BHS Academy students to join ‘general population’

Move highlights “class” issues

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Dr. Michael A. Wanko
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Students in the academies at Bayonne High School, such as Mark Usef, are wary about joining the rest of the high school students in the hallways and the cafeteria.
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Some parents and teachers were frustrated with the district’s decision to ‘decentralize,’ saying they may have sent their children to another school had they known this would happen.
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Dr. Michael A. Wanko
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Students in the academies at Bayonne High School, such as Mark Usef, are wary about joining the rest of the high school students in the hallways and the cafeteria.
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Some parents and teachers were frustrated with the district’s decision to ‘decentralize,’ saying they may have sent their children to another school had they known this would happen.

The Academy of Fine Arts and Academics at Bayonne High School has been a point of contention among parents and students since the program’s inception in 2013. The subject came up at last month’s Bayonne Board of Education meeting. At that meeting, BBOED members discussed how to cut costs while preserving the curriculum at the academies. Their solution was to ‘decentralize’ the academy by combining some classes that have lower class sizes and integrating lunch periods with the rest of the school.
Students in the academies, which operate like other academies in public schools across the state, go through a separate application process. If a student demonstrates the academic aptitude required for a more laborious track of study, then the student is placed either into tracks of study for STEM, fine arts, or the humanities. One director used to oversee all the applications, but now that responsibility will be dispersed through multiple directors with specializations in each field.
The debate over the academies has been somewhat contentious since the school invested $2.5 million to create them in 2013, with some feeling the investment was too large. The idea was to offer Bayonne residents an alternative to the private and charter schools throughout the county at a lower price, and the district was largely successful. Parents and students of the academies have praised the curriculum over the years.
Beneath the debate over how much to invest in the academies is a deeper class conflict that bubbled to the surface at the July 26 meeting, where parents and students of the academies resisted the effort to integrate lunch periods with the rest of the school. Some residents see the academies as antithetical to the inclusive mission of public schools, while others rejoice in the district’s capacity to offer a diverse range of honors programs that rivals the best charters and private schools.
At the very heart of the administration’s decision is cost reduction. Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Michael A. Wanko supports the academies, but said that he would have allocated those funds a little differently. “So that money was earmarked to build the academy when I would have used [some of it] to repair buildings where they need repairs,” he said. “Now we are a year or two behind on our facilities plan.”
The administration refers to the plan as the “decentralization” of the academies, whereby classes offered through the academies will be dispersed in classrooms throughout the school, rather than in one centralized location. Academy students will also now share lunch periods with the rest of the school instead of having their own cafeteria.
Ultimately, the academies will continue the same curriculum and offer the same classes while maintaining the same academic standards for acceptance. The school offers as many spots in the academy as the number of students who qualify.
Faculty and parents of students who are not in the academy for the most part did not want to comment on this issue. One tenured faculty member who did not want to be identified, said, “I think a lot of these parents are concerned that the quality of the education will take a hit. Based on my 18 years here, I guarantee that’s not going to happen.”

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“The academy made a difference for me. It made me love science.” – Mark Usef

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Breach of verbal contract

Parents of academy students feel the implicit agreement with the school district that guaranteed their children would have separate facilities has been broken, and expressed frustration over the abrupt change of plans. Concerns raised included misperceptions about safety in other parts of the school, the desire for small class sizes, and the missed opportunity of attending school elsewhere.
“You offered terms of the academy, not just the courses being offered – the atmosphere, the educational environment, the physical location of where your children are going to be,” said parent, Lisa Downey. “We made choices based on that. You changed the terms without giving us the chance to have any time to act accordingly.”
Some parents said they passed up the opportunity to go to a different school with the expectation that their children would be separate. “Having a separate wing, that was appealing to me,” said Downey.
Some academy students came forward to speak against the decentralization, arguing the separation of academy’s programming helps academy students encourage one another to meet their goals.
“The academy made a difference for me. It made me love science,” said Mark Usef, an academy student who hopes to be a biomechanical engineer. “It’s a supportive environment. Outside of the academy, it’s like putting a group of good apples with a group of bad apples.”
He said that he feels ostracized by the rest of the school, and that he and his fellow academy students should not be subjected to that social environment. Students and teachers often refer to Bayonne High School students who are not in the academies as “gen pop,” which is short for “general population.” The term also has connotations with prisoners.
In response to Usef’s statement, Trustee Mary Jane Desmondsaid, “No one is to be ostracized, but everyone is entitled to the same enrichment. Everyone is deserving of the same feelings you have about the programs you’ve been through.”
“I agree that everybody should have this opportunity,” said Tracy Ferry, whose child is a senior in the academy. “But there is a large majority of the kids who don’t want the opportunity and will never want the opportunity and don’t care.”
In response to some misconceptions about the achievement gap that dwelled on effort as a primary factor, Dr. Wanko said, “I’ve always found that students will reach the level set for them. We’re setting the bar high for every student.”
When one parent asked why the decision to decentralize the academies could not have waited until next year, Wanko said, “I was hired as an interim so I could give the district back in the state it belongs so the next superintendent has a chance to be successful. I only have two years if I get appointed again. What would be the point in waiting?”

Rory Pasquariello can be reached at roryp@hudsonreporter.com. Follow him @rory_louis on Twitter.