After The Fall

By Jessica Siegel — March 01, 1994 34 min read
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It’s 9:30 a.m. at James J. Ferris High School in Jersey City, N.J., and as the bell rings for a change of classes, a river of students washes by me in the hallway. Some of the students move in pairs, laughing about a joke or some teenage embarrassment. Others walk alone, eyes straight ahead, already thinking about, or worried about, the next class. Two friends coming from different directions slap hands in greeting and stop to talk. Another couple, clearly boyfriend and girlfriend, walk with arms wrapped around each other, their backpacks knocking. Some lope by in the “urban gangsta’’ slouch. Others push through the doors to have a cigarette outside.

These high school students at Ferris and those at the 32 other public schools in Jersey City are part of an experiment. After 30 years of educational neglect--which one former New Jersey governor called “educational child abuse’'--the entire district was taken over by the state four years ago, the first school system in the United States to be wrested from local control. Since that time, New Jersey has also taken over the schools in Paterson and is threatening to move on Newark’s. Other states have followed New Jersey’s lead.

The students probably don’t realize it, but as they go on with their lives--in many cases extraordinarily difficult lives--people from around the country are watching to see if this drastic response to educational bankruptcy is working. Can state intervention really turn a deficient district around? Can students who have consistently failed and, more importantly, been failed by the system be helped to succeed? Or is the state’s action, as the mayor of Jersey City puts it, simply “hubris’’? I’ve come to Jersey City seeking some answers.

Jersey City, in the shadow of Manhattan, is a gritty, former industrial municipality. There have been attempts at revitalization and gentrification--a massive shopping mall, for example, was built on the waterfront along with some luxury condominiums--but, at heart, it remains a tough, struggling city made up of poor and working-class neighborhoods that some locals like to describe as “provincial.’' It was in Jersey City that the plot to bomb the World Trade Center was hatched, a distinction that most people here would rather forget. For the residents of Jersey City are proud and fiercely loyal. And that, in part, is what made the state takeover so hard to swallow. For them, it was as if an alien army had invaded their community.

Despite the shared sense of small-town allegiance, Jersey City is the second largest city in New Jersey, after Newark, with a population of some 228,000. It also has the second largest school district, with 30,750 students--42 percent African-American, 35 percent Latino, 11 percent white, and 10 percent Asian. About 11,000 other students attend more than 30 private and parochial schools. And while these schools have a significantly higher white enrollment than the public schools, well over half their students are minorities. Parents with any financial wherewithal, it seems, have voted with their feet and opted out of the public school system.

The city covers 19 square miles, including several fingers of land that jut out into Newark Bay and New York Harbor. It was settled by the Dutch in the 1600s as a fur trading post. By the 19th century, the city had become an industrial center, pulling in immigrant workers to its factories and the three freight railroad lines that serviced the port. As the railroads were replaced by trucking, and the factories folded up and moved elsewhere, the city’s economy offered fewer and fewer jobs. Like other old industrial centers in the Rust Belt, Jersey City began to decay.

But to really understand Jersey City, you have to understand its politics. Long the center for the Hudson County Democratic Machine, the city has a history of tainted politicians mired in scandal and corruption. Only the most recent was Mayor Gerald McCann, who went to jail in 1992 on federal fraud charges and income-tax evasion.

While some of the tales of Jersey City corruption have taken on the aura of colorful myth--such as the one about Mayor Frank Hague’s secret drawer that allowed graft to be collected without passing from hand to hand--the reality is that political patronage and nepotism have long been a problem here, and the schools have been heavily affected by it.

“Ample proofs establish that the children attending public school in the district are not receiving the thorough and efficient education to which they are entitled, that political interference originating in earlier school administrations has continued, that public money allotted to education in the district is being misspent, and that district problems chronicled in so many state reports are deeprooted and endemic,’' wrote Administrative Law Judge Kenneth Springer in the July 1989 ruling that turned the Jersey City schools over to the state.

Springer’s decision is a slashing indictment of the city’s school administration. “Social and economic conditions do not excuse shortchanging the children, and in fact provide additional reasons why capable management of the district is so important to the future of the next generation. Children from impoverished backgrounds must not also be condemned to poor schools,’' Springer wrote, his words flashing anger on the page. Sitting for 103 days of hearings and sifting through 2,000 pages of testimony, the judge had no difficulty deciding whether to allow the state to take over the failing district. He cited case after case of unqualified people getting jobs because they had performed political favors for various mayors or their underlings. Landing a principalship depended on whom you knew; as a matter of course, principals, supervisors, and teachers lost their jobs or were moved around when a new mayoral administration came to power.

Springer’s decision describes a teacher trying in vain to teach while water poured down a wall in her room. It points to textbooks 30 years out-of-date, and a curriculum that hadn’t been revised in 18 years. Academically, Jersey City was close to the bottom of what are known as the “special needs districts,’' 30 urban New Jersey districts with particular difficulties. “Expectations for student achievement remained minimal and concentrated on lower cognitive skills, such as recognition and recall, as opposed to higher cognitive skills, such as comprehension and abstract reasoning,’' Springer wrote. On Oct. 4, 1989, the state moved in.

Appointed to run the district for the state of New Jersey was Elena Scambio, a former superintendent of nearby Essex County. She and her staff were charged with evaluating all aspects of the district’s operations and developing a “corrective action plan.’' The plan identified deficiencies in five areas: leadership and management, educational programs and services, community relations and public information, finance, and facilities. The initial takeover period, as set by legislative statute, was five years.

Smart and tough, Scambio got right to work. Appalled by the filthy walls in the former factory that houses the district’s school administration, she called in painters on her first day on the job. The staff was incredulous. They could not believe anyone, even the superintendent, could cut through red tape that fast. (Several years earlier, a group of teachers at Ferris, disgusted by their school’s condition, contributed money for paint and organized students to paint classrooms.) Part of the reason school facilities were in such bad shape was that principals had no direct control over custodians or repairmen. Scambio quickly changed that and sent painters into all of the schools.

A strong-willed woman with a vein of humor, Scambio was not afraid to take on her own boss, then Education Commissioner John Ellis, or Jersey City Mayor McCann. When the state reduced its contribution to Jersey City schools by $11million, she threatened to sue the state or close the schools early. She got the money. Last year, Scambio took a temporary leave from some of her duties to oversee the schools in Paterson, as well as monitor those in Newark. One night, she led a 2 a.m. raid on the Newark Board of Education to make sure the files the district had promised the state didn’t disappear. She is now back full time in Jersey City.

“She is the most demanding boss I have ever worked for,’' says Jeffrey Graber, an assistant to Scambio. “She drives herself so much--it’s incredible. The downside is that she drives everybody else. But that’s OK.’'

Over the past four years, Scambio and her administration have made what they believe are some impressive improvements in the Jersey City schools. They outlined those changes in a recent annual report to the legislature’s joint committee on the public schools. Among the accomplishments highlighted:

  • Wasteful and otherwise suspicious practices have been uncovered and stopped. When Scambio’s team learned, for example, that the district had paid out more than $3 million in medical insurance to people no longer working in the system, including three people who were dead, the response was swift.
  • The central administration has been reorganized, and 117 positions have been eliminated.
  • Sixty-seven teachers had pay raises withheld, 13 lost their jobs, and 20 others resigned. Ninety noninstructional staff members have been fired because of poor performance.
  • All of the principals have been evaluated; some were demoted and replaced. Principals, along with committees of staff members and parents, now have the power to interview and hire teachers.
  • Committees of teachers have revised the various curricula, and new textbooks have been purchased so there is consistency throughout the district.
  • All the schools have been painted and repaired, and a high school swimming pool that was filled with garbage has been cleaned out and made operable.
  • Prekindergarten programs have been expanded and now serve 412 children, up from 147. Such programs were established in two of the city’s housing projects--Montgomery Gardens and Duncan Projects.
  • Nearly 1,270 children now attend all day kindergartens, up from 375 in 1989.
  • At least one magnet program has been established or expanded in each of the city’s five high schools.
  • Advanced placement courses have also been established in all of the high schools.

Still, despite these improvements, standardized test scores, which tend to get more than their share of attention, have not shot up. The Jersey Journal, which has been following the changes in the school system, looked at the Metropolitan Achievement Test scores from 1989 through 1993 and found little change.

The district, on the other hand, points to scores on the Early Warning Test, given to 8th graders, which it says have significantly improved. The state, however, changed the test between 1991 and 1992 and warned in its own booklet that scores on the two versions could not be compared. The district also has highlighted the results of the 1992 11th grade High School Proficiency Exam, comparing Jersey City students’ scores with those of students in other special needs districts, such as Camden, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton.

But these results impress neither the critics nor the supporters of the state takeover, and many on both sides are growing impatient.

A sympathetic member of the reconstituted, but purely advisory, Jersey City School Board, Raymond O’Brien, says he’s a bit antsy about the lack of improvement on test scores. “We all had expectations that were perhaps too high--that perhaps we could improve things overnight,’' he says. “Finances--that’s pretty much straightened out. Facilities are on the way. Yet our core job is educating students. We’ve seen some improvement, but not a lot. After four years, we should be geared to seeing some leaps in short order in our test scores.’'

Kabili Tayari, vice chairman of the board, agrees. “First and foremost is academic achievement of the children in the Jersey City schools.’' A former president of the Citywide Parents Council, Tayari is also education committee chairman of the state affiliate of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “I see some minor cosmetic changes in terms of fiscal accountability, repairs, people coming to work on time,’' he says. “But this has not made big changes in the academics. You can give a 100-year-old woman plastic surgery; she looks better, but she still has the same old bones.’'

Many local critics of the takeover see Scambio as the leader of a clique of uppermiddle-class outsiders. Yet a close look at the list of principals, supervisors, and administrators who have been hired since the takeover reveals that 90 percent have come from within the district. This misses the point, says board member and Scambio critic the Rev. Alexander Santora. The power of the state, Santora says, “is as tyrannical as a political stranglehold. There is no local oversight of what they can do.’'

Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, the first Republican mayor in anyone’s memory, thinks the state takeover is beside the point. With the help of the Heritage Foundation, Schundler is working on his own solution to local education woes. He is trying to establish a school voucher program that would allow parents to send their children to private schools with public money. An anomaly just by being a Republican, Schundler built his recent campaign around his support for vouchers and his claim that a Republican was needed to clean up the mess made by corrupt Democrats. “The takeover is irrelevant,’' the mayor says. “You just substitute power from one group of politicians to the other. School choice fundamentally switches power to the parents.’'

Scambio and I meet in her office a few weeks after her return to full-time duties in Jersey City. A short, stocky woman with closely cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Scambio, speaking in a gravelly voice, quickly tells me that her administration deserves high marks. She gives herself A’s in the areas of district finance, affirmative-action hiring, restoring and equipping the facilities, and bringing the curriculum up-to-date. “I think we have created a foundation,’' she says. “We have re-established the focus of this district on kids and on education.’' From the first day of her administration, she says, its slogan has been “Kids First.’'

She responds to criticisms about academic achievement without hesitation. “That takes time,’' she says. She realizes that this is the area where she is vulnerable to her critics and to those who benefited from the old system. And she admits that she doesn’t know how long it will take to turn Jersey City schools around academically. “I don’t have the kids with me when they are two or three years of age, when they develop pre-readiness,’' she says. “Nor do I have them after 3 o’clock. Not all kids in urban schools are afforded the same opportunities as kids whose parents are well-educated and who can provide opportunities for their kids on vacations or in the evenings.’'

Even as she says this, Scambio knows it is the same argument that discredited Jersey City school officials used five years ago as they tried to get themselves off the hook with the state. Judge Springer didn’t buy it then, but it doesn’t stop Scambio now. “When you get kids into school,’' she points out,"not every kid comes with the same readiness to learn. So, to say it will take three years, for example, to raise the scores, I can’t say that.’'

Crusty Republican state Sen. Jack Ewing, who is head of the legislature’s joint committee on the public schools and a strong supporter of both the takeover and Scambio, put it this way when we spoke: “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Jersey City and Paterson and Newark didn’t go downhill in three- or four-years’ time. And it isn’t going to take only three or four years to get them to where they should be.’'

Scambio tells me that the nitty-gritty work of turning a failing education system around is complicated, messy work. “I’m not a miracle worker; I don’t have a magic wand,’' she says. “Systems need to vary. Our teachers have learned all types of strategies that they have never been exposed to in the past. We’re all learning better ways to do things. Because if I do X with this group of kids, I may reach 45 percent of them. I may have to do Y to reach the others.’'

At School 40 in Jersey City, they are trying both X and Y.

Otherwise known as Ezra L. Nolan School, after a departed Jersey City politician, School 40 is perched on the Jersey City-Bayonne border, right off the New Jersey Turnpike. Michael Littlejohn, principal since September 1992, doesn’t like to characterize the neighborhood surrounding the school to outsiders. But in the parlance of educators, it’s a Chapter 1 school; 85 percent of the students receive free lunch. The ethnic breakdown is 44 percent African-American, 45 percent Latino, 8 percent white, and 2 percent Asian.

Visit the school, and it is hard not to get caught up in both Littlejohn’s and the teaching staff’s enthusiasm. Littlejohn is a man who has been liberated to do what he wants to do. State certified as a principal in 1978, he got a 94 on the national principal’s exam, the second highest score in the city. But three times over the years, he was passed over for a principalship. He wasn’t surprised; he was familiar with the closed, politically charged system. “It was like feudal England,’' Littlejohn says. “A principal was the lord of a castle, a moat, and his own fiefdom. Depending on who was king, who was mayor, you were either attacked or received the spoils.’' In such an environment, people like Little- john didn’t get to be lords.

When the state took over, a new application process was established. Each applicant, for example, was asked to design his or her own school. Littlejohn got the job.

Balding and with the solid body of an ex-high school athlete, which he is, Littlejohn talks excitedly about developmental primary grades, where children work at their own speed. “Kids come into kindergarten with skills ranging from two and a half years to nine and a half years,’' he says, pointing to research from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “If you accept that, then the practice should come out of it.’' What teachers should do in the classroom, then, is to create thematic units where children learn at their own levels. By age 8, Littlejohn says, assuming that none of the children has severe learning problems, the range of abilities should level out.

Littlejohn came to School 40 with his theories of developmental primary grades, but when he looked into the elementary classrooms, he saw straight rows of desks and shades that were pulled to exactly the same height. And he found that the teaching matched the setting-- sound educational practice once, perhaps, but out of the 1950s.

The first day of school, he handed out two inches of material for his staff members to read on developmental K-2 grades. He asked them to read it when they had a chance. The teachers looked at him like he was crazy, but they read it. Ultimately, the reading led to discussions and then visits to other schools in New Jersey that had developmental programs. After much discussion, the staff sat down to redesign the primary grades.

“I was terrified at first,’' says Beverly Cochrane-McGuire, who has been teaching for 16 years. “It’s hard to let go of the way you are teaching. But when I saw what children were doing in other districts, I was so impressed; I wanted to be part of it.’'

Josephine Cerchio, who has taught in Jersey City for 10 years, had a similar experience. “It was hard and scary,’' she recalls, “but the more I began to read and make visits, the more I realized what I had to do.’'

Says Littlejohn: “The best teachers were the ones who were the most resistant. But when you embrace a change, it is a breath of fresh air.’'

There is more change afoot at School 40. It was, for example, one of three schools selected by the district to develop a pilot middle school. The effort has grown out of the national understanding that 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are particularly at risk and that their educational and personal needs must be better addressed at school. Upper grade teachers from School 40 are visiting 10 schools to get ideas for a middle school redesign, which they will start working on come spring.

And Littlejohn talks excitedly about the possibility of a bilingual kindergarten, in which English-dominant children learn Spanish as non-English speakers learn English. They have only begun talking about the possibilities, but soon a bilingual kindergarten teacher is going into the monolingual kindergarten class to teach them the beginnings of Spanish. “We’re trying it,’' he says. “I think it’ll be fun for the kids, and if it is successful, we’ll move it to 1st grade next year.’'

Littlejohn’s excitement is infectious. Although he clearly likes to talk about education, our discussion in his office quickly leads to a tour of the building-- through every classroom on every floor.

“Hey, guys,’' he calls to the pupils in one room.

“Hi, Mr. Littlejohn,’' they reply.

He kibitzes a bit and then tells the class with a grin--as he does every other--that he couldn’t bring a visitor into the school without visiting them, his favorite class. He introduces me as a writer who is doing an article about their school. “What should I tell people?’' I ask them. Their answers ring out spontaneously:

“We have really great teachers.’'

“We have really hard-working students.’'

“Our teachers believe in us.’'

“Every person in this school learns a lot.’'

“We’re the best school in Jersey City because we have so many activities.’'

Anyone with a slightly skeptical frame of mind would obviously take all this with a truckload of salt. Kids, at least until they hit adolescence, tend to tell teachers--and especially principals-- what they want to hear. Yet one boy, John Rivers, an 11-year-old with dark, curly hair, catches my fancy. “I’ve learned more here than in any of the other schools I have gone to,’' he says. “In the other schools, I didn’t learn much. I’ve been to four schools, and, in most of them, the kids were too bad. The teachers tried to calm them down and just kept teaching. They just wrote something on the board. Here the work is easy because it’s fun. They train the teachers to make it fun.’'

Later on the tour, three teachers literally pull my sleeve to tell me what they think about the principal and the changes he and they have made. For them, it isn’t the state, it isn’t the takeover, it is the principal.

Two special education teachers push Littlejohn out of the room--much to his delight--so they can talk to me.

“He asks more from people and gives more,’' says Joe Belasco, who has taught at School 40 for six years. “He’s demanding with the academics but also gives back.’'

“It’s all about leadership,’' says Betty Stafford, one of the other teachers, who has taught for 22 years. “This man has done wonders for this school. Without leadership, a body can’t perform.’'

Littlejohn clearly knows that things are working. In our conversations, he always mentions and credits Associate Superintendent Charles Smith and Executive Assistant Superintendent Grisel Lopez-Diaz, both of whom have worked for years in the Jersey City schools and were promoted from within by Scambio. “I’ve gotten support from both sides, the administration side and the program side,’' he says. “That kind of support encourages people to take ideas and try them. I’m largely here because the state took over.’'

Asked what he thinks will happen when the district returns to local control, Littlejohn says, “I’m an optimist.’' But then he adds, “I just want three more years here.’'

As I leave the building, I stop to talk to James Aumack, a math specialist who is overseeing some kids playing in the parking lot after school. Aumack, who has been working in the district since 1967, is generally positive about the state intervention. He notes, however, that the takeover was really nothing new. “We were taken over by every politician every four years,’' he says.

“Do I like everything about the take- over?’' he asks. “Heck no. But we are much better off because of it, and the kids are better off. This is from the point of view of the guy at the bottom. I was here before, and I’ll be here after. I’m not going out at 55. This is what I like to do.’'

Back at Ferris High School, I get a chance to speak to Principal Terrance Matthews. A burly man with brush-cut hair, Matthews looks a bit like actor Charles Durning. He started teaching in 1959 and has been principal of Ferris since 1985.

Ferris is a large, low-slung yellow brick-and-concrete building sitting in the shadow of the elevated New Jersey Turnpike extension. It was built in 1969, making it far newer than many of the schools in Jersey City, some of which are nearly a century old. Of the five high schools in the city, Academic High School is at the top. Like Stuyvesant High School in New York City and Boston Latin in Boston, Academic is a rigorous, selective high school. Putting Academic aside and considering hard numbers, such as graduation rates and standardized test scores, as well as community opinion, Ferris places somewhere in the middle.

For Matthews, the biggest effect of the takeover is attitudinal. “There is a greater degree of professionalism and increased interchange of ideas,’' he notes. Inservice training has improved, and teachers are encouraged to go to conferences. He also can discipline deficient teachers by withholding salary increments and by pushing them to go to a summer academy for retraining. Before, all he could do was transfer them to another school.

Matthews believes that the state seizure should last 10 years, not five. He thinks it takes that long to institutionalize changes. “For too long, we have lived in four-year cycles,’' he says. “People felt that they could hang on for four years, and then the regime would change.’'

It is lunch time at Ferris, and a few of the teachers are hanging out in the English office during their break. It is a square room, adorned with posters of Shakespeare and Mexican temples, student drawings and paintings, and a handmade poster that says Feliz Navidad in glitter. Prominently displayed down one long wall, pressed inside large plastic frames, are hundreds of pictures of graduating seniors--in tuxedos, off-the-shoulder dresses, and caps and gowns--some mugging it up in group photos, others exuberant in informal class photos. This is Joanne Kenny’s office.

Kenny is wearing a vest, given to her by a fellow teacher, printed with the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales-- “Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote/ The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote.’' She loves teaching Chaucer, Shakespeare, and John Donne, all of whom she can go on about at some length, making you want to sit in on her class.

Kenny has taught in the Jersey City schools for 26 years. Since March, she has been “building supervisor’’ for the Ferris English department, which is simply another name for department chair. Prior to that, no department in any school in Jersey City had a chairperson. There was a district supervisor for English or math or social studies, but these people rarely visited the schools to evaluate or give feedback. “I would say that if in 15 years three or four people came to visit my classroom to evaluate me, that was a pretty high number,’' Kenny says. “People felt, ‘She’s doing OK.’ My kids were not hanging off the ceiling. They felt, why should they go in if I had everything under control?’'

Kenny is a short, compact woman with curly brownish-gray hair and a wide, open face. As I sit with her, students come by for extra help. Wang, a Chinese boy who came over with his family three years ago from Canton and asked to be in Kenny’s advanced placement English class to improve his English, stops in to set up a time to work on Hamlet. Iris, a special project for Kenny this past year, pays a call, as well. A star athlete, she has started applying herself more to academics under Kenny’s guidance, and now she wants to go to college to become a nurse. Only two months ago, her father was killed in front of a bar in Hoboken, but she has pressed on despite the tragedy. Iris, Kenny tells me, drops by a couple times a day.

Because of her supervisory role, Kenny now teaches only two classes--the AP English class and a freshman remedial reading class, opposite ends of the academic spectrum--instead of her customary five. As a supervisor, she oversees the 19 teachers in the English department and the four in the world languages department, working with both the strong teachers and the ones who need some help.

Also sitting with us in the office are two friends of Kenny’s, Gerri Domino, the vice principal of one of the three “houses’’ at Ferris, and Barbara Peterson, a math teacher who is now the school’s liaison to the Business/Finance Academy, a magnet program at Ferris. In an attempt to break down the size of, and feeling of anonymity in, the district’s high schools, each is now divided into houses. A vice principal, two guidance counselors, a crisis teacher, a student assistance counselor, a clerk, a community aide, and an attendance officer serve the 500 students in each house. The idea is to create the atmosphere of a small school and to provide guidance and counseling services in a more responsive way. “The dog wagging the tail,’' Domino says, “not the tail wagging the dog.’'

The Finance Academy, launched at Ferris this year, is part of the state’s plan to develop magnet programs at each of the five high schools. It is the initial phase of something called the 21st Century Careers Initiative, an effort to wrap the high schools around magnet programs that students choose and to work more closely with the business community. The program is starting small. Two classes of freshmen at Ferris--50 students--were selected, based on grades and recommendations from teachers. They have been grouped together, taking double periods of some courses such as business, English, history, and algebra. Participating students had to sign a year-long contract to get into the program and agree to wear “office-style clothes’'--no T-shirts, jeans, or sneakers. One hundred juniors have enrolled in a similar but less intense program, taking economics, finance, and accounting. The program, Peterson says, is in the very early stages.

Neither Domino nor Peterson was in favor of the state takeover at first. “There was an us-versus-them mentality,’' says Domino, who is wearing a Ferris letter cardigan. “People who saw themselves holding down the fort when things were not going well, staying ‘til 5 o’clock, had a sense that when the state came in, they’d have trench coats and guns like Elliot Ness.’'

“Even the term ‘takeover’ is military,’' says Peterson, as she eats her lunch. “The sense was, ‘How dare you come in.’ ''

Domino had been a dean for five years and worked closely with students with disciplinary problems. When the state took over, its emissaries abolished the post because there was no state certification for dean and, therefore, no way to measure credentials. She was upset, feeling that the deans played an important role in the school, intervening with students who were in, or on the verge of getting into, trouble. Now she feels the new teams play that role, pulling in resources around a student.

Peterson also concedes that “since the state’s come in, I have seen changes for the better. There’s a lot of paperwork, but paperwork for the better.’'

But the two disagree somewhat over how teachers feel about the takeover. Domino says 40 percent of the teachers are against it, 60 percent for. Peterson thinks there is more opposition than that.

I did hear some of those voices of opposition at Ferris. As Kenny gives me a tour of the building, she introduces me to three teachers on hall duty. When she tells them I am writing an article on the state takeover, there are some dry laughs and disgusted looks. Later, during a break, I track down one of these teachers in his room.

“I haven’t seen any changes,’' says the teacher, a coach who wants to remain anonymous. “It’s just a continuation of what we had before. Just more bureaucracy. We have the same problems that we’ve had since I began teaching-- behavior problems, disruptive students, discipline. I don’t see change on a day-today basis. We try to get control over our own little environment ourselves. You can’t worry about what goes on outside of the classroom. We’re here for five periods a day. You try to control what goes on in your class.’'

I ask him what he would suggest. “I don’t have any answers,’' he says. I ask how many of his colleagues agree that little has changed? He says, “I don’t think if you asked nine out of 10 teachers, you would get a positive response.’'

If his calculation is correct, then Joanne Kenny is certainly among the remaining 10 percent. I tell Kenny about a conversation I had on the phone with one principal, a leading voice in the local Administrators and Supervisors Association. He virulently attacked Scambio, whom he accused of being under the influence of the teachers’ union. “There needed to be a state takeover,’' he acknowledged, “but they [Scambio and team] stink. It is a case of overbureacratization, co-opted by the teachers’ union.’' When I asked him about the new power that principals have to select their own staff members instead of having them selected centrally, he dismissed it out of hand. He concluded his tirade against both Scambio and the union by saying, “The tests we are using are not the proper criteria, anyway. You can’t fight the greater environment. Poverty is the greatest determinant of how you do.’' Schools, he said, can’t overcome that.

“I don’t accept that--like the kids are doomed from the beginning,’' Kenny says. “I say, No. Does Iris want to make it? Damned straight she wants to make it.’'

It is clear that the principal’s statement struck a nerve. Kenny has obviously had this conversation about student potential innumerable times, trying to explain to skeptics why she continues to teach at a large public high school in a “failing’’ district.

“I wish we didn’t have to be their psychologists,’' she continues, her anger rising. “I wish we didn’t have to feed and clothe them. I wish we didn’t have to provide them with after-school programs. We have to worry about where they go after school. We have to worry if they have condoms or not. We now have to give them technical skills and skills so they can work with their hands. We wish we didn’t have so many crack babies or ones with fetal alcohol syndrome. But we work despite that. If I give up and think that they’re doomed, I might as well stop teaching.’'

The state takeover did not influence her views on these matters, Kenny says, “but it has made it easier for me to reach kids like some of our kids.’'

Obviously, not everybody feels the same way about the state takeover as Kenny. I tell Elena Scambio that one teacher had told me that educators in the district were split 50-50 over the move.

“If there are 50 percent in support of what has gone on here, I’m pleased,’' she says. “We are combating years and years of a lot of people only knowing the other way of doing things, for whom the other way was very lucrative. So if we convert 10 percent a year, I’m very thrilled.’'

She may not have the luxury of time, however. The takeover law--the first of its kind in the country--specifies that state intervention will last for a period of five years. The state is scheduled to return the schools to Jersey City control on October 4, 1994. But the question is now being raised: Is a five-year period really enough time to turn the district around?

Arthur Andersen & Co., a private consulting firm that conducted an indepen- dent evaluation of the Jersey City School District a year ago for the legislature’s joint committee on the public schools, has called for a three-year extension. One of the reasons it gives is that there is no transition plan to turn the district back to a local board of education or any provision to train the board. Senator Ewing is now talking about rewriting the takeover legislation to put off the return to local control for at least two years.

The legislature can rework the take- over law, but ultimately the decision to extend the takeover in Jersey City is up to the New Jersey Board of Education, based on the recommendation of the state commissioner of education. And recent political developments have complicated the situation.

In an upset election well-covered by the national media, Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat, was defeated by his Republican challenger, Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman named Leo Klagholz, a wellrespected educator who has served for some time in the state education department, as her commissioner of education. I asked Klagholz several days before he took office whether he would recommend an extension of the Jersey City takeover. “I haven’t made any decisions,’' he said. “I’ll do a review of the district as soon as I come in. It seems from what I gather that there is no transition plan to local control. Some extension needs some consid- eration.’'

There are rumors that the new administration may fire Elena Scambio and put in someone less independent. When I asked Klagholz if he would fire Scambio, he said, “What, are you a friend of hers?’'

During the gubernatorial campaign, Whitman, spurred on by Jersey City Mayor Schundler, came out in favor of vouchers. Klagholz has also endorsed a pilot voucher program in Jersey City, though a fairly closely regulated one. “We have a formal acknowledgement that the kids aren’t getting what they are due and that the people of this community, through their mayor, have said they want to try it,’' he says.

Klagholz rejects the argument that vouchers would destroy the public schools. “Vouchers shouldn’t be permitted to destroy the public school system,’' he says, “but the public school system should not be permitted to destroy itself either.’'

So, with less than a year of the state takeover remaining, it’s still largely a matter of opinion as to whether the state has improved the Jersey City schools. Scambio and many teachers, administrators, and parents believe that progress is being made but that more time is needed. In January, Scambio said, “I think we are at a point where we can bolt ahead.’'

One observer, at least, questions the validity of hanging the success or failure of the takeover purely on standardized test scores. ‘Standardized tests provide a snapshot,’' says Joseph Martin, one of the analysts from Arthur Andersen & Co. “The trends are promising, but they should not be the only measure used. The problems didn’t happen overnight, and the test scores are not going to change overnight.’'

To critics, of which there is no shortage, such comments sound too much like a rationalization for failure. They question the state takeover experiment, and some even want to see the state fail. Others wonder whether anything can get “those kids’’ to learn. Still others just don’t want any more years of deficient education. Most people, it seems, want some hard evidence that students are performing better.

And then, of course, there are those who are waiting for the state to leave so things can get back to normal, the way they were before the takeover.

Arthur Anderson & Co. is expected to release a second assessment of the take- over soon. Its findings could influence state officials in their decision to let the takeover expire or to extend it. That decision will likely have profound consequences for education in Jersey City.

It may also have an effect on the 48,000student Newark School District, where a state takeover seems imminent. Newark has a predominantly African-American student population, with a black school board, and the threat of a state takeover has racial overtones for some. A number of African-American grass-roots community groups, led by Amiri Baraka, the activist and playwright who used to be known as Leroi Jones, are speaking out loudly in opposition. “What this is plainly is racism,’' Baraka said at a recent news conference. “The state takeover is more white supremacy and greed.’'

With the results in Jersey City not yet clear-cut, Gov. Whitman may be reluctant to take on black activists and a black-led board of education in Newark.

Clearly, much hangs on what happens in Jersey City--not only for Newark but for foundering districts in other states, as well. For the success or failure of the Jersey City experiment could affect state policies across the country. Ultimately, of course, the takeover will have the greatest impact on the children of Jersey City, and it will be judged by what happens in their classrooms. Whether the wolves can be kept from the door so the experiment can be given the time to work is the real question.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as After The Fall


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