BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Superintendent Russell Lazovick put together a comprehensive report on programs in the district, and presented a finding that students performing higher in the younger grades continue on that trajectory throughout their schooling, while underperforming students tend to stay on that track.
One of the aspects investigated in the report, Lazovick said, is that of how students react to the programs as compared to their grade level peers.
“We want to highlight that three of the groups vastly outperform others, those who are accelerated in the subjects,” he said.
But the issue, Lazovick said, is with students who are not outperforming, but are staying on the track as prescribed by curriculum.
For example, in math, some who are hitting algebra classes in ninth grade, when the class is expected to be taught, are not meeting standards, while those who are hitting that class in eighth or seventh grades are continuing to succeed at a higher rate.
“Our general standards lay out a general track, and these people are getting to the class exactly when our standards say they should, but they are not performing the way they should be,” he said. “This is about students not reacting to the program in the same way as their grade leave peers.”
Board member Jeffrey Brookner said he thinks this data represents a problem about when students are ready for certain standards.
“This data is interesting, and I think it’s certainly relevant and something to think about,” he said. “But I don’t think there is any basis to conclude that the kids in algebra are underperforming compared to their abilities.”
Lazovick said that for students who are not necessarily in advanced placement classes, at least for math, algebra is the benchmark and standard.
“Given that we have strong students, these are lower performing students next to their peers,” he said. “Our job is to make sure everyone is able to meet expectations.”
“Our kids do exceptionally well based on where they fall, but we are finding some kids are not quite making it, and we have to make sure our programs are good,” he added. “We have to look at if the program is built to serve all the students, and we are seeing from the data that different groups perform differently in different programs.”
Lazovick said they have to look at performance across all content areas, starting with third grade.
“We have to look at that and do something about it to ensure that every student has the opportunity based on the curriculum we offer,” he said. “There is data that tells us different programs impact students differently.”
Brookner said he believes they are taking too big a leap regarding the success rate of the students.
“We can try to do better and we certainly should, but to conclude that we are doing a disservice to the students because of students who are doing better is doing a disservice to all,” he said.
Lazovick said that he would not accept that 35 percent of students are not meeting the standards of eighth grade math.
Brookner emphasized that although the district needs to do all it can to ensure that all students succeed, it is not necessarily a total failure on the part of the schools if there are some students who do not exceed expectations.
In addition to this, Lazovick said the comprehensive report looks at the existing budget and the drivers of it for now and the future.
“Staff is the number one investment any school district will make, so salaries and benefits support the No. 1 piece for our students,” he said. “Everywhere I go, this is the No. 1 single issue districts are trying to work on because the rate the benefits costs are increasing makes it difficult to deal with everything else going on.”
“With benefits increasing dramatically more than any other area of the budget, we have to start doing something because it impacts everything we are trying to do,” he added.
The areas of focus, Lazovick said, include before and after care, preschool, general academic programs, the gifted and talented program, athletics and special education.
With regard to before and after care, Lazovick said , this year the district collapsed the program at Hillside Intermediate to create an in-house program, which could raise revenue once expanded across the district.
As for preschool, the district and state at large are looking into universal preschool.
“But growing that will take resources in the sense of facility use, as well as staffing and budgetary support,” he said. “There is the opportunity for contraction in special education in preschool because we offer more than the lowest common denominator requires, but we are looking to continue at more than the bare minimum.”
In terms of the district’s academic programs, Lazovick said, the No. 1 finding is that students who are high performing in Bridgewater-Raritan do incredibly well as compared to high performing students across the county and state.
“But we found that as you move down levels in performance, students showed decreasing levels of growth, especially in comparison to other high performing students,” he said. “We have an incredible staff, but not all students are being impacted or benefited.”
Lazovick said students seemed to be tracked by their own performance beginning in first grade and leveling out in third grade. Once they are in a specific track, he said, they never move from that track throughout their entire school careers.
“We have to look at the gaps between tracks that continue to grow,” he said. “The highest performing students are growing at a higher rate than others, so the gap between them and the lower performing students continues to grow.”
“The question isn’t about the general academic program, but it is about servicing our students and the program isn’t,” he added. “How do we make sure students who are achieving well continue to get support, and those who aren’t get the support they need?”
As for the gifted and talented program, Lazovick said the district certainly has some of the most driven and self-directed students, but some of the programs are not having the impact they could as they are following the curriculum.
“I think in some ways we need to free our teachers,” he said. “One goal for everyone is to do what we can to help each student, not have one way to teach all our students.”
For special education, the current costs are $23.2 million, benefits are $6.2 million and out-of-district tuition is $5.2 million.
“These are significant fees, but we should be proud of doing it, and we should always do better,” he said.
Athletics and activities have always been a significant investment, Lazovick said, and there has been continued discussion about the costs and revenues generated.
“We should be providing every opportunity for students to follow their passions,” he said. “Programs are vital to all of our students and lessons can be taught in ways that almost cannot happen in general education classes. The GPA of students in at least one sport are higher than non-athletes.”
Making a significant investment in safety, Lazovick said, will require an increase in staff, training, support and programs.
“There is lots of investment to bring them to where they need to be, especially at Bridgewater-Raritan High School because of the campus,” he said. “We have systems to oversee communications, but an immense amount of training needs to be done for teachers, staff and the central office.”
Finally, for technology, the current ratio of devices is 2:1, and if they were to move to 1:1 for fifth through 12th grades, the technology permanent allocation would have to increase by $300,000.
“If we increase the permanent allocation over a four-year cycle, we could refresh everything,” he said. “We have been staying ahead, infrastructure-wise.”
Lazovick said the program report is about looking at where to put the resources to best support the district.
“We can’t ignore problems and avoid challenges,” he said. “I don’t think the program report raised issues or offered solutions, but we don’t want to waste valuable resources.”
The board is expected to continue to review the report and discuss at a future meeting, after which it will be made available on the website.