list. This is all from memory folks, and my memory ain't so good anymore. 

Plus ya gotcher homeschoolers, idiosyncratic and happy micro-sized private schools, coop schools etc, and right here in the nabe the tiny but charming Brooklyn Apple Academy that I profiled here.  Three new charter schools are opening in District 17, two this fall (Citizens of the World on Empire at Troy and one by my favorite education conversation partner, the New American Academy guru Shimon Waronker), another coming from a former Community Roots teacher probably a year from now. I mean it's a crazy good time for school choice and just keeps getting better every year. If anything, I'd say the options are TOO numerous, and while your zoned school may not appeal to you, it's never been more possible to send your kid elsewhere, provided you're okay with entering waiting lists with priority systems (sibling at school? live in district?), waiting through the summer for openings, calling schools and letting them know how great an addition you'd make and how much you want it. (Principals have a great deal of discretion when filling those last few seats).

And so...

One could easily make the analogy that the run-up to enrolling one's precious Kings County offspring in public kindergarten feels like a terrible game of know-it-all musical chairs, wherein the slightest misstep or miscue or missed deadline or missed networking opportunity might cost you and your child the opportunity to sit snugly and smugly when the summer's sultry song is over, thereby forever damning your child to, say, an enormous disadvantage, like having to spell without the use of three of the alphabet's most useful letters. I can, even without the fanciest of education degrees, assure you that this is not the case. Your child will eventually be allowed the full use of the English vocabulary, access to the same internet, be allowed weekends off like other children, and never be forced to play the tuba against his or her will. Plus, there's always FIRST GRADE! Or even MID-YEAR! Sometimes parents switch schools, and there's often enough churnover (my word, thank you) to find a place somewhere that makes you comfortable. You're not signing a contract to stay put for 6 whole years after all.

Am I making you feel more at ease? I sure hope so. Because I know no one who's ever wanted to go to public who didn't eventually find a public that worked for them. Never. And I'm OLD! So I have lots of friends and acquaintances who've been through this all before.

That is to say it's kindergarten, and my limited intel-gathering experience so far, even over here in the much maligned District 17, has been remarkably sweet, so much so that I want to assure every parent out there that the very worst scenario is so much better than you've probably imagined that perhaps the very best outcome is also not as great as you imagined, meaning maybe school is going to be just fine, which is probably the way it was for you, though you probably don't remember it very well, as I don't, though I remember various awkwardnesses along the way. Generally speaking this is what I know happened in my first three or four years, and it has been corroborated by my parents so I know it to be true:

1. Some kids were nice to me; some were not
2. Some teachers were awesome; some were o.k.
3. I learned to read and I learned that I liked to read some things better than others
4. I learned basic math
5. I made friends
6. I learned how to write (sort of)
7. I learned some basic things about the country and the world
8. I learned some pretty cool science stuff that still blows my mind today
9. I learned how to play team sports like kickball and bounce a basketball and lie to principal
10. I learned how to listen to a teacher and to other students and to be proud when I got questions right
11. I learned how to take tests*
12. I learned how to be one among many - how to be part of a community

So when I started looking at local grammar schools I was thinking of those things, not Oxford or Yale. I was thinking of whether Little Miss Clarkson Flatbed Jr. would experience those things too, and whether she would come home from school and we would be able to talk about the things that happened to her at school and whether I would be able to enjoy experiencing them all over again, this time from the parent's point of view. And you know what? Every single school I've visited so far met the litmus test. But i did like some better than others. Which brings us to the question of "getting in," which as every parent will tell you is the real question, though I'm not so sure it should be the PRIMARY question. So maybe I should dig right into that "getting in" thang.

NYC's about zones, which means you're zoned for your neighborhood school. I'm zoned for Jackie Robinson PS 375 just north of Empire at the Ebbets Houses, which is absurd, since I'm closer to three other schools. The closest, PS92 Adrian Hegeman is basically around the corner. It's the school on Parkside between Bedford and Rogers, the same school that houses the Lefferts Gardens Charter School. It's a gorgeous building, and the renovated Parkside Playground that I've written so much about here is adjacent. More on PS92 later, maybe its own post since I got to go and talk to the principal with two other local parents. Then there's the lovely Explore Charter School, which I profiled a few moons back, and we
Explore (via NY Times)
have a friend who teaches there and also speaks well of the staff and leadership. Morty Ballen's network also runs another charter in Prospect Heights. Charters involve lotteries, which has this perverse effect of denying kids from right down the street. BUT there's a lot of churnover right near the beginning of the school year, so if you've got your heart set on a charter there's no reason not to stay on the wait list. Then there's PS249, The Caton, at Marlborough and Caton, next to the Parade Ground, also closer than my "zoned" school. It gets an A on the progress reports, does dual-language classrooms, has a beloved principal and scores high on parent satisfaction, more info here. One thing I've learned is that if I were to make enough of an impression (of the positive variety) with these principals, we would likely be able to attend, after all is said and done. The demand is not so great at these schools that a friendly plea and honest desire couldn't find an open seat or two by the start of school in the fall. This "fact" is not published anywhere, of course. Rules are rules after all. But with that in mind, I've continued to consider these close-enough-to-walk schools to be real possibilities, to greater or lesser degrees, and I guess I'll get into that in individual posts. I will say this; none of these schools have reached out much to the community, not so much in terms of what one might call "recruitment," but even basic marketing like listing Open Houses on the listserve or reaching out to the local blogger (ahem!), but hey I guess they're busy, and the general consensus seems to be "if you want to come here, come here, we don't to beg you, you should just come." I think it's safe to say, and I've had this conversation with plenty of parents, were a principal to say "hey we've got something really cool and unique going on over at our school you should really come check it out," being the good parental lemmings that we are we'd be there in a heartbeat! And if donuts are served? I'm all over it like white on rice. (bad metaphor?)

Why is that, you ask? Because a lot of parents I talk to, of the middle class variety, many of them white, are basically uncomfortable about integrating a very poor almost all brown-skinned demographic. As you can see, I'm not one to sugar-coat. That's the God honest truth, and I'd be lying if I said it hasn't occurred to me a time or two. Though on some tours when the principal says "come along for the ride" and the school is mostly black, I think to myself "damn straight, now THAT's what I'm talking about and I want to practice what I preach here about community and King's Dream and just dive in and meet some people from backgrounds different than me for a change! Does that sound like I'm asking the black world to beg me to come join them? That is I'm not sufficiently asked I won't send my kid to the school? That's a tough question, and I grapple with it sometimes. Someone actually said that to me once - "you people think we should bend over backward for you."

Argh. Such an entitled attitude you have Q. But in fact, like most people, I get nervous acting alone, and I imagine going to a nearby school with at least a few other parents that I already know, so that yeah, I don't feel like some weirdo. I mean, I'm fine being that weirdo guy when it's just myself, and I think I've kinda shown it right here on the blog. I sort of feel the very reason neighborhoods in Brooklyn get so twisted up is because we don't integrate effectively, due mostly to fear and ignorance on all sides, and I've often felt that the schools and marketplace are the key to the kind of change that could really revolutionize the way we think about each other and ultimately about how we live as a people, a City, a nation. Is it really that big? Hell yeah, I think so. We're the adults now. The values we teach our kids really DO matter that much. I mean, I ask myself sometimes, privately of course...

Clarkson FlatBed, what ARE you doing? I mean really, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Not what job are you doing, what song are you writing, what friend are you meeting for dinner, what book are you reading, what sarcastic joke are you making. WHAT ARE YOU DOING, Tim? Do you have any reason to be? Is it just one day after another, one awkward encounter with another stranger after another, one envious sideways glance at another person just like you who's enviously looking back at YOU wondering whether YOU know something THEY don't know? Are you going to leave the world, the neighborhood, Brooklyn, worse than you found it? And why, no matter how cynical you are, do you still get weepy when you hear the phrase "think globally, act locally?"

I mean, if at least one or two schools down the street or relatively near is perfectly nice. If a District 17 school is trying something innovative. If the people in my neighborhood are hurting, if the kids on the street are confused, if the color of people's skin is making such a big difference after all these years of supposed improved relations, if the President is black BUT...okay, here I go now. If the President is black but the color of the guy who got shot on Lincoln Road still matters as much as it does. I mean, I really didn't want to go there, but do you think for a second that if the poor soul who got shot for no reason a couple weeks ago had been a white man or woman, that the neighborhood wouldn't be marching down Flatbush Avenue stopping traffic with the NY Times leading the coverage? And where WAS the NY Times on that story anyway? Not even a MENTION!!! Is it not a story anymore when someone gets shot in the head FOR NO REASON AT ALL? In front of our subway station we all walk by every day? Holy shit, and a lot of us knew those guys, the young men in the videos, judging by the response the cops got. They're from our neighborhood, both the perps and the victim. Wow.

Oh, wait, this is about kindergartens. And it's about everything else too. For instance, I don't think I could live with myself and lie about where I live just to get into a school in a mostly white neighborhood to get a slightly better slightly more comfortable experience at the PTA meetings. I'm just not going to lead my life like that. Fear, fear, fear. Not so much lemming. Not so much bullshit. My kid will be fine. And one day, maybe she'll even thank me for it.

Next up, a lot of way less heavy looks at schools I've seen, from the Lefferts Gardens Charter School to PS770 and even a few out of the district. And I hope you'll chime in, correct me, shake it up. Yeah, shake it up just enough, and offer something, get something too. Shake it up. Shaken, not stirred. I promise not to lay it on so heavy. Cause kindergarten is supposed to be fun, remember?

*By the way, that last one? Turned out to be incredibly important. So important, that I find it continues to pay dividends - being able to calm myself, and quiet my brain and concentrate, knowing that it's not so much WHAT I know but that I need to be able to access it in a timely manner. Ironically, they called them the "Iowa" tests out here, I think. I grew up in Iowa. (I know you know what I'm getting at here, that I'm not being very sneaky, but yeah, I don't think teachers should be teaching to the test all the time, but I do think there's a time for tests, and I don't think it's a terrible thing to start learning relatively young. And I don't think that means I'm not progressive in my philosophy about education. I want kids rolling around on the ground and being inquisitive and playful too!)


Anonymous said...

This article sounds sort of obnoxious. This is Brooklyn, you live in a neighborhood that is diverse whether you like it or not. I grew up here and went to PS217, with rich kids and poor kids, I am confused as to why you need to write this article, people that are not open to life should stay in the small town they came from.

Anonymous said...

I'm laughing my ass off. I'm 110% certain you don't have a kid. The number of public schools with rich kids and poor kids in Brooklyn today? You're kidding, right?

Franklin Shuttle said...

Kudos to Q for having the balls to state out loud what most parents are saying privately. The rationalizations you hear are staggering. Parents want to go to whiter schools and are looking for any way to make that politically correct. Now you have new charter schools expressly saying they want more diversity, meaning more whites, but they can't bring themselves to say the word. The fact is, brave parents integrate schools by going and refusing to let their biases stop them from doing what they know is right.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

before anyone gets the idea i was trying to bash other parents choices, i want to reiterate that i wrote this to illuminate my own thinking, since in polite society we usually don't do that. i have great respect for all my friends around here whose kids are at schools public and private all over town. their stories are invaluable to those of us now navigating the system. i really don't want to go down a road of us against them, within communities or between. in fact, quite the opposite. i hope we can start to make choices independent of expectations.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify for those who are unaware: charter schools are required by law to hold a lottery if the number of applicants exceeds the number of available seats. Most charters understand that the lottery is an unfortunate yet mandated reality of NYC education.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Yep. But as I point out, that's the beginning of the process, since not all lottery "winner" accept the seat. And the fact is, all schools run on one version of lottery or another, unless they're undersubscribed in which they might actually "recruit" students to fill seats. Or not. There are various mechanisms involved in school lotteries, with preferences given to families with siblings in school, zoned/district students etc. However, as even a cursory questioning of parents in your neighborhood will show you, folks go all over town to public school. How to reconcile this reality? I'll go into more detail, but the simple answer is that by discovering schools you like and making lists of favorites, your chances improve of finding a school that meets your priorities. But, a zoned school is always an option, no matter what anyone says or prior reputation dictates. Schools change all the time. Leaders change. (the principal of local school PS92 retires this year, for instance, leaving an enormous question mark and opportunity for new beginnings). Teachers change. Student bodies and parent associations change. If I can make one point none too strongly, it's that it's we the adults, the "public," who have the most to do with whether a school meets the definition of acceptable to us. There are many other factors of course, philosophy for one, but since publics must meet basic standards and the incoming "commone core," and since so few of us are actual experts in education, it's amazing how many of us make decisions on reputation alone, a moving target at best.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

One note on lotteries in your zoned public. You are technically guaranteed a seat for your zoned school. If I wasn't clear, it is for students beyond the zone that lotteries usually kick in and have tended towards standardization of priorities over the last few years. Many families get chosen in the few days prior or just after the start of the school year however, and come from wait lists.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

FYI. I'll be taking mathman's comments down soon after you get a chance to see what a Brooklyn blogger gets to deal with. He's the same sophisticated racist who's been commenting as "owner" and "crime buster." His propaganda comes from the same place of paranoid disinformation.

I choose not to talk about G&T programs here for a reason, and it's not because the tests favor whites over blacks, which they in fact have been shown to do. It's because most people won't be able to access the programs at all, and thus the purpose of the post is not served. The School of Inquiry in Brooklyn is apparently exemplary. If you do have a child in the upper realms of testing, I encourage you to do your own research. In fact, if this is the only place you're getting information, then...well, don't let it be. I'm a self-confessed hack, albeit one who's made it my business to get to know what's out there. Mathman, you're just not as slick as you think you are.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting your inner monologue out there, very brave. Totally understand your discomfort with being the sprinkle of vanilla in a sea of chocolate, the good news is, little kids generally don't care about color or socio-economic status... Those are adult issues. All those other little brown/black faces she'll see at school will just be kids to her. Kids she'll learn & play with and have fun. Their level of poverty is irrelevant to her. I mean it's really all about the kid in the big picture right? So when you get those fearful, lonely, thoughts, think back to Ames,IA and the one black kid in school (if there even was one) and how he/she turned out. I'm sure he/she is just fine and no worse for wear. :-D Bravo for not living you life with fear fear fear, your kid WILL BE just fine, and one day she'll be a more well-rounded, well-adjusted and culturally competent person for what you do today.

I'm a big fan of public schools, I'm a product of NYC schools (Learner's Haven right up rutland, PS 268, JHS 211, and E.R. Murrow H.S. had a great experience at all ) they're on of the last public spaces left in this increasingly corporocratically controlled society. Public Schools are one of the last institutions where communities, in this case parents can have an significant impact on their success and acceptability as you've stated. It's not been historically the case for schools around here to engage in community out reach or student recruitment. It's been much as it was in Ames, you go where you're zoned generally, and take tests to get into specialized schools outside your zone. What I find most troubling about this shift toward privatizing/chartering public schools, teachers and administrators is how schools are now being viewed as a marketplace, a business that must attract the "best and the brightest" candidates to keep the money flowing from high test scores, while rejecting "less attractive" (read poor disadvantaged) candidates. It's creating a 2 tiered education system where those with means get the best education and the rest get fucked. Mixing profit and education is a recipe for disaster in my opinion.

Regarding your resident sophisticated racist, I vote to keep his comments up in the interest of free speech. Paranoid disinformational propaganda is protected too. Sane people reject bullshit generally ;-D

Clarkson FlatBed said...

thx OSJ for the sympathetic words. as to the mathman, a few of his posts went way overboard into truly offensive speech and had to come down. It's not the particulars of certain points of view...rather his overall agenda, which it became clear is meant to skew, obscure, belittle and degrade. There's a point after which even the hands-off moderator wants to take back the mic and wipe the bad vibes off the mouthpiece.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you're entirely clear on how lotteries and zones work. Zoned schools don't hold lotteries. And schools that do hold lotteries (charters) aren't zoned schools. The two are mutually exclusive. NYC DOE does not zone students to charters.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Sorry. Lottery is not the right word. Priority is the right word and I'll change it above. What I mean to say is that they prioritize the wait list the same way lotteries do. That is why the zoned schools that I've visited for which I am not zoned have expressed directly the way they choose students off the list. They don't want to give false hopes for, say, a non-district student when district kids get first dibs. I'm quite clear on how it works, but not clear in how I've expressed it. Thanks for catching it. DOE makes it tricky enough; they don't me complicating things. I'm heading up to the post to clarify.

I don't believe I ever said DOE zones students to charters. In fact, I said the opposite.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

So that reminds me, last year I attended a lottery for Explore Charter School, the one down Parkside near Nostrand, where I vote. It was a fascinating experience, particularly watching the excel sheet with the priorities weighting the various entries. Siblings took up nearly half the available seats! No one who was actually in attendance had their name called, and were they to have, they were asked to keep the gloating to themselves. The whole thing was so bizarre, and yes the chances for getting in on that first round were pretty slim. Same with the LGCS. And yet, both schools were announcing openings in the fall. How is this possible? In the great shuffle of summer, lots happens, not least being that plenty of "acceptances" don't show. That's where the squeaky early grease gets the wheel worm bird, I suppose.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

fyi, there's a very sad and angry man who posts on my site some very sad and angry things. try not to take his bait. i'll continue to delete his comments as fast as he can write them. to the greater community out there of Q at Parksiders, I will not be intimidated, and I have no plans to turn to moderation - frankly I don't have the time to read every comment thoroughly anyway. Feel free to continue to comment in real time - i trust you all to be civil. I consider owner/mathman/crimebuster to be but a minor irritant compared to the greater good of a free and open forum for dialogue.

The Snob said...

Regarding the lotteries -- you are right about the shuffle. To my knowledge, LGCS offered spots to the entire waiting list for kindergarten last year. There's just that much churn in this neighborhood, with parents applying to multiple schools. If you really want a placement in a school, keep pushing. It may take until September, or October, but you'll get it.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Also, a person with direct experience in charter lotteries sent me an email and gave me the skinny on how the lottery system works AFTER the official lottery is over. Now, granted, this person was referring to the the Explore Charter school network specifically, which has shown itself not only to be an excellent deliverer of education but also extremely careful to follow the rules of enrollment.

So while there are inevitably openings at the beginning of the year due to all sorts of factors, Explore is extremely careful to make sure that those slots are filled in order they were chosen via lottery. If there is any confusion, you could always contact the school in question directly. I want to be clear that the Q should not be considered an expert and that anything I say here should not be construed as anything other than hearsay, opinion or crackerjack box rumblings. That is not to say that one shouldn't keep ones ear to the ground and ones other ear also to the ground if such a thing were physically possible.