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N.J. District Plans Residential Program for Low Achievers

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The state-operated Paterson, N.J., school district has announced plans to launch a voluntary, tuition-free residential program for high-school students whose academic performance falls at or below grade level.

While the full Paterson Residential Education Program is not scheduled to begin until the fall of 1993, a summer pilot version got under way late last month. Up to 75 high-school juniors were to spend four weeks at Upsala College in East Orange taking academic courses.

"We would like to change the lives of our students by providing a total environment conducive to academic success,'' Laval S. Wilson, the state-appointed district superintendent of Paterson, said in a statement.

State officials assumed control of the district last year under New Jersey's academic-bankruptcy law.

"We're very happy to have it happen here,'' said Robert E. Karsten, the president of Upsala, a 900-student Lutheran college. "I think it's a magnificent idea.''

While residential schools are a longtime fixture in American education, Mr. Wilson said such opportunities are not usually available to poor, minority students such as those in Paterson, or to those performing below grade level.

In an interview, Mr. Wilson said the curriculum would emphasize such skills as literacy and critical-thinking.

The full-year program is expected to start with 75 of the district's nearly 1,000 juniors in the 1993-94 school year and expand to a four-grade high school of 300 students by the fall of 1995. Attendance at a six-week summer session will be strongly encouraged.

The start-up and initial operating costs of the year-long residential program will run about $2.5 million, said Chuck Coligan, a district spokesman. A location has not yet been selected.

Officials hope the students selected will represent a cross section of the district's enrollment, Mr. Coligan said. Paterson students are 47 percent Hispanic, 42 percent black, and about 9 percent white.

The aim is not to attract either the highest achievers or those performing at the lowest levels, Mr. Coligan explained.

"The object here is to select the kids that have the most needs and can benefit the most'' from the experience, he said.

Funding for the $138,636 summer program will come from the district's $219-million budget and from federal Chapter 1 money, Mr. Wilson said. While also seeking funds from foundations and corporations, Mr. Wilson said he hopes to obtain "large grants from the federal government'' for the academic-year program.

Upsala's role as host for the summer pilot followed the breakdown of an earlier agreement between Paterson and nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University, which was to have held the program on its Madison campus.

Paterson and F.D.U. officials have sharply differing accounts of what led to Paterson's departure to Upsala. Paterson officials allege discrimination against urban, minority students.

An F.D.U. spokesman strongly denied that charge, however, and said a last-minute schedule change by Paterson led to a conflict with the Madison campus's annual commitment to host training camp for the New York Giants professional +++++++++football team.

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