PATERSON, NJ - After Superintendent Donnie W. Evans gave a 40-minute presentation on his strategy for improving city schools, the response he received from the audience could not have been better. Each of the speakers praised Evans' plan and promised support.
There was only one problem. The auditorium at John F. Kennedy High School was virtually empty, with about 20 people in attendance.
"This auditorium should be full,'' Evans said. "This is a clear example of the problems we have in parent and community engagement.''
The people who did show up, mostly parents, shared his disappointment in the turnout. "It's so sad,'' said VeronicaRamos, whose child attends Kennedy. "We need to show we're interested in their education. If we're not interested, they're not interested.''
The presentation, which was given on October 28, was the second in Evans' series of six public forums, an attempt to inform city residents of the superintendent's sweeping plans for dramatic changes in the struggling school district.
Here are some of the highlights of Evans' proposals:
*creating more magnet schools.
*examining whether the district should group its schools by grades k-5, 6-8 and 9-12, instead of the current k-8 and 9-12 structure.
*providing more options for gifted students, such as additional advanced placement courses and expanded honors programs.
*having a longer school day.
*extending the school calendar by at least seven or eight days.
*imposing more stringent standards for graduation.
*creating a virtual classroom through Rutgers University that would allow students not offered in the district.
*interventions for students whose scores are below state proficiency levels.
*restructuring special education and English as second language programs.
*requiring extra parent conferences.
"I'm thrilled that you're talking about these things,'' said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit group whose mission is to improve city schools. "The Education Fund will do whatever we can to make this happen.''
But Sterling warned Evans he would face opposition. "Everytime we've tried to make big changes, there's a been a tremendous political firestorm,'' she said.
Evans said he was ready: "The unfortunate reality is I spend much of my time dealing with resistance.''
But the superintendent says he saw reason for hope: "Perhaps the stars are finally aligned for Paterson that we can move forward.''
The push for changes comes at a difficult time for the school district, which has 24,000 children in 52 schools. Before the start of this year, more than 400 teachers were laid off because of budget cuts. As a result, some elementary schools are without art or music instructors and in some cases students are not getting state-required core classes. The handful of parents who attended the community forum at Kennedy were optimistic about Evans' proposals.
"I believe in the school system and at last I can see some light at the end of the tunnel,'' said Leslie McCallum, secretary for Kennedy's home-school council.
"I've been waiting for this since forever,'' said Patti Mascetti, another Kennedy parent, regarding Evans' plans for restructuring the district.
Hannah Secka, who has two children at the New Roberto Clemente School, pledged her support to Evans. But she admitted feeling some skepticism.
"I hope it works,'' she said. "What's next?"
Evans has four more community forums scheduled. They are:
*Ward 3: Nov. 1, 5:30 – 7 pm at , Rosa L. Parks School of Fine & Performing Arts, 413 12th Avenue.
*Ward 4: Nov. 8, 5:30 – 7 pm at School 6, 137 Carroll Street.
*Ward 5: Nov. 16, 5:30 – 7 pm at Eastside High School, 150 Park Avenue.
*Ward 6: Nov. 15, 5:30– 7 pm at School 25, 287 Trenton Ave., Paterson.