School Board Members Raise Variety of Questions About Proposed Restructuring Plan

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Space at School 28 might be leased to charter school under restructuring plan
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PATERSON, NJ – Why is the school district’s proposed “Newcomers” program focused only on Spanish-speaking students? Why would charter schools be allowed to operate in public schools buildings? How far will students have to walk to get to newly assigned schools? What will district officials do with teachers deemed too ineffective to remain in classrooms?

Those were some of the questions raised Tuesday night as the Board of Education held a workshop meeting for its first public discussion of the proposed “10-point restructuring plan” for Paterson Public Schools.  The Board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its May 2 meeting and must submit it to the New Jersey Department of Education by May 4.

The plan offers a sweeping and ambitious blueprint for reforming the city’s troubled education system, one that has remained substandard even after the state took control two decades ago promising to make things better.

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Under the proposal, seven of Paterson’s worst-performing schools would be reconfigured so that some would become middle schools and others would have classes for lower grades. Magnet schools for gifted and talented students, for the performing arts and for international studies would be created. The district would expand its pre-kindergarten program, emphasis literacy for children in the early grades and stop promoting students who have not reached grade level requirements.  The number of staff members at the district’s central offices would be reduced and new evaluation systems would be used to assess the work of teachers and administrators.

Despite the proposal’s magnitude, less than 15 members of the public attended Tuesday night’s meeting and just three of them spoke about the plan, including two representatives of the teachers’ union and one parent. The district has scheduled a community forum on the restructuring plan for Monday night at 6:30 pm at Kennedy High School.

The plan was crafted through a series of meetings by a committee composed of local and state school officials as well as several education advocates. Former school board member and current Passaic County freeholder Theodore Best was hired as a consultant to help draft the plan.

Paterson Schools Commissioner Jonathan Hodges stands as the prime critical of the proposal. At Tuesday’s meeting, Hodges said he supports many of the individual aspects of the plan, but criticized the role provided for charter schools. Hodges also indicated he believed the state eventually would use aspects of the plan as part of what he says is the Christie administration’s strategy of taking over individual schools in urban districts.

“If you vote to accept this plan, you will be voting to give away your schools and you will never get them back,’’ Hodges told his colleagues.

But Commissioner Christopher Irving compared Hodges’ warning to the apocalyptic message in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, saying his colleague was too focused on “doom and gloom.’’ While sharing Hodges’ concerns about the role of charter schools in the proposal, Irving said he thought the bulk of the idea represented welcome change for the failing school district.

“We owe our children a different model,’’ Irving said.

Although they asked questions about various components of the restructuring, none of the other board members made statements about their opinions of the plan as a whole. Officials said it’s not clear what would happen if the board voted down the plan because the system of state control relegates the school board to advisory status. State-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans and the New Jersey education department likely have the power to implement the plan without the board’s support, officials said.

During the public comment period at the meeting, teacher Charles Ferrer criticized the process used in crafting the plan because the committee did not include parents or teachers. Ferrer asserted that for the plan to be successful it needed “all stakeholders” involved right from the beginning. He also shared Hodges’ concerns about the state’s intentions. “They put his plan in place so our children could continually fail,’’ Ferrer said.

Margaret Padilla, a parent, asked official to provide city students with stability by not forcing them to change schools. Several thousand students could end up in different buildings as a result of the proposal. “For me, moving the students causes the problem,’’ Padilla said.

“The whole plan drives me crazy,’’ said Peter Tirri, president of the Paterson Education Association, the union that represents city teachers. In particular, Tirri said the plan unfairly places the blame for the failings of the Paterson school system on staff.

“That’s not true,’’ Tirri said. “The reason we have failed is that we are a state-operated school district. The state has failed and they don’t know what to do.’’

During the board’s discussion of the plan, Commissioner Errol Kerr pointed out that the origins of the plan stemmed for the school board’s efforts to regain local control from the state and he said that issue seemed to have gotten lost in the planning process. Kerr asked Evans to find out from Trenton what impact the board’s adoption of the plan would have on its efforts to get local control.

Kerr and Hodges were among the board members who questioned why the proposal’s creation of a “Newcomers” program for children who don’t know English was limited to Spanish-speaking students.

Evans said the district already provides services for children of all languages who don’t speak English. The “Newcomers” program, he said, was geared toward the addressing “critical mass” and that  Spanish speakers represent the district largest group of  non-English speakers.

Hodges asked if the district were “discarding other students.’’

“Absolutely not,’’ responded Irving. “But if you begin a program and pilot it, you begin with the largest population.’’

“We’re not trying to leave anybody out,’’ chimed in Commissioner Wendy Guzman. “The majority of the population is Latino.’’

The restructuring plan calls for “partnering with charters” and the possibility of leasing space at School 28 to a charter school run by the New Jersey Community Development Corporation. That provision has been among the criticized aspects of the plan, especially because some city schools are overcrowded and School 28 is one of the district’s newer buildings. In fact, Irving said he hoped the board would be able to vote down that proposal while adopting the rest of the plan.

School Board President Willa Mae Taylor said she was concerned about what the district would do with teachers pulled from classrooms because they were deemed ineffective under the new evaluation system. She said she hoped Paterson would not duplicate New York City’s infamous “rubber room” where educators accused of wrongdoing spend time doing little productive work while remaining on the payroll.

But Evans has said Paterson teachers pulled from classroom would undergo retraining geared toward getting them back on the job.

Finally, board member Kenneth Simmons pointed out during Tuesday’s discussion that some current School 21 students who would be reassigned to School 6 under the plan would have very long distances to walk. Evans acknowledged that potential problem and said staff members were working on the issue.

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