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NJ's Toughest Schools in Chess Game for Survival

Districts bid for federal money to fund solutions to 32 low-performing schools, including—for some—closing. Newark provides a case study.

They are the lowest of the low-performers among New Jersey’s public schools, 32 schools from Camden to Jersey City eligible for $66.7 million in new federal money aimed at finally making a difference.

In applications now pending before the state for the School Improvement Grants, the proposals from districts range from closing the schools to reassigning much of the staff and administrators to changing how the schools do business altogether.

Newark has 10 of the 32 schools applying, six of them serving high school students. In its proposals to the state, one small school would close, another would be remade into a network of privately run alternative schools, and others would see either their staff or mission completely revamped—or both.

The state is to make its decision this month, but that will be just the start in a place like Newark. Each of its plans comes with its own enormous challenges, not to mention a sense of déjà vu that much of this has been promised before.

Add in the state’s fiscal crisis through which the district faces more than $40 million in budget cuts, costing it more than 1,000 staff members.

One of the most ambitious plans is in place at Central High School. But it is also a school that could lose 20 teachers to layoffs and retirements next year, nearly a quarter of its faculty.

"It’s not just a question of how we function," said Ras Baraka, the outspoken principal of Central High School. "It’s more like ‘can we function?’"

Starting with Baraka’s school, here are the stories of three of the proposals.

Central High School: The Global Village

The gleaming brick and glass building on 18th Avenue rose out of the court-ordered push to bring state-of-the-art facilities to New Jersey’s toughest school districts. With a grand staircase at one end, the school’s entrance hall is a sun-filled atrium, with a giant chess set standing at the door to greet visitors.

But those visitors still come through metal detectors to enter, and the student test scores taped to the main office’s window speak to what still hasn’t changed at Central High School: barely half of the students are proficient in math and a third in language arts.

Those scores have put Central High School on the list of “persistently low-performing,” one of the state’s lowest 5 percent by the numbers and eligible for the School Improvement Grants.

The district has responded with a plan that has been in the works since Clifford Janey was appointed superintendent of the state-operated district of 40,000 students in 2008.

Pledging all along to make high schools his priority, Janey began building partnerships with community and other groups to help support those schools. Now, Central High School has become the flagship of that effort, reorganizing itself into a hub of social programs and feeder schools.

Modeled after the successful Harlem Childrens Zone, Central and six elementary and middle schools will be the new “Newark Global Village School Zone,” focusing not only on education but also the support services critical to the Central Ward neighborhoods known for their hard-core crime and poverty.

One piece will be a health clinic right in the school. The day would start earlier and run until 4:15 in the afternoon, the longest of any school day in the district. And teachers and parents are part of the decision-making process of what is needed and put in place, with new autonomy bestowed on the school to carry it through.

"The people who are responsible for the outcomes will be at the table making the decisions," said Baraka. "What we’re doing is removing the barriers.”

And he says there are plenty of those. “Most of it has to do with power and control—nobody wants to allow you into their fiefdom,” he said.

But he said the model provides a new structure that he hopes will break that down. "What we’re doing is grabbing every segment of the community and getting them involved," he said.

Renaissance School “Restarts”

Serving the Newark kids who haven’t succeeded elsewhere, the Renaissance School is hardly a school in the normal sense of the word, its nontraditional programs strewn across the city and its student body so fluid it’s hard to get an exact count.

"The students move in and out of it so much, but it has served about 1,000 students at one point or another this year," said Daniel Gohl, assistant to Janey who is leading the innovation grants efforts.

And given the school’s clientele, it’s no surprise it would fall into the lowest performers—not just with dismal test scores, but the even higher stakes for kids for whom this was the last resort and instead drop out altogether.

So two years ago, the district began partnering with notable national and regional organizations to devise programs that would step away from the past strategies and try new approaches altogether.

Now as Renaissance School seeks to follow the “restart” option under the federal grants, the district is virtually willing to hand over the keys entirely to these programs—about as close as it gets so far to a district-sponsored charter school.

"Newark is willing to say, 'OK, you’ve been proven to work, now do it full bore,'" Gohl said. "They would still be Newark public schools, but the operation will be theirs."

Included in the mix is Diploma Plus, a Boston-based organization to run two programs. There is also the Performance Learning Center and Gateway to College, two other nontraditional high schools.

And the largest is Big Picture Schools, a 15-year-old organization with 75 schools in the United States and another 60 overseas. It has three programs in place in Newark, including one each in Central and Eastside high schools.

In its first year in Newark, it served about 160 students in the three locations, providing them smaller classes and more hands-on learning opportunities, including internships.

But it largely remained a referral program for the larger high schools, a status that will change under the new arrangement.

"This will allow us that much more fidelity to our model, the autonomy to take the kids who we feel will best fit the program and not just those referred to us," said Charly Adler, a Big Picture consultant who leads its Newark programs.

"This will allow us to be a real school of choice," he said. “I think it’s pretty courageous of Newark, a willingness to go outside of what they do to help these kids."

Academy for Vocational Careers No More

For all the talk of restarts and transformations, the Academy for Vocational Careers will get no such second life under Newark’s plans.

Located on Montgomery Street, the school of 160 students, almost all of them special education students, will follow the “closure” model. And by far the most drastic of the 10 proposals being submitted, it has not surprisingly been the one that has drawn the most controversy.

"We never had any opportunity to give input on why we should close," said Loucious Jones, president of the school’s PTO and an outspoken district-wide advocate. "I think these grants just gave them the cover to move ahead without us."

Jones and other parents—as well as protesting staff and students at community meetings—have argued that the district’s alternative is hardly justified for students with cognitive and emotional disabilities that led them to be referred to the outside program to start with.

"These are probably the most fragile youngsters on the district and they are being asked to move back into schools that themselves are going through changes," Jones said. "How will they survive in these schools? I just think they’ll just as soon drop out."

The district’s argument is two-fold. One is that it has gotten harder to justify a school for just special education students when the district, and the state as a whole, seeks to integrate students with disabilities back into the mainstream schools and classrooms.

And officials said it’s hard to argue empirically that the school is succeeding in its own right.

"I know the parents feel that the community has built a safe and emotionally supportive environment for these kids," said Gohl. "And that is important. But an analysis of academic performance also showed that they weren’t being led to levels of academic proficiency that we would expect for all students."

Jones is still hoping to change Janey’s mind, and that of state officials as well, as he heads to Trenton to argue that the district should at least slow down.

"Between now and September, there is just not enough time to redo all these students-learning plans," he said.

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