schoolbuilding.jpgNext year, Caleb will start kindergarten.

This simple sentence keeps me awake at night, not just because I worry that he will be the only boy in his class with a nookie in his pocket (looks a bit like a rocket, true, but neither is appropriate at morning story-time).
Nope, the nookie is only a fraction of my worry. My main worry is our address. We live outside the “catchment,” as it’s known, for the public school that Liam attends – a school we like and where Liam is pretty happy. Yes, I know that in some worlds, Caleb would attend the same school his brother does, no questions asked. But – cue maniacal laughter – we live in Manhattan. Which means that just because we got a variance for Liam to go to this school, we shouldn’t for a minute expect that Caleb will get one, too.

Maybe the next time I can’t sleep, I should call Joel Klein, our so-not-beloved Chancellor of Schools. I’m pretty sure he stays up nights too, plotting ways to make the lives of middle-class New York families ever more difficult. One of last year’s tricks, for example, was the “centralizing” of pre-K and Kindergarten choices: families filled out a gazillion forms, made copies of their lease, their mortgage, their birth certificates, and just about any other piece of paper they could find, and sent their packets of information to…

Pennsylvania. Which is, apparently, “central” to folks at the DOE.

You will be stunned to know that there were glitches with this centralization process: families with twins were told that each twin would be sent to a different school. Families “in district” were sent to far-away schools, and some families weren’t told where they were going until early September.

In short – a mess. And an expensive one – those people in Pennsylvania didn’t work cheap. But we’ll come back to money in a minute.

To get Liam into his school, we had to get a variance – or, in DOE parlance, “placement exception request.” Acquiring this form took about fifteen phone calls, several emails, and three trips to an office building in Herald Square. I had to fill it out and return it to the office on the first day of business in January of the year Liam entered kindergarten. So on January 2, I hauled ass out of bed and hustled over to 333 7th Avenue – and my form was far from the first in the pile. We didn’t hear from the school until mid-August, after we’d already started forking over money we didn’t have to a private school that had given us huge amounts of financial aid. Mostly we don’t regret our decision to shift from private to public, particularly when it comes time for birthdays, holidays, new winter coats, the occasional vacation… all of which would be a stretch if we’d had to continue to pay that tuition bill.

Now it’s Caleb’s turn and, given the DOE’s proclivities to change its procedures whenever Joel Klein can’t sleep, there’s a new PER policy (love those acronyms, dontcha?) But no one knows what the policy will be. No one can tell me when variance forms will be available, when the forms will be due, or when we’ll find out. The “centralizing” process that was put in place last year has been yanked, according to a recent article in the Times, but it’s not clear what (if anything) will take its place. The article made it sound like children in Caleb’s category are not precisely high priority: first to enroll are kids who live in the school’s zone, and next are kids who live in the district but outside the zone. Then we get to Caleb’s situation: kids outside the district who have a sibling in the school.

Thumbnail image for doemap.jpgThis map, from the DOE website, is supposed to help clarify things. But nowhere on the site does it explain those red lines. Are those “catchments?” Maybe they are “regions?” Or “zones?”

What are our options? We could try again for private school and simply close our eyes to the financial strain and to the potential inequity of sending one kid public and the other private. But without financial aid…? Well, tuition at Friends Seminary, for example, a wonderful private Quaker school nearby, is upwards of thirty grand (not including mandatory fees and “donations”).  Unfortunately, I have not a spare pile of cash on hand.

Other options: Hunter College Elementary School, the holy grail of public elementary schools in NYC because it’s the hardest to get into: you need to hit some mark (upwards of the 96th percentile) on an IQ test even to be allowed to the second round of the admission process. Hunter takes 48 kids in kindergarten (and another batch later, in seventh grade) – 24 girls and 24 boys. Hunter gets more than a thousand applications a year and I’ll bet that this year, as the economic bad news penetrates further and further into formerly affluent households, even more applications will come flooding in.

What else? We could aim for the so-called G&T programs (and no, unfortunately, these are not schools that serve gin and tonics at their PTA meetings, but what a good idea). These are the “gifted and talented” programs, some of which draw from a city-wide population and others that are local (in terms of district, zone, catchment…who knows). The DOE instituted a new policy last year for TAG programs that was supposed to increase diversity among TAG programs (and did precisely the opposite) by standardizing admissions. 

Here’s how that standardizing works: kids take a test and depending on their score, they are admitted or not. Period, end of discussion.

Right. Depending on how your four-year old fares during a particular hour on a particular day (and on whether you can wring the correct information from the DOE website about how to apply), your child may or may not be eligible for an advanced curriculum, smaller classes, and (probably) more engaged classmates.

Basically, despite all this standardization, it’s a crapshoot: did Caleb play nicely with the doctor who administered the IQ test for Hunter admissions? Will Caleb tell the examiner that the TAG tests are stupid? Where does recalcitrance fall on the “talented and gifted” grid? Will my variance request, when I ever get it, be mis-filed because I don’t have the same last name as my son?

If it weren’t the educational fate of my children at stake here, this whole scenario would make me laugh. All these efforts to standardize and streamline, so much energy put into plotting points on a grid, arranging data in a graph – but does anyone know a four-year old who plots tidily into a chart?  And what does this data really tell us?

Let’s look at a different data set for a minute, shall we? Let’s look at some costs: the city spent 130 million dollars designing and implementing “school report cards” that are supposed to increase “transparency” in the schools – if you can figure out how to read the report card (click here to see the spreadsheet). Another eighty million bucks got spent on a computer record-keeping program that doesn’t work and then there was the paltry six million they spent on surveys for parents, teachers, and students. Let’s see…that’s about TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN MILLION DOLLARS for…paperwork?  Wonder how these numbers factor into the recently announced 1.5% school budget cuts – Liam’s school just lost fifty thousand dollars from its budget, with warnings of more cuts to come next year.

What happens when a city – oh hell, let’s extrapolate, shall we? – when a country can’t properly educate its children?

That’s why the question of Caleb’s kindergarten keeps me up at night.