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SIG Grants Go to Nine of New Jersey's Lowest-Performing Schools

Winners of School Improvement Grants are expected to make radical changes, at times dismissing their principals and half of the teaching staff.

Nine of New Jersey’s lowest-performing schools will each receive up to $6 million in federal School Improvement Grants. The so-called SIG grants, which are distributed and overseen by the state Department of Education (DOE), are intended to jolt schools into making radical changes.

Under the program, the qualifying schools are required to pick from several strategies, including replacing principals or half of their teaching staffs, or both. And this year, New Jersey is requiring home districts of the winning schools to make wholesale changes to the way schools evaluate teachers and assess students.

But yesterday's news wasn't only about this year's SIG schools. The DOE reported on some of the dozen schools that qualified for the funds last year, reporting tangible progress in several of them and identifying one school that was kicked out of the program for not living up to the agreement.

The Class of 2012

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf ran through the roll call of the nine new SIG facilities: three from Newark, two from Paterson and one each from Camden, Jersey City, East Orange and Lakewood. Thirty-two schools were eligible, and 28 applied.

In addition to changing leadership and staff, schools are required to modify the way they train and evaluate teachers and instruct and assess students.

"We must be willing to take drastic steps to help our most vulnerable students," Cerf said in a statement announcing the awards, "and these new funds and changes at the school level will give these students a real chance to succeed."

And while the program has been controversial as to whether the grants bring much real change, there were some hopeful signs -- and some warnings -- in the first class last year, officials said.

The state announced that ten of the 12 schools were renewed for a second year, praising the gains of several. In data released yesterday, officials said five of the seven high schools in the program had seen double-digit improvements in their passing rates on the state’s exit exam, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA).

While still well below state averages, Newark’s Central High School, for instance, saw its language arts passing rate for juniors jump from 37 percent in 2010 to 69 percent in 2011. Math went from 20 percent to 46 percent.

Henry Snyder High School climbed from 65 percent to 83 percent in language arts and from 30 percent to 52 percent in math. Roselle’s Abraham Clark High School moved up from 62 percent to 80 percent in language arts and from 42 percent to 53 percent in math.

“We saw some HSPA results that were heartening to say the least,” said assistant commissioner Barbara Gantwerk, who oversees the SIG program for the state.

West Caldwell Vocational High School was another with big improvements, she said, adding it's especially noteworthy due to the high percentage of students classified with disabilities. It boosted its passing rate to 80 percent in language arts and 52 percent in math, double the success rate the year before.

"They had a visible focus on improving the opportunities for them, and their results were very promising and exciting," Gantwerk said.

Pulling the Plug

Still, the state also ended the program for two other SIG beneficiaries. One was the Renaissance Academy in Newark, a network of alternative schools that the district itself withdrew, officials said.

The state also cut off funding and support for Trenton Central High School.

"You need commitment on the part of the district and at the school level to bring this kind of change, and they were not able to do that," Gantwerk said.

The school has been in turmoil for several years, getting it on the eligible list in the first place. But it went through another abrupt change in principal last year that impeded any further progress, she said.

And with those successes and failures, the state has adjusted the program this year to start requiring district-wide policy changes as well.

As a condition of receiving the new grants, the local school boards will need to agree to systemic changes in how they evaluate teachers -- including with the use of student test scores. They also must have specific drop-out intervention plans in place. They will have until October 15 to come up with the specifics of their district-wide plans.

The additional requirements haven’t scared off Paterson’s participation in the program. It has two schools on the list, Schools No. 4 and No. 10. The first already replaced its principal last year, and No. 10 will be getting a new principal summer and will be replacing half of its teachers.

"We are replacing from the principal on down, 50 percent of the staff,” said Terry Corallo, the district’s communications director.

She said district and school officials have begun technical assistance sessions with the state and recognized the money will not come without pressure.

“They were very clear with us about that, and we completely understand," Corallo said. "They need to see progress, and while a school may have the best intentions, they aren’t just going to throw money at it."

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