Makeup of Atlantic City Middle School at Issue

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Questions of safety have erupted into a battle of wills between the New Jersey Department of Education and the superintendent of the Atlantic City public schools that could determine whether 5th graders remain at a city middle school.

Since it opened in September, the district's new Albany Avenue School has had 148 suspensions, two arrests, several assaults on its teachers, and a stabbing of a student. The incidents prompted a walkout in late October of 200 students protesting conditions in the school, which serves about 1,800 students in grades 5-8.

In an effort to regroup, the Atlantic City board of education shut the school's doors for a day on Oct. 31 to hold in-service training for administrators and teachers to discuss ways to improve security.

But New Jersey officials want the school's 5th graders removed from the school for their safety.

"We believe the students are at risk," Peter Peretzman, a spokesman for the state education department, said last week.

Department officials have followed the problems at Albany Avenue closely. If they have their way, the school's 5th graders will return to their neighborhood elementary schools before the end of the calendar year.

'Under Control'

State Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz sent a letter to Superintendent H. Benjamin Williams on Oct. 29 stating his "deep concern" for the younger students attending the school, who "are not reasonably assured of having a safe and appropriate learning environment."

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman has also weighed in with her opinion that the 5th graders should be reassigned to their elementary schools.

But Mr. Williams contends that the climate at Albany Avenue is now dramatically different. In response to Commissioner Klagholz, Mr. Williams said that the student behavior on which the calls to remove the younger students were based "has been brought under control."

"In the last weeks, we've implemented some fairly stringent rules," Mr. Williams said in an interview last week. "Some people have called what we've done martial law."

The Albany Avenue School is currently the only middle school in the Atlantic City system, and its students come from all over the city. The school was designed to be a temporary fix for the next few years while the 7,000-student system builds six new schools.

Nationally, most middle schools serve grades 6-8, according to Jack Berckemeyer, the director of member and affiliate services at the Columbus, Ohio-based National Middle School Association. If younger students are mixed with much older youths, administrators should take precautions to limit their interaction, Mr. Berckemeyer said.

Albany Avenue now has patrols of police officers, citizens, and parents watching over the students during the day, but those efforts have not mollified state officials.

"While the superintendent has implemented some precautions, the situation has not been addressed to our satisfactions," Mr. Peretzman said.

Superintendent Williams has shown no signs of retreat either. Nor have the students, parents, and teachers at Albany Avenue.

Mr. Williams said he has garnered the support of nearly all of the school's 5th grade teachers. The leaders of the school's parent advisory council have also backed the decision to keep the students where they are.

"Movement of the children will disrupt the schools," Mr. Williams said. "We may lose objectives that we have gained."

Out by Dec. 1?

For instance, he said, by moving the students to Albany Avenue, class sizes have shrunk dramatically. Classes in the system have dropped from 30 students per class to around 23 students, the superintendent said.

Despite the district's arguments, Assistant Commissioner of Education John Sherry asked Mr. Klagholz last week to order the 5th graders out of the middle school by Dec. 1.

The district will have an opportunity to explain to the state why it believes the school should remain intact.

Problems are to be expected, Mr. Williams said. "We're putting together a new school with kids coming together from across the city for the first time in history," he said.

"Contrary to the urgings of the commissioner, students want to stay at Albany Avenue."

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