In New Jersey Schools, Reform Keeps to Its Own Schedule

By Caroline Hendrie — April 21, 1999 4 min read

George Washington Elementary School, a brick behemoth that covers the better part of a block in this city’s hard-pressed seaport neighborhood, has narrow slits for windows that lend it the air of a fortress under siege. And for many of the educators inside, that’s just about how they feel.

“We’re implementing so many new things at once,” lamented Arleen Paige, a basic-skills teacher who chairs the building’s 13-member school management team. “It’s a lot to ask the teachers to digest.”

Spurred on by the city’s reform-minded superintendent, George Washington Elementary volunteered for the first wave of a statewide plan to engage hundreds of city schools in whole-school reform by 2000-01.

The plan was ordered last May by the state supreme court in a long-running lawsuit pitting 28 poor urban districts against the state.

The school’s road map for reform is a program developed by Margaret C. Wang, the director of the federally funded Laboratory for Student Success, located at Temple University in Philadelphia. Known as the Community for Learning/Adaptive Learning Environments Model, the design also was chosen by 13 other schools in Elizabeth.

With 21 schools adopting schoolwide reform in the current academic year, the 18,700-student district has more schools in the initial cohort than any other city system in New Jersey.

In part because of the court order’s timing, schools in the first cohort had little time to prepare for change before last fall. As a result, schools--and the individual teachers in them--differ markedly in the degree to which they have implemented their reforms. Elizabeth is no exception.

Some Remain Skeptical

At George Washington Elementary, the city’s largest primary school with nearly 1,200 students, the whole teaching staff had not taken a three-day training course in ALEM, the program’s instructional portion, until last month. The school is focusing initially on literacy and is putting off for now the program’s entire Community for Learning component, which focuses on parental and community engagement.

In some classes, it is hard to find much evidence of the program. Some of the school’s roughly 130 regular classroom teachers remain uncomfortable with it, in theory as well as practice.

“There are things I don’t agree with in the program,” said Susan Blecker, a veteran 1st grade teacher. “Of course I’ll give the program a chance, but I’m skeptical.”

Others say their students have had a hard time adjusting to the program’s demands.

“We will battle with them to make them think, and they will fight you and fight you and fight you,” said Barbara Burkett, a 4th grade teacher. “They don’t want to change. We have spoon-fed them for so long.”

School leaders blame the program’s slow start in part on the difficulties of training the school’s large teaching force. It didn’t help that the school adopted another reform model in the early 1990s, only to drop it a few years later when funding dried up.

Neither did the fact that the new reform coincided with an unrelated restructuring that split the school into four learning “families.”

“The teachers have said it was too much change at the same time,” said Rosemary McCabe, the school’s facilitator for the CFL/ALEM initiative.

Still, Principal Fontaine Haynes sees attitudes changing. “I think the teachers have more or less accepted the program,” he said. “Some of our naysayers are starting to come around.”

Off to Faster Start

Across town at Terence C. Reilly Middle School, an academically accelerated magnet school with fewer than 220 students, implementation of ALEM is further along--at least in some classrooms.

Teachers there trained in October, so by midyear most were practicing some elements of the program. These include the use of learning centers with activities geared to students of various skill levels, and individualized “prescription sheets” laying out student tasks for an entire unit of study.

Teacher lectures and other whole-group instruction are de-emphasized in favor of small-group lessons and coaching.

“The teachers took the training and implemented it practically overnight,” Principal Laura Morana said.

In Sharon Marshall’s 7th grade world-geography class one recent afternoon, students researched Egyptian mythology on a bank of computers in the room’s “technology center.” Grouped at tables around the room, other students cooperated on assignments listed on their prescription sheets.

“It was hard switching midstream,” Ms. Marshall said. “But we figured if we’re doing it, we might as well do it whole hog.”

Down the hall, Ms. Morana covered an 8th grade civics class for an absent teacher. Consulting their prescription sheets, students worked with little supervision, enabling the principal to duck in and out without worrying that chaos would erupt.

Ms. Morana acknowledged that students as well as teachers have had some trouble adjusting. Older students, especially, grouse about increased workloads and changes in routines. “The teachers don’t get a chance to teach,” 8th grader Dimitri Koval complained. “ALEM must go.”

But others, like 7th grader Danny P. Burke, say they appreciate the chance to progress at their own pace. “I’m ahead,” he said. “It’s really helped a lot of people.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as In New Jersey Schools, Reform Keeps to Its Own Schedule