Are you a reformer? You may immediately say no due to all of the recent hype in the educational news that decries “reformies” as the bad guys who are certainly causing the absolute destruction of our public education system. But before you answer too quickly, I ask you to consider this definition of reform from Wikipedia: “Reform means the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc…Reform is generally distinguished from revolution. The latter means basic or radical change; whereas reform may be no more than fine tuning, or at most redressing serious wrongs without altering the fundamentals of the system.”
There are some basic things wrong with our public school system here in Perth Amboy. This is evident by considering the dropout rate. We graduate a little less than 73% of our high school students. This means that of the nearly 700 or so who enter 9th grade every year, only around 500 actually complete the requirements for graduation…which means that about 200 kids a year drop out…which means that 200 kids a year are likely to continue the cycle of poverty that is embedded in our community…which means that 200 kids every year are at high risk of teen pregnancy, drug abuse, crime, poverty, and a lower life expectancy. Our low graduation rate has existed for decades; yet until this year, we have not had accurate data that reflects the truth. You can see for yourself by looking at state report cards from past years. Look at the stated graduation rate, and then compare the number of 9th graders to 12thgraders. Districts used to compare the number of grads to the total number of SENIORS each year, instead of comparing to the entire cohort when they first entered high school. We now understand that we must count all of our kids – not just those who make it to their senior year. Later this week, the state will release our official report cards for the 11-12 school year. You will see our schools compared to all others in the state, and for the first time, to “peer groups” in the state. These peer groups are an attempt to show progress among schools that are similar in demographics. This focus on the students is very different than the old “District Factor Groups” that used the relative wealth of municipalities for the comparison. After you look at the report cards, I ask you to ask yourself, “Do we need reform?”
There are some basic things that are very right, and even amazing about our public school system here in Perth Amboy. We have incredibly dedicated professionals who give all they have to our kids every day and are willing to try anything and everything that will lead our students to greater success. We have school leaders who embrace change and work tirelessly to support teachers in improvement of their practice. We have all of the resources we need to create great schools, and excellent fiscal management to ensure that the money follows the instructional needs of the kids. We have community partners who help us keep us our kids safe, and support education in a variety of venues. We have a Board that is focused on the kids, and moving politics out of the way so that reform is possible. Most of all, we have kids and families who are strong and resilient and ready to engage in the greatest education possible. All of the building blocks are in place for true reform.
I say this loudly and proudly. I am a reformer. I hope all of you will be brave enough to say that you are reformers too. Remember…we will have the schools we demand.
What is a good teacher? There has been much written about this topic. We have been working in Perth Amboy to establisha common understanding of what should be happening in every classroom every day,in order to ensure that kids are learning as much as possible. In short, a good teacher helps kidslearn and inspires them to do the things necessary for learning to take place. I became a teacher way back in 1984, whenwe were taught about the structure of lesson plans, how to establish a good educationalobjective, what the classroom should look like, and lots of other ingredients tosolid instruction. Teachers today understandthe same sorts of things. But thanksto a ton of research that has happened since 1984, we now know much more about howthe brain works and what specific strategies will lead to greater learning in kids. In Perth Amboy, we are putting all of thatgreat research to work. We have establishedsome common instructional expectations to help each other become better teachers,so that students will learn more.
A good teacher ensures 100% student engagement in learning. This means that every student in the classroomis fully involved in instructional activities. We don’t expect to see kids with their heads down, or staringout the window. We expect them to bebusy doing things.
A good teacher provides rigorous learning opportunities. We are using the Common Core State Standardsas the framework for learning. Thismeans that in a typical 8th grade classroom, students are working towardthe standards that are included at the 8th grade level (or higher) accordingto the Common Core. Activities shouldrequire kids to evaluate, analyze, and create as often as possible, as describedon Bloom’s Taxonomy. We expect thesame level of rigor in a general education classroom, in-class support classroom,or bilingual classroom.
A good teacher ensures that kids talk to one another aboutwhat they are learning. The days ofa teacher at the front of the room lecturing to students are long gone. We now know that kids learn the most fromother kids. So, we expect to see veryshort periods of direct instruction (no more than 5-10 minutes), followed by smallgroup work when students are working together on learning activities. In Perth Amboy classrooms, you will heara wonderful, continual “hum” of learning, almost everywhere!
A good teacher knows her kids are learning by providing meaningfulassessments. She understands that testsand quizzes should allow students to demonstrate mastery, and allows them to retakethem to continue demonstrating progress. Report card grades reflect true mastery, and not an overabundance of “soft”indicators.
A good teacher participates enthusiastically in professionallearning communities, focusing on the improvement of learning. He participates in instructional rounds,provides feedback to peers, and examines student work to understand what kidsare learning. He fully implementsthe programs and initiatives that have been selected for his students. Some examples this year include the ProgressiveScience Initiative, Progressive Math Initiative, and Reading Horizons.
And of course, a good teacher comes to work on time every dayprepared for the day.
This year we are on track for 100% completion of teacher evaluations,which has not happened for a long time in Perth Amboy. We are working together to ensure that evaluationsare meaningful; helping struggling teachers become good teachers, good teachersbecome great teachers, and great teachers to take on leadership roles withintheir schools. At a time when thereis so much noise around teacher evaluation, it is critical that we all work togetherto focus on helping teachers help their kids learn as much as possible.
These students are discussing the difference between addition and multiplication to create an original definition for each.
These students are working with their teacher to analyze non-fiction text.
These students are evaluating the capacity of different sizes and materials to hold water.
These students are evaluating the strength of responses to physics problems by their peers.
In active classrooms, where students are truly engaged, the students are doing most of the work. At the end of the day, they are usually a little more tired than their teachers because their brains have had a workout. Our Quantum Learning professional development has provided teachers with many strategies to increase engagement through changing state and adding multi-sensory approaches to learning. Our Progressive Math Initiative and Progressive Science Initiative provide tools for new types of engagement through technology. If you would like more professional development in these areas, please talk to your building administrator, a peer who is using these strategies, or drop me an email. I want to be sure that every teacher has lots of opportunities to visit classrooms, talk in professional learning communities,and access a variety of resources to improve engagement in the classroom. Let's work together to make 2013 a year of student engagement!
It has been a great beginning to a spectacular new school year. I am so thankful for all of our wonderful educators and support staff who have been incredibly flexible and helpful in our transition to the four academy campuses of Perth Amboy High School, transition to individualized schedules for middle school students, and implementation of multiple curricular upgrades to increase rigor, while providing extra support for all students.
Last year, we saw a tremendous decrease in the number of students who were suspended from school. We know this didn’t happen by accident. It was the result of thoughtful work by school administrators, who worked collaboratively to ensure that suspension was only used when the student’s presence posed a safety risk, or the student was persistently defiant and resistant to all other disciplinary efforts. I am pleased to report that our suspension rate in the high school dropped from 39% to only 3.4%. The rate for middle schoolers dropped from 12% to only 2.7%. This happened at the same time we cut our incidents of violence and vandalism in half. While we acknowledge there is still much work to be done to ensure that every classroom, every day, is free from disruptive behavior, we know that in the high school (the only school where complete data was available) there was a 40% decline in referrals for disruptive and defiant behavior.
For the new school year, we are making even greater strides in the area of discipline. Our philosophy is that discipline should be swift, severe, and complete. We want actions to be taken as quickly as possible, in a way that gets a student’s attention the first time. We want the consequences to be completed so the student can move on and get back to learning. We want to provide needed counseling and educational supports to the greatest extent possible. Each school is adopting specific procedures to ensure that we follow this philosophy. We are moving toward having all referrals entered by the person who witnessed the behavior, directly onto our student information system. Within the next few weeks, we will completely eliminate paper referral forms in the middle schools, and all high school campuses. The administrator who deals with the student will update the record so that the teacher who made the referral can see the outcome, as appropriate, consistent with right-to-privacy rules. Overall data for each school will be available for analysis by educators, and will be reported to the Board of Education and the public.
Last year, the main campus of Perth Amboy High School was nearly 50% over capacity. While we are still working to get a new building, our kids can’t wait. So, we are happy to report the opening of PAHS South Campus (home of STEM and University Honors Academies) in the old St. Mary’s HS building, which can house up to 500 students. Our buildings and grounds and tech teams worked round the clock this summer to ensure the building would be ready on time. Additionally, our Barracks Street Campus will expand its services to more students, through the development of the Personalized Learning Academy which offers flexible scheduling, internships, and online learning. The Visual and Performing Arts Academy will continue at our East Campus facility. The Academy for Urban Leadership, our local charter school, will continue its planned expansion, with an additional 100 students this year. The academy configuration allows students and families to choose an educational program to best meet the needs of each individual student.
Our teachers deserve the feedback and support necessary to get even better at what they do. To that end, we will be working collaboratively with the Perth Amboy Federation to develop a new development and evaluation system. Meanwhile, we will be accelerating our observation calendar so that teachers get feedback from administrators closer to the beginning of the school year, allowing the greatest amount of support possible. In the past, our rate of completion of teacher observations was far below expectations. Although we improved completion of required observations of non-tenured teachers from 27-55% last year, and tenured staff from 54-82%, that is not nearly good enough. Our rate of completion for teachers who teach a full school year in 12-13 will be 100%. No exceptions, and no excuses.
We made great strides in the area of attendance of instructional staff last year. Together, we decreased teacher absenteeism by 25% and paraprofessional absenteeism by 13%. We are very close to meeting the state’s expectation of 95% attendance and expect to meet that goal in 12-13.
This year, we will be focusing on attendance of high school students in a very deliberate way. We have assigned an administrator to developing and monitoring a system of identifying every absent student, every day. Students and families can expect a personal phone call from a staff member every time a student chooses not to come to school. We have a zero tolerance for absenteeism, and expect all students to attend school every day. Any student who misses a class more than 9 times (“blocked” double periods count as two absences each time) in a semester (half a school year), will fail that class and not receive credit. If the student wishes to challenge that decision, the student will need to present documentation to our Attendance Appeal Board. This policy will be explained to students and families by their principals.
Our instructional work continues this year as we move toward full adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Our instructional focus remains on student engagement in rigorous activities, and increasing the amount of student-to-student discourse in the classrooms. All teachers will be members of professional learning communities, and will be participating in instructional rounds so they can learn from one another. Teachers will continue their work in developing and analyzing student assessments (aligned to the Common Core) to inform instruction, and in sharing their curricula through new, online tools.
The centerpiece to increased rigor, in alignment with the Common Core State Standards, is the implementation of the Progressive Science Initiative and Progressive Math Initiative. All of our 9th graders will take Physics this year, followed by Chemistry and Biology in later years. This is a major shift in course sequencing, and increased rigor at all levels, that will result in all students taking advanced math and science courses, in preparation for enrollment in four year universities.
We have increased our technology capacity within the classrooms, and will have a dedicated technology specialist full-time at every large school, and a shared specialist at smaller schools. We have increased the devices available to students and teachers, including iPads, laptops, SMART Boards, and other tools that are integral to a forward-thinking school district. Thanks to Jim Baio and his amazing team for all they have done, and continue to do to get teachers up and running with learning tools as quickly as possible!
Toward the middle of the school year, we will be launching a new student information system, complete with a parent portal and integrated grading program. We are working toward consistency in how we report student progress by establishing protocols across our elementary schools, and one protocol for the middle schools and the high school.
As we increase rigor, we know it is critical to provide the supports our students need to meet the new learning challenges before them. We are providing instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics for all students, at all levels, who have not yet mastered basic literacy. We are providing a learning center at PAHS from 3:15-7:15 pm every school day so that students can receive tutoring, study with friends, or access online resources. Meals are available for students who attend the learning center, and transportation from the East, South, and Barracks Street campuses is available after school each day.
In addition to the new South Campus, we have several facility projects to brag about! The kitchen at PAHS main campus has been undergoing a major facelift. The “big reveal” will happen very soon. Meanwhile, students will receive FREE box lunches in the dining room. Food service will continue normally at the satellite campuses, and all other schools. We will soon be installing new chillers and hot water heaters at the Patten school, ensuring more efficiency. We have a new roof and HVAC system at Ceres. Students and teachers will notice a leak-free building, better air quality, and quieter classrooms. New windows will be installed at Ceres soon, during non-school hours. Finally, we have a brand new track surface at our beautiful stadium. The old surface was damaged in last year’s hurricane, and we are thrilled to have it replaced! All of these projects were made possible thanks to the leadership of our business administrator Derek Jess, and his team including (but not limited to) the business office, food service (under the leadership of Tim Linden), custodial, buildings and grounds (under the leadership of Mario Cofini), and technology (under the leadership of Jim Baio). We can’t thank them, and all of their amazing team members enough for all they do for our kids!
Our school district is moving forward in a very big way. Thanks to all of our families, staff, and our community for supporting our students as they do all they can to prepare for college and career. It is going to be a spectacular year!
I am writing this entry in a response to the many rumors that are currently swirling around our district. We need to focus on the kids and families we serve, so I believe it might be helpful to put these rumors to rest. Anyone who still has questions is more than welcome to call, email, text, or talk to me face-to-face. I would be delighted to come to your school and have lunch with you or meet with you during your prep, teacher team meetings, or before or after school. You are also welcome to make an appointment to come and meet with me at my office. I want us all to continue to engage in honest dialogue so we can move forward together.
Just in case you were wondering…
1. I graduated from Rowan University – back in the days when it was known as Glassboro State – with a very traditional degree. I majored in special education, earned a B.A. in 1984, and became certified as a teacher of the handicapped in New Jersey. I earned my master’s degree in educational administration from Penn State in 1991. My thesis topic was “Comparing the Educational Impact of State Education Funding in Pennsylvania and South Carolina.” I earned my doctorate from Nova Southeastern University in 1998. My dissertation topic was “Improving Educational Quality in Juvenile Justice Programs through Student Assessment.”
2. Just after earning my master’s degree, I received my first administrative certificate from South Carolina. I have also held teaching and administrative certificates in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Florida, and New York. All of my teaching experience was in public schools as a special education teacher, including Camden City and Burlington County Special Services. Yes, I do have an administrative certificate in New Jersey. Just like everyone else who comes into the state (I was only certified as a teacher in NJ previously), when I returned to my home state, I had to go through the normal process. I got a certificate of eligibility in administration, was hired by a school district and assigned a mentor by the county superintendent. I then received my provisional certificate and had to complete the mentoring program. I have completed my mentoring requirements and will receive my standard certificate at the end of June. Even though I had the same type of certificate in three other states, and had a total of about 18 years of administrative experience, I had to go through this process.
3. No, I have never attended the Broad Institute, so I would not be considered a “Broadie.”
4. Yes, I did work for AMIkids. This amazing organization is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping troubled kids, through partnerships with local school districts, social services agencies, and juvenile justice agencies. I worked for them for 10 years and am very proud of the work I did. My job included oversight of alternative schools (which were actually public schools) in many states and school districts, including the cities of Chicago, New Orleans and Miami – just to name a few. Yes, I would like AMIkids to work with Perth Amboy Public Schools, to assist us in improving our I&RS system, and to support teachers in dealing with children with behavioral issues. This would be a short-term arrangement, and result in an overall increase of capacity among educators, counselors, and support staff in dealing with students with behavioral challenges. No, there is nothing in it for me – other than the satisfaction of helping kids.
5. Yes, I did work for the New York City Department of Education, and my official title was assistant superintendent. New York’s system is very complex, and those of us with the title of assistant superintendent did not report directly to superintendents, so we were given “functional” titles relative to our assignments. I was assigned to a Children First Network (every one of NYC’s over 1500 schools chooses its own support network) to work with 25 schools, serving over 10,000 students. Over half of those schools serve immigrant students exclusively. In that assignment, I was known as an Achievement Manager. My responsibilities were very similar to those of Dr. Vivian Rodriguez, and every other assistant superintendent I have ever known.
6. Yes, my husband and I did own and operate a private school in Florida called Renaissance Academy, that accepts state scholarships (vouchers) for children with special needs and those from low income families. Yes, it is a tax-paying organization – not a non-profit. No, I did not make any money doing it. The reason my husband and I decided to incorporate it as a tax-paying organization was because we used our own money to start the school. We cashed in my pension, took out personal loans, and sold our home to raise the money. We actually lived in a converted conference room over the school because we had to sell our home to make it work. A non-profit organization requires financial control by a board of trustees, and we were not comfortable releasing control of our money to a volunteer group. There are some who are saying that we stole money from Renaissance Academy. I am not sure how that is possible, since we would only have stolen from ourselves. We did eventually partner with another married couple when the school’s survival was in question. That couple now owns and operates the school themselves. The only thing that we still have is the debt, which we continue to repay, and the satisfaction of knowing there are children who have graduated high school and college who may have otherwise not had that opportunity.
7. No, I did not know Christopher Cerf prior to coming to Perth Amboy. We were not even acquaintances. We may have worked in the same building in NYC at one time, but I am not sure. That building housed over 700 employees, so I didn’t know everyone there. The first time I ever had a conversation with Mr. Cerf was in 2012 when I attended a superintendents’ meeting at the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. I think the conversation lasted all of five minutes. A few weeks later, we spoke on a panel together at Princeton University that was a reflection of No Child Left Behind. Cerf spoke as a policy maker, and I as a practitioner who has been an educator throughout NCLB’s history. That’s it. That is the extent of our “relationship.”
8. No, I did not know Joel Rose prior to coming to Perth Amboy. I think I did meet him a couple of times when I was working in NYC, but when I reached out to him last fall, he told me he did not recall our ever meeting. I never worked directly with him, and never saw him outside of the work setting. His work team was creating School-of-One a few years ago and was assigned a work table in a large conference room, next to where my work team was assigned. That was how I learned about School-of-One. I was interested in it since it was so innovative, and went on a tour. I was very intrigued, but did not have any involvement with the program while I worked in NYC, and hadn’t thought much about it since. In October, 2011, Donna Chiera invited me to attend a conference in Boston called “Extended Learning Time.” I was so honored that the AFT was willing to pay for me to attend this conference and excited by the possibility of collaborating with our union president. Joel Rose happened to be presenting in one of the workshops I attended. In the workshop, I learned that Rose had created a new non-profit organization that was looking to bring new transformative innovations to districts around the country. I thought it might be something that would interest our schools since they were really struggling with math achievement. Rose met with Dr. Garcia and other PAPS administrators and then came to Perth Amboy to meet with the faculty and staff at McGinnis Middle School to explore whether both sides felt a partnership would make for a good fit. Following that meeting, the McGinnis teachers successfully convinced the Board of Education to bring this to Perth Amboy. McGinnis is currently in the middle of a pilot after-school program (which Dr Garcia and the program's teachers have said is going extremely well). The program is now known as Teach-to-One Math, and is operated by a non-profit organization called New Classrooms, under the leadership of Joel Rose and Chris Rush. Although Joel Rose worked in the same department as Chris Cerf at one time, Cerf has no affiliation with this program. There is a rumor that other school systems have gotten the program “for free.” This is a highly sophisticated program that depends on a team of skilled professionals. It would not be possible for it to be free. New York City contracted with New Classrooms to manage School of One and will be licensing to New Classrooms the software code associated with School of One, rather than making any cash payments. Chicago is paying for it through a grant it received from the local Chicago business community as well as contributions from local school budgets. Perth Amboy has not had the blessing of an outside grant, but can pay for it through its own funding sources, just as it pays for textbooks and other services. And, despite the insistence of some conspiracy theorists, this program is not designed to steal money from Perth Amboy Public Schools. We are all just hoping that our kids will get a better education by being a part of it.
9. No, my husband doesn’t have a business and is no longer working with students. He began his professional life as a New Jersey State Trooper. He has also been a warehouse manager, an instructor with AMIkids, a disciplinarian in public schools, and the best dean of students I could ever hope for at Renaissance Academy. He worked for free for six years, while I took a minimal salary for my work. If you ask him what he does, he will likely tell you that taking care of me is a full-time job. Drew and I have two children, who are now grown and live on their own. We have had two former students share our home with us over the years, but currently have no kids at home.
10. Drew and I moved to Perth Amboy on New Year’s Day and absolutely love living here. No, we do not own any property in New York City, although we do enjoy visiting.
11. Contrary to rumors, I have NOT put in place a new student retention policy. I believe we need to take a good look at what we are doing when students fail or don’t acquire the skills they need to move to the next grade. What I have instructed principals to do is to work collaboratively with teachers to determine what is in the best interest of each individual child. If everyone agrees that the child should be retained, what will be done differently the following year to ensure success? We can’t just do the same thing again and expect different results. We have been engaging in dialogue about this issue for some time now. As a result, educators are developing new approaches in their schools to help more children find success.
12. The only thing that changed in our discipline policy is the issue of student suspension. In order to suspend a student, there must be a conversation between a building administrator and myself. Sometimes, in very clear-cut cases, the conversation takes place through a simple email or text. Sometimes it is a lengthier phone or in-person dialogue. Other times, we might get the child study team involved. Regardless, it happens very quickly so the school can respond in a timely manner. I believe we have a responsibility to be thoughtful about removing a child’s right to an education. The result of this policy has been a student-centered, instructional approach to discipline that considers the need to keep others safe, while assisting the student with the discipline issue. Although our suspension rate has decreased markedly, we certainly still DO suspend students. And no, school violence has NOT increased. In fact, overall discipline issues have actually decreased. We certainly have a lot to do to improve student behavior, but what we are doing is putting us on the right track. I applaud all of our principals, vice principals, teachers, and counselors for working so hard this year to improve our results with our kids.
13. No, I did NOT know anyone whom I recommended for hire in Perth Amboy. Not one person. Dr. Nestor Collazo was hired by the Board of Education at the same time I was. The first time I met him was when we were both appointed to our positions at a BOE meeting. A Board member recommended that I interview Mr. Alvaro Cores for the principal position at Richardson in July. He went through the same process as everyone else, and was hired because he was the very best candidate for that position. Hands down. The reason that the three of us seem to be aligned is because of the Board. This Board of Education, in 2011, stated continually that they were committed to educational improvement of Perth Amboy Public Schools. They were bold and courageous, and looked for educational leaders who shared their vision and philosophy of education. So if it seems that Nestor, Al, and I share an agenda, we do. It is the agenda established by this Board of Education when we were all hired in 2011.
14. Yes, I am for school choice, but no, I am not working to bring more charter schools to Perth Amboy. There are no current or potential applications that I am aware of to bring any new charter schools here. My job here is to improve our schools and ensure that every child has an opportunity to receive a high quality education. The Academy for Urban Leadership is now completing its second year of operation in our community. It currently serves about 200 students and will increase to 400 students over the next two years. There is a new virtual charter school available for students who have dropped out of school that has the potential to serve some of the students we have already lost. These are OUR kids, so our school district should support and partner with AUL and the Virtual Charter as appropriate, just as it does with our preschool providers, private schools, vocational school, and post-secondary institutions. We routinely share services with ALL of these organizations, and will continue to do so to benefit our children and families.
Thanks to all of you who have maintained your focus on the students and families of Perth Amboy. Hopefully by discussing this information, we can put some rumors to rest.
04:08 Posted: Apr 201