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For Two National Blue Ribbon Schools, a Study in Contrasts -- and Correspondences

A suburban NJ elementary school and a Newark charter share a prestigious national award and their unwavering commitment to all their students.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Grant Elementary School principal Andrea Bender, center, posing with members her staff.

Both were nominated by the state, one a high-flying school in a Bergen County suburb, the other a 10-year-old charter school in Newark.

To get even that far, both had posted strong student achievement scores, the suburban school starting high, the charter school getting its points for improvement.

And both wrote their application essays about cultures of high expectations, one focused on attending to gaps as soon as they arise, the other with a reputation for refusing to let students to fail.

Yesterday, the Grant Elementary School in Ridgefield Park and the Gray Charter School in Newark were announced as National Blue Ribbon Schools, two starkly different places following two different paths through the application process.

And their honors -- alongside those of eight other New Jersey schools, two of them private -- were also a testament to the rules of the competition and how schools are judged for quality these days.

Grant Elementary School, Ridgefield Park

Tucked in a corner off Route 46 in southern Bergen County, the Grant School did not have much further to rise in its student achievement. For instance, 100 percent of its third graders passed the state’s math test in 2009.

“That’s not one single child missing out,” declared Rochelle Hendricks, the state’s acting education commissioner, in announcing the federal award yesterday. “And then 81 percent of them received the highest score of advanced. That’s amazing by any standard.”

The highest honor a school can receive, the Blue Ribbon awards go to two categories of schools: those that are in the top 10 percent of their state in student achievement and those that make large gains over at least five years.

The Grant School falls into the former category, with its stellar scores among its 190 students. And it’s not the typical suburban story of rich kids who do well, but a school that serves the working-class section of what is a middle-class town.

“It’s about early intervention of teachers,” said Andrea Bender, the principal at the Grant School. The teacher has to quickly identify where the student has a gap, and then we jump on it.”

Top Scores Not Enough

But just good scores were not enough in this race to the top. Once a school is nominated by the state, it must go through the 17-page application, including at least a dozen essays about its assessments, curriculum, school leadership, professional development and other topics. There is no interview section; all depends on words on paper. “People don’t realize the paperwork in this,” said Bender.

So, as she has counted on her teachers and staff every day, the principal went to her faculty to help in that work, too.

“I started with little notes, asking them to give me your input,” she said. “And then we had teams of writers, a couple of editors, and of course myself going over it all.

“I wanted them to be part of it. It’s a collaborative process here every day, and this was no different.”

Gray Charter School, Newark

Verna Gray has a book coming out. Twenty-four years a teacher in Newark public schools and 10 years as the founder, principal and namesake of the Gray Charter School, she has a story to tell.

“How to Run A Successful Public School in America,” she read from the book’s cover. “It’s coming out next week, you can order it on Amazon.”

But isn’t this a charter school, something different than the typical public school?

“I’m sick of all that, charter vs. public,” she said. “Children are children, we’re all public schools.”

Such is the culture of Grey Charter School, where one woman’s personality has indeed infused the school of 300 students, a former music teacher who brought in violin classes for every child.

This is a dynamo of a woman who doesn’t take no easily, even when her scores were in the small fractions of students passing the state’s tests. Now, they well exceed Newark’s and even often the state’s averages.

Steady Improvement

That was good enough to qualify the school for a Blue Ribbon award, with its category for schools serving large numbers of at-risk students and showing steady improvement for at least five years.

Knowing she was in the running since June, Gray said her school only needed to see its test scores from the spring to confirm its standing. “Up to that point, we were told we passed everything, but the feds wanted those latest scores,” she said.

And it was confirmed last week, with another call yesterday that state officials would be visiting, too.

The Critical Factor

“We haven’t gotten the sign up about the award,” Gray said. “We didn’t have the time.”

Yesterday, she presided over the outdoor ceremony, making sure students would get their lunches outdoors afterwards as well. And she pointed out the parents scattered about the crowd, the factor that she and others said make the difference.

Shawanda Velez has been there from the beginning, one child graduating last year and two others in fourth and first grades.

“It’s the parents and teachers, all of us coming together and supporting Mrs. Gray through the good times and bad,” she said.

Being a charter makes a difference, she said, with parents consciously making the choice of their school and committed to their children’s education. It’s the tighter community that the charters engender, Velez and others said.

But they also said it was a sense to the place that could exist in any school, a sense that all children will succeed no matter what needs to be done. Kathy Muhammad has two children in Gray, and she has never seen a student pushed out for not making the grade. Just the opposite.

“I’ve never known a child who didn’t eventually make it here,” she said.

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