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Opinion: Learning from Newark's Best Schools

Concentrating on early literacy can transform schools and their students.

It's not about money. The Newark school system spends $23,000 per student per year. That should be enough to get the job done. But in school after school and district after district it isn't.

Throwing more money at very real problems is not a solution. The Facebook $100 million is a big number not a magic bullet.

There's a much smarter way to approach -- and start to solve -- the problem. Concentrate on what has been done in the most successful city districts -- start before kindergarten and provide intensive early literacy instruction in the primary grades

Concentrated Poverty

Trying to improve the educational performance of poor children concentrated in the same schools is a complex and difficult task.

Of the 3,000 school districts nationally with lots of students from poor families, only a few have managed to attain district-wide results that significantly close the achievement gap with middle-class districts.

Montgomery County, MD is one. Union City and West New York, NJ, also are in this elite group.

In seeking the common features of these districts, four emerge:

  • Their goal is to prepare all students to be able to handle the academic work at four-year universities;

  • They emphasize an early start to provide kids from poor families with a high-quality preschool experience aimed at increasing their vocabularies, general knowledge, familiarity with stories and ease with books and print;

  • They connect preschool to intensive early literacy in the K-3 grades, with at least 90 minutes of uninterrupted instruction, small-group instruction, classroom libraries and lots of writing and stories;

  • They closely monitor the progress of all students with interim assessments, and pounce when students start to struggle, spending more time with them, before or after school if necessary.

Exceptional Newark

In the wholesale dismissal of Newark's public schools, it's easy to lose sight of the number of exceptional institutions that offer lessons in success. Abington Avenue, First Avenue, Ann Street, Harriet Tubman, Branch Brook, Lafayette and Mt. Vernon are consistent and dramatic overachievers.

Among Newark’s dozen charter schools, the Robert Treat Academy and TEAM schools demonstrate even stronger results that demand recognition.

Robert Treat and TEAM confirm that children from poor families need more instructional time to have a chance. Both schools spend about 25 percent more time in classroom instruction with longer and more school days -- including Saturday if necessary.

There is clarity about what is to be learned at what pace, and quick help for students who fall behind. There is no hint that the poverty of their students should be an excuse for poor results. Robert Treat builds on a foundation of high-quality preschool -- about 90 percent of its kindergarteners have attended preschools, most of them operated by the North Ward Center.

Reading is Fundamental

In 2009, only 40 percent of Newark’s third-graders were deemed proficient on the state’s assessment test. Their chances of ever reading on grade level are only one in seven.

It is not acceptable to condemn nine-year old kids this way.

This much no one disagrees with: Kids who cannot read well cannot be educated well. Reading is a practice/skill learned early on, by age nine or ten. Kids who fall behind at that age, rarely catch up.

It's time to focus on early literacy and put the Facebook money to good use, for a change.

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