In the first official caucus meeting of the newly-organized Jersey City Board of Education, the members got right down to business, avoiding the petty squabbles that have plagued so many meetings over the last three years.
The November election shifted the balance of power on the board away from a strong progressive membership to a group largely aligned with a more traditional educational philosophy. But even the traditionally oriented board members appeared amenable to a number of key issues, including expansion of technology in the district.
Members of the new board are not exactly singing “kumbaya” around a campfire just yet. But after a long closed door session they got down to business, addressing issues that included dealing with personnel matters, recognition for graduation rates in their top schools, a possible new innovative teaching program, and policies for increasing technology in the schools.
Health benefits for deceased employees is a problem
Perhaps the most contentious item was a recent report in the annual audit that showed last year the district mistakenly paid for health benefits to cover people that had already died.
Board Trustee Gerald Lyons said this was not the first time the district had been cited for paying benefits for dead people. He wanted to know what precautions the board would take to keep it from happening again.
Luiggi Campana, business administrator for the district, said the audits of conducted in 2011 and 2013 had shown similar problems, but the district had worked to correct it.
“We try to focus on correcting the problem so that he won’t happen again the next year,” he said, assuring Lyons that the issue would not likely show up in the audit next year.
Three high schools have perfect graduation rates
A report by the state Department of Education showed that three Jersey City high schools had perfect graduation rates during the 2015-16 school year. Catherine Borno, a teacher at Lincoln High School said the three schools – McNair Academic, Infinity Institute, and Liberty – were among the most elite schools in the district, requiring students to qualify for acceptance.
The report, however, said Jersey City had the lowest overall graduation rate in the county at about 75 percent. The average graduation rate for New Jersey is just over 90 percent, the state report said. Dickenson High School graduated 78 percent, Ferris 75, and Lincoln 69.
Borno said Lincoln and many other schools in the district are showing improvement, although the state report said Snyder High – which shares space with Infinity – has the lowest graduation rate in Hudson County, and just saw a dip from 56 percent the prior year to 51 percent in 2015-2016.
The report said County Prep in Jersey City and High Tech in North Bergen had nearly a 99 percent graduation rate. Both of these schools also require students to apply and be admitted. Hudson County Schools of Technology, which will be reopening at a new campus in Secaucus next September, saw a drop in graduation rates of about 8 percent during the same period.
Board to consider alternative education model
Myani Lawson, representing the Bergen-Lafayette Montessori School near Liberty State Park in Jersey City, asked the board to consider introducing a Montessori curriculum in the public schools.
The Montessori educational model focuses on an individual child’s needs rather than based on a curriculum as traditional schools usually do. The Montessori schools in Jersey City and elsewhere in Hudson County do not receive funding from local taxpayers but raise private funding.
Lawson proposed that the model could be introduced into grades kindergarten through eight.
If accepted, the school district could introduce the teaching method into its schools as another model for educating public school students.
Lawson said the program would allow parents another level of choice within the public education system and could bring back some of those students whose parents had opted out of public schools.
The model would allow students to become “self-directed,” and would promote problem solving skills, Lawson said.
Such public school programs already exist in some school districts in the region, including some in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Delaware. New Jersey has two such programs, one of them in the Montclair public school system.
Lawson said the change could be funded with the current per student expenditures the district allots now.
“The question will be, what portions of this program we will be allowed to fund?” – Dr. Marcia Lyles
Schools Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles said some school officials have visited the Bergen-Lafayette school to evaluate the program. Lyles was instrumental prior to coming to Jersey City in establishing a Montessori school in Delaware and said it could be a good choice for some students. But she said the model doesn’t completely line up with public schools because state regulations do not cover some aspects of the program.
The school district, however, does have teachers that have dual certification for state standards and for the Montessori model.
“The question will be what portions of this program we will be allowed to fund,” Lyles said.
Trustee Marilyn Roman said she would go to the school.
“Some people believe that it won’t do well in an urban setting,” she said. “But this was developed in that setting in Italy.”
Lyles said another criticism of Montessori is that the students are often not as diverse as in other schools.
“But in this particular school, the population is extremely diverse,” she said. “It reflects the diversity of Jersey City.”
One of the initiatives Roman is pushing for this year is to expand access to technology and get it into the hands of kids at the youngest age possible.
Lyles said the district has been very aggressive in introducing Google Chrome books to students in the district, but has not yet accomplished the ultimate goal of having one Chrome book for every student. The district has supplied 7,000 of these laptops to students over the last three years, with a one to one radio in some of the lower grades 3 to 5. In the high schools, the district is providing incoming freshmen with these with the goal of having them in everybody’s hands by the end of the four years.
She said the technology is important for a number of reasons, not excluding the fact that new tests require students to work on computers for essays and other aspects. She said the more comfortable students are with computer technology, the better they are likely to do when taking tests.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.