World-famous actor, comedian and motivational speaker Bill Cosby will be on hand to lead a convocation for Jersey City teachers and staff members Wednesday morning at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, priming faculty through laughter and inspirational words for the long road that lies ahead.
But Jersey City's 33,000 students will need more than the humor and support of their teachers to get through the 2003 to 2004 school year. The kids will need to pay extra attention to both their study habits and materials. In addition to new government-mandated curricular and testing standards, the district's own innovative learning programs will push students to succeed to as-of-yet-unforeseen levels.
New testing standards
The state implemented its new testing standards for third and fourth graders last May with the Assessment of Skills and Knowledge [ASK] test, replacing the older fourth grade NJ Elementary School Proficiency Assessment [NJESPA] exam, which had been used by public schools in the state for four years. Before ASK, there was never a test for third graders.
The ASK tests are different from the ESPAs in that they assess a child's comprehension of the material in a more advanced way. Students are now required to illustrate their application and analysis skills in greater detail, forcing them to acknowledge their own critical faculties and thought processes.
The district is continuing with that test this year, and supporting resource materials have been fine-tuned to prepare students for it as much as possible. But the tests also have a trickle-down effect in that they impact the way lesson plans are drawn for higher grades. This is to accommodate the increased proficiency students acquire from their experience in earlier grades.
This state practice dovetails nicely with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to implement a full testing program for grades three to eight.
The Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment, however, will remain the same. The ASK tests for grades five and six will start in the 2004 to 2005 school year.
Although the ASK tests are touted by the state as the newest technology in skills assessment for children, Dr. Adele Macula, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said they pose a sticky but potentially beneficial problem.
"These are not the kinds of tests you can teach to directly," said Dr. Adele Macula, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. "It's not that there are problems with double-digit addition or regrouping or carrying numbers. The kids need those skills. The tests are more of a process of putting together a conglomeration of skills and then applying them to a situation they see. There's a lot of data analysis. You have to have critical reading skills, problem-solving skills and data analysis skills."
The district's way of addressing this dilemma is to add more substance to various curricula on all grade levels throughout the city. Although the district would have done so anyway to reach their own educational goals, they were given more reason because of new state standards for core curricula.
"The goal is always to implement the New Jersey core content standards," Macula said. "Last year, new standards were adopted for language arts, math and science for grades K-12. Hopefully, this year, all our curricula have been aligned to those standards. But curricula for social studies, visual and performing arts, world languages, technological literacy, health and physical education are still in draft mode by the state."
Final drafts for two new standards, in subjects called "Career Education" and "Consumer, Family and Life Skills," were provided to New Jersey school districts in April. They support and enlarge already existing "workplace readiness standards," which Macula described as providing benchmarks for students to reach before they graduate from high school.
The difference with the new standards is that Career Education and Consumer, Family and Life Skills are now a section of their own, with grade-level indicators on all school levels.
Fixing our math problem
One subject that teachers and administrators will be paying more attention to this year, however, is math.
In last year's High School Proficiency Assessment exam, Jersey City students scored 73 percent on the test's language arts component and 41 percent in the math section. Although Jersey City's performance in math was similar to the state average, it demonstrates a 7.5 percent drop from last year.
Administrators admit that math skills have indeed become a thorn in the district's side, due to both Jersey City's poor test performance as well as new state curriculum guidelines that require teachers to introduce what were traditionally middle school-level math concepts as early as second grade.
"We know math is a focus for us," Macula said. "We are trying to implement strategies for the effective teaching of math. There's a pilot program in eight of our elementary schools for the implementation of Algebra 1 instruction."
This introductory program will have each participating eighth grade student spending an hour and a half a day on Algebra 1 with a component of high-level problem solving. The district is also currently requiring all high school freshmen to take Algebra 1 in the fall semester.
"[This is] so that all those students can take geometry as a freshman," Macula said. "So they can continue into advanced math classes as they progress through high school. The goal is that you pass the HSPA [High School Proficiency Assessment] test.
"Given the complexity of the math exams, we know we need to start earlier," Macula added. "We need to work a little differently. [We need to] have students do math in quite a different computational mode. Geometry, particularly, used to be a high school-level class, but if you look at the math standards, there's a geometry standard in the second grade. Skills in geometry are threaded all through elementary school. Those skills we used to think traditionally were at middle or high school level, the state is requiring that we expose our students to them in the second or third grade."
Writing literacy, science waves
One of Jersey City's strong points that administrators hope to strengthen and expand are the district's successful literacy programs, including the Early Literacy Initiative. Begun last year in grades K through 2, the program is comprised of both guided and independent reading tracks. The program - which challenged students to read 100 storybooks a marking period - was so successful, the district is bringing it to the third grade.
"Our records show that 4,800 students in grades K through 2 read a total of 1.3 million books," Macula said. "The average was more than 230 books per student citywide. And we collected data that 68 percent of our students in first and second grades had their parents sign off that they read to the children three times a week at home, and that's an accomplishment in an urban district."
"That was pretty substantial of a commitment on the part of the parents," Macula added. "And we're hoping to have more fabulous results this year."
The district's focus at middle and high school levels is in helping students that are reading below grade level to achieve grade level status, Macula said. To this end, Jersey City is continuing its one year-old "Read 180" program at all middle and high schools, a technology-based instructional tool designed to bring kids up to grade level. One of the program's requirements is that all eighth graders read a book over the summer and do an assignment on it, which would then count toward their ninth grade language arts grade.
The district is also planning to re-introduce a program into the middle school curriculum entitled "LEGO Robotics," which creates 10 teams of students from 10 schools to participate in a science competition. Through a partnership with the Liberty Science Center, the program supports Jersey City's already wildly successful district-wide science programs.
"Our kids won 78 percent of the awards at last year's Hudson County Science Fair," Macula said. This statistic is further enhanced by the fact that last year's winners in the national Siemens Westinghouse Science Competition were Juliet Girard and Roshan Prabhu, both Dickinson High School seniors. They each won $100,000 in scholarship money.
Collaborations with regional institutions are another intrinsic part of Jersey City's educational mission. In addition to the aforementioned relationship with the Liberty Science Center [LSC], the district enjoys partnerships with the Jersey City Museum and the Jersey City-based Afro-American Museum.
"We have partnerships with various museums, and every one of our fourth graders visits the Afro-American Museum as part of our social studies unit on African American history and Jersey City history," Macula said.
"Eighth graders go to the Jersey City Museum and there's a social studies unit that corresponds to the visual arts.
We have a partnership with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center [in Newark] where our sixth graders enjoy musical performances out at the PAC. Fifth graders have a partnership with the Newark Museum."
The list goes on, and other relationships include institutions as far away as the Montclair Art Museum. One especially beneficial component of the district's relationship with the LSC, Macula added, is that all students get family passes to go into the science center for free any time throughout the year. Other grades do experiments, assemblies and grade-level exercises with the LSC focusing on connections with science and the environment.
The district's thinking behind these partnerships is that it gives Jersey City students access to a wide array of cultural experiences they otherwise would not have, Macula said. In connecting them with the world at large, students are then given an equal footing with children from suburban school districts that are regularly given those kinds of cultural experiences.
"We want our kids to have comparable experiences as kids from other areas," Macula said. "To foster some career choices for students that they might have never thought of before. They get to see the avenues that are opened to them."
The kids praise 'JumpStart!'
Like any other complex organization, what makes the Jersey City public school system work is that everyone involved works together to achieve a common goal: the delivery of a quality educational experience. And smooth transitions, such as from one grade to another, are an important part of ensuring that mission.
In the district's own "JumpStart! 2007" program, entering high school freshmen spend two days at their new schools before the official start of the year, acquainting themselves with the building, their teachers and their soon-to-be classmates. More than 2,000 students were at the city's high schools Tuesday and Wednesday for the orientation.
At Hamilton Park's McNair Academic High School, new freshmen expressed delight at their two days as Cougars-in-training.
"I liked it," said Bidwell Avenue resident Brittany Evans, 14, who comes to McNair by way of School 38. "It gave us a lot to look forward to during high school. Like how school really is, how the different teachers are going to react to you, the different classes, how big they are [and] where our lockers will be. They just gave us a better insight on starting a new school year."
These small details about classrooms and locker combinations are a big deal to incoming ninth graders, who have often shown problems with adjusting to the intricacies of high school life.
"Most of the students have big problems with opening their lockers," said Claremont Avenue resident and McNair senior Javon Pleasant, 17. "They have a big problem with getting to the classrooms because of the way the classrooms are arranged in the school building. They have lots of questions about teachers and which teachers are hard [and] which teachers are easy."
"The freshmen are cool," Pleasant added. "I didn't really get a chance to introduce myself to a lot of them because I was a peer leader here and I was pretty much talking to students and assisting teachers in the classrooms."
Bayview Avenue resident and Soaring Heights Charter School graduate Amber Evans, 14, said she also enjoyed the program, which literally gave her a jump start in making friends at the new school.
"It was pretty good and I met new people... like Brittany," Amber Evans said. "And we have the same last name and everything, so it's cool. [JumpStart!] lets you introduce yourself to new people, meet your teachers and everything. It's pretty good."
And despite the fact that Jersey City remains an Abbott, or 'special needs' district, the Evans girls' experience with "JumpStart!" is indicative of how other kids and parents feel about other programs instituted by Jersey City's award-winning school district.
"Sometimes Jersey City gets a bad rap, but we're doing good things and our kids succeed at great levels," Macula said. "Our curriculum has been aligned to make our students successful."
This year's annual open house for parents will be drawn out over three days for each type of school in the district. Taking place between 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the evening, the open house at high schools will be Sept. 9, at middle schools on Sept. 10 and at elementary schools on Sept. 11. - John A. Martins