Education Department to Set Up Seven ‘Regional Achievement Centers’

John Mooney | October 27, 2011 | Education
Satellite offices will concentrate on bottom 5 percent of public schools

The Christie administration’s reorganization of the state education department is moving out into the field, with plans to create seven “regional achievement centers” that will serve as satellite bureaus.

Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf announced the configuration at the convention of New Jersey school boards and administrator associations yesterday, saying the new centers would help provide needed on-the-ground help to districts.

“They will be headed by, I hope, some of the best educators in the country, and they will be responsible for a very specific degree of improvement in things like graduation rates, reducing dropouts, or increasing third-grade literacy,” he said.

The focus will be on the 100 to 150 lowest-performing schools, the bottom 5 percent that has increasingly become the focus of reform efforts not just in New Jersey but nationwide.

“And they will do so in a much more intensive, organized and coherent way, with data specific to each school, each district,” Cerf said.

The process will likely take a year, he said, commenting that the new offices should not require much additional funding, since they would largely employ staff now working mostly out of Trenton.

Other details were still to be determined, including where the bureaus would be located. The hiring process for new directors is expected to start in the next few weeks.

The new offices will be the first widespread shakeup of the state’s county operations in close to a decade, since a department reorganization under one of Cerf’s predecessors divided the offices into north, south and central regions. That configuration soon broke down under budget constraints and other concerns.

Still, the latest moves do raise questions as to the role of the 21 county offices, each once led by a governor-appointed executive county superintendent. Those rolls were decimated last year, when half were not renewed by Gov. Chris Christie, and the others doubled up on their duties.

The superintendent positions were created by legislation and will remain at least in title, but Cerf said different people may be filling those slots when the current superintendents’ terms expire. Either way, they will come under the new regional centers, largely serving in a regulatory and compliance role.

“The functions of the county offices, now independent, will report up to the regional centers,” Cerf explained afterward. “The budget reviews, the compliance and regulatory functions will not exist in isolation but will exist as part of a larger structure whose central mission is achievement.”

Still, Cerf stressed that beyond standard oversight of budgets and the like, the state needs to back away from higher-performing districts.

“One of the great regrets I have is we don’t differentiate between school districts,” he said during his talk. “There are districts where the best thing we could do is leave them alone.”

That comment drew the longest applause of his hour-long speech.