School & District Management

New Jersey Pilot Effort Targets Needy High Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — May 17, 2005 3 min read
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New Jersey has announced a pilot program to improve middle and high schools in its poorest districts, an extension of a widely watched effort that for the past seven years has focused largely on preschool and elementary school children.

Four of the state’s lowest-income districts have volunteered to participate in the project. If the results are good, the model could be expanded to the other 27 designated high-need districts, and eventually to secondary schools statewide.

The initiative seeks to convert large middle and high schools into smaller units, enhance the personalization of schooling, and increase the rigor of students’ coursework. In pursuing that path, state officials cite a growing body of research suggesting that those three elements can improve achievement through their potential to engage and challenge adolescents.

William L. Librera, the state commissioner of education, said that the work group that designed guidelines for the new pilot effort deliberately chose “a tight focus on a few key things” in its bid to improve secondary schools. Scaling down the size of schools enables adults to know students, which then helps the educators design coursework that suits the students’ needs, he said.

In the redesigned schools, each student will have an adult “advocate” who will meet with them and their families regularly while the students are in the program. The curriculum will be aligned from preschool through high school. Middle school courses will prepare students for college-preparatory work in high school, and high school coursework will be designed to ensure readiness for college.

The initiative, unveiled May 6, emerges from years of school finance litigation known as Abbott v. Burke, which has mandated intensive state aid in New Jersey’s 31 neediest districts, now known as Abbott districts. Billions have been funneled into preschool programs, elementary-curriculum improvement, social-service supports, and school facilities as a result of the litigation.

After mediation two years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to extend improvements to middle and high schools in the Abbott districts.

The Jersey City, Orange Township, Bridgeton, and Elizabeth City districts, which together enroll more than 61,000 students, will spend at least a year planning and receiving training before changes are fully implemented.

‘Changing the Culture’

David G. Sciarra, the lead lawyer who represents the plaintiff schoolchildren in the Abbott districts, views the secondary school initiative as a potential national model because it incorporates visions for instruction and curriculum into the small-school concept.

“This goes beyond simply restructuring schools to really attack the problem of achievement,” he said.

Tom Dunn, the superintendent of the Elizabeth City district, which serves 22,000 students—including 5,300 at its one high school—said many high schools nationwide now are embracing the small-school concept. But he knows from dividing one of his middle schools into two small “communities” that a division alone doesn’t help.

He said he was looking forward to guidance from the consultants the state will hire to help the pilot districts make instructional changes.

“The hard part will be changing the way you deliver curriculum, changing the way lessons are actively taught, engaging the kids, not doing the lecture-type format,” he said. “It’s difficult to do. It’s changing the culture, as opposed to the physical building.”

The initiative’s approach emerged from a two-year work-group discussion by teachers, administrators, researchers, and parent representatives about high school improvement. Some panelists approached the issue by focusing on ways to improve test scores. Others focused on trying to narrow the gap between what students were expected to know and what high school was actually preparing them to do, said Stan Karp, a longtime Paterson, N.J., high school teacher who served on the group.

Consensus began to emerge as the group looked at strategies that would help improve graduation rates, which hover between 50 percent and 60 percent in Abbott schools, far below the state average.

Using graduation rates as a point of departure steered the group away from “remediation or triage” to boost test scores, and instead focused the discussion more on delivering what adolescents need to get from middle school through high school, Mr. Karp said. “That put school climate, student engagement, teacher support, on the table,” he said.

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