New Lighthouse District Initiative Shines Light on Top Schools

Rollout of initial recipients spotlights small districts that are very smart about how they use data to tune curriculum, teacher advancement

As New Jersey has monitored its public schools over the years, the attention — and often the debate — have always been on sanctions and interventions imposed on districts and schools that fail to perform.

It’s seen in the scores of schools being labeled “priority” or “in need of improvement” under a range of monitoring systems in recent years, as well whole districts taken over by the state decades ago.

Less in the spotlight has been to how New Jersey calls out its highest-performing districts and schools, and the latest effort is proving no exception.

Last week, the Christie administration announced its new “Lighthouse District” initiative to praise schools and districts that have exhibited a combination of best practices and improved performances.

It was a celebratory affair at the State Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, with educators from seven districts called up receive the inaugural distinction, complete with speeches and photographs.

For example, there was Cape May City schools, with their focus on using data from a range of assessments to drive instruction. Mine Hill Schools were applauded for their close alignment between administrators and teachers in fine-tuning their curricula and teaching practices.

The other cited districts were Beverly City, Black Horse Pike, Highlands, Mainland Regional, and Washington Township in Warren County.

The use of data was a common theme; the administration said as much in its explanation of how the districts were chosen:

“The Lighthouse Districts have demonstrated student academic progress as a result of setting high academic standards, using assessment data to identify each and every student’s needs, and working tirelessly to provide the necessary educational supports.”

State Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington said there was a heavy dose of collaboration and coordination among administration, staff, and community, as well. “We have districts who are doing incredible things, and we need to keep recognizing that,” Harrington said in announcing the list.

Yet even rewarding districts comes with its perils, and New Jersey has seen plenty of discussion regarding how it calls out its highest performers. The state has had various award programs, including “star” and “blue ribbon” schools of the past. The last iteration of “Reward Schools” even came with $50,000 in federal money to be spent on programs for its lowest-income students.

Some State Board members had questions about the criteria, with one pointing out they were virtually all relatively small school districts.

“Several of them were very, very small,” said board member Joseph Ricca, a former New Jersey school superintendent. “The largest may have been Mainland, which is just about or a little over 1,000 students.”

Ricca said they also didn’t appear to have high percentages of high-needs students, including English language learners. “It’s wonderful that you are doing this, but I’m wondering if there will be more of an identified criteria that school districts can work towards,” he said.

Harrington said all these issue were taken into consideration in choosing the first group, but acknowledged that going forward there would be more defined standards. “We were looking in this inaugural group for districts that were really looking to coach and grow their staffs,” she said.

Board president Arcelio Aponte suggested maybe a tiered system differentiated by district enrollments, and asked the administration to come back with its own proposals for widening the pool.

“They are quite different animals,” he said of small and large districts.

“There are certainly different challenges being faced,” Aponte said. “Maybe we call this the inaugural small Lighthouse Districts.”