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6-16-14 Education Issues in the News

NJ Spotlight - State Education Official: Flurry of Activity Doesn't Count on School Calendar

John Mooney | June 16, 2014

Pascack Valley's virtual snow day earns "A" for effort but students and staff need to be actually in class


When Pascack Valley Regional High School District asked the state’s permission to count a February “snow day” on which students stayed home but took online classes as an official day of school, the first questions were whether it was rigorous enough and whether it was accessible to all students.

Four months later, it turns out that state law limits the ultimate decision to something much more simple: If school buildings weren’t open, it doesn’t count as school.

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NJ Department of Education Letter to Pascack Valley

Virtual Snow Day Still Adrift in Bureaucracy

The state Department of Education last week informed the Bergen County district that despite all the work and creativity that went into organizing a day of virtual instruction on Feb. 13, it didn’t count as one of the state-mandated 180 days of classes in the school year.

In a one-page letter to the district, Assistant Education Commissioner Evo Popoff praised the district for its “innovative spirit” and what he called its efforts to provide a “high-quality education in spite of the extreme weather.”

But he said it came down the state law -- written in 1996 in a pre-virtual age -- that says a school day must actually be spent in a school.

“We cannot, at this time, allow the virtual school day to count toward the requirements of (state law) for the 2013-14 school year, because public school facilities were not available during the virtual school day,” Popoff wrote.

He said it was the same standard that required districts after Hurricane Sandy to open on weekends and holidays to make up for lost days and meet the 180-day rule.

While awaiting the decision, the school district had already made up the day during its spring break. Still, the superintendent said Friday that he had hoped to win a state’s backing, especially after the Education Department took four months to decide what eventually came down to a straight legal reading.

Raising the district’s hopes, the state had also hosted a workshop for districts interested in the virtual snow day model, with Pascack Valley a main presenter.

“It would have been beneficial if it could have been decided more expeditiously, but we are still pleased that the department recognized the innovative spirit that was exercised by administrators, teachers and, frankly, the students,” said Superintendent Erik Gundersen.

Gundersen wondered if maybe the ruling would have been different if he had at least a few staff members come to school that day and had opened the building for students who could attend. But he said the whole point of closing school was due to the poor travel conditions and other hazards posed by the snowstorm.

Gundersen said he has no regrets about the effort.

“The students made out well,” he said. “They had one more day of teaching and learning.”

And Gundersen said maybe it will prompt the Christie administration or the Legislature to propose a change in the statute that would open the way for different ways of learning – at least in case of emergencies.

“It should by no means replace regular school, but it provides a fantastic opportunity of a way for school to continue (during inclement weather),” he said.

“Hopefully, this will open up the discussion to reconsider what has become ancient language in our statutes.”



Star Ledger – NJ civil rights lawyers should sue over teacher seniority rules: Editorial


By Star-Ledger Editorial Board 
on June 14, 2014 at 11:58 AM, updated June 14, 2014 at 12:04 PM

A California judge ruled this week that a poor kid’s equal right to a quality education isn’t just a matter of funding — it’s also about the barriers to success that lawmakers have imposed on the system. This includes tenure, seniority and other employment policies that make it unduly hard to fire a bad teacher.

They’ve helped perpetuate a hierarchy in which the best teachers generally wind up at the most desirable schools, and some of the worst ones at high-poverty schools, where it can take years of bureaucracy and tens of thousands of dollars to get rid of them.

Not only is this absurd, the judge argued; it’s unconstitutional. It violates a clause in many state constitutions, including New Jersey’s, that assures students a "thorough and efficient education." This was the same clause under which advocates sued in the famous 1985 New Jersey Supreme Court case, Abbott v. Burke, to challenge the lack of equal funding for students in the poorest districts.

That lawsuit, brought by the Newark-based Education Law Center on behalf of a group of poor students, bears a striking resemblance to this California case. It was part of a wave of similar litigation across the country, challenging the historic allocation of school funding based on local property taxes, a system that led to serious inequities.

Thanks to the Abbott ruling, which found this funding inequity unconstitutional, per-student spending in the poorest districts in New Jersey is now significantly higher than the state average. This helps balance out the greater needs in these districts, where kids start out behind and often require extra services and tutoring support.

Which brings us back to the California ruling: Again, a judge has sided with a group of poor students who took that very same clause and argued that their constitutional rights are being violated. A quality education isn’t just about dollars and cents, they said; it’s also about the teacher in the classroom.

Good teachers are an incredibly important variable in student success. Last year, a Harvard researcher found that students taught by an incompetent teacher lose more than nine months of learning in a single year. Yet just like California, New Jersey still has a law in place that — in times of layoffs — requires a school to fire a talented teacher whom everyone agrees is superior, simply because that person has less seniority.

How is that consistent with the constitutional guarantee of a quality education?

New Jersey reformed its teacher tenure laws two years ago, but didn’t touch the practice known as "last in, first out," which protects absolute seniority rights in times of layoffs. That’s where the teachers’ union drew a red line.

This means that schools facing layoffs in the next few years will be forced to purge younger teachers — even the most gifted and hardworking ones. The main victims of this policy are poor kids. Teacher quality is much more meaningful for them, because they don’t come pre-loaded for success.

Why should a state statute protected by the union be allowed to trump children’s constitutional right to a quality education?

This California case is exactly the kind of lawsuit that the Education Law Center should be bringing. The ELC was right to take action in the name of funding inequity nearly 30 years ago. But what is it going to do about seniority rules, now?


Star Ledger - NJ education officials deny district's request for 'virtual school day'

By Peggy McGlone/The Star-Ledger 
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on June 13, 2014 at 5:37 PM, updated June 13, 2014 at 5:38 PM

Attendance was almost perfect at Pascack Valley Regional High School District’s two schools on Feb. 13, when students and teachers participated in a "virtual school day" as another snow storm blanketed the state.

But state officials ruled this week that the day won’t count toward the requirement that schools be open at least 180 days to be eligible for state aid.

"We commend Pascack Valley Regional’s innovative spirit and the efforts taken to ensure that students continue to receive a high-quality education in spite of the extreme weather," Assistant Education Commissioner Evo Popoff wrote in a letter to Superintendent Erik Gundersen.

But because the school building was closed, Popoff said the day could not be considered a school day.

A disappointed Gundersen was surprised by the decision.

"We were quite optimistic," he said. "They were impressed with the level of engagement of our students."

The district, which draws from Hillsdale, River Vale, Woodcliff Lake and Montvale, provides laptops to its 2,220 students, who attend Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills high schools. About 96 percent of them participated in the virtual school day, Gunderson said.

"It’s a clear example of the school and NJEA members who are willing to think outside the box, and be innovative, and for them not to be recognized or rewarded for that is unfortunate," he said.

The district closed its schools on Feb. 13 and 14, Gundersen said, but only on the 13th did students and teachers participate in a virtual school day. Because it was an unapproved concept, he said he didn’t think it was wise to try it a second time without looking at the results.

And he didn’t wait for a ruling from Trenton to schedule a make-up day.

"We thought a decision would be rendered by the Department of Education within a month," Gunderson said. "We thought they would give us the thumbs up, but ... we needed to play it safe so we made up the days in April."

In his letter, Popoff explained that the district must make the school facilities available for the day to count. "Our conclusion is consistent with the position we have taken in recent years even in the face of extreme weather conditions, such as Superstorm Sandy," he wrote.

Ironically, attendance was 74 percent for the two days in April that count toward the state time requirement.

"Educationally, the virtual day was a success," Gundersen said. "It just didn’t count."




Star Ledger - Extended school year in South Jersey magnifies air conditioning issue

Andy Polhamus/South Jersey Times By Andy Polhamus/South Jersey Times 
on June 15, 2014 at 1:00 AM, updated June 15, 2014 at 1:03 AM


With many school districts in the area forced to extend their academic year thanks to a brutal winter, parents and administrators alike are keeping a close eye on how students handle the heat, especially in schools without air conditioning.

And although some schools will be in session right up until the end of the month, the general consensus seems simple: ride it out.


Not surprisingly, the topic is a source of frustration to many parents.

"Why do schools have warmth in the winter but not offer relief in the summer? To me it seems like a safety issue to be stuck in a crowded, overly hot and sticky building for almost seven hours a day," wrote a mother in Deptford.


Woodstown Superintendent Tom Coleman said that just like in cold weather, hot days begin with a careful check of the forecast to determine whether a slightly uncomfortable working and learning environment could transform into a dangerous one.

"The temperature usually peaks after the kids leave," he said. "So we keep a close eye on it. When is the temperature going to reach that? Will it reach that during our school day?"

Coleman pointed out that heat is a problem Woodstown High School has been dealing with since it was first built more than 100 years ago, although school years rarely run as long as this one will. The district will close for the summer June 20, earlier than many districts farther north, and its last few days will be half-sessions.


"Last year we monitored how hot it got in the building, and it never got above the high 80s," Coleman said, again emphasizing that the hottest part of the day comes later in the afternoon.

In Deptford, where school will end June 24, Superintendent Gary Loudenslager said the district does its best to cool off buildings at night to make them slower to heat up during the day. Loudenslager also said the district sometimes provides students with water bottles in class if necessary.

"We'll open the upper-level windows and run fans at night to cool it down somewhat," Loudenslager said. "Worst case scenario is an early dismissal. Just like snow, you pay attention to the forecast."

Some larger rooms around the district, like cafeterias and libraries, are air conditioned and can accommodate special needs students during especially hot weather. The hardest days are heat waves, when the buildings have no time to cool off before another hot day begins.


"If we get a heat wave, we can usually make it the first day," Loudenslager said, but last year the district had to shut down on day three of a particularly bad hot spell.

In Pitman, Fran Yearwood, principal of Kindle Elementary School, said that like Woodstown, her district would finish June 20. 


"We are getting out earlier than most because we chopped our spring break," she said.

Still, only a few rooms in Kindle have air conditioning, so many shared activities are moved into those spaces to avoid the heat. If need be, Yearwood will also cancel recess and keep the children inside for a movie at lunch.


All administrators acknowledged that the situation was far from ideal, however. Coleman said Woodstown will hold a bond referendum in November that includes upgrading facilities, especially air conditioning. Loudenslager also said Deptford would hold a similar referendum in the near future.

"It's something our students have coped with for a long time," Coleman said. "One of the big things we're trying doing is to get air conditioning and bring the building up to modern standards."


Contact staff writer Andy Polhamus at 856-686-3729 or apolhamus@southjerseymedia.com


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