Schools

Charter Martyrs: Where Do Your Kids Go to School?

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The Roots & Branches Public Charter School sounds like a daunting and noble task. It aims to have “an inquiry-driven, arts-integrated curriculum – where teachers are co-learners with students” and to “create lifelong learners and community-minded citizens who embrace diversity.” In April, the school announced plans to open in Hampden for the 2011-12 school year.

But earlier this month, that plan got scrapped — in part because the Roots & Branches team was fuzzy on logistics, and in part because of Hampdenites who mobilized to voice opposition to the school. (The school’s new location is the Harriet Tubman School Building in Harlem.)

One Hampdenite lays out the anti-charter agreement nicely in a blog post entitled “Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard. (Not just yet. Not so fast.)” As the equivocating sub-head indicates, those who opposed Roots & Branches don’t necessarily hate charter schools in principle; they just think that this one would be too close to a school that’s already doing pretty okay. Blogger Edit Barry blames the “insidious notion that traditional city public schools aren’t places where parents who can afford not to would send their kid.”

Part of the problem is that charter schools draw from the city as a whole. That means that a good charter school doesn’t draw parents to a neighborhood the way a strong public school might. But even parents with the loftiest ideals may balk at the idea of sending their own kids to the public school down the street. Is that racism or classism — or just the unwillingness to deal with entrenched bureaucracy and unmotivated teachers? Or maybe a little of both?

What’s your stand on charter schools — and what school do you send your kids to?

Que Sera, Sera. Test Results Will Be What they Will Be…

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When the PSAT scores came home earlier this year that envelope was opened as fast as any birthday present. I’m not sure, really, what the results actually mean. They say the scores are rough predictors of future SAT scores. So, for instance, if you earn a 200 on your combined PSAT, you can expect to earn about a 2000 on your combined SATs. 2400 is the Holy Grail.
There are, however, some variables, they say. Your student will be months older when he or she takes the actual SAT (for the first time). He or she will have had those additional months of substantive instruction. And, very importantly, he or she might have taken an SAT prep course. Omni Test, Horizons, Kaplan, Sylvan, you name it. We willingly pay the small fortune for these courses, in hopes of helping our children improve their SAT scores by 100, 200, some say even as much as 400 points. These can be life-changing numbers for a kid whose GPA alone won’t earn that letter of admission. Or so we believe.
Oddly, we heard no comparisons. There was no chat about who in the class had done well and who had not. Something good has happened with our children, and they have learned to respect each other’s privacy. Or, perhaps they have learned to protect themselves. If you are not asking, then you are also not telling. Maybe they have begun to mature or evolve to that place where we adults now stand, where your position relative to others in the professional world is not something you talk about with polite company—it is a subject reserved for you and your supervisor, or you and your spouse or partner or closest friend.
 
For most of us, our kids have also taken the SAT by now…  Scores are in, and I can tell you the numbers do not always go up from PSAT to SAT.  I think the truth is, “test day” may be as important as the number of prep classes your child has taken.  Our daughter took SATs on the Saturday following mid-term exams.  She was fried.  No matter she had learned all the tricks for easy elimination on the multiple choice format, no matter that she understands the quadratic equation.  She was tired, and a tired kid is not a good test taker.  They don’t really focus on these common sense pieces to test prep at the fee-for-service operations.  We know she will take the SAT again – most kids do.  But now we know it is not all about the prep course (although we remain hopeful that our investment is not a waste!).  Tests are tests are tests, and sometimes your teenager performs to ability, and sometimes not.  
So, congratulations, I say! Whatever that PSAT or SAT score was, I say “good job!” As we do for ourselves in real life, I will encourage our kids to try harder, do better if they can the next time, and learn something. But, as in real life, we must acknowledge where we stand right now. Not everyone will get that 2400 on the SAT, and not everyone can be the MVP at work. For all you overachievers out there, a disappointing score might spur you to action. But for the regular kids, I say love yourself. The world will meet you where you are.    

Some College Majors Make You Money. And Some Make You, Well, Less.

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Last year the Census Bureau started asking respondents who’d graduated from college what their undergraduate major was. And alas for us arts/education/social work majors — after parsing the data, it turns out that certain majors (unsurprisingly) bring financial rewards.  Or, as Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce puts it, “It does matter what you major in.”

How much?  Perhaps as much as $91,000 a year. Median earnings for counseling-psychology majors topped out at $29,000, while the enterprising petroleum-engineering majors averaged a whopping $120,000. (These figures are for workers whose highest degree is a bachelor’s.)

And while those kinds of numbers might make you want to throw up your hands and start paging through an engineering textbook, it’s not quite as stark as it seems. The report also notes that 70 percent of counseling-psychology majors get graduate degrees, which raises their income by 67 percent. 

The data revealed all sorts of other interesting tidbits. Women majoring in visual and performing arts, physiology, and information science outearn men — but for all other majors, men outearn women.

Other categories don’t necessarily line up the way you’d think they might — for example, social science majors outearn biology/life science majors; communications/journalism majors outearn law and public policy majors.

Go parse the data for yourself, and let us know what you find — any surprises?

Can a Good Slap Shot Pave the Way to a Good College?

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I feel stupidly naïve.  I didn’t understand about the slap shot.  To explain…

We had our meeting last week with Emily’s college counselor at school.  It progressed as we expected… introductions, expectations, process. Emily is our oldest child, so some of this seems new.  Yes, my husband and I both attended college, and even law school after that, but we’ve never been PARENTS to someone applying to college.  Point of view is everything sometimes.  The same experience can feel so different depending on your role in the events.  So, we went to the meeting with an open mind, interested in the advice the college counselor might share.

Emily is a very strong student.  She attends an academically rigorous college preparatory high school, and her peers are very accomplished young women.  When looking at colleges, though, it is hard to know where she will get in, and where she will not be accepted.  One of the tools the college counseling office shares with the students, and their parents, is a software program called Naviance.  This program allows college juniors and seniors to compare their position, and likelihood for acceptance to any given college or university, to the position of graduates of their high school – an “apples to apples” comparison.  These earlier students have taken the same courses from the same teachers with the same standards for grading.  Just as this helps colleges and universities compare the girls, it also helps the girls predict where they will be successful in the application process.

Example:  In 2010, 13 girls from Emily’s school applied to Boston College, and three were admitted.  In 2009, eight girls applied to BC, and two were admitted.  In 2008, six applied and two were admitted.  And so on…  On Naviance, we can see what their SAT scores and GPAs were, and extrapolate what Emily’s chances for admission at that school might be.  

The information about these girls is delivered in a few different formats, and the one I like the best is a graph, called a “scattergram.”  The axes of the graph are GPAs and SAT scores, and the acceptances are charted with a green square, while rejections are marked with a red x.  Our daughter’s point on the graph is marked with a circle, showing where she falls based on her current GPA and first set of SAT scores.  In general, the scores don’t lie.  Kids don’t get into colleges where they can’t succeed.  

But, sometimes there are outliers – green squares representing students whose grades and scores are not in the heat of the commonly accepted students, falling below the averages for acceptance at the school in consideration.  Foolishly, I allowed myself to think that some outliers were getting green squares because of exceptional character, extra-curriculars, leadership qualities, and overall wonderfulness.  But I wasn’t thinking about the slap shot!

So, I asked the college counselor about my “outlier” theory.  Were those other girls from our school whose grades didn’t fit the profile also young leaders, like Emily?  Well-rounded, hard-working girls who would be an asset wherever they landed, even if their grades were not top 5%?  Did she have a chance at the schools where her numbers did not match the averages?  His response, delivered with an apologetic expression hanging on his face, was “No.  Those girls mostly have an amazing slap shot.”  I felt so foolish – I just hadn’t seen it coming.   

Johns Hopkins: For Rich Kids Only?

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According to Johns Hopkins, the Class of 2015 will be “one of the most diverse in the university’s history.” Next year’s freshmen hail from all 50 states and a host of other countries; 23 percent of admits are underrepresented minorities. All encouraging facts. But as a recent New York Times article by David Leonhardt points out, economic diversity is still glaringly absent from top schools, and Hopkins is no exception.

One rough measure of economic diversity is the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants from the federal government — an approximate way to figure out how many students come from the bottom half of the income distribution. At Amherst, it’s 22 percent; nearly a third of UCLA and UC Berkeley students fall into this category. Hopkins’ figure? 11 percent.

Which is not to say that the university should be singled out for censure. Actually, it’s alarmingly in keeping with national trends. Leonhardt cites a study that examined the class of 2010 at the nation’s top 193 schools.  The economic distribution was way out of whack:  only 15 percent of students were from the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution, while 67 percent were from the top quarter. In 2003, there were more students from families that earned at least $200,000 than those in the entire bottom half of the income distribution. As Leonhardt points out, this doesn’t just mean that students from poor families aren’t attending top colleges — it means that the wealthy are increasingly pushing out the middle class.

As Anthony Marx, president of Amherst, told the Times, “We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent, yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

At Amherst, administrators are increasing grants for foreign students (who don’t qualify for Pell Grants) and seeking out transfer students from community colleges. At Hopkins, there’s the Baltimore Scholars program (a full-tuition scholarship for Baltimore City public high school students accepted to the university) and other need-based grant programs. But as Amherst demonstrates, it takes a lot more effort to correct the existing imbalance. 

Is this enough? Is increasing economic diversity something the university should prioritize?

Internships: Experience or Exploitation?

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When Johns Hopkins launched a new program offering paid internships with Baltimore-area non-profits, they found the response — more than 200 applications for 25 spots — “overwhelming.”

Which, if you think about it, is a little naive.  An internship is basically a necessity for today’s undergraduates, a way to make connections and build a resume. The feeling was present when I was an undergrad in the early 2000s — the sense that you’d never get a job unless you had a host of enviable institutions on your reference list; the idea that a summer spent lifeguarding or just lounging at your parents’ house, reading meant that you’d be left behind.

Which isn’t to say that all internships are worthy of these students’ time and enthusiasm. Many are unpaid, putting students in the unenviable position of having to beg to be allowed to work for free, sometimes at their fifteenth-choice organization. And of course there’s no guarantee that the work itself will be rewarding:  I got college credit for my “editorial internship” at a prestigious-sounding publication where my tasks included changing the boss’ license plate, filling out her daughter’s summer camp application (complete with forged signatures), bringing lunch to her daughter’s school when she forgot it, etc.

It’s partly in order to combat exploitative situations like this that the U.S. Labor Department recently revised its guidelines for unpaid internships with for-profit companies. Basically, if a student is getting credit for an internship, the work has to be structured like an educational experience. “The internship is for the benefit of the intern,” the Labor Department feels the need to proclaim — well, duh. But the fact that such an obvious guideline needs to be codified into law indicates how exploitative some situations have become.

So kudos to JHU for creating a program that seeks to place students in positions where they can contribute meaningfully to their community, where they’re overseen and protected by a university that takes their work seriously — and one that pays them well ($5000!). No wonder hundreds of students were interested — there’s not enough of this in the world.

It’s Not All About Resume Building

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A woman at the gym struck up conversation the other day. She recognized me from our girls’ high school, although her daughter is a few years older than ours. She asked, with real compassion, “So, how’s the college thing going?” There is this shared experience among parents, an empathy that transcends the chitchat, around this topic. Her daughter is already in college, a freshman at Penn, she told me with a suppressed smile of pride on her cheek. Our girls are in junior and sophomore years, so we are just beginning the journey.

This mother said to me, “I know you haven’t asked me for any advice, and maybe you don’t want it, but here is the most important thing anyone ever said to me about the college process, and I wish they had said it sooner. Colleges are looking at what your child IS, not what she ISN’T.”  She said, “We parents are so caught up in what they don’t have, what they haven’t done, that we really lose sight of how great our kids are! It’s such a shame.” We went our ways, and as I started up on the treadmill, I really was captured by what she had said. Of all the pieces of advice one parent can share with another about this process—make sure you start looking at schools in junior year; have her take the SAT at least three times; you should make sure she applies to at least two reaches and at least two safeties; try to pick a favorite and apply early decision—her advice seemed the best, so simple and honest.

In this race that our children are engaged in, it is easy to have the focus shift from what is there to what is not, from all the great things they have done and promise to do to gaps in the resume. We must work hard, for our children’s sake, to keep this from happening. For all the good they will gain at the great colleges they are sure to attend, we could really undermine the glory by not being their cheerleaders, their greatest fans. One huge element of success in this world is the confidence to do things you’ve never done before. They don’t teach that in high school, or college. We teach it at home. So, the next time someone asks you how the college thing is going, I hope your first thought is about what your child IS, not about what she is not.

Until It’s Zero: Underreported Rapes at Hopkins?

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From 2007 to 2009, JHU reported ZERO incidents of sexual assault or rape. While we would love for this to be the case, we know it’s not.

So proclaims the recently-launched Until It’s Zero project, a blog that declares itself “a space devoted to giving survivors of sexual violence an outlet until such a time as the incidence of sexual assault and rape truly is zero.” The blog features stories of assault, rape, gray-area situations, and harassment, written by anonymous Hopkins students — mostly women, but a few men as well.

As the blog’s moderators note, it’s notoriously tricky to get accurate statistics about rape/sexual assault, but some experts estimate that 1 in 4 college women has experienced some form of sexual assault in her lifetime. But a host of factors — from guilt to fear of social stigma to dismissive authority figures — means that many survivors decline to file official reports. A positive-seeming statistic — like Hopkins’ claim of no rapes or sexual assaults reported since 2007 — can actually mask a culture of shame. Over half the rapes committed on college campuses are never reported to police, the blog points out.

So far, the blog features a couple dozen stories from survivors, some set in Hopkins dorms and frat houses, others of which pre-date the writer’s time at the school. And all are heartbreaking to read: “I was 11 years old.  I was in CTY.” “The detective assigned to the case told me he only had time for ‘real rapes.'” It’s a harrowing collection of stories, many of which start out innocently — with a date, a party, a night out with friends.

Kudos to the Hopkins Feminist Alliance and Sexual Assault Response Unit for opening up the discussion. Let’s hope that someday soon that “zero” statistic does reflect campus reality.

The SEED of Greatness

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The SEED School of Maryland, a statewide, college-prep, public boarding school, welcomed its first students, 80 enthusiastic sixth graders, in 2008. Today, the lauded tuition-free school, aiming to serve the “underserved,” which combines rigorous academics with ultra-supportive and attentive boarding-school-style socialization, educates 240 kids, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. (SEED stands for School for Educational Evolution and Development.)

Two key donors were honored this month, former Ravens owner Arthur Modell and his wife Patricia, and the Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

“I am so proud to stand with The SEED School of Maryland, Art and Patricia Modell, and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, as we nurture the next generation of leaders by investing in their future,” said Judge Katie O’Malley. “It is the power of partnership that will help give our children the tools they need to succeed and build a brighter tomorrow.”

The Modells donated five million dollars to SEED in 2007, in crucial days, just before launch, the Weinberg Foundation two million. Since the school’s ambitious opening, the institution has raised 30 million dollars in private donations, which has made possible the construction of two dormitories and an academic building. In the works now: A pool, auditorium, atrium, and additional dormitory. Soon, the student body will grow to 400. Last year, they had an impressive 100 percent re-enrollment rate.

“We’ve come a long way since we broke ground at The SEED School of Maryland’s campus in 2008,” observed John H. Laporte, Chair of the Board of Trustees of The SEED School of Maryland, at the awards ceremony. “The campus is expanding, the student body is growing, and we are about to start our high school program. In just a few short years, we will be sending our first graduates to college. This is an exciting time at The SEED School, and there are so many more good things to come.”

There is one SEED school in Maryland, one in D.C., at present, the latter with a 95 percent rate of college attendance upon graduation.

Summer Road Trip: College Visits

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My husband and daughter took a road-trip last August. She was a rising junior, and we wanted to get a jump on college touring. She is our oldest child, and naturally, we are very excited to engage in this process with her. College is such an important step in a young person’s maturation that we are genuinely ecstatic for the opportunities that lie ahead. So, off to New England they went.  

We thought we were being a little precocious, a little ahead of the crowd, taking a trip BEFORE junior year. Alas, we were wrong. Many girls had been looking for months—checking out college campuses to “get a feel” for a place, or “see what a college campus looks like.” These are half-truths, spoken by parents and the children they love. The whole truth is that it is a dead heat to the finish line in the college admissions race. Some parents will tell you that they have taken a look around, and others will not, fearing that they will forfeit an advantage for their child. This is a marathon, and many parents set their pace miles ago, when we didn’t even know the race was on!

So, the thought for the day is, “Wise up, parents.” No one is going to spell it out for you.  The college counselors can answer questions, but they are not going to tell you what to do. And they are not going to counsel you in the things you don’t dare admit you want to know. These things are revealed in the trenches. So ask your friends with older children what they did, keep your eyes open, and don’t wait for the memo. 

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