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12-8-14 Education Issues in the News

The Record - Editorial - Gaining ground

December 8, 2014    Last Updated: Monday, December 8, 2014, 1:21 Am


GRADUATION RATES may not be the only way to gauge effectiveness of a high school or a particular school district, but they remain an important benchmark, and so it was very encouraging to see New Jersey's graduation numbers improve once more, according to data released last week. As The Record reported, across New Jersey, 88.6 percent of students who entered high school in 2010 graduated last spring, up from the year before.

Perhaps the best news was to see continuing graduation gains among minorities and low-income students. Indeed, as Staff Writer Hannan Adely reported, the largest gains were made in places like Paterson, Garfield, Cliffside Park and Passaic, districts that tend to be lower income and home to large numbers of immigrants.

Bari Erlichson, the state's assistant commissioner of education, said the increase was good news but noted that improving those numbers was not the ultimate goal. "Our goal is, of course, a meaningful diploma, and getting students ready for the next point in their careers," she said.

Two local success stories regarding the graduation rates came from two very different schools, each of which posted 100 percent graduation rates in 2014. One of those schools was Bergen County Academies, which has 1,062 students and a rigorous admissions policy open to all county residents. The school specializes in a science-heavy curriculum and enjoys a top ranking among U.S. high schools.

The second school to post a perfect graduation rate was Rosa L. Parks School of Fine and Performing Arts in Paterson, which has 252 students and an admission policy based on auditions and a review of records. "It takes hard work and a concerted effort on the part of staff, students, guidance counselors and parents for this to happen," said Rosa Parks Principal Christine Lewis.

Indeed, Rosa Parks has been a shining star in the Paterson district for years, but other schools in the city also continued to make progress, an achievement that can be linked to a restructuring of high schools into smaller academies and special programs implemented in recent years by Superintendent Donnie W. Evans.

Other significant increases were made by Cliffside Park High School, which had an 84.1 percent graduation rate, up from 79.5 in 2013, and Garfield High School, which saw its graduation rate jump more than nine percentage points, to 87.3 percent.

This summary of graduation rates should also carry the reminder that overall, New Jersey continues to rank near the top in graduation rates across the country. The gains made in 2014 also came at the same time graduates faced a more difficult course load, including a requirement to take geometry, a second laboratory science and a course in financial history.

Graduating from high school certainly does not provide the same sense of economic security it did, say 50 years ago, yet a high school diploma is necessary for students to go forward, to enter college or a trade school, and to enable them to compete in the ever-changing, high-tech world in which we live. New Jersey must continue to push for improved graduation rates at all of its schools. "Meaningful diplomas" carry a lot of weight.


NJ Spotlight - With Confirmation Hearing After Lengthy Delay, Hespe Finally Gets His Day…On the job nine months, education chief is almost certain to be confirmed – but here are three tough questions he’s likely to be asked


John Mooney | December 8, 2014

After nine months as New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, David Hespe is finally coming before the state Senate for confirmation on Thursday.

His confirmation is all but assured, despite the lengthy delay. Why it took so long is not clear, although it likely represents another instance of the occasional political tugs-of-war between Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Related Links

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Newark’s Superintendent Candid About Challenges

One thing for certain is that Hespe will face questioning from the Senate judiciary committee about the many tough issues facing public education in the state, from charter schools to standardized testing to finances.

In that spirit of dialogue, NJ Spotlight predicts a couple of possible lines of questioning for the commissioner:

With the prospects slim for new school aid, are you going to change how the state distributes its existing amounts?

Hespe has the unenviable task of overseeing a state-aid picture for schools that continues to be dire, with the state’s obligations to education competing with multi-billion expenses for its pension system and its transportation infrastructure.

The biggest decisions will come in the next few months as the Christie administration devises its budget for fiscal 2016, a process that all but cements how school aid will be distributed next year, since school districts have little time afterward before they strike their own budgets.

By law, the distribution of aid should be dictated by the state’s school-funding formula, but that aid formula hasn’t been fully funded since its first year, and the end result is often a balance between across-the-board decisions about state-aid totals and a few extraordinary exceptions.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle have voiced frustration that they are not consulted during the administration’s number-crunching process, and Thursday’s questioning of Hespe may prove to be a chance for lawmakers to say – at least in public -- what they’re looking for in the budget-making process.

Call it a coincidence or unlucky timing, but this week will also feature oral arguments at the Mercer County courthouse in the Bacon v. NJ Department of Education case, which maintains poor rural districts are being especially shortchanged in state-aid funding.

Is New Jersey ready for the new online state testing -- instructionally, technologically, or politically?

The biggest unknown next year for New Jersey public schools will be the launch of a pioneering new set of online tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

The PARCC tests – named after the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is developing the exams – will start in March, for students in grades 3 through 11, in language arts and math.

While Hespe and the state Department of Education officials have said they are confident the schools and the state are ready, not everyone is so certain.

For instance, the administration has said 90 percent of schools are technologically prepared, according to its latest count. But how that figure was arrived at is unclear, and that would still leave 250 schools working on having computers in place and ready within three months.

Aside from the technology requirements, this is a significantly different form of testing -- even in terms of content -- than has ever been seen by a vast majority of the state’s 2,500 public schools. That means that how well teachers have prepared their students will surely be tested, with even supporters of the new tests expecting a decline in scores.

And that all leads to the politics involved, with growing protests by both grassroots and mainstream groups catching the attention of legislators. It was largely the Legislature -- and specifically Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto – that forced Christie last summer to scale back some of the consequences that the new tests will have on teachers and students next year.

It remains to be see how much more pressure might be brought to bear on Hespe and the administration on Thursday.

What’s next for Newark and New Jersey’s other troubled school districts that have been taken over by the state?

This is becoming somewhat of a broken record for New Jersey education commissioners, as the state has mastered the art of taking over school districts but is still working on finding its way out of them.

This is especially familiar for Hespe. During his first tenure as education commissioner under former Gov. Christie Whitman, he oversaw the state’s early withdrawal from Jersey City schools, a process that is still incomplete. Now, the issue is Newark and the bitter politics swirling around the tenure of state-appointed schools Superintendent Cami Anderson.

Where the Legislature comes in here is that Anderson – who is directly under Hespe’s supervision – has so far declined repeated invitations to appear before the Joint Committee for Public Schools.

And legislators have also started to get directly involved in some of the controversies involving Anderson, including the One Newark reorganization plan and what to do about the district’s most troubled schools.

Meanwhile, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has directly asked Hespe to intervene in issues related to this fall’s tumultuous opening of Barringer High School, as well as the lackluster results of Anderson’s initiatives in lowest-performing schools.


NewJerseynewsroom.com - Lesniak Calls For Investigation of Special Education Violations In Public Schools

Friday, 05 December 2014 18:14


Senator Raymond Lesniak on Friday called on New Jersey education officials to investigate allegations of the fraudulent use of state and federal dollars in the administration of services for children with disabilities in public schools, citing the abuses as an example in the Elizabeth school district and similar abuses identified by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in the Barringer Academies.

In both cases, serious allegations have been made about denying the required education services to special education students.

“Apparently the Elizabeth BOE isn't the only school district defrauding tax dollars and depriving special needs children of a thorough and efficient education as required by the New Jersey Constitution,” said Senator Lesniak. “I have received information from multiple sources about the Elizabeth Board of Education. Mayor Baraka identified similar abuses at the Barringer Academies and brought them to the attention of the State Department of Education, which said they would look into it.”

“Among the allegations are classrooms with no teaching assistants and children who are supposed to have individual assistance but don’t, according to credible allegations,” said Senator Lesniak. “These would be serious violations of the rights of students and teachers and those who get hurt the most are children with special needs. Altering documents to cover-up these actions would be in violation of the rules and regulations of the Department of Special Education and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This should get the attention of education officials and an appropriate investigation.”

Multiple sources have brought attention to these violations in Elizabeth, including the tampering with Individual Education Plans (IEP’s), documents that detail education plans for special needs students. It is illegal to tamper with IEP’s, Senator Lesniak said.

“There is substantial evidence of illegal activities that have the effect of harming the education of students in special education that should be investigated,” said Senator Lesniak. “These are serious charges that should get the attention and the action of top state education authorities.”

Parents and teachers have said that changes have been made to finalized IEP’s that result in special needs students losing the individual and classroom education assistants called for in the plans. The special assistants are needed to help students with health issues, physical or learning disabilities. The education plans detail how to meet these challenges and provide students with an education. The IEP’s are agreed upon by parents, teachers, case managers and health professionals.

Tampering with final IEP’s is illegal. According to those familiar with the actions, the tampering is done to justify cuts in the school system’s special education budget.


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