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11-17-15 Lameduck Education Committees Moving Bills

NJ Spotlight - LAWMAKERS TIE UP LEGISLATIVE LOOSE ENDS PERTAINING TO STATE’S SCHOOLS…Committees address array of education matters ranging from bolstering special-education services to addressing chronic absenteeism


A busy day at the State House yesterday brought a variety of education matters to the fore -- from special education to school regionalization to one bill that would require every elementary school to provide daily recess.

Both the Senate and Assembly education committees met for one of the last meetings for each panel before the end of the year. A number of the bills reviewed were holdovers from previous sessions, and some of the committees’ actions were basically procedural moves to keep proposed legislation from expiring.

But the sessions allowed advocates and others to speak up on issues that don’t usually get the spotlight in what has been a busy few years for education policy in New Jersey, much of it dominated by topics like standardized testing and charter schools.


S-1029 -- AUTISM




Here are some of the highlights among more than a dozen bills considered and advanced yesterday:

Special education

The Senate’s education committee took up a series of bills designed to strengthen services for more than 200,000 students classified with special needs.

One bill would encourage districts to use early intervention strategies known as “response to intervention” (RTI), where schools follow a procedure for evaluating and supporting students in hopes of avoiding having them classified for special education.

Another would require new teachers to get specific training amounting to six credit hours in how to interact with students on the autism spectrum, a rising population that some estimate amounts one in every 60 students in New Jersey.

Regan Kaiden, a Collingswood parent and former teacher, applauded the greater attention to making all teachers aware of special-education needs.

“In today’s world, really everyone should be a special education teacher,” she said. “You won’t find a classroom today where there aren’t students with a variety of different needs, and we are doing them a disservice without teachers who are dually certified (in special education).”

Chronic absenteeism

A report released this fall said a significant number of schools have large percentages of students who are absent or at least 10 percent of the school year, missing the equivalent of almost a full month of classes. A bill introduced this month by state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) would require the state Department of Education to report data for every school on “chronic absenteeism” and suspensions, and to press schools to take steps to address high rates of absenteeism.

While there’s a general agreement the problem needs to be addressed, the hearing before the Senate education committee also underscored the sensitive nature of the issue and the privacy needs of specific families.

The proposed bill calls for a coalition in each district to track and analyze student absenteeism while coming up with strategies to address it. But the bill was also amended to prevent the disclosure of information about individual families from being disclosed to the larger group.

Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which issued the report, said the group was sensitive to the need to protect individual families in the process, although that shouldn’t prevent schools from looking at larger patterns.

“But if you have 10 percent of the school that is chronically absent, you need to think differently, you need to think holistically, and thinking it’s just student by student is not enough,” she said.

New task forces

The Senate committee unanimously backed creating a task force to look at the costs and benefits of school regionalization, one of the last bills from ongoing state Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Hunterdon).

It’s hardly a new topic, as the state has long grappled with the cost-effectiveness of the state’s 600-plus districts. The bill would create a 16-member panel that would study the benefits and drawbacks of regionalization.

Over on the Assembly side, the education committee backed the creation of a 21-member task force to explore how to extend kindergarten in every district to full-day programs. It is the second attempt at this bill; Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure last year.

About a quarter of the state’s districts have only half-day programs.

“Crazy we have to have a task force for this,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chair of the committee. “All studies show the earlier children go to school, the better they perform.”

Mandatory recess?

Maybe even more passionate a subject is addressed in a bill that would require elementary schools to provide daily recess of at least 20 minutes for all their students, up to fifth grade. Some language was added for exceptions in the case of students facing disciplinary matters.

“Many of you may wonder why we need this bill,” said state Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), the prime sponsor.

“Our elementary schools have gone like high schools for each subject, but in those periods, they don’t have recess and they don’t have time to run around and play games.

“I see recess as not just time to run around but to build social skills, to learn how to build teams, and learn things beyond just the exercise itself.”


The Record Advanced Placement courses surge, but so does debate about worth and stress


Advanced Placement courses are all the rage in New Jersey this school year, with many high schools having added more of the college-level courses to meet surging demand.

Students and advocates of the courses cite their value as college preparation, and parents hope to save on the cost of college credits earned for free in high school.

But critical observers also are pointing to the amplified stress that AP courses put on already high-achieving students with packed schedules.

The courses, which lend cachet to a student’s résumé, have long been a staple across the nation. But now, many North Jersey schools, including those in Northern Valley Regional High School District and in Lodi, Bergenfield, Tenafly, Wayne, Emerson and Glen Rock, have launched additional AP courses.

The most popular have traditionally been AP English Literature and AP U.S. History, said staff of the College Board, which administers the AP tests and trains teachers. But school administrators cite a dramatic increase in the number of AP STEM courses added over the past few years, including at Northern Valley High School, which has launched AP physics, science, and computer science; Emerson, which added AP Physics I and II; and Glen Rock, which is adding AP computer science.

New Jersey students have done particularly well on the AP exams, with more than 72.8 percent scoring a 3 or higher — out of 5 — on AP exams in 2015, compared with the average of 60.5 percent internationally.

But not everyone favors the trend, as some argue the work-intensive APs create too much stress for students, especially those who may sign up for more than they can handle.

And a Record survey of some North Jersey students indeed found that the trade-off is a difficult one. All the teens interviewed, from several high schools, agreed that there’s high stress, but they said it’s far outweighed by the benefits. Most said schools tell them they must take the demanding courses if they are to get into the best colleges.

Kiera Mercier-Solodar, a Teaneck High School senior taking four AP courses, sighed as she considered her crammed schedule as a full-time student, soccer team captain and baby sitter four nights a week. "It’s really stressful," she said. "I’m tired a lot. I’m up every night late doing homework. But that’s what you have to do to get into a good college: Even a B in an AP class looks better on the transcript than an A in an honors class."

Tatiana Gallardo, a Pascack Hills High School senior taking four AP courses, describes a "lingering stress" and says her guidance counselor advised her to take the toughest courses to attract the top colleges.

"When you go to a good public school, there’s an expectation that you will take the most rigorous classes possible, even if you aren’t interested in the class," she said. "A lot of kids are taking APs just because it looks good on our college applications. Some kids get really overworked. … If you want to go to a top college, you have to have AP classes on your résumé."

In AP classes, it’s all geared toward passing an exam, so much of the work revolves around how to "ace the test," Gallardo said.

Chris Senense, a Teaneck High School senior taking four AP courses, observed that other aspects of high school life end up falling by the wayside. He said he was sad to quit the swim team in order to focus on his work. "Academics are more important," he said. "I’m hoping to get into MIT."

The AP program began in 1955 and offers courses in more than 36 diverse subjects, including U.S. history, biology, drawing and music theory. The curriculum consists of a standardized course equivalent to an undergraduate college course. AP students are expected to perform at a faster pace and have a quicker grasp of material, a demonstration to colleges of seriousness and capability of handling college-level work.

Schools differ in rules for AP sign-up. Northern Valley Regional, which added five AP courses this year for a total of 24, allows all students to take them. Lodi High School students must be recommended by teachers for AP courses, but they can take as many as they can cram into schedules. Emerson High School students must apply for AP courses, but are urged to limit themselves to three. Bergenfield High School has an open enrollment policy and no limit.

The number of AP students nationwide is on the rise. In New Jersey, 66,956 students took AP exams in 2015, compared with 51,469 in 2011, according to the College Board. The board determines the material, ensuring a standard for AP teachers nationwide. Exams are given in May. To be eligible for college credit, a student must usually pass the AP exam with a score of 3 or higher out of 5 points, although credit is at the discretion of the college.

Honors versus AP

High school honors courses, on the other hand, are generally developed locally by teachers to meet the needs of advanced students. They often parallel what’s taught in regular class, but at a quicker pace, or in greater depth.

Also of marked difference: To get into an honors class often means taking placement tests and acquiring recommendations, but many schools don’t deny any students the opportunity to take an AP course, which can fulfill a high school requirement even if the student doesn’t pass the AP exam.

It is up to each school to choose its own AP teachers, although some said they choose honors teachers or those passionate about the subject to teach AP courses. AP teachers often train at College Board seminars, but there are no defined criteria for who can serve as an AP teacher and what type of training they receive.

Many students take too many of the courses at a time in life when they are not prepared for them educationally, socially or emotionally, said Dana Karas, director of guidance at Franklin High School in Somerset and president of the New Jersey School Counselor Association. And that results in higher levels of anxiety and depression, she said. "Students may push themselves into an AP when they aren’t ready and end up unhappy." Many students take the AP in a quest to get into an Ivy League college, but "it’s not a path that will lead every child to success."

Anthony Tasso, a Fairleigh Dickinson University psychology professor and psychologist with a private practice in Morristown, also argues that the AP’s heavy workload has questionable educational value: "The focus tends to be on the outcome rather than the learning," he said. "Students may not end up caring as much about the learning — they just want to pass the AP exam."

And as a psychologist, he’s concerned about teens making social lives secondary to hard work.

"Is this setting a template of it always being about work, work, work in every stage of life? The ideal of mental health is to have a balance," Tasso said. "Often, the kids with heavy AP loads don’t have balance."

Some have asked schools to cap the number of AP courses students can take each semester. And some private schools have even eliminated AP offerings altogether.

AP advocates are just as firm in pointing to the courses’ benefits.

AP students will catch the attention of colleges that want students who challenge themselves, said John Williamson, vice president of the Advanced Placement Program at the College Board. Furthermore, he said, records show students who take AP courses are better prepared for college. And then there are those financial benefits: With those advance college credits, "Students can save around $1,700 at a public institution and $6,000 at a private institution," he said.

In addition to offering more AP courses, Northern Valley Regional High School recently implemented a dual-enrollment program so students can graduate with college credits from Seton Hall or Bergen Community College.

"Colleges can cost easily up to $60,000 a year. But if a student takes 40 credits, that’s $75 a credit, so we’re helping with that," said Northern Valley interim Superintendent Geoffrey Gordon. "The parents have been universally positive about this. It gives students the option of completing a year of college credit in high school. So instead of costing $200,000 for four years, they can come out with an associate’s degree from Bergen Community College. I don’t know of any other high school doing this. Getting into college is a challenge, but being able to pay for it is so damn expensive."

Bergenfield High School teacher Eddie Baldwin, who teaches AP Literature and Composition, said students are assigned to read seven books and write multiple essays in preparing for the AP exam. The class is more rigorous than the typical English class, he conceded, and, "A lot of students place themselves under a lot of stress to succeed," he said. "But stress is an inevitable part of life. It’s important that we help them deal with stress in a healthy way. I don’t think that shielding them from stress is a good strategy."

But Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, suggests students think carefully before signing up.

She argues that there’s no agency ensuring teacher eligibility to teach AP courses and that districts often move too quickly with the program, pushing children into something they aren’t ready for.

"They will have another notch on the résumé, but at what expense?" she said. "Are they becoming so stressed out and sleep-deprived that when they are at college they are ill-prepared?"

Email: yellin@northjersey.com


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

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