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10-9-12 Education and Related Issues in the News

  • NJ Spotlight - Inside the Classroom with New Jersey's Latest Teacher of the Year
  • The Record - Stile: Christie fight over state Supreme Court is one for the ages
  • Courier Post - Hope school decision 'unusual' defeat for Norcross…Democrat renews push for Urban Hope Act school in city

NJ Spotlight - Inside the Classroom with New Jersey's Latest Teacher of the Year…While politicians debate teacher quality, Perth Amboy's Lauren Marracco talks about student teachers, role models, and her drive to 'never stop learning'… Even so, does she worry about being judged on test scores, too -- the eventual goal of the state’s evaluation system.“As long as they look at where the children started from, I’m OK with that,” she said. “The children all come in at different levels, and when you know that and can bring them forward, well, that’s your job.”

By John Mooney, October 9, 2012 in Education|

What makes a good teacher, let alone a great one?

One answer to those questions can be found in Room 237 of the Edward J. Patten School in Perth Amboy, where Lauren Marracco -- New Jersey's most recent Teacher of the Year -- spends her days with two-dozen fourth graders and a calming hint of classical music in the background.

Ten years on the job, Marracco's energy and purpose are evident in a classroom of bright colors and orderly lessons.

In an interview last week, the 32-year-old Marrocco talked about her path to excellence, a climb marked by a few stepping stones that are often overlooked in debates over teacher evaluation, tenure, and test scores.

A product of East Brunswick public schools, Marracco attended Kean University, where she decided that teaching was her calling. But for all the courses in child development and pedagogy, the time she spent in the classroom observing and working as a student teacher were the most important to her growth.

That fieldwork was in the Perth Amboy school system, and she called her cooperating teachers -- Mary Santana and Brandi Caboy -- "the perfect role models of what teaching should be.”

“There is constant debate as to whether teaching is an art or a science, and it is important to have the knowledge and the pedagogy,” she said. “But I also saw in them the love of their students, the high fives they gave, the family dynamic they built in the classroom.”

She said the fieldwork was where a student teacher could see herself as a real teacher, the first steps in the journey. She now is a cooperating teacher herself, first leading her students and then stepping back to let them learn themselves.

“I know how important that is, giving them to the time to do it on their own and see what works,” she said.

The Rookie Teacher and the Mentor

Being hired at Perth Amboy actually was a stroke of luck for Marracco, an opening that appeared at the last minute in her job search when another teacher took a maternity leave. Finding a place at Edward J. Patten was another piece of good fortune.

“One of the things that I always felt lucky about was the team that is Patten,” she said.

That camaraderie extended from the first-year teacher who was assigned to the other first-grade classroom to the mentor that every rookie teacher must have. Hers was a woman named Naemi Natal-Villegas.

“She helped me become acclimated, showed me the procedures, how to how to handle different situations,” Marrocco said. “That first year is such a whirlwind, so really important to have that person to lean on.”

The fact that Natal-Villegas was an experienced first-grade teacher, knew the curriculum, and followed the same schedule -- so there was time for shared planning -- was also key.

“It’s that hands-on experience, that in-the-moment coaching that really makes a difference,” Marrocco said.

The Gold Stamp

Few of New Jersey's public school teachers -- whatever else their accomplishments -- are certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. At last statewide count, there were only about 200 in state, compared with as many as 19,000 in North Carolina, 13,000 in Florida, and 5,000 in Illinois. Nationwide, there are close to 100,000.

Marrocco is one of New Jersey’s 200.

Qualifying is an arduous process, easily taking up to a year, which includes essays and videotaped lessons. Most don’t pass in the first try. Marrocco dived in and said she found it as valuable as any of her training.

“It’s an incredible experience, maybe as difficult as my masters,” she said. (She received her advanced degree from Kean as well.) “It was looking at what I do, day in and day out to help those children. Every single day, I’m reflecting on what went right, what went wrong, what direction I need to go next.”

Nearly a decade ago, New Jersey made a push for more board-certified teachers and even offered to help financially with the $2,500 application fee.

But it has remained a tough sell, with only a handful of districts providing much incentive beyond that. Perth Amboy is an exception, paying its board-certified teachers an extra $4,000 a year. It has 13 in all, by far the most in the state.

Marrocco said she wasn’t aware of the financial bonus when she went through the process, but it helps.

“There is a reason they make it that intense,” Marrocco said of the application process. “It requires a commitment, a huge commitment.”

Never stop learning

That was three years ago. Marrocco is now a 10-year veteran who few would blame for feeling good about what she knows about teaching. But she’s hardly stopping.

“It’s a matter of perspective, and realizing you can always learn more,” she said. “None of us are ever perfect at what we do.”

She said that attitude is infused in the school as a whole, where collaboration among teachers is part of the culture. One especially valuable practice at Patten is what are called “instructional rounds,” in which every teacher visits another’s classroom at least once a month to watch a lesson or share a skill or strategy.

“The major point is to again reflect on what you are doing and how you are doing it,” she said. “Just that time to articulate with one each other, what are your gems, what are my gems?”

Even supervisor's classroom observations, the central piece of any evaluation system, are more about improvement than judgment, Marrocco said.

“As long as it is not viewed as a ‘got you’ thing, it can only improve you,” she said. “And that support, it is not just happening when you are evaluated, it’s happening all the time.”

Even so, does she worry about being judged on test scores, too -- the eventual goal of the state’s evaluation system.

“As long as they look at where the children started from, I’m OK with that,” she said. “The children all come in at different levels, and when you know that and can bring them forward, well, that’s your job.”


The Record - Stile: Christie fight over state Supreme Court is one for the ages

A bitter partisan feud more than 150 years ago gave birth to the tradition of bipartisan balance on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The two-year, bitter partisan feud between Governor Christie and Senate Democrats over the Supreme Court will enter a new stage when the governor offers two new nominees — possibly as early as this week. Christie’s next move could put that bipartisan tradition on trial. Or maybe redefine it.

In the eyes of lawmakers and governors, the tradition is an important hedge against partisan excess. And in the eyes of the public, a bipartisan Supreme Court is far more credible than one handed down by a court “chosen exclusively or preponderantly from one political party,” as Arthur T. Vanderbilt, the first chief justice of the modern court, wrote.

The stakes are high. The court rules on public school funding, environmental regulations, affordable housing and scores of other issues that affect the day-to-day lives of New Jersey residents.

Governors of both major parties have since stuck by the unwritten rule by “common consent” since the 1890s, making sure that the party of the sitting governor should hold a slight, 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court when possible.

The tradition is at the root of the current standoff between Christie and the Senate Democrats, led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester.

It also is why the Democrats say they rejected Christie’s two nominees to the court this year, Bruce K. Harris, a Republican lawyer from Chatham, and Phillip Kwon, the state’s first assistant attorney general, an independent from Closter. Christie argued that the nominations complied with the spirit of the bipartisan tradition, yielding a balance of three Republicans, two Democrats, and two independents.

But the Democrats didn’t buy it. In their eyes, Kwon was a de facto Republican, who conveniently switched his affiliation to independent while being groomed for the nomination. And it didn’t help that Kwon was also viewed as loyalist who followed Christie from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark to a top post in Christie’s Attorney General’s Office in Trenton.

If Christie had his way, Democrats argued, he would have an effective 5-2 Republican majority, counting Associate Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, an independent who worked for two Republican administrations. With a lineup like that, a Christie court could not only rubber stamp his conservative policies, but possibly dismantle nearly 40 years of rulings that many Democrats have held as sacrosanct, Democrats complained.

And if that sounds like some sort of hysterical conspiracy theory, Democrats point to Christie’s own rhetoric in recent town halls, where he’s urged voters, unhappy with the way school aid is distributed, to flock to the polls and elect a Republican Senate. That way, he can get his court nominees approved. The implication is that his nominees will ratify his attempt to overturn the current funding law.

“Until you get engaged with me to put people on the Supreme Court who understand what their job is, which is not to make the laws, not to appropriate money — if they want to do that, get out of the black robes, run for office and get elected,” he told a crowd in Elmwood Park last month.

Rhetoric like this explains why Democrats insist that Christie nominate at least one Democrat. That would create an acceptable partisan balance of three Republicans, one independent with Republican ties (LaVecchia) and three Democrats. But if Christie rolls out two Republicans, Democrats warn that they could face the same humiliating fate as Harris and Kwon.

“I would say it’s likely, although that is not the only criteria that we will judge the candidates on, but it is a compelling one,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak of Union County, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sweeney refused to comment last week.

It’s not the first time that the State House has been locked in a partisan impasse over court appointments.

In 1859, Gov. William A. Newell — who said a “governor should follow rather than lead the Legislature,” according to his official biography — became incensed when the Democratic Senate refused to confirm Republican Abraham O. Zabriskie, his choice for “chancellor,” then the top post in the judiciary. Democrats demanded that he reappoint Benjamin Williamson, whose term had just expired.

Newell saw the demand as a direct attack on his executive appointment power. Instead of caving in, Newell kept sending new nominees, including a list of nine at one point. An equally obstinate Senate rejected them all. The seat remained vacant until Newell was succeeded by Charles S. Olden in 1860.

It was a pivotal moment in the history of New Jersey’s judiciary and from “these distressing experiences the bipartisan selection of judges evolved,” Vanderbilt wrote in “Landmarks in Jersey Jurisprudence,” a 1956 article.

Christie has dug in his heels, much like Newell did. He says he will not nominate a Democrat until two Republican nominees are confirmed. He said the Senate Democrats have crossed the constitutional line, robbing him of his power to nominate judges. He also argues that Democrats are disregarding the will of voters — as a candidate, he vowed to pick judges who interpret the laws, not, in his view, write them from the bench. And he batted away the suggestion that the hard-to-classify LaVecchia is a stealth Republican.

Yet, Christie’s fury aside, he is a pragmatist who knows that the Democrats have the power in this dispute. He is also a prominent Republican star who preached the virtue of bipartisanship in his keynote speech to the Republican National Convention. He is a governor who refuses to say surrender, but who is also boxed in. He has strong incentives to compromise.

The Democrats are also eager to move on. Some fear sticking to their guns would only feed Christie’s Democrats-as-obstructionist complaint on the campaign trail next year. Democrats might have the power of the caucus, but Christie has the bully pulpit.

Here is one possibility for a truce: Christie could save face by nominating a Republican and an undisputed independent, a well-credentialed, well-regarded lawyer or jurist. On paper, that would create a court comprising three Republicans, two Democrats and two independents.

That might initially be a tough sell for the Democrats.

Under their math, which lumps LaVecchia into the Republican column, that creates a Christie court of four Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent. But that arrangement might just fly if the independent nominee is not suspected of being a stealth Republican, like Kwon.

It might not meet the traditional bipartisan standard, but it could be a formula that cracks the logjam.

That way Christie could avoid the same fate as Newell. He could have two vacancies filled before the next governor succeeds him.

Email: stile@northjersey.com


Courier Post - Hope school decision 'unusual' defeat for Norcross…Democrat renews push for Urban Hope Act school in city

Written by

Kevin C. Shelly



CAMDEN — George E. Norcross III does not lose often.

Nor does he lose easily: When Camden’s school board recently rebuffed a Norcross-backed bid to bring a Hope Act school to the city, the de facto leader of South Jersey Democrats quickly renewed the push for his goal.

Norcross is not accustomed to disappointments in Democratic-controlled Camden County, where he wields power through a ready roster of surrogates, minions and allies. What’s more, his surprise setback in Camden came despite a high-level alliance with Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the governor’s education officials.

“I think this has been an interesting ride for a man who was used to getting his way. Clearly this is a defeat,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University who cut her teeth on South Jersey politics.

Norcross’ defeat was “absolutely unusual,” added Patrick Murray, who leads the political polling institute at Monmouth University. “You don’t see any dissension at all in Camden County.”

But dissension fueled both the Hope school’s rebuff and the earlier collapse of a proposed merger of Rutgers-Camden into Rowan University.

Advocates saw the university merger as a way to bolster Rowan’s new medical school, which is aligned with Cooper University Hospital of Camden. Norcross, an insurance executive, also serves as chairman of Cooper’s board.

Christie also allied himself with Norcross on that proposal, although the governor was primarily interested in merging the troubled University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into the Rutgers system.

The South Jersey plan foundered in the face of sharp opposition, much of it centered on the Rutgers-Camden campus. The schools ultimately agreed to pursue more joint activities, particularly in health care education, but that uneasy alliance fell far short of proponents’ initial goal.

“These defeats show a larger resistance” to outside bosses dictating Camden’s future, said Harrison.

Norcross, a co-owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, remains assured he will still get what he wants.

(Page 2 of 5)


“I’m fully confident the application for the KIPP school will be approved,” he said Friday.

Norcross declined to comment on specifics of the vote or his plans to revive the proposal, though he did express frustration and disappointment at the 4-4 vote he thought he would win.

With the Urban Hope Act, powerful figures in local and state government advanced Norcross’ vision for a five-school complex near Cooper and the new medical school. The venture would be operated through an alliance of charitable foundations for Cooper and the Norcross family, and by KIPP, a national charter school operator.

Christie championed the measure as part of his reform approach and signed the bill at a ceremony in Camden in January. The measure allows construction of four “renaissance schools” in the city.

The law’s sponsors included Norcross’ brother, Donald, who is a Democatic state senator from Camden, as well as Assemblymen Angel Fuentes and Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, both D-Camden. They attended the bill-signing ceremony, as did Camden Mayor Dana Redd.

Norcross relied on Redd, a longtime South Jersey Democrat, to round up the needed vote on the Board of Education. That did not appear to be a formidable task as the board’s nine members were all Redd appointees.

Plus, the Cooper/Norcross/KIPP proposal had scored highest among four applications, according to the district’s review committee.

Just hours before the Sept. 25 vote, the Redd administration assured the Cooper/Norcross/KIPP alliance that six board members firmly supported the proposal, according to a member of the alliance.

But the BOE’s tally was 4-4, with one abstention, meaning the proposal failed. The other three proposals were spurned unanimously, with an abstention on each.

The Redd administration, which did not comment for this story, had embarrassingly miscounted.

Voting against the Cooper/Norcross/KIPP bid were Sara Davis, Sean Brown, Kathryn Ribay and Brian Turner.

Davis, a retired Camden teacher, was a known negative vote from the outset.

(Page 3 of 5)


Brown, known for going his own way and often butting heads with Redd over city issues, was seen as a likely no vote. No one allied with the administration talked to him about his vote in advance.

Norcross and his allies have discussed trying to challenge Brown’s negative vote because he sits on the board of CamConnect, a social services study agency that gets money from the Cooper Foundation, according to multiple sources.

“This goes to show the stretch and reach of powerful people in South Jersey to get what they want,” said Brown, who called the tactic “underhanded.”

“A conflict would have been a yes vote,” said Brown.

Raymond Lamboy, who abstained on all votes, is also on CamConnect’s board. He said he did not consider that a conflict and said he did not abstain due to CamConnect, but rather because of his concerns for how the Hope schools would affect public schools, without improving what remained.

The next two negative votes, though, were a shock.

The Redd administration had wrongly expected support from Ribay based on her background..

Ribay is a Collingswood science teacher who’d come up through the reform-oriented Teach for America program. Her husband has taught at a KIPP school in Philadelphia and is on the board of a Camden charter school.

Ribay said an intermediary with a career background at TFA and KIPP lobbied for her support of the proposal until an hour before the board meeting. She declined to identify the person.

Known for being circumspect, Ribay said the intermediary may have mistakenly believed she would support the bid. But Ribay noted she never said exactly how she would vote.

“I’m not pro-charter, I’m not anti-charter. I’m for good schools,” said Ribay, who comes from a family of educators and holds a master’s in education from Harvard University and is pursuing a chemistry master’s degree at Rutgers.

While the state’s shifting process for vetting the Hope Act proposals “irked” her, Ribay said she voted against the Norcross proposal due to her perspective as an educator.

(Page 4 of 5)


“I ultimately made my votes on the merits, on the scope of the proposal, and the fact that the KIPP proposal had no checkpoints for opening each new school,” she said.

The administration also expected support from Turner, who works at the mayor’s pleasure as an appointed city attorney and who was appointed to the board this spring, just as Hope Act discussions were beginning.

Turner arrived nearly six hours into the critical school board meeting, just in time to cast a negative vote that killed the Norcross proposal.

Turner, who is generally quiet at meetings, said nothing when he cast his vote. He has declined comment on the reason for his vote, and recently said in a brief interview that would remain his position for the foreseeable future.

Voting for the bid were Barbara Coscarello, Felisha Reyes-Morton, Kathryn Blackshear and Martha Wilson.

Coscarello has said her vote was part of being loyal to the mayor’s agenda aimed at reforming public education in the troubled school district.

She expressed concern that fellow board members had ignored the committee’s review, though she acknowledged that the state had caused problems by changing the process several times, including reissuing the request for proposals.

Reyes-Morton, who served on the proposal review committee, also said that she thought the new facility and a new approach to education were needed for the failing district.

“My decision was based on the scoring,” said Reyes-Morton, who called the board “dysfunctional.”

Blackshear and Wilson did not respond to requests for comment.

Rahim Islam, leader of the Universal Companies, the second-highest-scoring Hope Act proposal, said his organization had reached out for guidance. He said Universal wants to have its proposal reconsidered, but the DOE has not responded.

The Department of Education, which after the board’s vote called for the district to make high-quality educational opportunities available, had no additional comment last week, according to a spokeswoman.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

(Page 5 of 5)


Donald Norcross said he did not consider the vote a loss. He called it a “pause or delay” that may allow further legislative attention to address the “local input.”

Ultimately, he would like to have the proposals reconsidered by Camden’s school board. “Being the prime sponsor, I’d like to see this tool used,” he said.

“I’d like to see this tweaked and come back,” said Donald Norcross, who conceded the process pushed by the DOE in Camden was “compressed.”

Several sources believe the Christie administration may take some action against the school board or district as a result of the negative vote.

The district earlier this year was told it must “successfully” act on the Hope Act proposals as part of a DOE directive regarding increased oversight of city schools.

Harrison, the political scientist, called the odd-fellow alliance of Norcross and Christie on Camden issues “politically self-serving.”

“The most troubling aspect is having Norcross and Christie advocating in Camden,” she said. “You have upper-class white men coming to an urban area where African-American and Latino voters predominate.”


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