Friday, December 6, 2013

Q&A with School Select NYC's Leah Wiseman Fink

by Weston Wells via Leah Wiseman Fink

On the topic of schools, about a month ago I met Leah Wiseman Fink, a local mom with her own education consultancy. Her company, School Select NYC, can help you navigate the maze that is public v. private, magnet v. charter and so on. I asked her a little bit about our neighborhood school choices.

Tell me a little bit about your background in education. 

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and went to school at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When I graduated, I got a job through a family friend at an alternative school near Detroit for high school students who got kicked out of school.  It was their last chance to make up credits to graduate. I was paired up with a fantastic English teacher who let me take over her class for a unit and fell in love with teaching, especially to kids who were looked at as "tough" to work with. I applied and got accepted to the New York Teaching Fellows program. I worked as an English teacher in the Bronx while earning my master's degree in Education at the same time. At the time, the school was one of the more violent in the city, and I had to be a tough teacher seeing as I was 23 and looked like a baby. But I absolutely loved the work and the kids, and from there went on to another more progressive Bronx high school where students went out and learned from doing internships for part of the week.

The more progressive curriculum was more up my alley, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with those students as well.  It was at that point that I decided to get another degree from Teacher's College at Columbia in Education Leadership.  During that same time, I helped a school in Williamsburg start a similar internship program to the one in the Bronx. After the internship program was up and running, I decided to make a move to the Office of New Schools at the Department of Education. It was an exciting time in the height of the New School movement. During my time there, we looked for new talent, helped them develop their new school plans, and watched them successfully open their doors to serve students all over the city.  People were always asking me about particular schools so after I had my son in June, I decided that I would dedicate more of my time to helping families figure out the best placements for their kids.

There's a huge baby boom going on in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Is the DOE responding by expanding its capacity in District 14? 

Yes, capacity will expand with the need for more seats. Even more so, though, I think that you'll see the quality of the schools improving with more parent involvement and more parent voice. I think that the opening of The Arbor School was a reaction to the growing young population here and the kind of school people wanted in the neighborhood. Also the expansion of PS 84 from an elementary school into a K-8 is definitely a reaction to the need for more seats. A lot of what happens in the next couple of years depends on which direction the new mayor wants to move the system ... so we shall see!

I've heard good things about PS84, The Brooklyn Arbor School, and PS31. How would you say those schools differ?

Brooklyn Arbor is the newest of the three schools, currently in its second year of existence. In South Williamsburg, the school has a very tight community with energetic, enthusiastic teachers and very involved parents. The teaching philosophy here blends progressive and traditional models, and students have time to play inside and outside. It's a very warm and welcoming environment.

PS 84 has been around a long time and is gaining momentum as the neighborhood gentrifies. There is a Spanish-English Dual Language program, which is becoming more and more popular with parents.  The school only got mediocre scores on the DOE metrics, citing pedagogy and curriculum as places that they need to improve. But, this is a quickly growing school that is on the upswing. Another benefit to this school is that it's expanding into a middle school in the 2014-2015 school year. This could a huge plus in not having to start from square one in the school search process for middle schools.

PS 31 is probably the most traditional of the three schools, boasting very high test scores. Offering a great after school program, this school is also very well known for their chess team. It earned very high scores on the DOE metrics. This school has a reputation for rigorous academics and a strong sense of order. If you have a child that thrives in structured environments, this might be a great choice for you.

A lot of parents seem to love Williamsburg Northside School, a private option. What will students get there they wouldn't get in the public system? 

It might seem obvious to say but one of the benefits of a private school is that because they aren't publicly funded, they aren't bound by the rules and regulations of the DOE. They don't have to abide by standard school hours, number of teachers in a classroom, or give the same standardized tests. One huge benefit is that more money often means a) more space and b) smaller classes, both of which are hard to come by in public schools. In addition, parents may have more access to teachers and administration because paying customers get more attention! At the same time, parents give up some rights by sending their kids to private schools. For example, if a private school says that they don't have resources to serve a special needs student, it will then be responsibility of the parents to come up with a different solution or placement.

Explain, if you can, a bit about The Common Core? 

This is a complicated issue with many layers, but the short version is that the switch to Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) has been slowly happening for a number of years, and has really taken hold this year. Starting to look at it with the end in mind, starting this year, the standardized tests are going to be aligned with the CCLS instead of the state standards. The purpose of new standards is to ensure that students are ready for college level academic courses and/or the workforce, and the aim of the standards is for students to use higher order thinking skills as well as gain narrower but deeper understanding of content level. In addition, there will be more of a focus around formative assessment, meaning that teachers will be encouraged to understand what students are learning along the way instead of just at the end. There is some pushback around this change -- a lot of it is around the higher level of the new system as well as the fast pace that some schools felt it was implemented.

There seems to be so much jargon in the public school system. Even the grading system is confusing. 

It's awesome that the Department of Education makes school ratings public so that anyone can access them. On the other hand, it's only helpful if you know how to read what's available.

The Progress Report measures Student Progress, Student Performance, School Environment and Closing the Achievement Gap. This could be confusing because while a low grade in Student Progress could not be a bad thing if test scores are relatively high, but consistent (because Progress is measuring how far they go up), but a low grade for Student Performance means that scores are low altogether. And even then, schools are able to manipulate numbers.

Two metrics that I like to concentrate on when looking at a school are the School Environment Survey and the Quality Review. The SES measures staff and parent satisfaction, and can't be tampered with -- you can also look at what percentage of parents and staff answered it. Usually a happy staff = good environment, and often = high quality teaching.

The Quality Review is a newer metric, and not all schools have gotten reviewed. If you open the QR, the first page will tell you if the school earned a Under Developed, Developing, Proficient, or Well Developed. The next couple of pages give you an overview of what the school does well and what needs work, and the last few pages break down how the school actually scored in different categories.

Another great resource is -- they give informative overviews of schools as well as links to all the data.  In addition, parents and students can comment on their actual experience at the school.  Scroll down there -- what people have to say can sometimes be helpful.

What do local parents need to know about applying to pre-k and Kindergarden in the neighborhood? 

First, don't freak out!!  There are a lot of good options and you will get a placement. Second, search early! Third, do your research, learning about the admissions processes and deadlines. Go on  as many school visits as possible, read up on potential schools, and talk to people about their experiences.

How can you help individual families navigate the school system, and how can they best reach you? 

I can walk you through the whole process from applications and deadlines to the lowdown on individual schools as well as how to read all the data that's already out there. Given the overwhelming number of factors that go into choosing the best school for your child, it's sometimes hard to be able to see what's most important. I can guide you through figuring out what the best fit for you and your family is and assist you in working to get a placement there. The window for applying to public kindergarden for the 2014-2015 school year is January 13, 2014 - February 14, 2014 so get in touch with me before then.  You can check out my website or contact me at or 212-495-9364.

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