PATERSON, NJ – With sweeping statements about improving the lives of Paterson students, Gov. Chris Christie visited the Silk City on Wednesday to outline an education initiative modeled on the nationally-acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone.
“The Harlem Children’s Zone is a great idea,’’ said Christie, referring to the New York program that takes a holistic approach to education. He called the program "a miracle we’d like to replicate here in New Jersey for the children of Paterson.’’
Christie said once the "Promise Communities" initiative gets going in Paterson, it would then be brought to other struggling school districts around New Jersey.
A press conference at the Spruce Street offices of the New Jersey Community Development Corporation (NJCDC) – the nonprofit agency that Christie said is running the pilot program for the initiative – yielded few details on exactly what would happen in Paterson.
The governor said the program would be underway in the fall and would use an unspecified amount of state grant money. Christie also said community groups, charter schools and the public school district all would be involved, but didn’t explain what roles they would play. The bulk of the funding, he said, would come from sources that “already exist.’’
When PatersonPress.com asked how many children would be in the program, the governor responded, “We don’t know yet, but we’ll see. I hope too many children and too many organizations will want to be involved.’’
“I’m not going to stand here and overpromise and under-deliver,’’ the governor added. “We don’t expect perfection, we expect improvement.’’
There’s little question the city’s schools need improvement. The high school graduation rate is less than 50 percent and the majority of students score below proficiency levels on standardized tests. When asked how Paterson’s public schools were doing, the governor said, “Not as well as they should be.”
Earlier this month, to comply with a State Supreme Court ruling, Christie allocated an additional $27 million to Paterson schools. But education advocates say the increase did not compensate for the $81 million that the Christie administration had cut from the city school budget last year, a reduction that triggered layoffs of almost 400 teachers and left the district without enough staff mmbers to meet special education mandates.
Christie first unveiled his Harlem Children’s Zone plan for Paterson back in January in an announcement that caught local officials off-guard. Many of them first heard about it through phone calls from the press.
When asked what progress had been made on the plan since January, Christie deferred to Rochelle Hendricks, New Jersey Secretary of High Education and head of the Promise Communities advisory panel. Hendricks said the program has “been in transition” since January and would now begin looking for funding sources.
Officials said the Harlem Children’s zone would receive a minimal amount of funding for its help in launching the initiative, but primarily would serve in an advisory role. Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children Zone’s founder, said he saw hope for the Silk City while driving through town to the press conference.
“Paterson looks so much better than Harlem looked when I began there,’’ Canada said. “When we first said we wanted to revitalize Harlem, people laughed at us. Fifteen years ago, nobody wanted to be there. Folks had given up on the community.’’
Canada said it was important that a community group like NJCDC was spearheading the effort, instead of outsiders like himself or the governor. “This is folks from Paterson saying, ‘We’d like to figure out how to save our community,’’’ said Canada.
Paterson’s state-appointed schools superintendent, Donnie Evans, said he has visited the Harlem Children’s Zone program and was impressed. In many ways, Evans said, the state initiative will be an extension of the Full Service Community School program launched in Paterson last year.
When asked if the Promise Communities initiative would be incorporated into the regular school curriculum, Evans said it was too early to tell. “We’re going to work together to give it shape,’’ he said.
Some Paterson education officials and advocate took exception to not being included in the governor’s planning process for the program. Schools Commissioner Jonathan Hodges questioned the legitimacy of what’s supposed to be a community-based program if it doesn’t get input from local elected school officials.
Also, the Paterson Education Organizing Committee was upset that city parents were not consulted. “We don’t like the politicians and people up top making decisions about our children with asking for ideas from the parents,’’ said Fernando Martinez, organizer of the advocacy group, which assembled about 50 parents and children in a protest across the street from the NJCDC offices.
During his press conference, Christie dismissed such criticisms.
“Here’s what I learned about New Jersey,’’ the governor said. “Somebody’s always complaining about something. I can’t be concerned about everybody who might complain about something. I don’t clear every state initiative with every community that going to be affected.''