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Garden State Coalition of Schools
Elisabeth Ginsburg, Executive Director
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9-25-12 Education Issues in the News

Jersey Journal - Cerf says talk of privatizing New Jersey public schools is 'palpable, absolute nonsense'

Updated: Monday/The Jersey JournalThe Jersey Journal

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said tonight there is no effort to privatize New Jersey’s public schools, adding that any talk of such an effort is “palpable, ridiculous nonsense.”

Cerf, speaking at a hearing on public education tonight at New Jersey City University, was responding to a comment from a Jersey City woman who said the state’s children are being “used.”

“Your strategy in privatization is clearly in the interests of venture capitalists,” said Josephine Page, a frequent presence at Jersey City Board of Education meetings.

Cerf said he is “stunned and astonished” that serious citizens believe the state is interested in privatizing public schools.

“The notion that there is some group of corporate, you know, kingpins out there who are lurking in an effort to conspire to take over … is just nonsense,” Cerf said. “It is palpable, ridiculous nonsense that someone has sold you.”

Cerf added: “I am embarrassed to the degree to which that has taken hold … it is just not so.”

Critics of the Jersey City BOE’s appointment of Marcia V. Lyles as the 29,000-student district’s new superintendent have claimed Lyles – a graduate, like Cerf, of the controversial Broad Superintendents Academy – intends to collude with Cerf to close and privatize some of the district’s schools.

Lyles and Cerf have denied the accusation.


The Record - Blue Ribbon award spotlights exemplary schools


When New Jersey’s 17 new National Blue Ribbon Schools got word of their awards this month, they were quick to festoon their front doors with huge blue bows and balloons.

Capturing the award for excellence is a moment of great pride and a potent marketing tool, vivid blue proof that a school’s students did very well on standardized tests and their programs impressed judges. Bergen and Passaic counties had seven winners, and some immediately sent out news releases to let their neighbors know.

Nationwide, 219 public schools and 50 private schools got the award this year. It’s a huge coup to get one, but there’s a common misconception that schools with Blue Ribbons rack up the very best results in America. One winner even boasted on its website that its Blue Ribbon places it “among the 50 top-performing private elementary schools in the nation.”

But the award does not make quite such a bold statement.

Many schools aren’t even in the running. Among private schools, only a fraction of those with good enough test scores to apply actually do so. Thousands of eligible schools don’t bother. It’s voluntary, much like Math Olympiads and robotics competitions, or individual challenges like the Intel Science Talent Search.

Among public schools, complex rules determine the ones that can participate, and the New Jersey education commissioner can nominate only nine. A third of the public-system nominees must spotlight schools where at least 40 percent of the children are disadvantaged.

Public schools with many poor children tend to be in the category for schools that are “improving.” For the “high performing”

category, the most affluent districts have an edge; their students tend to have the best test scores thanks in part to parents who are themselves well educated and can afford many books, tutoring, enrichment activities and other resources. Indeed, all three public elementary winners are in Bergen County districts of high socioeconomic status.

Furthermore, many worthy candidates are excluded because New Jersey won’t nominate two schools from the same district in the same year.

The U.S. Department of Education, which runs the Blue Ribbon program, says it aims to spotlight “exemplary” schools, not rank them.

“How would you determine what are the best schools? What are the standards?” asked Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, which helps run the private school arm of the competition. “We don’t make any claims these are the best 50 schools in the nation. We wouldn’t have any way to support that claim, but these are quality schools worthy of national recognition.”

Judges don’t visit the applicants but rely on the schools’ self-reports. Much like teenagers who sweat over college admission essays, school leaders have to be persuasive in detailed narratives about their curriculum, use of data, parent involvement and other issues.

“A good part of the application is describing your school in a way that conveys the ‘wow factor,’ź” said Barbara Dolan, an assistant superintendent of schools at the Archdiocese of Newark, which has been energetic in competing.

All New Jersey’s eight private school winners were Catholic schools. They’re part of a nationwide push: According to the Council for American Private Education, 114 of the 135 private schools that vied across the country this year were Catholic schools. Independent schools and schools of other faiths tend not to participate. Of the 50 winners in the private category nationwide, 44 were Catholic schools.

Brother Ralph Darmento, deputy superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Newark, said his schools spent enormous effort on the time-consuming Blue Ribbon program because it helped display the value of parochial schools.

“We know we’re good,” he said. “It’s important that society and the larger community of New Jersey understand.”

To be eligible, private schools must score in the top 15 percent nationwide in each grade level on standardized tests they choose to use — whether national tests — like the TerraNova — or state assessments or both. Russ Dusewicz, a test consultant at CTB/McGraw-Hill, which sells many of these tests, estimated thousands of private schools had high enough scores to apply for Blue Ribbons.

In North Jersey, Academy of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tenafly, Visitation Academy Interparochial in Paramus and St. Philip the Apostle School in Clifton got Blue Ribbons this year.

At Mount Carmel on a recent day, Principal Sylvia Cosentino beamed with pride as she led a tour of her spic-and-span classrooms. A group of polite sixth-graders stood to say hello in unison and then sat down to focus quietly on work sheets about a short story, “Eleven,” by Sandra Cisneros.

“Answer the questions thoroughly,” advised their teacher, Mary Paone. “I want to know the reasons. Give me evidence.”

St. Philip’s application highlighted its academic offerings and colorful fine arts extravaganzas, including “Food Network Iron Chef Challenges, Samoan slap dancing, as well as staging real-life Norman Rockwell paintings.”

Independent schools don’t typically seek Blue Ribbons, said Rodney V. DeJarnett, headmaster of the Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood. He said “high-powered” independent schools wanted students attracted to their particular cultures and missions, and weren’t interested in a federal award defined mostly by public school systems’ use of test scores. He said many of his older students were doing college-level work that was far more advanced than the Blue Ribbon threshold.

Further, while his school uses test scores as one factor in admission, he said scores couldn’t measure a school’s effectiveness in nurturing creative people to succeed in college, work and life. Rather, he said, test scores largely reflected the economic background of the school’s population.

“There’s an argument to suggest that the Blue Ribbon has nothing to do with the quality of experience and strengths of an academic program,” he said.

For public schools, New Jersey’s winning elementary schools this year are in Mahwah, Ridgewood and Ramsey. Hardly any of their children are transient, learning English as a second language or poor enough to get subsidized lunches — all factors linked to struggles with state tests.

Still, their leaders note that their schools have special merits: After all, many schools in North Jersey share the same advantaged-student demographics, but only a few won the award.

Christine Zimmermann, director of curriculum and instruction in Mahwah, said the Betsy Ross School’s students benefit from involved parents, talented teachers and a commitment to focus on core standards assessed by state tests. “Our whole community is proud and rightfully so,” she said.

In Ridgewood’s Willard School, Principal Marianne Williams noted the deep current of support from families, who raised $94,000 at one auction to buy three carts of iPads. “Children enjoy being here and work hard,” she added.

And at Mary A. Hubbard Elementary in Ramsey, Principal Molly Dinning pointed to her school’s “amazingly strong character education program” and teachers’ skills in tailoring lessons to the levels of individual students.

The other six public winners are vocational-technical schools where students have to apply to get in. Officials note that many students flourish academically in these specialized environments because they see proof that learning math, science and other skills will directly affect their job potential.

Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said the six Blue Ribbons “validate the rigor” of these programs.

Two with a majority of poor students — based in Perth Amboy and West Caldwell — won in the “most improving” category.

Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro won a Blue Ribbon this year, following in the footsteps of the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack. The Teterboro campus has gotten increasingly competitive, with 950 applicants for 170 openings.

“The award recognizes not only the consistent academic achievement from students and teachers,” said Superintendent Howard Lerner, “but the rest of the Bergen County education community who prepared their students to succeed.”

Email: brody@northjersey.com
Lerner, “but the rest of the Bergen County education community who prepared their students to succeed.”

Email: brody@northjersey.com


NJ Spotlight - Bill Would Stretch the School Day, Extend the School Year…Three-year pilot would be funded by corporate contributions that would earn 100 percent tax credits

By John Mooney, September 25, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment

A Democratic-backed bill aimed at extending the school day and the school year could morph into a broader measure that also pays districts to experiment with innovative approaches as to how time is used in schools.

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The bill (S-2087) would furnish up to 25 districts with grant funding to evaluate longer school schedules. The pilot would run for three years and be paid for with corporate contributions that in turn would earn 100 percent state tax credits.

The measure passed the Senate Education Committee yesterday; it was voted out by the Assembly education committee in June.

Just as soon as it passed, one of its chief Senate sponsors said yesterday that she would revise the bill significantly before taking it to a full vote, opening up both the programs available for grant funding and the financing mechanisms to pay for them.

“Let’s really raise the bar,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate committee. “Let’s see what other best practices we can weave into this to make this a comprehensive bill.”

“I wanted to get the conversation going, and get everyone moving on this,” she said.

Ruiz said the bill could complement a proposal by the Christie administration to set up a so-called Innovation Fund in the fiscal 2014 state budget. It would provide $50 million in grants for a range of yet undefined projects.

If the new measure passes, it would award comparable sums for stretching daily and annual schedules, as well as for other scheduling innovations: up to $24 million in the first year, $48 million in the second, and $72 million in the third.

Ruiz yesterday said she still wanted to keep the focus on extended schedules, pointing to growing support for longer time in the classroom. Still, she said the current bill needed some stricter guidelines as to what districts could try.

“While I don’t want the state to tell districts what these will look like, we should set down some parameters,” Ruiz said after the committee hearing.

Cosponsored by state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), the current bill would require a district to have the support of a majority of its families and its staff to even apply for the funding. The state would pick a cross-section of districts (geographically and socio-economically) to participate in the pilot.

Several advocates yesterday testified that the state not only needs to lay out clearer guidelines to ensure a good sample of districts, but also to require that the strategies be closely tracked and evaluated.

“One thing we’d like to come out of this is a robust research project so that we have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work,” said Jennifer Keyes-Maloney of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

“If we decide to scale this up statewide, we would have a true understanding of what the best programs are throughout the state,” she explained.

Others asked for a more stable funding stream than just corporate contributions, even if tagged to state tax credits. Ruiz said she would add provisions that would include federal and philanthropic funding as well. A federally funded program now in place is already testing extended days in a handful of districts.

The only dissenting vote on the committee came from state Sen. Michael Doherty (D-Warren), who said he objected to the premise that longer school days required additional funding.

“Not sure we should have a policy or imply that right out of the box,” he said. “We by any measure already have the most expensive education system in the country, if not the face of the earth, and this will only add additional costs.”



NJ Spotlight - SDA Breaks Ground for Long Branch Elementary School…With seven years from blueprint to bulldozer, does Long Branch herald a faster, more responsive Schools Development Authority?

By John Mooney, September 25, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment


All the complaints and court challenges against the Christie administration and its Schools Development Authority went largely unspoken yesterday in Long Branch.

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For the first time since he was elected, Gov. Chris Christie stood in an empty lot with a ceremonial shovel and could enjoy an SDA groundbreaking he could call his own.

“Let’s get some shovels in the ground and get this project cooking,” he said.

Of course, it took almost seven years to get the George L. Catrambone Elementary School this far. And it will be at least another two before students will walk through its doors. But in choosing Long Branch, Christie picked one the few success stories of the state’s school construction project -- largely because the district got in early and fast.

While projects continue to languish in cities like Newark, Jersey City and Camden, Long Branch is wrapping up its wish list of projects requested more than a decade ago, when the state Supreme Court first ordered the massive construction program for the state’s neediest districts.

It now has a new elementary school to match the high school and middle schools built in the early part of the program.

“If I could only give other people advice,” said Michael Salvatore, the district’s superintendent, when first approached for words of encouragement to others.

“One of the things I learned,” he continued, “don’t fight the small stuff and get the shovels in the ground. If you are fighting about shingles on the roof or the color of the school, first get those shovels in the ground and then you deal with that.”

It’s a message that others brought up as well, particularly in places where the SDA hasn't been a curse word over the past few years. Nearby in Neptune, there have been 11 SDA projects in all in eight school buildings, two of them new construction, the rest major renovations.

Again, all the work was done in the early stages of the program, long before the Corzine administration slowed the projects and then Christie virtually stopped them altogether to make what he claimed were needed organizational changes to an agency accused of widespread waste and mismanagement.

“A district really needs to commit and prove that commitment,” said David Mooij, the Neptune superintendent who was among those at the groundbreaking yesterday. “We were always ready to go.”

When asked what it was like yesterday: “We get to sit back and enjoy.”

That’s not to say other districts aren’t equally committed, he and others said, and even the path to Long Branch’s new elementary school has had its share of frustrating turns, both before and during the Christie administration.

The former Elberon Elementary School was first approved for replacement in 2005, but not demolished until 2009, at one point sitting empty a year and a half, while brand new school buildings were overcrowded from the moment they opened.

It took another two years for the Christie administration, by then in the reorganization of the SDA, to clear the project for construction in 2011 and actually start the work this year. Ironically, it is not one of the projects using standardized design and construction plans, something that the SDA is now pushing for new projects.

Marc Larkins, the SDA’s chief executive, yesterday said Long Branch’s progress spoke to the different levels of readiness in districts, including in their leadership.

“That was the key to districts like Neptune, Long Branch, and other districts is they were ready,” he said. “They had leaders who were committed, had a lot of legwork done on their own, and they weren’t fighting us at the table.”

“I think the lessons learned is not all SDA districts are on par, and there are real differences among the districts,” he said.

The SDA has now cleared 30 capital projects, out of a total list of 300 requested by the districts. Catrambone is the first of them to actually see bulldozers at work, as they were at the groundbreaking.

The SDA's recent gains have hardly slowed the challenges it faces. Lawyers were in state appellate court last week presenting oral arguments in a suit against the state for the slow pace of its emergency repair work.

But Larkins yesterday pledged that a change is coming, even laying out the start of a timeline.

“You will see the pace is going to quicken, but being done in an efficient way,” Larkins said. “We are going to announce or advertise new projects every month for the rest of this year, and roll it into the first couple of months into next year, too.”

“When people talk about the pace of our program, it will be light speed compared to what it was,” he said.

As for Salvatore, the Long Branch superintendent, all he could say is that he felt “very fortunate.” He applauded the work of the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy organization that has fought the SDA for theplast three years. And he credited something else.

“I think luck has something to do with it too,” he said. “You have 300 projects waiting to be released, and you’re one of the first 10, that’s pretty good.”

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