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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Apr 2015
    New York, NY

    Top 10 Tips/Topics for Evaluating Lower Schools (G&T, District, Zoned, any school!)

    Yep, it's lower school open house season!

    I recently participated as a parent volunteer at a tour at NEST+m a few nights ago and it brought back some memories of our process of ranking schools. I figured I'd take a few moments to share my top 10 tips/topics for evaluating schools during open houses - and this applies to evaluating zoned and non-zoned schools as well!

    (4 years ago, I attended open houses for NEST+m, Anderson, TAG, LowerLab, PS11, PS33, PS116, and Success Academy.)

    The objective is to provide some structure to your visits and evaluation criteria for ranking your schools. These aren't necessarily in order of priority, but more of a framework of things to consider that I had to figure out along the way.

    1) commute
    2) school work on the walls
    3) specials
    4) Math/English teaching methodology
    5) Campus/Classrooms
    6) Student/Teacher Ratio/Teaching Assistants?
    7) Administration/Support Staff
    8) G&T: Enrichment vs Acceleration
    9) Homework Policy
    10) PTA/Funding

    1) Commute: Particularly with citywide G&T, but also non-zoned schools and district G&T, consider what it would take to get your child to get to school every day. You'll be doing this for years, so don't take this too lightly. You may want to do trial commutes particularly if you'll be responsible for personally transporting your child.

    Is there public transportation nearby? (Stating the obvious: kindergarteners have little legs, so plan for a longer walk)

    With some limitations, the DOE will normally provide a yellow school bus for your child as long as the school is in the same borough and within ~5 miles from the school.

    Many of the schools have established private bus routes that get students to school, but at personal cost. (I've seen costs from $1500 one way to $4500 round trip - cheaper than most private school tuition, but not free!).

    2) Look at the walls: You can get a feel for what the students are doing at school by the work displayed on the walls - the content, emphasis on handwriting, quality of the writing. Is there any artwork? (does the school celebrate creativity?)

    3) Specials:
    The DOE basically mandates the "Common Core" curriculum. You can find an oveview here.

    Each school has a different approach to how they fill up the rest of the time. Some schools augment the core with things like art, music, chess, dance. Some schools offer dedicated science/technology teachers. Sometimes these teachers travel around the school with carts, other times they have dedicated classrooms.

    (NEST+m leverages the PTA to fund teachers/instructors for these subjects, as well as bring in outside professionals for short term units.)

    4) Math & English curriculum/methodology:
    It's good to be aware of whether each school is using a systematic approach for teaching these subjects so that regardless of whether your child gets a highly regarded veteran teacher or a new teacher, the students will be in good hands thanks to "the system" vs relying on individual teacher craftiness.

    Also, consider the school's approach for coordinating the curriculum between grades (ie does the next grade's teacher spend time a few weeks reviewing subject matter from the prior year before moving forward)?

    In the case of reading/writing, many of the top performing public schools in the DOE (G&T or not) the leverage the methodology/materials/practices of the Teachers College Writing/Reading Workshop.

    Likewise, many of the higher performing schools following the Singapore math approach.

    (For what it's worth, NEST+m adopted both of these only over the past 3-4 years after leveraging their own systems prior. The test results before/after were both excellent, so it may not matter as long as the school has a heritage of high achievement)

    5) Campus/Classrooms:
    Consider your child's experience on the campus. Are the classrooms large/small, are the classrooms bright with natural light, is there a library of books in each classroom, are the materials on the walls inviting and friendly? Does the school provide pencils/erasers/notebooks or will you need to provide them? What technology is available in the classroom? Overhead projectors, smartboards, document cameras, computers, sound systems?

    As a whole, does the school look old and worn (some would say classic!) or modern? Where do the students go for recess - what about if the weather is bad?

    Where does PE class take place? In a dedicated gym, outdoor yard, or a combo cafeteria/gym/auditorium space?

    Is the campus shared with other schools? For example, Lower Lab (PS 77) shares the campus (and even hallways/floors) with PS 198, which incidentally has its own G&T program! I believe the Anderson School shares space with another public middle school. So particularly in those cases it may be worth asking the administration how they manage the flow of students between shared areas.

    Some schools have unique features: PS 11 (Chelsea) is pretty rare in that it has a pool in the building, and swimming is built into the curriculum. Last I checked, they also had chickens!

    6) student/teacher ratio, Teacher Assistants
    There is a 25 student DOE limit for Kindergarten. Beginning in 1st grade, there is a max of 32 (most schools aim for 29 for 1st-5th).

    Some schools (like NEST+m) invest in teacher assistants for their lower school classrooms. While they are not teachers, the TAs assist in the day to day classroom experience and are required to meet certain standards. In some cases they may be working on their teaching degrees or even have degrees, but may be biding their time and gaining experience while seeking full time employment. Having an extra adult in the classroom may help manage the the students and facilitate activities in the classroom. (not required by any means)

    7) Administration/Support Staff:
    During your tours, consider the personalities of the school administration. Some may come across as authoritative and cold, others more warm and welcoming. Not the end of the world either way, but just note that the teachers and students (to a lesser extent) may feel this every day. Also consider their vision for your child's education.

    Is there a nurse or two on campus in the event your child gets sick?

    Is the school equipped to handle children with special needs (temporary or permanent) or IEPs? (https://www.schools.nyc.gov/special-...rocess/the-iep)
    What type of help will they offer students with underdeveloped handwriting, or those having a hard time grasping a concept?
    Yep, all of these things can happen even at G&T schools. Going in K, your child may never have been diagnosed with any challenges, but for piece of mind it's good to know that the school has the resources ready to assist if needed.

    As a sidenote here, be aware that NYC has a free breakfast/free lunch policy for all students at all DOE schools - this is a policy thing, so don't worry if it's not mentioned on tours.

    8) G&T Approach: Enrichment vs Acceleration
    Looking at my notes from open houses, this is (at least in my perspective) a question that always came up. But is it all that important?

    Enrichment generally means going deeper into topics. Let's just say enrichment benefits everyone, gen ed, g&t. (hopefully you'll never go to any school that talks about achieving bare minimums - they all should say they strive to enrich!)

    Acceleration means going over more new material than the standard. It seems as if all of the G&T programs do some level of acceleration. Some claim 6 months ahead others say 1 year ahead grade standards. At the same time, I distinctly recall some schools (PS 33) say that they teach their gen ed students to the same standard as their G&T students.

    From a real world standpoint, your child probably will never tangibly feel any level of acceleration, because it's simply their norm at the school. While the G&T test results demonstrated that they have extraordinary cognitive skills, developmentally incoming kindergarteners are still 5 year olds who are still working on their motor skills and general life skills. They may be reading or writing a little or not at all. Kindergarten is the year where everyone basically catches up to a baseline.

    In 3rd grade (the first year of the state testing for math and English) and beyond: Around the March/April timeframe, leading up to test time (around this time each year), you'll find their teachers reviewing the testing methodology and classroom topics that were introduced and covered 6 months to a year prior.

    The key question is how the school manages differentiated instruction. What do the teachers do if some students are at reading level A, others at G and everything in-between? Or if a few students are struggling to gain a math concept and the rest of the class has it figured out? (I honestly wouldn't be too worried in any decent school - each time you reach a new grade, there's typically a lot of review of everything learned the prior year before new material is introduced.)

    If your child is an extreme outlier (advanced math, reading/writing at the high school level or more at age 5), that's amazing! I'd suggest reaching out to the DOE directly about your situation. There's no state-level policy for this, and I suspect the NYC DOE would handle this on a case per case basis. These situations are extremely rare and I wouldn't think that any school (save perhaps the Charles Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) would have a perfect solution.

    (Be aware that if you phrase your question the wrong way, everyone else in the open house is going to roll their eyes when you talk about how your genius child is even more genius than theirs! However, outliers do exist and you may have one of them!)

    9) Homework Policy:
    It's a good idea to ask about what homework looks like at their school. Some NYC schools have done away with homework altogether, instead asking families to do more informal "family" activities with their children. Others have remained steadfast on academic homework, insisting that it helps reinforce concepts learned at school, while having the side benefit of making parents aware of what their students are learning and potentially stepping in to assist.

    If I recall correctly, kindergarten homework at NEST+m was largely about doing a few exercises to help remember 5-10 sight word each week, spending time reading with your child, and sometimes doing some addition exercises. But if your child isn't in the right mindset or is still learning how to hold a pencil, that 5-15 minutes of homework could take hours! (if doing homework is tedious and brings your child to tears, do not hesitate to reach out to the teacher!)

    Don't have an opinion? There are lots of articles online that cover the debate. Here's one:

    10) Funding / Parent Teacher Association
    I've been to a number of open houses as both a prospective parent as well as a parent guide. A topic that rarely comes up is the importance of a PTA to a school, particularly non-Title 1 schools.

    Quick primer:
    Title 1 is a federally funded program to give financial assistance to schools for low income students. ~98% of NYC DOE schools have this designation, so the school you're looking at is title 1, you're probably in good shape.

    Many of the district G&T programs are indeed Title 1.

    In contrast, many (All?) of the Citywide G&T and top performing gen ed schools do not have this designation. For these schools, the DOE actually budgets the schools for less than 100% of their ask for "business as usual" activities. Without the additional funding from families at the school, many of the "specials" would not be possible. To simply gain parity, non-Title 1 schools must rely on donations (via their PTA).

    Sometimes the media spins this as the haves and have-nots, but it's really not quite so simple. This is not new, see this 2012 article:

    Typically these PTAs ask for lump sum donation per family per year (note that there is no official obligation to contribute, but alas it's for the greater good), the all-volunteer PTA team manages the funding for all sorts of activities teacher training and materials, specials teachers, teaching assistants, coaches, sports programs, auditorium/gym enhancements. Some schools have more developed PTAs that are able to more efficiently gather funding through a variety of other activities (bake sales, Gala/fund raising events, researching public funds/grants, Amazon affiliate shopping links), taking the burden off a lump sum donation.

    Alrighty, that's it. Let me know what you think and good luck!
    Last edited by technomaster; 05-01-2019 at 04:33 PM. Reason: optimization!

  2. #2
    Thank you -- very helpful. We were at the NEST tour on Monday -- you should have handed this out

  3. #3
    Active Member
    Join Date
    Mar 2019
    Queens, NY
    Thank you so much for this! We attended the tour on Monday as well. You could feel how much the school invests into and cares about its students. You're very lucky to have your child(ren) there.

  4. #4
    This is a great overview. Regarding the commute, we were told that for district G&T programs, school buses are only an option for in-district kids and you have to live near an existing route. So many times the yellow bus is not an option even if the school is in the same borough.

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Apr 2015
    New York, NY
    Quote Originally Posted by lj9999 View Post
    This is a great overview. Regarding the commute, we were told that for district G&T programs, school buses are only an option for in-district kids and you have to live near an existing route. So many times the yellow bus is not an option even if the school is in the same borough.
    Very true. Hypothetically you might still be able to reduce the effort and do a mini-commute to the closest bus stop.
    For reference, here's information on NEST+m's private bus from the NEST+m PTA website:

    Communication around bus routes tends to be a bit rudimentary, so expect to do at least a tiny bit of leg work to figure out the details.

    No need to overthink this now - you still have the lottery ahead of you. You need to figure out your school rankings for the lottery and let your luck play out. When the lottery results are shared, that's when things get real and you really need to figure out how you'll get your kid to school!

    At this phase it's still a bit of a dream.

  6. #6
    Thanks for the information! Just went on three tours this week and been reading on this board and others, and I've been feeling overwhelmed. Still a bit of a dream, for sure.

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