Public school students in Jersey City who return to school on Thursday, Sept. 7 will be greeted by a number of new realities.
Perhaps the most significant is that the school district has regained some local autonomy after almost 30 years of being under varying degrees of control by the state Department of Education.
The department has recognized significant improvements in the district, particularly improved graduation rates, greater Advanced Placement participation, and steady academic progress.
The state assumed management of the school system in 1989, citing a 75-page report that accused the district of “academic bankruptcy.” In 1989, the New York Times reported that Jersey City schools were “crippled by political patronage and nepotism, weak administration and management, fiscal irregularities, [and] indifference.”
Earlier this year, the state Board of Education voted to adopt Commissioner Kimberley Harrington’s proposal to initiate the state’s withdrawal “from partial intervention” in Jersey City’s public schools and to allow the district “to develop a full transition plan” that would reestablish the control by the local school board.
School officials said that the restoration of local control acknowledges the significant improvement the district has made, particularly in the last five years, under the direction of Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles.
Lyles said the transition will follow a plan that was created in 2008 that has already been approved by the state.
She said the transition team will include representatives from various aspects of the community and this team will meet and outline the program to meet the state requirements for transitioning back to local control.
When the state took control of the district, fewer than 60 percent of its high school students graduated. In 2016 the four-year graduation rate was close to 75 percent and though the 2017 total has not been finalized, the district may surpass the 75 percent mark, officials said.
New school opens in the Heights
The district will officially open the doors to the new Patricia Noonan School, P.S. No 26, on Laidlaw Avenue this year after some students had moved in during spring. The district is trying to provide more classroom space after a 2013 report showed significant shortages of desks in parts of Jersey City.
This is the second new building to open in the district in the last 12 months.
The Noonan School was completed in February with students from the aging PS 31 on Kennedy Boulevard moved in during spring break. Other students from the Heights will start there in September.
The $54 million school is at Summit and Laidlaw avenues and accommodates grades kindergarten through five.
The other relatively new school in the district, P.S. 20 near Ocean Avenue in the Greenville section, opened last September. The new school will hold approximately 770 students in grades pre-K through five. The school will include 30 general education classrooms, 10 pre-K classrooms, four self-contained special education classrooms, cafeteria, gymnasium, assembly/multi-purpose room, and a media center.
After a 2013 schools facility report predicted the city may not have enough room to accommodate a rise in student population after 2018, Perkins Eastman, an international planning design and consulting firm, was hired to conduct a capacity analysis of all district schools.
Their report reviewed existing space usage, updated floor plans, and assessed the physical capacity of each school. The group also looked at the possible impact of housing development in Jersey City over the five years between 2013 and 2018.
School officials said the shortage is partly due to another factor: parents sending their students to schools outside the poorer neighborhoods. Some of these schools, in particularly, School 27, have become overcrowded as a result.
New programs this year
One of the solutions to the space problem includes the creation of early childhood centers.
“We have converted old space into new and dynamic Early Childhood Centers by rebuilding space in the old P.S. No. 20 and at the old P.S. No.31, which is now the Anthony J. Infante Early Childhood Center,” said Maryann Dickar, chief of staff for the Jersey City Board of Education.
The district, she said, is also launching new and innovative programs.
These include LEAP plus, a new program that will enable students to earn an associate’s degree when they graduate from high school.
“Over 70 incoming ninth graders from across the district’s high schools began the program this summer with a course at Hudson County Community College,” Dickar said.
Also added this year is a new automotive program at Dickinson High School.
“This new program will help students develop the skills they will need to be mechanics on today’s high tech cars,” she said.
Several schools will also have new personalized learning programs.
Middle School No. 7, and Snyder, Dickinson, Lincoln and Ferris high schools are all launching Summit Basecamp, a personalized learning program that combines online learning with rich collaborative projects and one-on-one mentoring to address the learning needs of each student while engaging them in meaningful learning experiences and preparing them to thrive in college.
“We continue to expand STEM programs in our elementary and middle schools,” Dickar said. “We will continue developing our programs with Liberty Science Center and projects like Project Enable, Latinas in STEM, Science Buddies and several of our Environmental initiatives.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.