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8-17-12 Education Issues in the News

Star Ledger - Strides in online education pave way for virtual charter schools in N.J.

Published: Friday, August 17, 2012, 10:35 AM Updated: Friday, August 17, 2012, 10:37 AM

By Jeanette Rundquist/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

NEWARK — In just over a week, 80 sixth-graders will walk into a brick office building in downtown Newark, flip open their wireless laptops, and log on to class in one of the state’s newest schools.

Merit Preparatory Charter School will begin classes Aug. 27 on one floor of a Broad Street building, with walls removed to create a large open space, glass partitions defining classrooms, and wireless routers dotting the ceiling.

Students have been using computers to learn for years, but Merit Prep, and Newark Prep, a new charter high school, are unique in that students will primarily learn math, language arts, social studies and other subjects online. They will spend only half the school day working with one of seven instructors in small groups to sharpen their knowledge of the class material.

At a time when online learning has become commonplace in workplaces and colleges, and when students routinely use Powerpoint for homework or collaborate with classmates online, many say virtual teaching seems like the next step in education.

"I think New Jersey’s overdue. Colleges are starting to insist students take online courses to help prepare them for the global economy," said Sr. Elizabeth Dalessio, assistant superintendent of Monmouth Ocean Educational Services Commission, which provides online classes for grades 6-12 through the New Jersey Virtual School.

Dalessio said students from 100 districts across the state that use the commission’s courses work at their own pace, and even get more teacher contact, often via e-mail.

"I had one student say I feel like I’m in the first row of the classroom," she said.

Merit Prep and Newark Prep are not the first in the state to try virtual teaching; a few districts run online alternative schools or summer schools and a "hybrid’ high school operated briefly in Newark, but they are leading a wave of charter schools planning to offer online education in New Jersey including several proposed full-time virtual schools.

New Jersey is one of only 10 states that does not yet have a statewide virtual school, which would allow students to take classes from home. That may soon change.

Next year, the Monmouth Ocean commission hopes to open New Jersey Virtual Charter School, one of two virtual charter schools awaiting final approval from the state whose students would take all classes at home.

Additionally, the Newark-based New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter School hopes to serve 850 students statewice, some as young as kindergarten.

Department of Education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said the state has recently hired a "chief innovation officer" to help guide schools develop online curriculum as the state is poised to approve two virtual schools.

Some critics, however, say full-time virtual learning is not working for all students, especially young children.

One study on Pennsylvania’s eight virtual charter schools found students performed "significantly worse" than students in brick-and-mortar charter schools, said Gary Miron, an education policy fellow at the University of Colorado.

"I haven’t seen any studies yet that show full-time virtual schools are working. In fact, they’re not working," Miron said.

Teenage students may do well online, but children in elementary school lack the discipline and maturity needed to succeed in a virtual classroom, said Joanne P. Kenny, co-chair of teacher education at Georgian Court University.

"You can’t just throw a project up online and expect students to do it," Kenny said. "You can’t just post a blog and expect students to answer, and that’s the only learning of content."

"I think it’s the wave of the future, but it can’t be a flavor of the month," she said.

A non-profit school management group called Touchstone Education will run Merit Prep, said Ben Rayer, the organization’s chief operating officer. Merit Prep will only teach sixth graders this year, but hopes to expand to 500 students in grades 6-12.

Rayer, a former teacher, charter school administrator and public finance consultant, said the idea is to use new teaching tools to individualize learning.

"If you were to look at a classroom from 100 years ago and at the traditional school classroom today, they’d look very similar," Rayer said. "We think the world has changed dramatically."

Merit Prep’s budget is $1.02 million for 80 sixth-graders, or about $12,750 per student, although that may increase depending on student demographics, Rayer said. Touchstone’s fee is 15 percent per pupil revenue, but Rayer said they are not taking the $150,000 fee this year.

Touchstone also hopes to use $3.6 million in promised grant funds and loans from the Charter Schools Growth Fund, a national group, to open six similar charter schools in New Jersey with partial online instruction, Rayer said.

Newark Prep has also contracted with an outside group for some services. A curriculum contract will allow K12 Inc., a for-profit company known as the nation’s largest provider of online education, to collect a fee from Newark Prep.

Merit Prep is a good fit for 11-year-old Charles Yost, said his aunt Shirley Jenkins of Newark. The city’s public schools are too dangerous and the parochial schools are too expensive, she said

"Let me tell you something, he is an expert on the computer," Jenkins said of her nephew. "I think it will be something children will be interested in, something new and innovative."

Nausia Bell’s son, Khari, 11, is also entering sixth grade at Merit Prep because she believes new ideas on how to teach are needed. She will wait and see how effective the combination of online and traditional instruction is for Khari.

Bell said she would not have considered enrolling her son in a full-time virtual school.

"Supervising an 11-year-old online all day, I think would be a challenge," she said. "Where would be the socialization?"

In Ocean Township, summer students were able to complete coursework either from home or at a school computer lab.

High school junior Alyssa Camacho, 16, who took a geometry quiz online one recent day, said she was doing better online than in traditional class. "You really have to stay focused on what you need to pass," she said.

Ocean School Superintendent John Lysko said students like the scheduling flexibility of online classes, and find the work engaging.

The passing rate for online summer school was lower than that of the previous year’s traditional courses, Lysko said , but added he expects that figure to improve as the online program grows.

"Virtual reality is becoming real," Lysko said.


Star Ledger - With new superintendent, changes come fast to Newark schools

Published: Tuesday, August 14, 2012, 6:30 AM Updated: Tuesday, August 14, 2012, 7:05 AM

By Jessica Calefati/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

NEWARK —When DaShawn Boyd enrolled last fall as a freshman at Bard Early College High School he considered himself a top student. The 15-year-old had earned mostly A’s at Camden Middle School.

But a few weeks into the school year, he discovered things were different. "I was failing math, a subject I had always done well in," DaShawn said. "I started to realize I was failing because I hadn’t learned enough math before I got to high school."

DaShawn said his middle school teachers were so busy breaking up fights among students that there was little time left for instruction. Now, he and roughly two dozen classmates must repeat some freshman year coursework at Bard — one of four new high schools opened last year in Newark — because they were not ready for the rigors of high school.

"At my old school, I was the smart kid," said Lorenzo Lloyd, 15, another Bard student who failed at least one course. "Those teachers cheated me out of a better education."

Bard is one of the ambitious new schools opened last year under Newark School Superintendent Cami Anderson and Dashawn’s experience could be seen as a microcosm of the school system she has started to remake her first year. There was a new boss in town and the change came fast.

Anderson, 41, appointed in May 2011, has closed schools, replaced nearly half of the city’s principals, extended the school day for thousands of students and opened new secondary schools such as Bard Early College High School, a rigorous program that allows students to graduate with a diploma and a two-year associate’s degree.

From interviews with teachers, students and school officials, it's clear that Anderson won a lot friends in her first year but she has also made some members of the community feel like there is a revolution going on — one they are not sure they like.

Even more change is coming this fall - for the first time, new, consolidated elementary and middle schools, with new leadership and updated technology, will open in place of the failed neighborhood schools Anderson shuttered.

And she shows no signs of letting up.

"None of this work is easy because we all want results for our kids yesterday," Anderson said. "We will make some mistakes for sure, but if we learn from our missteps and follow the pathway my team has laid out, I’m hopeful we will end up in a good place for kids."

Critics of Anderson’s work say she has not done enough to earn respect from the families most affected by her changes. And, they warn that misstep could scuttle her efforts as the city schools move forward. This they say could be a tumultuous year.

"Cami Anderson does not listen to this community," said Lyndon Brown, PTA president at Thirteenth Avenue School, one of the schools Anderson closed in June. "Some parents raise questions that are never answered and others are left in the dark. How can you help but feel your children are being disenfranchised?"

Pedro Noguera, an urban education professor at New York University, backs many of Anderson’s policy decisions, but said change must be made through the community, not around it.

"Newark schools experienced a vigorous shakeup this past year, and Cami deserves praise for her urgency," Noguera said. "She must do more to engage parents as partners in this work. It’s vital to the long term success of her reforms."

Community engagement is a responsibility she takes seriously, said Anderson, who earns $247,000 a year as superintendent. For example, she created an office focused exclusively on parent outreach. Through it, small groups of moms, dads and grandparents toured schools affected by her policy changes.

Anderson also became part of the community she is trying to improve. She and her domestic partner, Jared Robinson, and their son, Sampson, 2 1/2, moved from Harlem to Newark shortly after her appointment.

One of Anderson’s most sweeping - and most controversial - reform initiatives was her decision to close a dozen schools with low test scores and dwindling enrollment and open eight schools with new principals, different teachers and more classroom resources.

Hundreds attended school board meetings to protest the closings because many of the affected schools had deep ties to their communities, such as Eighteenth Avenue School, which was built in the late 1800s.

Barbara Ervin has been an educator in Newark for 40 years and served as principal at Eighteenth Avenue for 9 of them. The office she recently packed up was covered in handmade cards and drawings from former students that she cared for like family.

"Dear Ms. E. You are a great principal. I love you," read one note.

Because some students there had troubled home lives, she said, many needed extra support from their teachers. Ervin said it was common for Eighteenth Avenue students who arrived at school without uniforms to get extra ones laundered by school staff.

"My staff was just like that. I don’t think twice about going into my own pocket to make sure students have what they need to do well in school," Ervin said. "You have to sweat the small stuff."

Unlike most administrators from the closed schools, Ervin has a new assignment this fall. She will become principal at Cleveland Avenue School, one of those Anderson is trying to remake.

Cleveland Avenue School will be outfitted with laptops, smartboards and wireless internet. The school day will be extended, health services will be offered for students and parents will have access to GED and financial literacy coursework.

Ervin said she is saddened by Anderson’s decision to close Eighteenth Avenue, but now has a rare opportunity to start fresh with teachers she selected.

"I’m looking for people who can demonstrate and articulate that kids come first," Ervin said. "I can teach you how to teach, I’ve done it before, but if that love of the children is not there among my new staff, this new school will never be a great school."

Boosting teacher quality in Newark is another priority for Anderson. Over the past year, she met more that 600 teachers at forums and brown-bag lunches, and plans to use their feedback to develop district policy.

Last year, for the first time, Anderson also allowed principals to select their teaching staff. Tenured teachers not picked were given temporary assignments at a cost to the district of $8 million because state law prevents Anderson from laying off the teachers who were not chosen.

Part of reason Anderson sought to close some schools and consolidate the district was to save money, she said. This past year, the district sent roughly one quarter of its $800 million budget to cover the education of students in Newark charter schools, and she said the district can no longer afford half-empty buildings.

To increase revenue by up to $700,000 a year, Anderson recently decided to lease space in district facilities to some of those charter schools, against the wishes of the district’s advisory school board.

This move smacks of disrespect for the community, said Joe Del Grosso, the president of Newark’s teachers union. "I understand Cami Anderson is working for the state of New Jersey because Newark is a state operated district, but sometimes I wish she’d just work for the people of Newark and take their wishes into account," Del Grosso said.

Anderson said she hopes her decisions will benefit the same objective — to have all Newark students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college without remediation. Currently, only half of Newark’s students graduate from high school, and only 40 percent of those students attend college.

Opening Bard Early College High School and three other secondary schools for Newark teens is part of the plan to increase the graduation rate, though general plans for new schools were initiated by her predecesor.

Bard High School’s mission reflects its name and offers junior and senior students the chance to earn associate degrees while working toward their high school diplomas. This year, juniors took a college-level sociology course on gender and history. Bard’s road to opening, however, was not easy. Newark’s advisory school board voted in April 2011 to block it’s approval before state education officials overruled the board, allowing the school to open as planned last fall.

Striking the appropriate balance between what the community says it wants and what district officials believe is best for the students is never easy, said Valerie Wilson, a longtime Newark resident and the district’s business administrator.

Newarkers, she said, have never been keen on change.

"This is a large system that you cannot stop on a dime and turn at will. You have to turn it gently as best you can," Wilson said.


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