Turnaround Plan for Jersey City School District’s ‘Priority’ and ‘Focus’ Schools

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Jersey City School District’s “Priority” and “Focus” schools (sixteen in total) fall well below the state’s threshold defining “proficiency,”  Gayle Griffin advised board of education members Thursday. Improving the quality of these schools is a part of Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf’s ongoing statewide turnaround plan. And Gridfin, overseeing the effort, described its challenges.

“In terms of proficiency, you are supposed to be at 70 percent and we only have 40 percent,” said Gayle Griffin, executive director of Regional Achievement Center (RAC) No. 3 in East Orange, whose team of five educators has been busy working with staff and administrators on the plan since September. “I am concerned, very concerned.

“Griffin, speaking at the board’s monthly meeting was referring to the collective results as defined by the RAC’s “Unit 1 Assessment,” its first foray into gauging academic performance under a process lasting over at least a two- to three-year period, depending on the individual schools and the course of their progress.

Indeed, Griffin said the affected schools have a busy agenda ahead if the district wants to bring them up academically to the state’s improvement standards, a challenge she noted that will come in an environment which will see the state eventually set more rigorous “core content standards” on curriculum for all grade levels. The RAC staff is implementing a turnaround plan in line with those objectives.

“There is a lot that needs to be done to make sure students master the material,” Griffin conceded.

Schools in “Priority” status are: the Fred W. Martin Center for the Arts, the Academy of the Arts at Snyder High School, Lincoln High School’s the Leadership Academy and Erza Nolan MS No. 40.

Those designated “Focus” are: PS Nos. 4, 6, 7, 12, 23, 24, 30, 38 and Liberty, Ferris and Dickinson high schools.

For the five Priority Schools, falling within the bottom five percent of the lowest academic performers in the state, the situation could be a matter of life and death.

The state has not ruled out closing these schools, at the end of a two-year period, if any are determined to be beyond further help in meeting the standards it is setting for satisfactory academic achievement.

While the eleven Focus Schools are considered better academically, the state has selected them for receiving additional help over a three-year period. The primary reason is because they have severe achievement gaps among different student classifications, including by race, as measured by either the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) or the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK for Grades 3-8, though actual progress is measured starting in the fourth grade).

The New Jersey Department of Education initially seemed to indicate the Focus Schools faced no closure penalty upon announcing Cerf’s original turnaround regulations after the federal government granted his request to exempt the state from the targeted benchmarks for progress set under the feds’ “No Child Left Behind” law, yet some critics of the state’s turnaround initiative, including the Education Law Center (ELC), complain Cerf has not ruled out also eventually closing schools in the higher Focus category if they fail to meet the state’s new standards based on a department memo raising closing scenarios after a three-year period.

Yet, during her presentation, Griffin would not acknowledge the proposed closure penalty specifically, at least for the lower-rated Priority Schools failing to meet certain defined benchmarks over the next two years. This, despite the fact that her boss, Cerf, has already told Jersey City parents closing their school’s doors – in as little as two years – is definitely an option.

An audience member could be heard demanding that Griffin spell the closure penalty out. Griffin did not, saying only, “As long as (the Priority Schools) are making progress, they will still have time with us.”

The RAC head tried staying positive throughout the board’s grilling. In addressing Board Member Carol Harrison-Arnold’s question as to where she expects the sixteen schools to be one year from now, Griffin replied, “I see us being at 70 percent proficiency or above.”

“I see no reason why we can’t achieve that,” she insisted.

While the RAC executive director discussed all sixteen meeting the defined goals collectively, all will be judged on an individual basis. Both school groups will be rated on meeting the same criteria, measured at six- to eight-week intervals, twice a year or annually, depending on the criterion.

According to a report on Jersey City provided by the board, which Griffin projected to the audience on two video screens, in addition to attaining 70 percent “proficiency” on “single learning objective” assessments, over each six- to eight-week interval; the sixteen must have an attendance rate of 92 percent for students and teachers; more than five percent of a student body cannot be suspended, and at least 95 percent of students must participate in “end-of-unit objectives.”

For twice-a-year goals, 95 percent of teachers and 25 percent of parents must take separate state-issued surveys on the assessment effort.

Annually, all schools must meet a selected, “targeted percentage points increase” for students judged “proficient” in the language arts and math sections of HSPA and NJASK during two of the next three years; at least 65 percent of elementary and middle school students taking NJASK must show growth on the “median school-wide growth percentile,” and high school’s must meet a minimum 75 percent annual graduation rate during their monitoring periods.

Board president Suzanne Mack and Board Member Marilyn Roman pointedly criticized the state’s monitoring efforts, with Mack complaining that everything she has read indicates there is no flexibility for keeping school’s open past their time limits, despite Griffin’s assurances.

“In this program, no matter what happens,” said Mack, “an end date is an end date and that seems to [be] setting us up for failure.”

Griffin told Mack she simply anticipates all the schools will meet their required targets.

“I expect to have high expectations for our students and high expectations for our teachers,” she said. “I believe that, every day, they will come to school to get the job done.”

Roman complained the program is too data-driven and lacks compassion and humanity. With the exception of “testing and assessments,” Roman, a former city high school teacher and supervisor of teachers, claimed, “there is nothing to engage the children.”

“These are our kids, and we need to mold them into whole human beings,” she said. “And we’re not doing that doing this.

“Griffin maintained Roman’s goals are indeed the objective of the program.

“I want the children of the Jersey City’s public schools to receive a far better education than we’ve been giving them,” she said, noting some of the targeted schools have been failing for at least 10 years or more.

Had the classified schools “known what they had to do, to assure a quality education,” Griffin insisted,  “They’d had done it by this time.”

Griffin, however, complained that many parents “are not giving us the kind of input we are looking for.”

Some parents have complained the state and school board did not adequately prepare them to participate and offer input by not holding preliminary meetings early in the school year or before it started. Yet Griffin insisted, “We want the parents to feel their voice is being heard and that it is heard.”


Chris Neidenberg

a freelance reporter with extensive experience covering municipalities throughout North Jersey.