Among the biggest challenges facing Hudson County schools are the drastic changes in New Jersey state education regulations that were introduced over the past few years. They affect how children are taught and tested, and how teachers and staff are evaluated.
The New Jersey State Board of Education in 2010 adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in language arts literacy (reading and writing) and math. Previously, educational standards were developed by individual states and varied widely, leading to a disparity in learning among students in different locations.
“The reality is, a lot of people move around a lot, from state to state,” said Secaucus Superintendent of Schools Robert Presuto. “The challenge we have is when kids come from another school system, and where they’re at is not necessarily where we’re at. The ‘common’ in Common Core is that everyone has the same basic structure, can go anywhere and never be that far out of whack.”
The new standards mean that students are guaranteed a consistent education regardless of location.
In addition, the Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey (TEACHNJ) Act signed into law in 2012 significantly reformed the teacher evaluation and tenure process. School staff are now required to create Student Growth Objectives (SGO) for each student. Teachers and principals are then evaluated based in part on how students measure against these objectives.
To further standardize how students are tested, New Jersey in 2010 joined the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a consortium of 18 states collaborating to develop a common set of English and math tests. By the spring of 2015, all testing will be done online.
As a result, schools are upgrading technology and revising their processes to meet state requirements and accommodate PARCC.
Within this environment, New Jersey has seen the state graduation rate rise slightly, from 86.5 percent in 2012 to 87.5 percent in 2013.
In Hudson County, Secaucus has the highest graduation rate, at 95.7 percent, while Hoboken saw the biggest year-over-year increase, from 74.6 percent in 2012 to 85.4 percent in 2013.
Here is a look at what is happening in the various local districts.
With CCSS in the air, Secaucus began revamping their curriculum several years ago. The idea, according to Superintendent Presuto, was to “raise the bar” on education. For example, rather than simple yes or no questions, students are asked for more in-depth analysis.
“It’s a lot harder,” he said, “but it’s important because those who excel academically, professionally, personally, they know how to synthesize info, not just simply regurgitate it back.”
With 2,200 kids in four public schools, Secaucus increased wireless coverage two years ago in preparation for the changeover to online testing, and purchased new electronic devices.
Secaucus schools are making use of online resources with a “parent portal” available so parents can view their children’s homework assignments and due dates. Students and teachers have also created blogs for increased communication.
“College and career readiness, that’s what it’s all about.” – Stanley Sanger
“There used to be controversy about kids carrying backpacks: an 83 pound kid with 43 pounds of books in his backpack,” Presuto said. “It’s time to get real.”
Dr. George Solter, superintendent of schools in North Bergen, describes the Common Core as “doing less in a year but going in-depth to master it.”
“The expectations are to have a deeper understanding, to be college and career ready,” he said.
North Bergen schools have been working with PARCC samples already, and according to Dr. Solter, the questions are a lot harder.
“The material is different from any other question the students have had before,” he said. “It used to be multiple choice. In PARCC some are multiple choice from A-O, with three correct answers. It’s a whole different paradigm.”
Then there’s the technological challenge, since all students must take the tests on a computer. “We have about 600-700 kids per grade level for the whole district,” he said. “There’ll be an a.m. shift and p.m. shift for computer testing, so we need computers for half a grade level. We have 700 kids; that’s 350 computers [per grade]. We have some but they’re being used for other things. We’ll have to buy about 1,200 computers.”
At the same time the teacher evaluation process is changing.
“We started last spring, training all the teachers, administrators, supervisors, everybody in the whole process,” said Solter. “We brought in experts, did training with teachers so they understood what we’re looking for.”
He noted, “If at the end of one year, the evaluation doesn’t improve, the superintendent must submit tenure charges on the teacher, and then the teacher comes before an arbitration board from the state department. That is a huge change.”
Although he would like to see more funding for local schools and class sizes reduced, Dr. Solter said, “With limited resources, we compete and do very well. Our test scores are phenomenal: about 98 percent proficient in English language arts on the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment). Math is about 90 percent.”
The graduation rate in North Bergen rose from 82.9 percent in 2012 to 85.2 percent in 2013.
“We are transitioning to the Common Core gradually,” said Weehawken Superintendent of Schools Kevin McLellan. “The new teacher evaluation system has been implemented since September and has been running smoothly and on schedule.”
Echoing a comment from many of the other superintendents, he added, “The biggest change for administrators is that they have to budget their time. They’re spending much more time in the classroom observing instruction” in order to evaluate the teachers.
As for the teacher evaluations, “Districts around the state are being assessed by the Department of Education to make sure that they have the technological capability to perform these tests,” he said. “We do. Two years ago we increased bandwidths from 10 megabytes to 50 megabytes. Our infrastructure for technology is sound. We feel very comfortable that from an IT perspective we will be able to meet this challenge.”
“This year we launched an elementary STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program in partnership with Liberty Science Center, and have implemented Springboard, a pre-AP (Advanced Placement) program in some of our middle and high schools to prepare students for the challenge of college level AP courses,” said Dr. Maryann Dickar, chief of staff for Jersey City Public Schools. ”We seek to increase the number of students taking those courses by exposing students to the expectations of those courses earlier.”
Along with implementing the Common Core curriculum, Jersey City’s dual-language program is expanding, and offering a Bi-Lingual Hope honors program.
“Additionally, we are in the process of developing an innovative small high school with an emphasis on STEAM (STEM+Art),” said Dr. Dickar.
“We struggle to close achievement gaps,” she continued. “Both those that exist between schools, as well as between various sub-groups. Some of the programs noted above are aimed at closing some of these gaps by ensuring that more students get access to the most rigorous course work possible and to college admission.
“While we have had some success – for example, we have reduced the number of students dropping out of high school – we still have further to go.”
The new state standards are intended to help close those gaps.
“We are working with teachers and schools now to prepare for the new PARCC assessments, examining our curriculum and teaching practices, and identifying strategies and approaches that will strengthen classroom instruction and student outcomes,” she said.
Several schools in Hoboken suffered physical damage due to Hurricane Sandy. The good news is that with hard work and generous donations, things are back on track. The Thomas G. Connors Elementary School, which sustained severe damage, is in use but will undergo more restoration over the summer. The renovations were accomplished in part due to a gift of over $800,000 from the United Arab Republic.
“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of money to improve technology,” said Hoboken Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Toback. “At Connors, we purchased a lot of iPads. In all our elementary schools, every class has a smart board. It has made a big difference in engaging students.”
Smart boards are large computer display boards that use touch detection for user interaction.
“We’re preparing for PARCC,” Toback said. “We tried to initiate a lot of these changes a year or two in advance. We replaced all the textbooks in the elementary schools in the major subjects to make the transition already to Common Core. Just about all of the curriculum are rewritten” to accommodate the new standards.
Hoboken has purchased benchmark testing software to assess student performance against the Common Core, he said.
The Hoboken Charter School also suffered physical damage, when a fire chased students out of the building on the second day of school two years ago. After finding a temporary home in Jersey City, students returned to the building on Oct. 30, with workmen still doing final renovations in the evenings.
Executive Director Deirdre Grode refers to the adventure as a “bonding experience,” bringing the students closer together.
“The silver lining to the fire,” she said, “is we received a tremendous grant through HP, which will help us be PARCC-ready.” The half-million dollar grant allowed the school to purchase 200 laptops and upgrade the internet infrastructure.
The Hoboken Dual Language Charter School, popularly known at HoLa, also underwent significant changes, recently receiving state approval to expand to the seventh and eighth grades.
“We’re in the middle of working to upgrade our tech infrastructure and increase our bandwidth to prepare for Common Core state tests,” said Barbara Martinez, president of the school board and co-founder of the school. “As a public school we follow all the regulations of the state schools. The only difference is we have our own school board as opposed to local school district board. We answer to the state education department on performance and results as opposed to the local board of education.”
With 11 elementary schools and one high school, Bayonne is home to about 9,800 students, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patricia McGeehan.
“We’ve implemented a breakfast in classroom program,” she said. “Every student in Bayonne is eligible for breakfast in the classroom. We piloted in two schools last year and it did well. Now every student has the opportunity for a free breakfast before school starts.”
Last year Bayonne renovated a wing of the high school to create the Academy for Fine Arts and Academics.
“We have visual arts, dance performance, drama, band, chorus,” said Dr. McGeehan. “It’s growing. More kids are coming to Bayonne for the arts program. Next year we’re expanding our academy and doing a STEM track. We’re renovating the same area, the floor above it, putting in a new chemistry lab, a physics lab, a biology lab, a biological discovery center – we call it a ‘biodome.’ Also, our engineering courses are expanding. We’re combining sciences with medical and engineering, preparing kids to get into biomedical engineering.”
As with every other school, the Common Core is a major issue. McGeehan volunteered Bayonne as a pilot district to get an early look at the programs.
“That way we have time to make mistakes and get better,” she said. “We’re training teachers in strategies in how to make the change from the past to new expectations, new curriculum training, even how questions are worded.”
“We’re a little slow on the technical part of it,” she said. “We’re an old district as far as infrastructure. Expanding bandwidth was the first phase. Now we’re into the second phase. Come next month, 900 students will be tested on electronic devices. It’s a tremendous implementation.”
So far Bayonne has leased 800 Chromebooks for use in testing and other activities. By May or June of 2014, Dr. McGeehan expects to have 8,000 Chromebooks available for students.
Guttenberg also volunteered to pilot the new state programs. “Absolutely,” said Superintendent of Schools Michelle Rosenberg. “We’re hoping by piloting we’ll see if there are any kinks.”
Currently the school has about 150 laptops plus a computer lab with about 50 computers.
“We are applying for funding for one-to-one computer initiatives in two grades so each student would have a laptop,” said Rosenberg, with the goal of assigning computers to each student in grades five and six.
The Guttenberg district consists of Anna L. Klein School. High school kids attend North Bergen High School.
Rosenberg also said that there is money available from the phone companies to allow students to “purchase data for each laptop per month per student. The school district would do that with grant money so students would take the laptop home and get on the internet even if they don’t have it at home.”
At the same time, curricula have been rewritten to align with the Common Core, and a new master schedule was introduced with more electives.
Periods now last 29 minutes each, with double sessions or more for majors, such as language arts. “This past year we reduced class size in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade,” said Rosenberg. “Almost all classes are under 20 students. Before, there were over 30 kids per class. It’s hard to teach different levels of kids when there are that many.”
Staff size has also increased. “We hired 12 teachers,” she said. “Six brand new and six replacements. The plan is to continue with new teachers and reducing class size. That’s the key to kids learning more effectively.”
Toward that goal, a new building will be added to the school, to be built in back of the existing school.
“We’re breaking ground most likely in summer or early fall,” said Rosenberg. “It’s supposed to be completed approximately early spring 2016.”
Union City is also doing work on their buildings. “We are renovating two existing 100-year-old schools,” said Superintendent of Schools Stanley Sanger.
Two years ago the Hudson School and Gilmore School were closed and their students were brought together in the new Colin Powell School to allow for extensive improvements on the older buildings. The Hudson School is currently undergoing renovations, with a goal of opening in September 2014. At that point a determination will be made for best usage, depending on the needs of the district. Possibilities include an adult education center or another elementary school.
As for the other school, “We’re waiting for state approval on the Gilmore School renovations,” said Sanger. “I couldn’t say when it will be finished. Hopefully September 2016.”
Once completed, “Gilmore will be the site of our gifted and talented program,” he continued. “We lease the Woodrow Wilson School in Weehawken now. After the renovations we won’t need to lease so we can shift over and save on costs.”
“We’re also opening a facility on 23rd Street at the site of the old Towne Cadillac building,” said Sanger. The building will be a storage and inventory facility that will hold school equipment, supplies, student records, food for cafeterias, and more.
Security technology at all the schools is being upgraded, with a total of over 1,200 cameras in place in and around the schools.
“All will have 120-day storage,” he said. “We will be able to look back.” The system will also link to local agencies including the police department and Office of Emergency Management.
In preparation for PARCC, Union City has expanded classroom technology, with all schools using smart boards and increased utilization of laptops and iPads.
Classes have been revised to meet Common Core standards.
“We’re always looking to make our curriculum more in-depth, more challenging, to increase rigor,” said Sanger. “College and career readiness, that’s what it’s all about.”
West New York
“Technology all throughout the district is something we focus on,” said John Fauta, superintendent of schools for West New York. “We made sure smart boards are in every classroom. We’re trying to get to where every student has a computer in the classroom.”
West New York was one of the pilot districts for the PARCC, program so they got an early look at how it will work.
“Tech is a big part,” said Fauta. “It’s the future.”
In addition to recently renaming two schools after Robert Menendez and Albio Sires, West New York acquired the old St. Joseph’s High School. The school is being renovated at a cost of $1.5 million for a projected September 2015 opening.
Initially the new school will be used as an interim elementary school, with students from the Harry B. Bain School moving over to the building, allowing for renovations to Bain.
Once the renovations are completed, elementary school classes will resume there and the former St. Joseph’s facility will become a part of Memorial High School, one block away.
“It will become a ninth and 10th grade academy,” said Fauta. “Eleven and 12 will remain in the main building. It will be like a campus situation. We’re hoping to close the street. That’s two years down the line.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.