12-12-11 Education Issues - and controversies - in the News
NJ Spotlight - SDA Building Blocks Standardize Design and Construction…Efficiency is the watchword, but critics say "kit of parts" approach can miss unique needs

Star Ledger column - Braun: New kind of N.J. school privatization on the rise

Star Ledger - Politifact.com - The Truth-O-Meter Says… Chris Christie says New Jersey teachers only work 180 days a year, average $60K salaries…

NY Times - Growing Push in Newark to Retake School Reins

NJ Spotlight - SDA Building Blocks Standardize Design and Construction…Efficiency is the watchword, but critics say "kit of parts" approach can miss unique needs

Star Ledger column - Braun: New kind of N.J. school privatization on the rise

Star Ledger - Politifact.com - The Truth-O-Meter Says… Chris Christie says New Jersey teachers only work 180 days a year, average $60K salaries…

NY Times - Growing Push in Newark to Retake School Reins





NJ Spotlight - SDA Building Blocks Standardize Design and Construction…Efficiency is the watchword, but critics say "kit of parts" approach can miss unique needs

By John Mooney, December 12, 2011 in Education|Post a Comment

As the Schools Development Authority starts rolling out the first new construction projects in years, it is also starting to deliver the details of what it wants the new buildings to look like.

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SDA officials last week presented their board an outline of the “model school” designs that it is using to start the first dozen new projects to be launched by the Christie administration in two years.

Harkening back to children’s building blocks, the floor plans being considered so far for a half-dozen pending elementary schools are each different combinations of rectangular and square sections, each one serving different functions: instructional, office and support "core," large group, and preschool.

No curved walls or courtyards, officials said, and definitely no atriums or wide-open hallways.

“The open space is really not efficient design, it’s wasted space,” said Jason Ballard, the SDA’s chief of staff, at a presentation of the plans to a reporter after the board’s meeting last week.

Efficient is the operative word here. Standardization of designs and other construction steps is the Christie administration’s answer to a yearlong remaking of the mammoth school construction program to be leaner and more manageable.

At the same time, the “kit of parts” approach is sure to face criticism as a cookie-cutter, uninventive approach to design that does not meet the needs and wants of individual communities.

It’s familiar debate for a program first ordered by the state Supreme Court more than a decade ago for the state’s neediest districts, a $12 billion school construction initiative that at one point was among the nation’s largest. But it has also been rife with accusations of mismanagement and waste ever since. One of the most visible culprits were what critics called grandiose and wasteful designs in some buildings, including tall entry atriums.

Two years ago, Gov. Chris Christie said he would be cleaning up program; the resultant remaking slowed the SDA to a crawl.

Now, the first projects look close to start, with 10 announced for the first year and two of those going out to bid this winter. Those two, a high school in Elizabeth and elementary school in Long Branch, actually will follow their original designs, since officials said they were close enough to the standardization models to proceed.

But six of the next eight are potential candidates for the standardized design, including one each in Newark, Paterson, New Brunswick, Bridgeton, and Jersey City. Officials said another comparable set of new projects would be announced in the next few months as well.

The design components would each serve a function; for example, a hallway of six to 10 classrooms or a multi-purpose space that combines cafeteria and auditorium. There are still variations in size and some other details, but by and large different blocks would be moved around to fit the size and shape of a property. Materials used and the looks of the building’s entrance could also be tweaked to fit local tastes and needs.

In Newark’s Oliver Street School site, for instance, the configuration appears at one end of the property. Jersey City’s School 3 would be one long building, and the proposed Paterson School 16 is another configuration altogether, lined up to fit into its triangular site.

“It’s a much different space, and space constraints, but the same components that we can rearrange,” said Kristen MacLean, the SDA’s communications director. “It’s all there, but moved around to fit the site.”

Officials maintained that the SDA’s goal is not to create cookie-cutter designs but to leave some discretion to meet specific site needs. But only up to a point, they added, where the predesigned components -- crafted by the SDA’s design staff -- would eliminate a procurement step for an architect, saving the state both time and money.

“We’re taking the whole thing and smacking it down to a couple of months,” MacLean said.

Whether that actually happens is yet to be determined, with local district officials only starting to get a look at the new models. And with that will surely come questions as to whether the new floor plans will meet unique needs related to, say, a district’s special education programs or its grade requirements.

In Newark, lost in the new design for the Oliver Street School were plans for a second building that would serve the earliest grades. Now, under the SDA’s plans, Oliver Street is a single larger school, the previous designs all but scrapped.

Newark’s facilities director, Steve Morlino, said he didn’t want to pass judgment on the plans until he could closely examine them. He said it is a similar standardization process to that undertaken by the New York City’s board of education, with mixed results.

Morlino said the process runs into challenges, especially in urban settings where site constraints are many. But Morlino said he’s all for anything that accelerates a program that has hardly been speedy.

“If we’re talking building 10 schools in Newark, some standardization could help in the long run,” he said.


Star Ledger column - Braun: New kind of N.J. school privatization on the rise

Published: Monday, December 12, 2011, 8:10 AM Updated: Monday, December 12, 2011, 8:10 AM

By Bob Braun/Star-Ledger ColumnistThe Star-Ledger

Public education in New Jersey has been roiled recently by conflicts over charter schools, vouchers and "virtual" schools — but, now, a new type of privatization is on the horizon: allowing public schools to contract with a private company to offer "alternative" education.

The idea has been promoted to school superintendents by one of their own, Mount Olive schools chief Larrie Reynolds. He says it could bring extra income both to cash-strapped school districts and to a private, Dubai-based company for which he works as a consultant.

Reynolds is a friend and former employee and business associate of acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. Reynolds, who calls Cerf a "magnificent man," recently appeared with Cerf and Gov. Chris Christie on a panel to discuss school reform.

Cerf has known Reynolds for years — hired him twice — and the relationship provides a glimpse not just into the growing political brawl over privatization, but also into the network of entrepreneurs who use longstanding contacts in both government and the private sector to try to make money on what had been a public monopoly.

Cerf says he knows Reynolds was "in the early stages of thinking about a program that would serve alternative education students drawn from multiple districts." He says he is unaware "of the specifics of his ideas."

Under Reynolds’s plan, a company he says that he represents as a consultant — GEMS Education — would help a school district apply to the commissioner to become a "district of choice" under a newly expanded inter-district choice law, allowing it to admit students from other communities. The law gives the commissioner the power of approval.

GEMS Education, a company owned and funded by Dubai entrepreneur Sunny Varkey, would recruit outside students for the program, hire teachers privately for lower-than-contract salaries and provide supplies for a "pathways" program run independently of, but under contract to the district. The private company would split the additional state aid coming into the district as a result of its status as a choice district.

Reynolds says the company would have to make a "sizable" capital investment in the program and "take on a lot of risk." Only a private entrepreneur could do that, he says.

The Mount Olive schools chief, who has distributed materials on the program at meetings of school administrators, has not yet filed an application. He says his own district might apply. Reynolds says he works as a consultant for GEMS Education and is not being paid for bringing in customers.

He also is president of Sangari Active Science, a subsidiary of Sangari Global Education, a company once run by Cerf. Reynolds also headed Newton Learning, a division of Edison Schools, a private education management company Cerf served as chief operating officer.

The current president of Sangari Global, Rajeev Bajaj, headed Global Education Advisers, a consulting company started by Cerf out of his Montclair home. It received a $500,000 contract from the Newark public schools. Cerf said he left Global Education Advisers before it received the contract and never received money from the company. Randy Cerf, Cerf’s brother, is chief financial officer of Sangari Global.

Reynolds says that, even though he works for both companies, there is no connection between Sangari and GEMS.

One superintendent Reynolds approached was Judith Rattner of Berkeley Heights, until recently president of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

"All school districts are looking for ways to bring in more revenue," says Rattner. "But I decided pretty quickly this was not something I’d be interested in doing."

According to its website, GEMS Education is the "largest kindergarten to year 12 education operator in the world," with 100,000 students enrolled, mostly in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan. It boasts $500 million in annual revenues. While it only operates one school in the United States — "Little Gems" in Texas — its American subsidiaries provide consulting services to public schools in Arizona, Maryland, Connecticut, Colorado, Ohio and Missouri. Its parent company, the Varkey Group, also has expanded into privately operated hospitals and construction management.

The American subsidiaries are headed by Manny Rivera, once executive vice president of Edison. Marlaina Palmeri, another former vice president of Edison, is in charge of charter school management for the company.

Cerf says he met with Varkey seven years ago "on a completely unrelated matter" and may have "run into him" again at a charitable event. The commissioner said, if he were faced with making a decision involving Reynolds, he would "consider the facts presented, seek advice concerning any applicable legal guidelines and act accordingly."

The issue of privatization has spawned rallies and counter-rallies, litigation and sharp debates in the Legislature recently. A spokeswoman for an opponent of privatization, SOS-New Jersey, says Reynolds’ work and the involvement of for-profit companies in public education show the need for tighter controls on charter and other privatized schools.

"We have to close the loopholes," says Julia Rubin of Princeton. "What’s happening is that the state is allowing anything that is not expressly forbidden."

Reynolds defends private involvement, contending public schools have neither the money nor the time needed to create "alternative schools" envisioned by his plan. In the materials he provided other superintendents, he also sees it as a fundraiser:

"At a minimum, a choice district’s first year revenues at a 50 percent split would generate as much as $641,000 to the potential district."



Star Ledger - Politifact.com - The Truth-O-Meter Says… Chris Christie says New Jersey teachers only work 180 days a year, average $60K salaries…

Chris Christie on Friday, November 18th, 2011 in a speech at Notre Dame's law school

Chris Christie says New Jersey teachers only work 180 days a year, average $60K salaries

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Gov. Chris Christie discusses teachers' pay and workload during this Nov. 18 forum at the University of Notre Dame. Go to 16:45 to hear his comments.

New Jersey teachers have a pretty cushy gig, to hear Gov. Chris Christie tell it.

They only work about six months a year and are paid north of $50,000 annually, according to a speech about education that Christie gave Nov. 18 at Notre Dame’s law school in South Bend, Ind.

"They say teachers only make on an average in New Jersey 60,000 dollars a year. They only work 180 days," the governor said between comments about the number of hours teachers work daily and how he supports higher pay for "excellent teachers."

But Christie should have checked his work before making this claim. His numbers are a bit off from the true numbers, PolitiFact New Jersey found.

Let’s first discuss teacher schedules.

A minimum 180-day school year is required by state statute, but a majority of school districts in New Jersey exceed that minimum, according to the New Jersey Education Association.

The NJEA provided us with documents showing the average number of school days for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years: 185, among school districts with settled contracts. That amounts to 257 districts for the current school year, 423 for last year and 511 for the 2005-06 year.

New Jersey’s number of instruction days is the same as at least 30 other states, according to the Denver, Colo.-based Education Commission of the States.

NJEA spokesman Steve Baker took exception to Christie’s statement that teachers "only" work 180 days a year.

"The really misleading part of the statement is that it assumes teachers don’t work any additional days beyond those stipulated in their contracts, which is wrong," Baker said in an email. "Most – indeed, nearly all -- teachers spend many additional days setting up their classrooms, preparing lesson plans, attending professional development events, taking classes and otherwise engaged in additional work outside the contracted school day and school year. You can imagine the amount of work that goes into preparing to teach 180 days of student classes.

"This is a common tactic that critics of public education use to denigrate the work of teachers, to make it sound as if they really don’t work that hard," Baker continued. "It’s a bit like saying that the Governor is only working on days when he signs bills. In other words, wrong, and intentionally misleading."

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

Michael W. Smith, a professor and chair of the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Technology in Education at Temple University in Philadelphia, said the work of a teacher neither begins nor ends in the classroom.

In addition to instructing classes, teachers often work at home or outside the classroom preparing lessons, reviewing students’ work and providing feedback, meeting with students outside class, staying abreast of educational technology, meeting continuing education requirements and much more, said Smith, who chaired the Department of Learning and Teaching at Rutgers University New Brunswick from 1992-2005.

William Gaudelli, an associate professor of Social Studies and Education, and the Social Studies program coordinator at Teachers College, Columbia University, agreed that the work teachers do goes well beyond 180 work days.

"It’s really a misrepresentation of the vast majority of teachers who are dedicated to their work," Gaudelli, a member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, said about Christie’s statement.

As for teacher salaries, Christie underestimated those numbers.

The average teacher salary in New Jersey for 2009-10 was $65,130 – the fourth highest in the country behind New York, Massachusetts and California, according to a 2011 report from the National Education Association.

Our ruling

In a speech last month to students at Notre Dame, the governor said New Jersey teachers on average only work 180 days a year and get $60,000 salaries. New Jersey’s school year averages 185 days and the average teacher salary in the state is $65,130. Christie was a bit off on both of his numbers, but not by much. Based strictly on numbers, we rate his statement Mostly True.

To comment on this statement, go to NJ.com.


NY Times - Growing Push in Newark to Retake School Reins


NEWARK — For a generation of Newark students, every education decision, including choices on curriculum, spending and superintendent, has been made by state officials in Trenton.

That level of state involvement has made the 39,000-student district an attractive laboratory for Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican seen as a national leader on education reform, and for prominent donors, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who have pledged $148 million to remake this city’s failing schools.

But the influx of money, and the attendant national spotlight, has galvanized a growing movement of parents, educators and elected officials who want the schools returned to local control 16 years after they were taken over amid low test scores, crumbling buildings and charges of mismanagement.

These critics say that the state has unilaterally imposed a controversial agenda — replacing principals, opening new schools, placing charter schools inside district buildings — dreamed up by outsiders and consultants who do not understand the needs of their children, and that there is not enough opportunity for input by parents and community-based advocates.

“It just seems like a hostile takeover because our voices are not being heard,” said Leah Owens, 29, the founder of Teachers as Leaders in Newark, which has helped collect hundreds of signatures in support of local control. “There are so many new things happening, it’s like the idea is just throw it all against a wall and see what sticks.”

Newark’s school board, which is elected but serves an advisory role, petitioned a state appellate court in August to give it the reins of most day-to-day operations, and a coalition of community organizations and residents represented by the Education Law Center, an advocacy group, followed with a similar lawsuit. This fall, the coalition has lobbied for local control at community meetings, started petition drives at schools, unleashed e-mail campaigns on state officials, and staged a rally that united even political adversaries.

“What we have in Newark is taxation without representation,” said State Senator Ronald L. Rice, one of nearly 300 people who attended the rally last month.

But Mr. Christie has ruled out a return to local control anytime soon, and his acting education commissioner, Christopher D. Cerf, said in an interview that the district had not yet shown the sustained progress required to end Trenton’s involvement.

Legislation passed in 2005 and 2007 created a process for the state to withdraw from Newark and two other districts, Jersey City and Paterson, once they met benchmarks in five areas: instruction and program, fiscal management, operations, personnel and governance.

By June, Newark had done so in all but instruction, building upon a 2007 review that allowed the district to regain control over building maintenance and safety issues. Jersey City has had approval over finances and governance since 2007, while Paterson remains fully under state control, though it passed benchmarks last year for governance, operations and personnel.

Regarding Newark, Mr. Cerf wrote to the new superintendent in July that “much work remains,” with graduation rates and test scores low, and with personnel procedures and operations that “continue to inhibit student learning and effective management of the district.”

“I thought we needed to take a deep breath and let the new superintendent get established,” Mr. Cerf added in an interview. “And let some of these new reforms begin to take root before we have this conversation.”

At least 20 states have taken control of local school districts over the last two decades, with mixed results in addressing fiscal crises, mismanagement and poor academic performance. Newark’s takeover, dating to 1995, is one of the longest-lasting; others typically range from one to 10 years.

The federal No Child Left Behind law, effective since 2002, specifically identified state takeovers of failing districts or schools as an option. More recently, Louisiana and Tennessee have created special state-controlled districts to oversee failing schools, rather than taking over an entire district.

In New Jersey, Mr. Christie in May chose the new Newark superintendent, Cami Anderson, who reports to Mr. Cerf; the state’s Education Department approves the district’s nearly $1 billion budget.

If the appellate court rules in favor of Newark’s school board, the state would continue to oversee instruction, but the nine board members could start to regain budgetary and policy-making powers, including the hiring — and firing — of superintendents. Under state law, if the district gets control over governance, residents would vote within a year on whether to keep an elected school board or change to a mayor-appointed board.

Many parents supporting the drive for local control complained that the state had pushed a culture of test-taking, leaving little room for electives like art, music, auto shop and cooking.

“You can’t grade everything on test scores,” said Daphne Frazier, 46, whose two youngest sons are in special-education classes. “A lot of kids are really not good at taking tests. It messes with their self-esteem if they see their scores.”

Others questioned the focus on creating new schools, including charters, at the expense of struggling neighborhood schools, which serve most students. At George Washington Carver Elementary School, parents and teachers complained this year after a charter school moved in on the third floor with new air-conditioners and furnishings.

“You could see the new furniture coming in,” said Shellian Peters, 38, a mother of three. “Whereas on the district side, it was the same as when the school was built. That’s how blatantly obvious it was.”

Ms. Anderson, the superintendent, denied that charters had gotten extra attention, noting that she had visited all 75 district schools. She said her administration had worked broadly to develop stronger principals and teachers in all the schools, redesigned report cards to better communicate progress to parents, and provided flexibility to schools to address individual student needs. And while the district, like much of the nation, relies on standardized tests to measure student progress, Ms. Anderson said that she had also put resources into enrichment activities like arts programs and debate clubs.

Such efforts have won praise from Derrell Bradford, executive director of Better Education for Kids, an advocacy group, who said he favored state control because Trenton has better access to resources and personnel. Clement Price, a prominent Newark historian, concurred that state control should not end without a serious public debate over the kind of school board that would replace it.

Newark’s mayor, Cory A. Booker, a Democrat, said that while he had long called for local control of the schools, he had also partnered with the state on reforms that he said were making a difference.

“The politics and the policies of tomorrow, no matter how important, are not going to serve our kids today,” he said.

But Junius Williams, 67, a lawyer, said the initial excitement over the Zuckerberg gift had turned to disappointment because “the so-called reform plan has not addressed the basic needs of all the children.”

Shavar Jeffries, a school board member, said that he supported the recent initiatives but that state control inevitably undermined parental involvement.

“The path to lasting reform runs through parents, not around them,” he said. “A takeover mind-set will ultimately doom the prospects for reform.”

Deniqua Matias, who collected petition signatures for local control recently at George Washington Carver Elementary, said she was insulted that the Zuckerberg gift was announced on Oprah Winfrey’s show in Chicago.

“It should have been done in Newark, but that is the trend here,” said Ms. Matias, 29, an assistant preschool director. “It’s like the state is saying: ‘We don’t have to have a relationship with you; we’ll just tell you what to do. Here’s your spoonful of oatmeal; take it, and like it.’ ”