Newark’s Deeply Troubled Barringer High Awarded Federal SIG Grant

John Mooney | July 25, 2011 | Education
A multimillion dollar School Improvement Grant will go to extending the school year and deploying new systems for teacher training and tracking student achievement

Newark’s Barringer High School, arguably the most troubled high school in New Jersey, is about to get some federal help.

The high school that became notorious last year for fights in the hallways and chaotic scheduling in the classrooms is one of three Newark schools slated to receive multimillion dollar School Improvement Grants from the Obama administration.

For Barringer, the money will go to overhauling staff and leadership, extending the school year by as much as 20 days — possibly including Saturday classes — and putting in place new training and student achievement data systems, according to a copy of the school’s application obtained by NJ Spotlight.

State and local officials have yet to announce the awards. But the news of the grants has already touched off some cautious optimism in Newark for a school that has gone through a tumultuous few years. In 2010, only a quarter of its juniors passed the state’s math test; a third, the language arts exam.

Last fall was particularly bad, with a new principal quitting in the first month, student schedules not set until November and frequent reports of fighting inside and outside the school. The interim principal who eventually took over, Shonda Davis, is expected to be retained.

Union Negotiations

The Newark Teachers Union (NTU) last week agreed to a negotiation session to begin working on the “memorandum of understanding” that would allow for the extra days and other provisions in all three SIG schools.

“We’re sitting down with them about it on Wednesday,” said Joseph DelGrosso, president of the union, last night.

Del Grosso said he did not expect many complications, since the NTU and the district have already worked out a similar deal with the six schools that received SIG grants last year. That had its glitches, he said, with the teachers volunteering to work the extra hours but not seeing the extra pay applied to their pensions. This year, it will be mandatory for teachers in the SIG schools but will also apply to their pensions.

“With it being mandatory, that should work better,” DelGrosso said.

But another piece of the SIG proposal calls for incentive pay for educators showing strong achievement gains, and removal of those who do not show improvement. According to DelGrosso, that could be trickier to negotiate.

The proposal does not go into great detail, only saying that such a system will be determined in the first quarter of the year and fully implemented by year’s end. It includes several provisions for beefing up data collection on test scores and other achievement measures to help drive both instruction and personnel decisions.

Similar to Christie Plan

The idea is in keeping with the Christie administration’s broader statewide plans to revamp how teachers are evaluated and tenured. But that remains a proposal, with the first pilot running in up to nine districts this year.

DelGrosso said such sweeping changes would likely need to be negotiated as part of the district’s main contract, and not in a separate memorandum. “That’s something we still need to talk about with them,” he said.

Others said there are a number of pieces to the proposal that need to be fleshed out.

Wilhemina Holder, a longtime parent leader in the district, said she has been pressing for more accountability in both Barringer and Shabazz High School, a SIG winner last year. She said both schools continue to see far too few children graduate. Part of the reason, she said, is the lack of tracking students early on to determine where they are falling short.

“How many juniors did not pass the state test?” she said. “How many are shy credits? Were they made to attend summer school?” she continued. “Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask to really change the culture.”

She said the grants are helpful in drawing resources and attention to a school, and she praised the work underway at Central High School, which was awarded a SIG grant last year. She was also pleased to see an extensive section in the Barringer proposal for engaging parents and the community, as well as addressing peer mediation and other tactics for lessening the tensions in the school that led to frequent fights last year.

“They can work if there is real monitoring, but the monitoring piece is killing them over there,” Holder said of Newark schools. “That’s what happens with too many of these plans, they all look good on paper but it’s in the implementation.”