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4-30-12 Education Issues in the News
NJ Spotlight - With School Choice Growing, NJ Expands Options…New rules would add flexibility and increase number of students eligible

Associated Press - Gov. Christie, Cory Booker to deliver addresses at school choice conference in Jersey City

Star Ledger Opinion – Moran- In Perth Amboy, politics derailing school reform

Courier Post - L.A. group a factor in N.J. schools

The Record - Sex cases prompt new rules, heightened scrutiny at NJ schools

 

NJ Spotlight - With School Choice Growing, NJ Expands Options…New rules would add flexibility and increase number of students eligible

By John Mooney, April 29, 2012 in Education|Post a Comment

With New Jersey’s interdistrict choice program tripling in size the past two years, the Christie administration is tweaking the regulations for the program to make it available to more students.

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The new regulations are to be presented to the state Board of Education on Wednesday, opening the program to all ages of children and streamlining the process for school districts to join.

First created as a five-year pilot in 1999, the program has seen big growth since 2010, when the legislature passed amendments to open it up to all school districts that want to participate.

Previously it could be no more than one district per county accepting outside students, virtually capping the growth of the program. In 2010, about 1,000 students used the program at 15 outside districts.

After the amendments, 71 districts now are participating and accepting more than 2,100 students from outside their borders. Next year, that is estimated to grow to more than 3,300 students going to 73 participating districts.

The proposed regulations are in keeping with the new law, putting in place a number of technical changes that together are intended to remove limits for both students and school districts.

“These are common sense improvements to allow additional flexibility and increase the number of students eligible for the Interdistrict Choice Program,” said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.

For instance, current regulations limit the program to students no older than entering ninth grade. The proposal would open it to all years of high school.

Another proposed regulation would allow students from private schools or in home schooling to enroll in choice districts, once seats have been made available to eligible public school students.

The application process for families would also be streamlined under the new regulations. Now held in two cycles, there would be just one application period in the fall prior to admission. The commissioner may also waive those timelines “if it is show to be a student’s best interest.”

The lead sponsor of the new law, state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), said she hopes the new regulations will smooth some of the concerns she has heard in the implementation of the larger program.

Still, not all issues are resolved, as Jasey said districts continue to raise worries about the rising cost of transporting students who attend outside districts. The law requires the sending districts to pay for transportation of up to 20 miles. The state pays the tuition costs, with Gov. Chris Christie adding an additional $14 million in his budget for next year.

“As we go through this process and more and more districts are participating, I think we will need to revisit that,” Jasey said yesterday of the transportation issue.

Still, she called the program’s growth a continuing success story for the state, and not just in terms of the added opportunities offered to students.

“It is getting districts and school boards to look at what people want and where to put their resources,” Jasey said.

 

Associated Press - Gov. Christie, Cory Booker to deliver addresses at school choice conference in Jersey City

Published: Monday, April 30, 2012, 6:25 AM Updated: Monday, April 30, 2012, 6:57 AM

The Associated PressJERSEY CITY —Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker are the headliners at a national conference on school choice scheduled for this week in Jersey City.

Both men are scheduled to speak at the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice's major meeting. The groups advocate for giving parents more school options for their children.

Christie has been pushing for a tax-credit program that would use public money to send children in some New Jersey communities to private schools.

The Republican governor and Democratic mayor have united previously on education issues. They were both involved in Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's decision to donate $100 million to try to improve Newark's schools.

The conference is set for Thursday and Friday at the Westin Jersey City Newport.

Star Ledger Opinion – Moran- In Perth Amboy, politics derailing school reform

Published: Sunday, April 29, 2012, 7:14 AM  By Tom Moran/ The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger
Janine Caffrey, the superintendent of Perth Amboy schools, has been shut out of her office and sent home.

No one disputes that she works hard and that she was putting in place exactly the reforms she promised when she was hired less than a year ago. No one questions her integrity or her intelligence.

But none of that matters much. Because Caffrey is not a great politician. Her first sin was to tell the truth about tenure — that it protects horrendously bad teachers in her district and hurts kids. Then she refused to make the patronage hires she says board members pressed on her. And then she bucked the all-powerful teachers union by trying to change ancient customs on evaluations, job placements and student suspensions.

"I’m not a politician," Caffrey says. "I didn’t think I signed on to be a politician. I’m an educator. I think superintendents in these communities are forced to think like a politician in order to survive. And my biggest mistake is that I don’t think that way."

This is a cautionary tale about how politics can derail school reform. Because when you try to change the way schools do business, it upsets the adults every time.

Some of that is based on old-school greed. Teachers unions, for example, generally want sturdy raises every year and no accountability. Some of it is genuine, based on skepticism about charter schools or tenure reform. Some, especially in Newark, is rooted in suspicion of outside influences.

Those forces, when combined, make for a potent defense of the status quo. And if we expect superintendents to overcome that by themselves, then reform is never going to gain momentum. They need help.

If you look at the details in Perth Amboy, you want to scream. The charge against Caffrey is led by board president Samuel Lebreault, who is under investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office because he applied for free school lunches for his kids, even though he says he knew he didn’t qualify.

He has no cogent explanation for why he filed that application. So here’s a good guess: He wanted to cash in on some old-fashioned Jersey favoritism. When state investigators started sniffing at this, his application mysteriously disappeared from the district files. Local police are investigating that.

Caffrey says Lebreault was particularly aggressive about pressing patronage hires on her, and she refused every time. He won’t comment on that.

But it was Lebreault who stood up Wednesday night and read a list of 22 trumped-up charges against Caffrey. He read fast. Many in the audience, and even on the board, were confused. People in the front row shouted for him to slow down. And now he’s refusing to release the list.

Okay, how about describing it from memory? What’s the single most important charge against her?

"Honestly, it’s all a blur as to what the points were," he says. "I’m having difficulty remembering."

Lebreault did promise last week to reconsider the district’s policy on student suspensions, put in place by Caffrey. When she arrived, 38 percent of high school students had been suspended in the previous year. That had become the go-to response on discipline, the lazy response.

So a new policy was put into effect: Caffrey had to approve any student suspension. The rate plunged to 10 percent, closer to the norm.

But rumors spread that she had banned all suspensions, leading to chaos. Dozens of parents complained at a raucous school committee meeting.

Somehow, Caffrey got the blame, even though this policy was approved in advance by the school committee. Also worth noting: All four board members who voted to oust her face re-election this year.

They grew weak-kneed, in other words. And like Pontius Pilate, they threw Caffrey to the crowd.

It’s true that Caffrey lacks a political touch. Speaking the truth about bad teachers in her schools cost her support in the district, she realizes now. And she is a hard-charger, which scares some people.

But maybe we should all be more impatient when it comes to failing schools. Kids who drop out, or graduate with a fake degree, are doomed in today’s world. Caffrey was shaking things up for good reason.

She makes good sense when she says strict tenure is an obscenity, that good charter schools help kids, that we need to revamp teacher evaluations and give principals more power. It’s not certain all this will work, but it is certain the status quo is failing.

Caffrey is likely gone soon, unless the state, which is trying to mediate, can work some magic. Either way, reform will be set back, and the fight may well land in court.

"I’m working with my attorneys to determine what my legal options are," Caffrey says.
After moving here less than a year ago, then being fired on such flimsy grounds, who can blame her?

Courier Post - L.A. group a factor in N.J. schools

11:23 PM, Apr. 28, 2012 | Written byKEVIN C. SHELLY Courier-Post Staff

CAMDEN — Two state education officials, expected to play a key role in the future of the city’s school system, share a common background with MBAs and ties to a Los Angeles-based foundation.

One more similarity: Camden’s school board has rebuffed initial requests from their reform programs.

Bing Howell and Rochelle Sinclair are assigned to state Department of Education programs — Hope Act Schools and Regional Achievement Centers — that are intended to upgrade the performance of Camden’s school system. Both are fellows of the Broad (rhymes with road) Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to improve urban schools through “better governance, management, labor relations and competition.”

Howell serves as a liaison to the city for the creation of four Hope Act charter schools.

Newark and Jersey City, employing a template the DOE wanted set by Camden, will also be allowed to create four new schools in each city. Part of that template is creating a request for proposal, or RFP, on the local level.

That’s because unlike traditional charters, the so-called Renaissance schools will be vetted and selected by the local school board before being sent to the DOE for final approval.

The DOE had hoped to have Camden’s Board of Education sign off on at least one new school by this July. That timetable would potentially allow a newly built school to open by the start of the 2013 school year.

But that plan stalled last week when board members voted against approving the RFP.

Instead, the Camden board created a four-person committee and pushed back consideration of the plan until late May, unless a special meeting is held.

Howell briefed the board the week before on the proposal — and its urgency.

But board members felt rushed and unheeded by the state.

Requirement

Part of that feeling came from a presentation earlier at the same board meeting. State DOE representatives discussed the RAC program during that presentation.

RAC participation is required of schools with persistently low test scores. In the district, 23 of the city’s 26 schools have failing test scores.

The RAC program threatens to upend the way the city’s schools are led and organized. The program allows for the firing or reassignment of district employees by the state and potentially allows for the closing of schools that do not improve.

Product of waiver

The RACs are part of New Jersey’s recently approved No Child Left Behind waiver. Six additional RACs are planned for around the state, but Camden has the greatest concentration of failing schools in New Jersey.

The DOE had sought to have the RAC quartered in the district’s administration building on Front Street. The building is in downtown Camden, generally considered the nicest and the safest part of the city.

Instead, the district has offered soon-to-be vacant trailers at the Pyne Poynt Middle School in North Camden to house the 20 DOE employees who will be assigned to turning around the city’s failing schools. North Camden is considered to be among the city’s most dangerous areas.

Recruited

Justin Barra, a spokesman for the DOE, declined to make Howell and Sinclair available for interviews. Through an emailed response, Barra explained how Howell and Sinclair came to be employed by the DOE.

“We interviewed these two individuals for specific positions within the department and recruited them heavily. They are currently full-time employees, paid two-thirds by the department and one-third by the Broad Residency and were hired into vacant positions. Both began in August.”

Barra has said they are paid $90,000 annually.

Roots in finance

Howell began his work life with Merrill Lynch’s Global Equity Financing and Services department. He later was an educational consultant for Bryanston Square in the United Kingdom, where he worked to develop “transformational learning” environments, according to listings on the Broad Foundation and LinkedIn websites.

He also served as the interim executive director and the director of development and civic engagement for Citizen Schools in New Jersey. He apparently focused on raising revenue and increasing volunteers.

Sinclair has worked as a financial consultant and fraud investigator at PricewaterhouseCoopers before turning to education and the Broad Foundation, according to listings on the Broad Foundation and LinkedIn websites.

Reach Kevin C. Shelly at atkshelly@gannett.comor (856) 449-8684

The Record - Sex cases prompt new rules, heightened scrutiny at NJ schools

BY COLLEEN DISKIN STAFF WRITER

Schools are forbidding teachers and coaches from befriending students on Facebook and banning them from giving students gifts or rides home to guard against situations that could potentially lead to sexual abuse of children.

Employee behavior is being more closely scrutinized and staff members are being trained to act as watchdogs as more school officials in New Jersey realize they need to do a better job policing their own.

“The worst thing that a school district can do is to ignore this and to pretend that it doesn’t go on,” said Steven Engravalle, interim superintendent in Fort Lee. “I wish it were being spoken about more. It’s still a very dark subject that people don’t want to talk about.”

The new policies and programs come as North Jersey schools deal with 25 arrests or convictions the past three years of teachers, coaches or other school employees accused of sexually abusing or engaging in inappropriate relationships with children.

Since The Record published a story about the issue on Jan. 30, there have been two more arrests: Hours after signing a contract to become a teacher at Rutherford High School, Richard Damato Jr., 24, a Bayonne resident, was arrested on Feb. 8 for allegedly exchanging explicit messages over the Internet with a Passaic County sheriff’s officer posing as a 12-year-old girl. On March 14, Darren Clark, a maintenance worker for Morgan Educational Services, was arrested and charged with luring a teenager onto an unoccupied school bus in Bogota. In both cases, the charges were still pending as of Friday.

Allegations like these in schools have sparked a national campaign to ensure that a teacher under suspicion of abuse can’t quietly resign and get a job teaching somewhere else. And in New Jersey, there is a push to allow victims to more easily sue schools where the abuse occurred, a move advocates say could compel schools to be more vigilant.

But as someone who has prosecuted child sex abuse cases for 20 years, Joseph Del Russo said many schools still fail to enforce “bright-lines rules” about teacher-student relationships that offer little room for debate about what’s acceptable.

“There should be no ambiguity,” said Del Russo, chief assistant Passaic County prosecutor and head of the special victim’s unit.

Focused on students

Too often, sex-abuse-prevention efforts in schools have been aimed only at the potential victims, with students’ being urged to tell a “trusted adult,” about abuse, said Terri Miller, president of the national prevention group, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation.

“It’s not going far enough to just educate the children about keeping themselves safe,” Miller said. “It’s about a teacher in one room watching the teacher in the room next door, and the principal watching those teachers.”

While experts say there’s no psychological profile test that could help schools screen for predators, there are common patterns in how abusers gain and then abuse the trust of their victims: repeatedly texting or emailing; giving gifts; offering rides home; sharing intimate details about personal problems; singling a student out for special attention.

Besides banning these behaviors, schools should hold more extensive training on warning signs. They should also establish a protocol for investigating allegations, including designating a staff member as the person to whom other faculty can report their concerns, said Robert Shoop, director of Kansas State University’s Cargill Center for Ethical Leadership. Shoop has testified as an expert in more than 80 cases in which schools were sued for failing to prevent abuse.

“You can’t report everybody that gives a kid a ride in their car because there may be some appropriate reason for the ride to be given,” Shoop said. “But you have to have someone who’s paying attention and who knows how to investigate these behaviors and to intervene when they see a staff member crossing a line. That’s how you prevent the abuse.”

With liability concerns growing, the New Jersey School Boards Association Insurance Group, which insures 380 districts statewide, has created a sexual harassment and abuse prevention webinar for districts to use as a training tool, said Lauren Schilling, a spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, many North Jersey superintendents say they are doing more to monitor their staffs. “Do I Google people? Absolutely,” said Fair Lawn Superintendent Bruce Watson. “Do I go on Facebook and check out this person? Absolutely.”

Still, school officials say setting boundaries is not easy.

The role of a teacher and coach in a child’s life often spills outside of normal classroom boundaries. Math teachers tutor. Music teachers give lessons. Baseball coaches give private batting instruction. Some of this can be policed by the schools, some must be policed by the parent, said Daniel Fishbein, superintendent in Ridgewood.

Other officials said boundary lines can blur when school employees and their families live and are active in the towns where they work.

Del Russo, the Passaic prosecutor, said he’s often heard school employees talk about what they see as unclear boundaries, with some even suggesting the fault lies in the fact that teens are more sexualized today.

“You talk to some teachers privately, and they say, ‘You don’t get it, Joe. It’s the sexual Wild West in the schools today,’Ÿ” Del Russo said. “They place a premium on the child looking older or acting older. And they place too much emphasis on the responsibility of the child in preventing these relationships from occurring. They don’t think about the disparity of power in a relationship between an adult and a teenager.”

Engravalle, the Fort Lee superintendent, takes a hard line on boundaries.

“I say to my staff, ‘Even in high school, when they have beards and drive, they are still children,’Ÿ” Engravalle said.

Victims’ advocates say there is one sure way to force schools to do a better job at preventing sexual abuse of students: Sue.

Limits on lawsuits

In New Jersey, advocates are pressing to change a law that gives adults who were victims of child sexual abuse just two years after they reach adulthood — or two years after they first realized, as an adult, they had been abused — to file a lawsuit against the institution where the abuse occurred.

“If entities such as schools and churches are not going to be held responsible, then there’s no incentive for those entities to take measures to ensure children are protected,” said Greg Gianforcaro, an attorney who specializes in such cases. He said many victims are often too frightened in the initial stages to consider suing.

A measure to change the law failed in the last legislative session, largely because of opposition from the Catholic Church, said a chief sponsor, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex. Meanwhile, victim’s groups are upset about a bill introduced by Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, D-Camden. It gives victims greater leeway to sue abusers but retains the two-year limit on suing institutions.

“It would still insulate far too many institutions from having to take responsibility,” said Vitale, who hopes to hold hearings on another version of his original bill in May.

Catholic officials have said they oppose the measure as unnecessary since judges already have the power to waive the statute of limitations, possibly allowing groundless suits to go forward.

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers held a hearing this month on a measure that would prohibit confidentiality agreements between a school and a staff member who resigns after coming under suspicion of abuse. It would require such conduct be disclosed to prospective employers, ending a practice that victims’ groups call “passing the trash.”

“Passing the trash is a pervasive practice that is happening nationwide,” said Miller, the leader of the national prevention group.

Engravalle agrees that “it happens all the time” and that New Jersey could use such a law so school administrators, without fear of being sued, could share information with one another about prospective job candidates, he said.

“I’ve had staff members I’ve let go because something just didn’t smell right to me,” he said. If later called for a reference for that person, Engravalle knows he can’t detail the circumstances of the person’s departure, so he’ll just say simply, “Do you have anybody else?”

“They get the message,” he said.

When he worked in Sussex County, Engravalle said he used to ask job candidates to sign a release allowing him access to their personnel file at their previous schools. If they refused, he wouldn’t hire them.

“You get challenged on these things, but you have to do them,” he said. “I’m not working in a factory here. I’m working with children. There should be a higher standard.”


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