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8-1-14 News from NJ Spotlight
NJ Spotlight –Camden Gets Ready for Debut of Three New Charter-School Networks...State-appointed superintendent releases contract details; critics say charters get special treatment

NJ Spotlight – State Education Chief Says He’ll Stick with Current Staff Configuration...Hespe disputes state auditor’s assertion that county office understaffing violates law

NJ Spotlight – New Jersey School District Attempts to Bridge the Digital Divide...In Hoboken, giving laptops to junior- and senior-high school students wasn't a solution but the beginning of a big problem Inside Hoboken’s combined junior-senior high school is a storage closet...

NJ Spotlight –Camden Gets Ready for Debut of Three New Charter-School Networks

John Mooney | August 1, 2014

State-appointed superintendent releases contract details; critics say charters get special treatment

As Camden looks ahead to a pivotal year that will be marked by a major influx of new charter schools, the district’s state-appointed superintendent has finalized agreements that could lead to a single enrollment system for those schools in the future.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard yesterday released details of the contracts signed with two charter networks that will be opening their first schools in the city this fall under the state’s new Urban Hope Act.

Related Links

Uncommon Schools Contract

Mastery Schools Contract

Progress Report on ‘Camden Commitment’

The networks – Mastery Schools and Uncommon Schools – have each been approved to open as many as five “renaissance schools” in the city as part of a 10-year commitment. Under the new law, the “renaissance schools” operate like independent charter schools, but must draw from specific neighborhoods.

A third network – the KIPP charter school network – was approved and had its contract finalized previously, also under the Urban Hope Act. It, too, aims to open five new schools.

All told, starting this fall, the schools planned by the three networks stand to vastly remake what is arguably the state’s most troubled district over the next decade.

The latest contracts reflect a synergy between the district and charter schools that brings to mind the controversial “One Newark” plan in the state-run Newark schools.

"Camden families deserve great schools, and these contracts are a significant step forward in ensuring that renaissance schools serve all students well,” Rouhanifard said last night.

The Camden contracts include requirements that the “renaissance school” charters annually make a full accounting of their performance in areas ranging from student achievement to attrition rates.

They will be required to serve – and pay for – special-needs students with the most significant disabilities, even those ultimately placed in a specialized outside setting. Charter schools in general have faced criticism for allegedly excluding such kids, or coaxing them back to the districts once high costs kick in.

The charters will also have to prove that they are providing social and emotional support for all students, including suitable discipline policies.

Perhaps most notably, the contracts -- at least tentatively – make them part of a single-enrollment system, like that in Newark, in which students and families go through a central system to sign up for both district schools and charter schools of their choice.

The “One Newark” initiative has been the focus of intense protests from those who claim it favors charters, among other complaints.

Such a system would not be put in place in Camden in the coming year, officials said, and the contracts only read that the charters would participate “should the district adopt a common enrollment system.” Officials said there would be extensive community discussions before such a decision.

“We are … excited about engaging with the community in the future about the promise of a common enrollment system, which we believe could simplify school access for all families," Rouhanifard said.

Still, the contracts specifically say the charters will be expected to participate in the design of the single-enrollment system and that they must provide relevant information to the central administrator.

The public release of the charter agreements sparked criticism that the new charter networks are getting special treatment.

“What's striking is these contracts fail to require compliance with the standards that govern public schools,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. “Even more troubling, the contracts allow these out-of-state charter chains to operate without any accountability to Camden school children, parents and community they are supposed to serve.”

Another legal obstacle that had been facing the two latest Camden charter networks has been the fact that they don’t yet have permanent locations for their new schools, which had been required under state law.

The law has since been amended by the Legislature to allow for temporary quarters and even sharing of some public school district facilities, but that legislation has yet to be signed by Christie.

Efforts to reach Mastery Schools officials yesterday were unsuccessful, and a spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools only said that the network is looking forward to opening its first school in the Camden.

“We are eager to work with the community and district to put Camden students on the path to college,” said Barbara Martinez, the network’s chief external officer.

In the meantime, Rouhanifard has pressed ahead with reforms both with the new charter schools and also in the existing district schools. He announced last week the appointment of principals – who will undergo intensive training from August into the fall -- who will run the district’s 26 schools.

He said school “information cards” with extensive data beyond what is required by the state will be made available to the public for every Camden school, and he announced plans for the next few months to hold a series of “Let’s Talk About Great Schools” public forums for families and residents to air their questions, suggestions and concerns.

Yesterday, Rouhanifard also released a quarterly progress report on pledges included over the winter in his “Camden Commitment” strategic plan, including new safety measures, access to greater technology, and more school choices.

“The Camden Commitment is our short-term roadmap to help achieve our goal of every student attending an excellent school, and this progress report makes clear we are advancing toward that goal,” Rouhanifard said.


NJ Spotlight – State Education Chief Says He’ll Stick with Current Staff Configuration

John Mooney | July 30, 2014

Hespe disputes state auditor’s assertion that county office understaffing violates law

It’s a time-honored practice in New Jersey for new education commissioners to bring in their own people once they’re on the job.

But acting Education Commissioner David Hespe is sticking with the current make-up of the state Department of Education – albeit, perhaps with some tweaking.

Related Links

State Auditor Cries Foul Over County Oversight

Senate bill S-1950

Hespe said yesterday that the organizational structure set up by former commissioner Chris Cerf reflects what he called the “theory of action” for the department. While he may make some slight adjustments, he’s not envisioning wholesale change as he moves into the next school year.

The topic arose in the wake of a report from the Office of the State Auditor that said the Christie administration is violating state law in its understaffing of the department’s county offices.

The report, released last week, said that the administration had failed to appoint executive county superintendents for each of the 21 counties, as dictated by statute. Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 summarily discontinued one-third of the positions and shifted to a system in which some county superintendents serve more than one county.

Hespe yesterday disputed the state auditor’s interpretation that the law requires having one superintendent for each county. Nonetheless, he acknowledged it has been an ongoing point of contention with the Legislature, which the state auditor serves.

“I read it that we need a suitable person named for every county, and that is what we are doing,” he said. “It doesn’t say that can’t have more than one county per person. But it is something we will review, and certainly have a conversation with (the state auditor) about.”

The fact that Hespe is sticking with Cerf’s organizational chart is hardly a surprise, as he served as chief of staff during Cerf’s first year as commissioner. What’s more, some changes made as part of Cerf’s reorganization are required under the state’s waiver from the federal No Child Left behind Act, Hespe noted.

Still, Hespe said coordination of the state’s field services and its county functions is a work in progress. He said a big issue is how the state can mesh the county offices with the new Regional Achievement Centers set up by Cerf to serve individual schools that are found to be under-performing. The RACs have themselves been a source of contention in some locales, and staffing of them has ebbed and flowed.

But Hespe said they are getting close to having a full complement of staff, adding that it’s a matter of better coordinating their work with the county-level administrative offices and with state oversight – which already includes state-appointed superintendents in Camden, Newark and Paterson and fiscal monitors in another half-dozen districts.

“There needs to be a synergy of all three (functions),” Hespe said yesterday.

There is hardly consensus in Trenton about how the state should manage its county offices. Long-standing proposals call for more coordination and even consolidation of the functions of those offices across the state.

State Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) keeps pressing a bill to eliminate the county superintendent position altogether and create three regional offices: north, central and south. First introduced in 2010, the bill has yet to get through committee.

One important job Hespe will be filling soon is his department’s chief academic officer, an assistant commissioner position in charge of academic support for school districts. The post has been held by Tracey Severns, who is leaving at the end of the month to return to the Mount Olive school district, where she will serve as director of student performance.

A former Mount Olive principal, Severns was on a two-year loan from the Mount Olive district.. She became the state’s most visible cheerleader for adoption of the new Common Core State Standards.

Hespe said yesterday that that his staff expects to continue interviewing candidates to succeed Severns through the summer, with a replacement in place by September. He said he did not envision making any other major changes in the department.

NJ Spotlight – New Jersey School District Attempts to Bridge the Digital Divide

Jill Barshay, The Hechinger Report | July 29, 2014

In Hoboken, giving laptops to junior- and senior-high school students wasn't a solution but the beginning of a big problem

Inside Hoboken’s combined junior-senior high school is a storage closet. Behind the locked door, mothballed laptop computers are strewn among brown cardboard boxes. Others are stacked one atop another amid other computer detritus. Dozens more are stored on mobile computer carts, many of them on their last legs.

That’s all that remains from a failed experiment to assign every student a laptop in this tiny city across from New York. It began five years ago with an unexpected windfall of stimulus money from Washington, D.C., and good intentions to help the districts’ students, the majority of whom are under or near the poverty line, keep up with their wealthier peers.

But Hoboken faced problem after problem and is abandoning the laptops entirely this summer. “We had the money to buy them, but maybe not the best implementation,” said Mark Toback, the current superintendent of Hoboken School District. “It became unsustainable.”

None of the school administrators who initiated Hoboken’s one-to-one laptop program still work there, but Toback agreed to share Hoboken’s experiences so that other schools can learn from it.

Despite tight budgets, superintendents and principals around the country are cobbling together whatever dollars they can to buy more computers for their classrooms. Meanwhile, Hoboken -- along with other school districts across New Jersey and the nation -- is scrambling to update its networks to get ready for the first round of Common Core exams, slated to begin this school year.

This year alone, schools are projected to spend almost $10 billion on education technology, a $240 million increase from 2013, according to the Center for Digital Education.

Educational technology holds the promise of individualizing instruction, and some school systems, like Mooresville, NC, and Cullman, AL, have shown impressive student learning gains. But districts like Los Angeles and Fort Bend, TX, who jumped on the tech trend without careful planning, have had problems with their programs to distribute a laptop or a tablet to every student, and are scrapping them, too.

Laptop Repair Shop

By the time Jerry Crocamo, a computer network engineer, arrived in Hoboken’s school system in 2011, every seventh, eighth, and ninth grader had a laptop. Each year a new crop of seventh graders were outfitted. Crocamo’s small tech staff was quickly overwhelmed with repairs.

We had “half a dozen kids in a day, on a regular basis, bringing laptops down, going ‘my books fell on top of it, somebody sat on it, I dropped it,’ ” said Crocamo.

Screens cracked. Batteries died. Keys popped off. Viruses attacked. Crocamo found that teenagers with laptops are still . . . teenagers.

“We bought laptops that had reinforced hard-shell cases so that we could try to offset some of the damage these kids were going to do,” said Crocamo. “I was pretty impressed with some of the damage they did anyway. Some of the laptops would come back to us completely destroyed.”

Crocamo’s time was also eaten up with theft. Despite the antitheft tracking software he installed, some laptops were never found. Crocamo had to file police reports and even testify in court.

Hoboken school officials were also worried they couldn’t control which websites students would visit. Crocamo installed software called Net Nanny to block pornography, gaming sites, and Facebook. He disabled the built-in web cameras. He even installed software to block students from undoing these controls. But Crocamo says students found forums on the Internet that showed them how to access everything.

“There is no more determined hacker, so to speak, than a 12-year-old who has a computer,” said Crocamo.

Memory Problems

All this security software also bogged down the computers. Teachers complained it took 20 minutes for them to boot up, only to crash afterwards. Often, there was too little memory left on the small netbooks to run the educational software. Hoboken math coach Howard McKenzie says he also had problems with the software itself.

“We wanted to run a program for graphing calculators, but it didn’t work very well; it was very sticky,” said McKenzie “We kind of scrapped it.”

Ultimately, the math teacher just showed it to the class on a Smart Board, an interactive whiteboard.

Superintendent Toback admits that teachers weren’t given enough training on how to use the computers for instruction. Teachers complained that their teenage students were too distracted by their computer screens to pay attention to the lesson in the classroom.

Michael Ranieri, a junior at Hoboken’s high school, aspires to be an electrical engineer. He said when he did use the computers for schoolwork, it was mostly for word processing and Internet browsing. He would write an essay on the laptop for English class, for example, or research information using Google.

“We didn’t really do much on the computer,” said Ranieri. “So we kind of just did games to mess around when we had free time. I remember really big was Crazy Taxis that we used play. If we found solitaire on line, we used to play it.”

Lost and Found

Ranieri said he was relieved to be free of the stress of keeping track of his laptop. Families had to sign papers agreeing to be financially responsible if the computers were lost. Every week Ranieri roamed his classrooms looking for his.

“It was usually under my desk in English class,” he said.

Superintendent Toback inherited the laptop program when he arrived in 2011. At first, he tried to keep it going.

But he faced skyrocketing costs, which hadn’t been budgeted for. The $500 laptops lasted only two years and then needed to be replaced. Toback said new laptops with more capacity for running educational software would cost $1,000 each. Licenses for the security software alone were running more than $100,000 and needed to be renewed every two years.

And the final kicker: The whole town was jamming the high school’s wireless network.

“A lot of people knew the username and password,” Toback said. “So a lot of people were able to walk by the building and they would get wireless access. Over a period of years, you had thousands of people. It bogged it down, it made it unusable.”

Allison Powell says Hoboken’s headaches are not unusual. Powell is a vice president for state and district services at iNacol, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, where she works with school leaders on how to use computers to personalize instruction by delivering different lessons to each child.

But Powell says many schools are continuing to make Hoboken’s mistake of shopping for technology without a plan to make teaching in the classroom more effective.

“Probably in the last few months I’ve had quite a few principals and superintendents call and say, ‘I bought these 500 iPads or 1,000 laptops because the district next to us just bought them,’ and they’re like, now what do we do?” Powell said.

Back in Hoboken, the school staff will spend the summer going through the laptops one by one, writing down the serial numbers and drafting a resolution for the school board to approve their destruction.

Then they’ll seek bids from recycling companies to figure out how much it will cost Hoboken to throw them away.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read more about how schools are bringing technology into the classroom.

Jill Barshay is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report. She is also the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report’s blog about education data.


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608