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Parent-Teacher Conferences Limited to 3 Minutes at Big Middle Schools

By Leslie Albrecht | November 21, 2013 6:36am
 At M.S. 51 in Park Slope parent-teacher conferences are limited to three minutes.
At M.S. 51 in Park Slope parent-teacher conferences are limited to three minutes.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

PARK SLOPE — Parent-teacher conferences at some middle schools have become a combination of speed dating and the running of the bulls, families say.

Middle schools such as M.S. 51 and M.S. 88 give parents exactly three minutes to discuss their child's progress with each of their five teachers, and time limits are strictly enforced.

The rapid-fire meet-and-greets are the harsh reality for many schools, said District 15 President's Council president Natalie Green Giles.

"It's shock to the system of an elementary school parent who's used to sitting down and having a 15-minute talk with their teacher," said Giles, who's also the M.S. 51 PTA co-president.

The clock-watching is necessary in part because the conferences are confined to a two-hour period on one specific evening and a two-and-a-half-hour period on one specific afternoon — parents choose which is more convenient.

That policy, set by the Department of Education and the teachers' union, applies even at large schools like M.S. 51 and M.S. 88, which both have about 1,000 students.

At the twice-yearly conferences, parents must show up in person at the beginning of the session, then race around the building to sign up for the 180-second slots at each classroom. At this week's evening session at M.S. 51, parents had from 5:50 p.m. to 6 p.m. to sign up for conference times.

"It's like the running of the bulls," Giles said. "The clock starts, and you run and you sign up for appointments. It's an unbelievable scene and parents are shell-shocked the first time. It doesn't feel great."

One M.S. 51 mom said she started shaking the first time she saw the "floodgates open," and a dad described the scene as "mayhem" and "like a sport."

The fast-and-furious conferences are a symptom of super-sized classes, a problem that shows no sign of shrinking, said Leonie Haimson, executive director of advocacy group Class Size Matters.

Class sizes have swelled for the sixth year in a row, according to data released Monday. The average size for fourth through eighth grade classes is now 26.8 students, representing a 7 percent increase since 2007. Meanwhile, the number of teachers dropped by 4,000 during that same period, according to Class Size Matters.

"The larger the class size, the less time parents can spend with teachers during parent-teacher night," Haimson said in an email. "It is a huge problem as three minutes is clearly not enough."

She added that when teachers have smaller classes, they're more likely to contact families throughout the year, "to let them know when their children have done something well [and] when they are struggling."

Though the mass conference sessions are "unsatisfying," Giles says M.S. 51 parents don't feel cheated when it comes to face time with teachers. Parents who want a more in-depth discussion can schedule separate meetings, and most teachers respond quickly to emailed questions.

"I don’t think anyone would complain that they didn’t have the opportunity to talk to a teacher when they needed it," Giles said.

During conference sessions at M.S. 51, Giles said she remembers seeing even high-powered New Yorkers such as mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, then a City Councilman and M.S. 51 parent, reduced to rushing through the four-story building in search of conference slots.

In recent years some parents were reportedly "abusing the system" by texting friends and asking them to write their names on sign-up sheets, so M.S. 51 officials had to insist that parents only sign their own names, Giles said.

Savvy parents map out their child's schedule and plot a route based on which teachers they want to see most. Leaving sufficient travel time between appointments is key, because parents lose their slots if they're not there when their names are called. To keep things running smoothly, student monitors knock on the door when time is up.

Inevitably, moms and dads don't get a chance for face time with every one of their child's educators, Giles said, something that's "disconcerting" for parents.

To help parents get the most out of the brief conferences, M.S. 51 wrote a guide with tips on how to squeeze the most out of your three minutes. Among them: if your kid is performing well, skip the conference.

Parents at M.S. 447 complained so much about the 3-minute limit that the school switched last year to a new system in which families have a single 15-minute meeting with one teacher. The student's other teachers submit comments about their progress and parents get a comprehensive portrait of how their child is faring, said PTA co-president Deanna Brown.

"We came up with that plan after much parent pain," Brown said. "Nobody liked [the three-minute limit]. You would be staking out classrooms, the hallways were crowded. It was awful."