Love it or Leave it? Jersey City Public Schools Aim for Greater Buy-In

Students at Dickinson High School. – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Can Jersey City’s public schools convince more families to lay down roots?

“How are the public schools?”

It’s the question every young parent has to ask when deciding where to live. It overrides all the superficial stuff – the night clubs, the sushi spots, the prevalence of farmer’s markets. It’s a profound question that cuts to the essence of a community’s sustainability, the concrete way of asking the ultimate and ultimately unanswerable question, “Can I raise my children here?”

In Jersey City, the answer is complicated. Like much of the progress made in this city’s much-heralded renaissance over the last ten years, the gains have been uneven. The quality of your local school still depends on where you live, which depends on how much money you make, which likely depends on where you went to school yourself, in this town or any other. There are fantastic elementary schools in the gentrified districts, like Cornelia Bradford 16 in Paulus Hook, and Number 5 School in Downtown. At these schools, students achieve above the state proficiency standards and continue on to elite high schools where their potential is tapped even further. But these examples stand as rare exceptions to the otherwise dismal norm.

According to statistics released by the New Jersey Department of Education, Jersey City ranks 415 out of 489 school districts statewide based on standardized test scores, a number that has remained largely unchanged over the last ten years. This, despite positive developments in other areas typically associated with a cities’ rebirth: plummeting crime numbers, rising home values, and an increase in business investment.

Which begs a serious and nagging question: can Jersey City continue to rival Brooklyn and complete its rebirth without a solid and competitive school system? After all, restaurants and novelty stores can entice new residents to rent an apartment, but without a strong local school to send their children to, will they really stay? Or will Jersey City become a post-collegiate way-station for yuppies en route to the suburbs?

Mayor Steven Fulop

Mayor Steven Fulop – Photo by Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

A New Era

When Steven Fulop was running for mayor back in the spring, his campaign made it no secret that one of his goals was to make Jersey City ‘a more attractive alternative to Brooklyn and Queens.’ And not just attractive to twenty-somethings who’d leave in a few years, but for families. That meant improving the public schools.

“My closest friends talk about it constantly,” Fulop said in an exclusive interview. “It’s front and center in a lot of conversations.”

One of the reasons for this, Fulop recognizes, is his age. At 36, he was among that wave of young professionals who came to Jersey City in the late 90s and early 00s, at the dawn of the city’s most recent period of revitalization. He recognizes that for many of his peers, his administration brings hope for a new age for the city’s school system, one in which modern solutions like school choice and community engagement are touted over the bureaucratic malaise that allowed a decade to pass without significant reform.

“For the last ten years,” he said, “you had an administration who had zero engagement on education,” the Mayor said flatly. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t ample reason to hope.

“There are few cities in the country, if any,” Fulop said, “that have as much possibility for school improvement as Jersey City. The ingredients are all there. You have very engaged parents group, a new Board of Ed, a new superintendent, a new City Council, and a new mayor. No other city has that. You have all these things converging at once, and people are excited.”

Three of those five ingredients are products of Fulop’s own efforts. As a member of the City Council representing Ward E, the largest in the city, Fulop used his influence to get three successive waves of candidates elected to the Board of Education. In those years – 2010, 2011, and 2012 – Fulop endorsed eight candidates, all of whom went on to victory over more establishment-backed candidates. With only nine members on the board, that makes it a favorable venue for Fulop’s agenda.

The second ingredient, the new City Council, also bears the mark of Fulop’s fingerprints. In this past spring’s election, ‘Team Fulop’ candidates won six out of eight runoffs, putting them in control of two-thirds of the entire Council. This kind of support presents Mayor Fulop with an opportunity to affect meaningful change, but he still has a deep hole to climb out of.

McNair High School

McNair High School – Photos by Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Take, for instance, the high school graduation rate.

According to the most recent survey by the New Jersey State Board of Education, only 67% of Jersey City public high school students graduated on time, with 13% dropping out entirely and the remaining 20% being left back or simply failing to meet curriculum requirements necessary to graduate. What’s worse, that rate represented a decrease from the previous year’s mark of 69%. And while critics of the state’s findings claim that the numbers are a product of new, misleading method of calculation, the statewide graduation rate rose from 84% to 86% in the same period, using the same method. But that may not even be the most distressing number. If you remove students from the city’s top-performing high school, McNair, the percentage of students who are deemed college ready is a stunning 7%.

“Think of what that means,” Mayor Fulop said. “If [these students] go to college, they’ll need to go through remedial classes before they even start taking regular classes. From a student’s point of view, they’re being asked to pay money just to get up to a level to start college. It’s a big ask and many won’t continue. That’s a big problem.”

So what can be done to address it? The Mayor advocates a multi-pronged approach – parent engagement, accountability at all levels, and more choice in schools. But before all that, he says, we need to make our schools safe. Kids – and parents – need to know that a school is a danger-free environment where learning can happen without any fear of violence. This has become a problem particularly in struggling schools like Snyder and Lincoln, which have reported an increase in gang-related incidents in the last few years. To combat this issue, among others, Mayor Fulop has tapped former New York City Deputy Police Chief James Shea to serve as the city’s new Public Safety Director. Shea, best-known for implementing the city’s controversial ‘Stop and Frisk’ program, was head of the NYPD’s youth and gang division.

Mayor Fulop also plans on expanding the role of after school programs, but not for the often-cited reasons of ‘keeping kids off the streets.’ Fulop, a former high school athlete himself, sees these extracurricular activities as a valuable opportunity to keep students engaged in their school life. If a kid is failing in school, the Mayor reasons, and is not connected to that school in any other way, they are more likely to give up and drop out. But if they are engaged through some other avenue, like through a sports team or a club, the bonds tying them to the school are stronger and they are more likely to stick with it.

Keeping parents of low-performing students engaged is another story, however.

This past June, Mister Fulop attended all the graduation ceremonies at Jersey City’s public high schools. There were six in total.

At McNair, there was overwhelming support from parents and friends, cheering their graduates on. But at the underperforming schools like Lincoln, Dickinson, and Snyder, he was struck not by the sea of adulation, but by the number of empty seats in the audience.

“You remember your graduation?” Fulop asked. “That was a big day. You had uncles, aunts trying to get in.”

But for many students at Jersey City’s high schools, no one showed up. In fact, Fulop figured there were more students on the floor then there were parents in the stands.

Sitting next to the Mayor at the time was Superintendent Marcia Lyles. They commented to each other about the empty seats.

“It was alarming,” said Fulop.

The Doctor Is In

Dr. Marcia Lyles is an accomplished educator. In her 35 years with the New York City Department of Education, Dr. Lyles served as an English teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Deputy Superintendent, and finally Deputy Chancellor of Teaching and Learning for the entire school system. She then spent three years as Superintendent of Delaware’s Christina school district before accepting the same position with Jersey City in the summer of 2012.

Superintendent of Schools Dr . Marcia Lyles – Photo by Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Now, entering her second year on the job, Dr. Lyles understands the challenges facing the district, but also has a plan for overcoming them. For Dr. Lyles, the key is to offer students support when and where they need it most.

Determining where to channel support is easy. At underperforming schools like Dickinson, Snyder, and Lincoln, funding has been historically inconsistent.

“In the past,” Dr. Lyles said, “schools were getting different resources depending on who had the most vocal parents groups or principals. It’s our job to make sure that those who don’t have either of those still get what they need.”

For Lyles, it’s a question of equity, but the former English teacher is quick to point out that equity doesn’t mean that everyone gets an equal amount. “It means those who need more, get more.”

Deciding when to offer students the most support is a more complicated subject. Dr. Lyles cites two times in particular that are most vital. The first is when a student initially enrolls in school, either in Pre-K or Kindergarten. These students enter at all different points of readiness, especially in vocabulary and language comprehension. In fact, research from several independent groups such as the National Institute for Early Education and the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education points to a significant achievement gap between those students who participate in strong K and Pre-K and those who do not.

Another year considered vital to a student’s development, Dr. Lyles says, is the ninth grade. And the numbers seem to back her claim. According to a study by the EPE Research Center, which analyzes education trends, 35% of the students who eventually fail to graduate from high school also failed to make the move from ninth to tenth grade. This stood out as the clearest indicator among all variables for which the study considered.

Dr. Lyles’ proposed solution? Separate the freshman.

James Ferris High School

James Ferris High School – Photo by Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Starting this year, the four lowest-performing high schools in the district – Dickinson, Ferris, Lincoln, and Snyder – will all have ninth grade academies. These will be distinct and separate wings of the schools that will exclusively house freshman year students, helping to ease the social transition to high school, but also the academic one. “We’re looking to create the academies so we have a cohort of teachers who are responsible for a cohort of students,” Dr. Lyles said. “We want those teachers to know the students, talk about those students and what those students need.”

Dr. Lyles also sees room for improvement later in the high school years. She’s been a vocal advocate for Advanced Placement courses, especially in lagging schools. And starting last year, has instituted a mandatory ‘SAT Day’, to be held on a regular school day in October. This is so that students could take the test without having to get up early on a Saturday morning, an obstacle many students are not willing to overcome. “People say we’re spoon-feeding the students,” Dr. Lyles said. “But you know what? Fifteen year olds don’t necessarily see the same value in these things as we do.”

Behind the AP courses and the mandatory SAT is a deeper message, however, one that speaks to the core of Dr. Lyles’ educational philosophy.

“This is about expectations,” she said. “Everyone rises to expectations. It’s about a whole cultural shift, saying to our students, ‘We expect you to do this.’”

She’s quick to point out, however, that in order for the entire school system to improve, these expectations cannot be limited to just the students. It’s on everyone – students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

“We have to believe that we can indeed change children’s lives,” Dr. Lyles said. “But we also have to believe that our children’s minds are capable of making that change.”

Student Noah Woodard, teacher Dena Lagomarsino and students Jazmine Williams, Aaliyah Baez and Shakila Inman from Henry Snyder High School

Student Noah Woodard, teacher Dena Lagomarsino and students Jazmine Williams, Aaliyah Baez and Shakila Inman from Henry Snyder High School – Photo courtesy of Dena Lagomarsino

Buying In

The economic crisis of 2008 hit Jersey City hard. Home prices plummeted across the city, but especially in the pricier districts downtown. Many families who had planned on moving to the suburbs were no longer able to, either because their home was in the red or because loan-wary banks forced them to remain renters for a few more years. Against their carefully drawn-out plans, these mothers and fathers did what they thought they never would: they enrolled their children in the Jersey City Public Schools system.

And what happened?

“A lot of them ended up staying,” Mayor Fulop said. “What happened was in a number of schools you had all these engaged parents, which is really a meaningful component in all this, and they stuck around and worked hard to improve the schools. Then the children started making friends, and the family ended up staying for good.”

The result has been an increase in school performance for Downtown schools in particular, something that the Mayor thinks can be repeated in districts throughout the city. The key, however, is encouraging parents to not just to stay, but to trust the system. It’s what will allow Jersey City not just to continue its growth, but to escalate its pace. Because as the schools improve, so will job opportunities, which will drive down crime, increase property values, and tighten community bonds.

Dr. Lyle agrees. “The school and community are tied together,” she said. “If we don’t have good public schools, the community cannot continue to thrive.”

Still, asking a young parent to trust in a work in progress, especially when their child’s education is at stake, can be a tall order.

But to those people sitting on the fence, who want to enjoy the culture of Jersey City but also want their children to receive a strong education, Dr. Lyles has a confident and comforting message.

“Buy,” she said. “Invest in the public schools. We are poised to make the schools what the parents want them to be.”

For more info check the Jersey City Public Schools website

This article appeared in the the 2013 Fall issue of JCI Magazine. © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Except where noted photos by Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Brendan Carty

the lead writer at Thinkmojo, a creative agency, and freelances for several publications. His work has appeared on CBS Interactive, ESPN, and Funny or Die, among others. He lives in Jersey City Heights with his wife and daughter.