Urban Renewal

By Robert C. Johnston — June 13, 2001 14 min read
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Over the next decade, Newark plans to build 45 new schools and renovate all 30 others. Some see an urban renaissance. Others fear that hopes are too high.

At the ripe old age of 106, Hawthorne Elementary School is a fitting symbol of the widespread deterioration of this city’s public schools.

In January of last year, a three-story, eight-room section of the stately but tired building was declared structurally unsound and was condemned.

Today, wooden braces prop up the shifting, water-damaged ceilings in the condemned wing. Outside, a covered walkway protects pedestrians in case of tumbling debris.

Floors creak as the school’s principal, Esther Elliott, tours the vacant area. “I hated to lose this space,” she says. In particular, she misses the aquarium that was on the second floor and how it fascinated her students. “If they could just use a bit of money to repair our school,” she sighs. “It’s long overdue.”

She has a point. Though the average school in the city is eight decades old, Newark has built just one new school in the past 10 years.

But all of that is about to change. Over the next decade, Newark plans to build 45 new schools and renovate all 30 others. In other words, every school in the 44,000-student system will be overhauled or rebuilt. Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that the work can be done without a dime of local money.

To Elliott’s relief, Hawthorne Elementary is soon to be replaced with a brand-new school, complete with a gymnasium, cafeteria, and auditorium— and plenty of room for a new aquarium.

That stunning reversal of fortune is the result of an education lawsuit filed in 1981 known as Abbott v. Burke. In 1990, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the case that the state’s school aid formula was not constitutionally adequate for many of its poorest children. In subsequent rulings, the court repeatedly ordered the state to raise per-pupil spending and set up new educational programs in the 30, mostly urban, districts in the case. The court also established that sound facilities are part of an adequate education, and set a precedent nationally by ordering the state to spend whatever it takes to bring schools in those districts up to par.

With little conclusive research linking better facilities to higher student achievement, experts will be watching New Jersey to see how its investment in buildings pays off academically.

The scope of the victory began unfolding last year when then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman signed a $8.6 billion school construction plan— $6.5 billion of which will go to Abbott districts.

“People like to use money as a benchmark for comparisons,” says David Mortimer, the assistant state education commissioner for facilities. “The significance for us is that for the first time, on a statewide basis, attention is being paid and funding provided to improve educational facilities for all children.”

Nationally, the Abbott decision may be unparalleled in the extent to which it focuses on infrastructure problems in urban districts. Increasingly, however, lawsuits arguing that states have failed to give students equal or adequate educational opportunities are resulting in large windfalls for facilities needs in city schools.

Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico were taken to court specifically over school facilities issues, for example, while Ohio was challenged on broader educational finance questions. The upshot in all those states is that more money is being made available for school facilities in cities. In New York City, meanwhile, a court fight is continuing after a judge ruled last year that the nation’s largest school district—including its facilities—are underfunded by the state. The decision is being appealed.

With little conclusive research linking better facilities to higher student achievement, experts will be watching New Jersey to see how its investment in buildings pays off academically. That attention makes Newark schools Superintendent Marion A. Bolden a bit uncomfortable—not because she doubts her students, but because she says some people are missing the point.

“A [newspaper] columnist recently asked why we’re investing money when we don’t know what the results will be,” says Bolden, who was named to her position by the state, which took over the Newark district in 1995. “That’s selfish and bigoted. Even if a youngster doesn’t reach [academic proficiency], he or she deserves a clean, safe school.”

It’s not hard to see How a judge concluded in one ruling that the schools in the Abbott districts were “crumbling and obsolescent.” Hawthorne Elementary is not an isolated case.

Lillian Burke, the principal at Newark’s Clinton Avenue Elementary School, avoids the evening weather reports because if rain is in the forecast, she will be robbed of a good night’s sleep: “I’ll just think about what I have to look forward to the next day.”

Her nightmare is the school’s leak-prone roof. Until a recent round of repairs, she could be assured that if it rained, water would seep under cracked and dried roofing material, drain through porous ceiling panels, and trickle down the sides of cinder-block walls to flood classrooms and hallways.

She has relocated teachers to dry rooms, thrown out saturated student work, and trashed moldy carpets because of the leaks.

The school’s head custodian has a fresh scar from the day he went on the roof during a storm and the heavy metal door to the top of the school blew shut on his right index finger. The blow broke his finger and sliced it so badly that it required 12 stitches.

The 240-student school, which was built in 1969 without classroom windows or playground equipment for the school’s youngest children, is going to be replaced. In the meantime, it is at the top of Newark’s list for state-approved and -financed emergency repairs that are slated to begin this summer.

The path to New Jersey’s school construction boom has been long and contentious— and that journey is not over yet.

“This would not work in an affluent community,” Burke says of her school’s condition. “The parents would be outraged.”

Across town, Speedway Avenue Elementary School also limps along.

Five years ago, the school’s antiquated boiler gave out. The rusted relic was not removed from the 84-year-old school. Instead, the district rented a temporary boiler, which sits outside the school in a trailer, cordoned off by a chain-link fence. Two other Newark schools are in the same situation.

The awkward setup uses space needed for other purposes at the schools and can best be described as ugly. The district has even had to power-wash soot produced by the boilers off nearby houses.

To be sure, Speedway Elementary is charming inside. Hallways are lined with student writing, art, and lists of honor students. Every pencil mark or speck of dirt is removed from walls and floors each night.

But the school has no library, no gymnasium, no parking lot, and no playground. What’s more, its temperature can’t be regulated. Heat is blasted in from the boiler each morning, and then shut off around noon, says Theodore W. Hoover, Speedway Elementary’s principal.

Few tears are likely when the wrecking ball comes to the school, which is slated to be replaced. “This is huge,” Hoover says of a new school. “The PTA is ecstatic. They’ve been clamoring for it for years. There’s a real need.”

In spite of such need, which nobody really denies, the path to New Jersey’s school construction boom has been long and contentious—and that journey is not over yet.

The state supreme court ruled in 1990 that New Jersey’s school aid formula was unconstitutional, and that the “thorough and efficient education” guaranteed by the state constitution includes adequate facilities.

But it took eight years after the court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor before the court accepted a 1998 plan by the Whitman administration to pay 100 percent of school construction costs in the Abbott districts. Two years of legislative wrangling later, and seven months after the court’s deadline for breaking ground, Whitman signed the school construction law in July 2000.

To help overcome resistance from suburban lawmakers, $2 billion was earmarked for districts outside the Abbott case to cover up to 40 percent of costs on their school projects. That concession has led to questions of fairness, because the wealthier districts can now use the new state aid to subsidize additions—even such relative luxuries as swimming pools—to already superior facilities. But it was seen by many as a political necessity.

“New Jersey is a quintessentially suburban state,” notes Assemblyman Leonard Lance, a Republican. “I don’t see how any legislation representing only urban districts would have passed.”

Still, it is the huge price tag of the court-ordered construction, which many concede is likely to rise, that has left some lawmakers with lingering sticker shock. Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, a Republican, says communities that historically have approved funding to maintain their schools and build new ones may receive the wrong message: “The lesson is, let’s not build new schools. Just let them deteriorate until the state comes in and builds them.”

Students at Science High School wonder what they could do in a school where there was enough equipment to perform the science experiments described in their textbooks.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit is pending that seeks to stop New Jersey from selling bonds to finance the entire school facilities initiative, on the grounds that voters must first approve the debt. “My view is that the matter should have gone to the people for a vote,” says Lance, who made that point during legislative debates. “I don’t believe $8.5 billion in bonded indebtedness should be expended without voter approval.”

To assuage worries over the enormous program, the legislature divided up the roles that state agencies will play. The New Jersey Department of Education reviews and approves the five-year construction plan for each Abbott district—a process that has improved after a cumbersome start, local officials say. Meanwhile, the state’s Economic Development Authority has control over the money, and will award and supervise the construction contracts. A special branch has been created in the state attorney general’s office to prevent fraud and abuse.

That sometimes leaves local officials in the position of having to explain that they don’t control the purse strings. “It’s almost comical,” says Steven M. Morlino, the executive director of facilities for the Newark schools. “I can’t go to a conference without a consultant coming to me as soon as they see Newark on my button. They think I have $1.8 billion in my pocket.”

Disagreements persist over some issues—such as whether the state will pay for air conditioning in the new schools. Yet, regardless of who controls the money, officials in the 30 Abbott districts feel they’re finally getting a remedy to what was described in one of the Abbott rulings as “deplorable conditions” that “have a direct and deleterious impact” on children already at risk for educational failure.

David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which represented the Abbott plaintiffs, argues that it is time for the legislature to get over the lawsuit and move on.

“This is the opportunity for New Jersey to become a leader in educating poor and urban children,” he says. “The most important thing we can do is raise the achievement of these kids, and Abbott gives us a chance to do this.”

In a converted brewery near Newark’s industrial waterfront, students at Science High School already know what they can achieve in an inferior facility.

But they wonder what they could do in a school where there was enough equipment to perform the science experiments described in their textbooks, or where teachers had their own rooms and could be more accessible.

Arlene Bolanos, a senior who plans to study journalism next fall at the city’s campus of Rutgers University, recalls her initial visit to Science High: “My first impression was, ‘My God, this is a school?’”

Nearly every Science High graduate goes to a four-year college, and many are routinely accepted to top schools. With its selective admissions criteria, Science High rejects about two-thirds of its applicants for each freshman class. The school has produced 16 consecutive state-champion debate teams, and last year was rated as one of the top 75 high schools in the state, according to a New Jersey Monthly magazine survey that looked at test scores and college-attendance rates.

Such bragging rights are remarkable considering the physical shape the school is in. The site was opened in 1975 with 80 students as a magnet science program, using the converted brewery as temporary quarters. Today, the school is in the same building, though, and considerably more crowded, with nearly 600 students.

Feeling like a vertical maze, the school is so unappealing that its principal, Christine Taylor, refuses to hold community events there without students present. “As a parent, I would not want my child to come here based on the building,” she says. “It serves no useful purpose to hold open house without students. The students’ energy is what makes the school.”

Some hallways in the school are so narrow that an average-size student can easily touch both sides at once, while 6½-foot ceilings squeeze in other parts of the school. Many of the classrooms are devoid of student work or other decorations because, owing to a shortage of classrooms, most teachers change rooms several times during the day and can’t claim any one as their own.

While the third-floor lecture hall is impressive, the school’s music students practice in a sliver of a room just a little more than a trombone slide away, creating a melodic distraction during lectures.

Veteran teacher Susan Rocco recalls the day she smacked into a column near her blackboard during a lecture and cut her eye. “I knew I hit the column, but I didn’t know I was bleeding until the students told me,” she says. Her reaction to the collision typifies the school’s can-do attitude: “You just go on.”

Clearly, Science High shows what motivated students with good teachers can accomplish. Still, these students can’t help but feel shortchanged. As French teacher Isabel Pontoriero puts it: “I’m glad everyone has a good attitude, because if they didn’t, it wouldn’t work. But imagine what we could do with a better building.”

Studies suggest, however, that there is no guarantee that the Science High students would do any better in a state-of-the-art facility than in the converted brewery.

It’s true that researchers have found that student performance tends to lag in inferior buildings, yet they also say that good facilities do not guarantee higher achievement. Indeed, their efforts to link school condition and student achievement are inconclusive at best. (“Bricks and Mortarboards,” Dec. 6, 2000.)

With so little concrete evidence to go on, Harold H. Wenglinsky, a research scientist at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, worries that educators and parents in his state may be placing too much stock on the benefits of better facilities. Wenglinsky’s own research compared the scores of 14,000 4th and 8th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress with the capital outlays in their school districts. He found no relationship between the two.

“Frankly, expectations are too high,” he cautions. “It’s not that construction can’t have a positive effect on how students do in school. But it can do so if it’s in the service of overall strategy.”

New Jersey could become a national laboratory for gauging the influence of school facilities on achievement.

On the other hand, he says New Jersey could become a national laboratory for gauging the influence of school facilities on achievement. “In the case of New Jersey, it’s extremely important to evaluate the results of the construction,” Wenglinsky says.

For his part, Sciarra of the Education Law Center notes that the spending on facilities that New Jersey’s court ordered is indeed part of a broader strategy, as Wenglinsky advocates.

The court ordered that per-pupil spending in the Abbott districts be made equal to that of wealthy suburbs, which will amount to $9,700 per student in the 2001-02 school year. “No one can say our urban schools are not adequately funded for regular education programs, because they are,” Sciarra says. “It’s a tremendous accomplishment.”

In addition, the state is phasing in preschool programs and all-day kindergarten for all of the Abbott districts, and monitoring schoolwide improvement strategies in each Abbott district. “Abbott is about closing the achievement gap, not just about adequate funding or preschool, but closing gaps,” Sciarra continues. “Now the question for teachers, principals, and educators is: Are you going to step up to the plate and close these gaps?”

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as Urban Renewal


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