First Person

Time to prep for a new school year

school busOnly a few short weeks of summer left to enjoy. Is it too early to begin thinking about the beginning of a new school year? Your child might think so, but experts disagree. Now’s a great time to begin prepping.

We posed this question to several of our experts and here’s what they suggested:

School supply displays are up

  • Parents might want to start buying school supplies. Many stores have a school supply list in their area.
  • Another idea is to start putting children to bed a few minutes earlier each night or read with them before going to bed.
  • Ask children what they want to learn at school this year. What are their feelings about returning to school?
  • Lincoln Elementary in Denver has some great websites for students. For preschoolers through second-graders, see http://lincoln.dpsk12.org/k-2. For third- through fifth-graders, check out http://lincoln.dpsk12.org/topsites.

– Rosalie Gomez

Start to review and imagine a new grade

  • If your child is going into fourth grade, review the third grade concepts for math. What a nice feeling for any kiddo to go in remembering math vocabulary and math concepts. You might do this by playing math games in the car,  or having your child be the shopper with a bit of money incentive.
  • This same concept can be applied to writing and reading, of course, but I think starting with the concepts from a review standpoint is always nice. Then your child goes into the new year feeling so strong.
  • If there was a summer reading list, hopefully that has been tackled and discussed. Remember, you don’t have to like it.  That’s even more fun. “I didn’t like that character. Is that OK?”  What a fun, non-traditional parent comment. Those unexpected comments can free up your child to be authentic.
  • I’d ask what might be the biggest challenge, e.g. What if I can’t figure out my locker, where or when to use the bathroom, what is going to be the best part of the year, Jake is going to be in my class, I can walk and don’t have to take the bus, etc.  These are all good talking points and will give the parental units a “heads up.”

– Suzanne Lustie

Celebrate the pending summer’s end

  • Have an ‘end of summer’ celebration to mark transition.
  • Reconnect with school friends.
  • Correct any ‘drift’ that may have occurred in schedule (i.e., staying up later, watching more TV) to avoid drastic changes when school starts.

– Kevin Everhart

Examine summer routines that don’t fit with school

Things I generally talk to parents about (and sometimes kids), include:

  • Leaving about a two-week cushion to start transitioning back to a “school” bed time.
  • Waking up a bit earlier and going to bed earlier every day.
  • I also emphasize the importance of communicating with the school as far ahead of time as possible regarding any necessary academic supports the child may need.
  • If the child has a history of anxiety with school, I tell parents to start talking to their kids about their feelings regarding school to help them prepare for feeling more stressed again. Taking that step can decrease the “shock” of starting school again.
  • If the child is younger, I have the parents check to see if the school has an orientation or tour they can take with the child. That way, your son or daughter can meet the child’s teacher, principal and other staff as soon as possible.
  • Talk to your child about what he or she expects with the start of another school year and what the expectations will be of him or her, both behaviorally and academically.
  • Consider offering rewards for good academic performance, such as increases in allowance or family time.

– Steve Sarche

Tips for parents of younger children

  • Take you child school supply shopping, write out a list, give them a basket at the store  and begin sending the message that they have ownership over the process. Buy some extra supplies for them to have at home.
  • Create a work/art space in your home where your child can access learning tools like pencils, crayons, colored pencils, paper, envelopes etc.  (We use tool boxes from the hardware store so it’s mobile).
  • A week before school begins begin slowing down summer activities and create some routines and rituals for bedtime and wake-up.
  • Buy an alarm clock and teach your children how to set it and wake themselves.
  • For young children with separation issues, talk  through with them how the transition will go : “When we go to school I am going to give you a hug and a kiss and then I will say goodbye.” Keep it simple and let your child know that you believe in his or her ability to make the separation.

– Laura Barr

Practice new routines now

  • Try introducing some new responsibilities that you want your children to take on once school begins. For example, I have having my son  practice making his lunch now so that he will will feel confident once school begins, and be encouraged to eat what he packs.

– Kerry Lord

Editor’s note: Read about these experts and their backgrounds.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.