One step forward
Public schools make advances even as gov’s cuts loom
by Al Sullivan
Reporter staff writer
Mar 10, 2010 | 2751 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
STILL MAKING PROGRESS – The Bayonne School District is developing new ways of meeting increasingly strict state and federal benchmarks.
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Even as economic storm clouds gather on the horizon due to threats that state aid to schools may soon be cut, the Bayonne public schools are still forging ahead.

“We don’t know what is going to happen next year,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Ellen O’Connor. “But this year we’ve made progress.”

She said the school district is hoping for the best in regard to aid, but the focus has to remain on what is being done, and the completion of plans in the works for several years.

While the state will have a new commissioner for the Department of Education shortly, many of the key people involved in the previous programs are still in place, promising a continuation of some of the more positive programs being implemented in Bayonne and across the state.

“We don’t know what is going to happen next year. But this year we’ve made progress.” – Dr. Ellen O’Connor

Perhaps one of the most anticipated changes Bayonne hopes will come about in the near future involves how school testing is evaluated. Currently, schools are rated on annual tests in grades three to eight and the 11th grades. In the past, schools were rated by how well students did each year in each grade, comparing this year’s third grade, for instance, to last year’s third grade. O’Connor said a true measure of progress would be to compare the same students as they advance through the grades to see how much they have improved.

This would go far, O’Connor said, in providing an honest measurement of how well the schools are serving their student population. She said it is something being discussed on several levels of government.

District has taken the initiative

In some instances, Bayonne has taken matters into its own hands, including bringing in a data consulting firm that looks at the information on a local level and allows the school to assess its own strengths and weakness. O’Connor said the schools are constantly weighing their own needs ahead of the state tests in order to better evaluate the students.

Last year, for instance, the state changed some of the reporting criteria that seemed to show the district doing more poorly than it was.

The Bayonne school district is comprised of 11 elementary schools and one high school, with state testing conducted in grades three to eight and 11.

Federal percentage requirements jumped in every testing area in 2008 from previous benchmarks set for 2005, O’Connor said. In some grades, school districts were expected to show more than 10 percent improvement over the previous year’s proficiency percentage.

A firm looked at the information and evaluated it, showing how the school would have fared had the state not changed the rules. One of the significant benefits of this was the school district receiving its third Federal Blue Ribbon award. The award goes to districts that show improvement.

“If we hadn’t looked at the information, we would not have won the Blue Ribbon,” O’Connor said.

Even under the changed criteria, students did well in the state testing, reaching or exceeding benchmarks in 140 out of 143 areas.

In order to help students meet their benchmarks, the district continues its before school, lunch-time, and after school tutoring programs.

One of the problems the district has encountered is the lack of space in computer labs so that students can be tested in-house. To solve this, the district has created a computer lab on wheels, which has about 20 laptop computers that can be wheeled from class to class.

Developing new programs

Last year, the district introduced a new program. Called “Understanding by Design,” it addresses how teachers can meet some of the standards and developing curriculum to meet those goals.

“The idea behind this is to have students get the big concept first, and then the details,” Dr. O’Connor said.

This also involves upgrading its 55 curriculum guides to meet the newest standards, and in-house workshops for teachers and principals with training teams in each school.

This allows the district to get out from under the expense of hiring private consultants, and by training some teachers in each school, teachers train teachers.

One of the potentially promising programs introduced last year appears to have taken root this year, which the district hopes will eventually provide experienced literacy and math coaches – “master teachers” – in each school. This has a double benefit. Since these coaches will be paid for out of federal funds rather than money raised through local taxes, total teacher salary costs will likely go down as higher paid and more experienced teachers become coaches and newer, less costly teachers take their place in the classrooms.

“My goal is to have one literacy and math coach in each school,” O’Connor said.

But since federal funding is based on schools with greatest needs, her dream may be a few years down the road.

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