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School Improvement Program Needs What Money Can't Buy -- Time

Rescuing NJ's worst schools could take almost $100 million and several years to see real results.

The latest effort to save New Jersey's very lowest-performing schools faces any number of challenges, from the quality of teachers and leadership to the high-risk communities outside the building.

Add one more obstacle that may prove even more daunting: time, or the lack of it.

State Department of Education officials yesterday gave the State Board of Education an update on School Improvement Grants (SIG), a federally funded program that is providing close to $100 million in grants to leverage what officials call "transformational" changes at New Jersey's worst public schools.

These changes include replacing principals and a majority of teachers and imposing longer school days and years.

The Bottom 5 Percent

Twenty-one schools have been approved for SIG grants, including Newark, Camden, Jersey City, Paterson, Lakewood and Roselle. All were in the bottom 5 percent in overall achievement, with as many as half the students not proficient in math and language arts.

Officials said there have been some encouraging signs out of the first 12 schools receiving the grants, but there have also been overwhelming obstacles and at least one outright failure.

And with another nine schools added this fall, officials said it will probably take a few more years to really tell if this cure will hold in even the most successful models.

Other experts have put success on an even longer trajectory.

The state's acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, acknowledged that patience may be in short supply. He has upped the volume, too, requiring that with the latest SIG grants districts revamp their teacher evaluation and student testing for all their schools, not just those getting the money.

The program is "a genuine experiment to see whether this amount of investment, focus and attention can turn around what have been labeled dropout factories," Cerf said at yesterday's board meeting. "We're nervous, but I'd say we're hopeful."

Then he raised the stakes: "If this doesn't work you have conclude that the turnaround strategy is destined to failure and you have to think about a replacement strategy [and] closure. There are a lot of chips on the table."

National Attention

Whether closing schools outright is any more effective in helping students is debatable among experts and educators, but the comments reflected the attention and focus that the SIG program has generated, not only in New Jersey but in other states.

The program has been a signature one for President Obama and his administration, using federal money and the bully pulpit to transform schools.

New Jersey's experience so far looked familiar to that of other states, said John Jennings, director of the Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

Jennings said he has seen similar national pushes over the past two decades, including through the No Child Left Behind Act. But the SIG program is different, with considerably more money invested and attention paid to high schools that previously got short shrift.

Still, he said none of the models offered in the program -- including closure -- has proven effective without one key factor.

Time Is of the Essence

"To be honest, we probably won't know the results for several years, once, of course all the money runs out," he said. "But if we are going to be serious about this, we are going to have to stick with it for a long period of time."

New Jersey's assistant commissioner Barbara Gantwerk yesterday described for the state board a number of positive signs so far among the 12 schools that received the first grants last year, on average totaling $6 million per school over three years.

They included smarter professional development for teachers and increased focus and time on instruction for students. One school in Jersey City added four weeks to the school year, with others lengthening the day or holding Saturday classes.

Student achievement also took a jump in some cases, including a significant improvement in Central High School in Newark and Jersey City's Snyder High School.

"To the eye, we can see that they are going in the right direction," Gantwerk said, standing before a bar chart showing mostly gains in both language arts and math scores at six high schools.

Still, she tried to temper expectations so early in the process.

"The assumption is it takes at least three years before you see dramatic changes," Gantwerk said at another point. "We have seen some early and encouraging results, but I don't think we'll know yet the full outcome for students."

But even with limited results, not all were even encouraging. In what one state board member called the "tale of two Central High Schools," Trenton's Central High School did not fare as well as its namesake in Newark and was dropped entirely from the program.

Gantwerk said the school failed to meet the requirements of the grant, including new leadership, training and instructional time.

"It takes leadership and commitment to be able to do these things," Gantwerk said. "These are difficult issues. In Trenton, they were not able to implement the components required."

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