Tensions Rise Over Paterson’s Plans for Schools

John Mooney | May 21, 2012 | Education
Lack of local control rekindles debate as state makes new proposals to turn ailing schools around

Another state-operated school district, another broiling debate over the Christie administration’s reform plans.

This time, it was in Paterson where deep divisions have surfaced over the administration’s mix of proposals, from changes in educational practices to the closing and reconfiguring of a half-dozen schools.

The Paterson advisory board on Thursday narrowly approved the package put forward by state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans.

But similar to Newark’s ongoing reorganization that has touched off fiery community meetings, more than 50 people opposed to the plans in Paterson gathered this weekend to begin strategizing how they would stage their fight.

“These are our children, and we intend to fight for them and resist what they are trying to do,” said Jonathan Hodges, a longtime member of the advisory board who voted against the proposals.

The Saturday morning meeting held at Paterson’s International High School lacked the rancor of the Newark meetings, but Hodges and others said they would make it up with persistence and urged attendees to take their concerns to local, state and even federal officials.

Also attending were leaders of the Paterson Education Association, the teachers union; and the Paterson Education Fund, an advocacy group.

The Paterson plans are not as sweeping as in Newark, where new superintendent Cami Anderson has sought to close or reconfigure more than a dozen schools, including shared space with charter schools.

In Paterson, Evans’ plans call more for closing and reopening as many as eight schools in different grade configurations, as well as educational changes. One is ending of “social promotion,” the practice of moving students to the next grade, even when they may not have reached achievement benchmarks.

Not all the proposals were criticized on Saturday, with some in the audience saying the district needed to raise its own expectations for both students and teachers.

But the tone was more about the ongoing tension of the state making these decisions, a tension that has festered ever since the state’s takeover 20 years ago.

A centerpiece of the administration’s plans throughout the state is the creation of seven new “regional achievement centers” that will serve as the hub of turnaround efforts for schools with low student achievement overall or wide gaps in achievement levels.

These RACs will provide assistance and support in the districts, some more collegial than others, depending on the needs. Evaluations of the schools are underway this spring, and state officials stress that remedies will be developed with the districts.

But other moves are less bending, such as one provision that states principals of low performing schools who have been there more than two years will likely be replaced.

The RACs are yet to be staffed, but the state has released an outline to how they would be spread across the state, each covering between five and 72 different schools. One center will cover both Bergen and Passaic counties, including Paterson, and work with 45 schools overall.

They will include both instructional experts, but also specialists in data, “culture and climate,” and “human capital.”

“So the state will pay to have a third party come in and improve our culture and climate,” said Rosie Grant of the Paterson Education Fund.

“These are the people who will decide how to turn around our schools,” she said. “You can forget about local control.”