Education is supposed to be the “great equalizer” among people from different areas and backgrounds, said education reformer Horace Mann in the 18th century. New Jersey’s public schools rely on a combination of local property taxes and state funding to pump money into the schools, but it hasn’t always been easy to find the formula to make sure students in poorer areas aren’t shortchanged. A series of court decisions starting in the 1970s forced the state to provide more aid to 31 cash-strapped districts. But all schools in the state rely on significant state aid – aid that unfortunately hasn’t increased to local districts since the newest funding formula was passed in 2008.
Gov. Christopher Christie’s proposed “Fairness Formula” from 2016 would do away with increased state aid for districts with poorer student and English language learners, resulting in less funding for local districts and more funding for suburban districts.
In 2010, Christie’s first year in office, the local schools received the aid they were expecting. Then, confronted with a state budget gap and looking for line items to eliminate, Christie slashed $1.1 billion in state aid to schools. After a lawsuit, the administration was forced to return $500 million, but only to the 31 so-called Abbott districts, of which Hudson County has four.
While local educators are concerned about this, their districts are still thriving. This year, many boasted new technology, new educational programs, and low-cost aftercare in some districts.
Hudson County also provides more and more choices for parents each year. The county has 16 charter schools, which are publicly funded schools run by parents and educators. The county also has a series of public magnet schools called the Hudson County Schools of Technology that draw from all local towns.
Here is a rundown of the big issues in the schools this year, and what’s new in each of the districts.
The big issues
The schools are preparing their kids for the state standardized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests but many parents have opted out of the unpopular tests. In fact, in March, the state Assembly passed a resolution ordering the Department of Education to either undo or revise certain graduation requirements related to the tests.
On another note, schools throughout the county are taking the initiative to integrate new technology and STEM (Science Technology Education and Math) studies into their curriculum. The Jersey City School District implemented a program called “Google One to One” in which students in grades 3 through 5 will now be provided with laptops running the Google operating system, while teachers are provided requisite professional development and training.
Hoboken introduced a “Passport to Learning” afterschool program, which integrates science and math into its wide-ranging list of taught subjects.
In March, students from across the county participated in the annual STEM Showcase. Kids in grades five through 12 competed for prizes in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. A sophomore at McNair High School in Jersey City and a freshman from Bayonne High School were declared winners for their projects. Respectively, their endeavors were meant to prevent harmful algae from destroying wild mushrooms, and to diagnose the Zika virus using computer software and retinal scans.
Here are some initiatives in the individual districts.
In recent years, Bayonne, like other schools, has embraced STEM education. They also have created new high school “academies” that specialize in advanced subjects, and upgraded elementary school technology.
But school improvement and upkeep is costly. Late in 2016, the school district found itself in dire financial straits after discovering a structural deficit of about $3 million. Since then the Bayonne Board of Education has been forcing staff layoffs and demotions and plans many more to cut costs.
It’s unknown whether the cuts will go deep enough to lead to increased class sizes next year.
Hoboken has the youngest average population among Hudson County municipalities, which translates to more young children and a higher demand for pre-K, elementary schools, and afterschool care.
Next year, the Hoboken school district has plans to separate the middle school from the high school and hire a new middle school principal, Dr. Sharon Davis. Currently, the middle school adjoins the high school and both are overseen by High School Principal Robin Piccapietra. Some parents have said they would like the younger kids to be in a separate place from the older ones.
The middle school will take up the top two floors of the AJ Demarest building, which is next to Church Square Park on Fourth and Garden streets. It was once the city’s high school, which Frank Sinatra attended briefly before leaving to launch his singing career.
It’s rare when cities get new schools, but Jersey’s City’s growth has enabled two new schools to open and a third is in the works.
The Jersey City Board of Education in February authorized moving the entire student body from the aging PS 31 on Kennedy Boulevard to the new Patricia M. Noonan Elementary School on Summit Avenue starting in the spring. It is the first new school in over a decade and a first step in a major shift in school populations in The Heights area. The addition is welcome because existing public elementary schools are nearing or have exceeded capacity.
On the other side of town on Ocean Avenue, P.S. 20/Maya Angelou School opened in September and will educate students in pre-k through fifth grade. The school is named after the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a 1969 account of the late author’s childhood in the Jim Crow-era South.
A 200-student public school for pre-k, kindergarten, and first grade students will be developed on Columbus Drive in Paulus Hook as part of a $370 million, 35,000 square foot residential tower development planned in the neighborhood. Announced weeks after the opening of the Maya Angelou School, the small new school will help serve the growing population of young urban professionals starting families downtown.
After much debate over whether to name Public School 34 in the Greenville neighborhood after former President Barack Obama, the Jersey City Board of Education decided to do so in October. P.S. 34 will be the second Jersey City school named after Barack Obama, after Lincoln High School was renamed earlier in 2016.
In a swelling school district of 28,000 in a fast-growing city, new schools are crucial to prevent overcrowding.
North Bergen and Guttenberg
In a plan to reduce overcrowding at North Bergen High School, students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades will be moved to the former county high school campus on 85th Street in 2019. The city plans to spend $15 to $20 million to purchase a building with classrooms, labs, and an attached gymnasium, presently owned by the county’s High Tech High School. That school is moving to a new campus in Secaucus.
The new campus of NBHS will reduce the number of students at the current school by more than 25 percent. The new building will house grades 10 through 12, and the current high school will house grades seven through nine.
Seventh and eighth graders currently attend local elementary schools. But starting in 2019, elementary schools will continue only up to sixth grade. Every elementary school will have more classroom space, allowing for full time classrooms for art, music, and other subjects and lower student-to-teacher ratios.
High Tech is planning a move to Secaucus in 2018, thus leaving its land and buildings for new occupants.
North Bergen schools are installing WiFi in all their buildings as well as ensuring every student has a computer. Guttenberg Superintendent of Schools Michelle Rosenberg said each student from fourth to eighth grade in Guttenberg already has one Chromebook, a Google laptop that the district has been using for two years. North Bergen received around 1,500 new Google Chromebook laptops and Chromebox computers this year in addition to the thousands they have.
New wings have been added to North Bergen’s McKinley Elementary, John F. Kennedy Elementary, Franklin Elementary, and Robert Fulton Elementary, adding 100 classrooms and support spaces, such as guidance suites and community areas, in the last decade.
Meanwhile, Guttenberg’s only school -- Anna Klein Elementary School -- has a new principal, Keith Petry, who was promoted from supervisor. A teacher, Ilvea Cruz, was promoted to replace him. Fifth through eighth graders have a new disciplinarian and curriculum supervisor, Robert Correggio, who was also promoted within.
Anna Klein also has a new wing in which STEM labs will be ready later this year.
Secaucus’s high school and middle school are officially the same building now. Renovations are nearly finished, with only the new gymnasium and media center in need of final touches. Sixth graders were welcomed to the middle school for the first time in September after renovations began in 2014. Previously, sixth graders would attend the town’s two elementary schools. About 130 sixth grade students are now in the Secaucus High School building, bringing the number of students in the complex to more than 1,000.
Currently, pre-schoolers attend school for a half-day, but for a little extra money, parents can soon sign up for full-day pre-k starting in the fall.
The Union City school district is home to many immigrants, and was recognized in a Wall Street Journal in November 2016 for its success in providing opportunities to immigrant children.
Almost 96 percent of its students are Hispanic, and many live in Spanish-speaking homes. According to the school district, estimates at least 15 percent of students are undocumented. Still, students in Union City perform above the national average on standardized math and reading tests, despite a small percentage of parents having bachelor’s degrees and below average median family income.
The district is always changing the curriculum to accommodate new technologies and conducting online testing to better improve individual students’ and teachers’ weaknesses.
The district recently announced that seniors Joan Martinez, 17, and Giselle Pena, 17, have received early admission to Columbia, a competitive Ivy League school in New York City. Also, Isaac Ortega, 18, the class valedictorian, will head to another top college: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Ortega, Martinez (ranked eighth in his graduating class), and Pena, (ranked 14th), are part of the school’s Academy for Enrichment and Advancement, which holds classes for scholars interested in science and engineering.
West New York
While not a declared sanctuary city like Jersey City or Union City, West New York is similar to Union City in demographics. The Board of Education unanimously passed, in February of 2017, a symbolic measure declaring the district a “safe zone” for all.
The school district is expanding its Global Connections program after four successful years. Fifth and sixth grade students in the district’s gifted and talented program use “digital learning” to gain cross-cultural understanding. In the program, Students, teachers, and administrators exchange unique experiences, ideas, and curriculum with their counterparts in Gijon, Spain via video calling.
The district is also promoting tech literacy by integrating pedagogical models of digital learning, including the “Flipped Classroom” model, in which elements of classwork can be accessed online from home, enabling educators to dedicate more in-class time to discussions, projects, exercises, and hands-on learning. The district even invites parents to the schools to learn about the flipped classroom model in order to facilitate its use at home.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catholic school closings affect all other schools
The Archdiocese of Newark recently decided to close St. Anthony High School in Jersey City by the end of the current school year, echoing the troubles of Marist High School in Bayonne -- also under the auspices of the Archdiocese -- which announced that it must raise $1.5 million by the end of April to prevent its closing.
The two Catholic secondary schools’ financial struggles have come about for numerous reasons: closings of Catholic elementary schools that used to graduate students to Catholic high schools, competition from free alternatives like charter schools and public schools, and the high cost of living making it difficult for people to pay for parochial school. Combined, these factors led to declining enrollment. (Marist had 76 students enrolled by its Feb. 4, 2017 deadline for next year, while St. Anthony has 140).
Marist will be 63 years old in September. St. Anthony’s will be 65.