Friday, December 14, 2018

A value-added approach to school consolidation

In Path to Progress NJ, the New Jersey Economic and Fiscal Policy Workgroup proposed school consolidation as a means “to improve the quality of education and promote efficiency” by merging all limited grade school districts into K-12 regional districts.  But what if we could add considerable value by thinking about this as more than just regionalizing administrative services?

Due to a generation of population shifts and outmigration, many of our public schools have physical space that could be used to deliver a variety of the State’s resources to improve the lives of students and their families. Why would our schools be the right place for such consolidation?

First, New Jersey’s public schools are an essential focal point of the communities in which they serve.  They do more than educate children: they are places of refuge; dispensers of health care; promoters of wellness; and providers of basic family needs.  Why not enhance the schools’ role in providing this assistance?

Second, parents entrust the care and education of their children to the talented professionals in our schools every day.  These relationships make parents feel welcomed and secure in addressing some of their family’s most essential needs. Why not build upon that trust?

Third, over ninety percent of threats to school safety and security come from known persons, either disaffected students or young adults.  The major tools we have to address this problem are not screening devices or drill planning: they are mental and behavioral health services, both on the prevention and treatment side.  What better place to detect and address problems early on than in our schools?

The issue is that educators (and by extension the Department of Education) are not necessarily best equipped to deliver this assistance.  Fortunately, New Jersey has a strong network of governmental agencies that provide social services such as the Departments of Health, Children and Families, Human Services, and Community Affairs.  Schools can serve as useful sites for their divisions and offices to deliver critical services to students and their families.

Places where this has happened successfully for over a century are known as “community schools”. The national Coalition for Community Schools defines such a place as “a public school - the hub of its neighborhood, uniting families, educators and community partners to provide all students with top-quality academics, enrichment, health and social services, and opportunities to succeed in school and in life.”

Senate Bill 2981 and Assembly Bill 4078 seek to establish a five-year community schools pilot program.  This bill deserves strong consideration if we want to maximize the use of our schools in providing our youth what they truly need for future success.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A sustainable path to school funding equity


Yesterday, Senate President Sweeney announced a bill (reportedly negotiated with Assembly Speaker Coughlin) that seeks to address school funding inequities that have existed in New Jersey for decades by bringing all school districts to 100% of their state aid over the next seven years (see media coverage below):

Announcement of School Funding Reform Bill

The bill's main elements are:
  1. The immediate removal of state aid growth caps (enrollment caps removed in 2019-20);
  2. A seven year phase out of adjustment aid and several other non-SFRA aid categories; 
  3. A tax cap waiver for former Abbott districts up to their local fair share;
  4. Authorization for an employee payroll tax per separate legislative bill; and
  5. Aid to county vocational school districts not lower than the 2017-18 amount.
This is a monumental step in a long battle: a sustainable path to school funding equity.  Reportedly, a key point in the legislative negotiations was the extension of the adjustment aid phase out from five to seven years.  For severely underaided districts, any delay in full equity prolongs a painful situation.  Seven years is more than sufficient time for districts to right size their budgets to their current enrollment needs and/or raise local taxes up to the local fair share.

Passage of this bill is expected next week, and the ball will be in Governor Murphy's court.  In his initial response to the proposed legislation, he said, "we can't solve this overnight."  Seven years is far from overnight.  A sustainable path to school funding equity is long overdue and needs this action now to continue the journey to a stronger, fairer New Jersey.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What defines a high performing school district

What defines a "high performing school district"?  Thoughtful observers realize it is impossible to capture complex processes like education only through simple snapshots such as standardized test scores.  However, the public rightfully insists upon accountability through some type of criteria-based assessment equitable to all schools and communities.

The State of New Jersey assesses its school districts using a process called the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC).  QSAC consists of five areas for review: Instruction & Program, Fiscal Management, Personnel, Governance, and Operations.  In order to be considered high performing, a school district must achieve at least 80% in each review area.

The Newton Public Schools were recently assessed by the NJ Department of Education using QSAC and passed in all five areas.  Notably, the area of Instruction & Program has shown the greatest improvement.  A major reason is that the metric used in QSAC has changed from a heavy emphasis on test score performance to a more balanced perspective that includes academic growth, curricular alignment, and other relevant performance data (i.e., graduation rate, chronic absenteeism).

And yet, the change in assessment metrics has just cast a brighter light on the real instructional improvements that have been happening in the Newton Public Schools.  Since 2013, the Board of Education has adopted annual district goals to promote more student-centered instruction, particularly through blended learning.  We have developed a vision for instructional practice and engaged in ongoing, job-embedded professional development to build skills and knowledge in current best practices. 

Our students have responded with increasing levels of academic performance and growth through a classroom environment that encourages hands-on learning, critical thinking, real-world problem solving, and data-driven interventions.

Passing QSAC is a real accomplishment, as our staff has done great work to increase student-centered learning and provide instructional supports to enhance student growth in literacy.  Our work this year (and moving forward) in mathematics should lead to comparable gains keeping us on a strong trajectory of academic improvement.  

What defines a "high performing school district"?   A consistent record of success as demonstrated by multiple measures.  In so many ways, the Newton Public Schools continue to live our mission to "educate the whole child".  Congratulations to our students, parents, staff, and community!


Monday, February 19, 2018

School safety and security is our top priority

Dear Newton Community,

It has taken some time to process the horrific events that occurred last week at Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Whether it is a concert in Las Vegas, a church in Charleston, a nightclub in Orlando, a movie theater in Aurora, or one of dozens of schools throughout our great country, we continue to be reminded that we can never stop being vigilant in protecting our fellow citizens, especially our children. The safety and security of our schools and children remain a top priority for me and our staff members!

In the Newton Public Schools, we believe our safety and security is heightened by living our core values. Our mission states, in part:

We believe in the value of care. Therefore, we put trust, respect, and support at the heart of our school culture, and safety, security, and sustainability at the center of our physical environment.

What is clear to us is how important our school culture is to a safe, secure physical environment. We practice these values every day in all aspects of our school program. We encourage our students and staff to report any suspicious or unusual behavior, whether observed in person or online. We take all threats seriously and act accordingly.


We may contact you with concerns about your child. Please don’t be alarmed or defensive: we want to err on the side of caution, and work together to prevent a situation from escalating and having regrets afterward.

Our mission also states:

We believe parents, teachers, support staff, and citizens must partner in order to help children achieve their highest potential. Therefore, we organize ourselves as community schools to ensure we allocate sufficient resources to the social, emotional, and physical well-being of our students as well as to their academic achievement.


To our parents, grandparents, and other significant adults in the community: you can help us by becoming aware of signs and symptoms of violence as published by the American Psychological Association in its guide to Warning Signs of Youth Violence at http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/warning-signs.aspx.

Anyone can report concerns to me directly by phone at 973-383-7392 or by email at kgreene@newtonnj.org.

Concerns can also be reported to the Newton Police by phone at 973-383-2525 or online at http://newtonpolice.org/crime-tips/. To report any crime in progress, please call 9-1-1 immediately!

Sincerely,

Dr. G. Kennedy Greene, Superintendent