The NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) under Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf is gearing up to intervene in 75 predominately Black and Latino “Priority” Schools, action that could lead to massive school closings within three years. The schools targeted by NJDOE for closure are in very poor neighborhoods across the state and have served these communities for decades.
The NJDOE plan for “aggressive intervention” and potential school closures is the centerpiece of a new “accountability” initiative launched by the Christie Administration after obtaining a U.S. Department of Education waiver from certain provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2011. The waiver allows NJDOE to use test scores and graduation rates to create three new classifications of schools: “Priority,” “Focus” and “Reward.”
Priority Schools are targeted for immediate intervention by the NJDOE, including replacing principals, reassigning teachers and restructuring curriculum. If these schools do not “improve” quickly – or within two years – the NJDOE can order the school closed or converted into a charter school. Focus Schools face similar interventions, but have more time to improve. Reward Schools receive bonus funding, including federal Title 1 funds that can be shifted from other high poverty schools.
In early April, NJDOE released the list of schools in the new classifications. An ELC analysis of the list shows:
- 75 schools are classified as Priority Schools based on low scores on state standardized tests; 97% of the students attending these schools are Black and Latino, 81% are poor, and 7% are English language learners.
- 183 schools are classified as Focus Schools based on low graduation rates or large gaps on state tests; 72% of the students in these schools are black and Hispanic, 63% are poor, and 10% are English language learners.
- 112 schools are classified as Reward Schools based on high achievement or high levels of growth on state tests; 20% of the students in these schools are black and Hispanic, 15% are poor, and 2% are English language learners.
Priority Schools – those potentially targeted for closing – are almost all Black and Latino, very poor, with many students who do not speak English as a first language. The student mobility rate in Priority Schools is a staggering 24%. These schools are located in some of the poorest communities in the state.
Reward Schools – those receiving financial bonuses – are clustered in the highest wealth districts in the state and serve a small percentage of Black and Latino students. These schools also have low poverty rates, few English language learners and little student mobility. Many of the Reward Schools are magnet high schools and vocational schools with highly selective admissions.
“Under the guise of accountability, the State has singled out public schools serving predominately Black and Latino students in poor neighborhoods for disparate treatment in its most extreme form – closing the schools altogether,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “Equally alarming is the State’s decision to financially reward schools in affluent communities with very few at-risk students and students with special needs.”
“NJDOE has constructed a perverse system of school punishment and rewards that will do nothing to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for the most at-risk students in our state,” Mr. Sciarra concluded. “The new system is a throwback to the days when State policies worked to reinforce the intense racial and socio-economic segregation in New Jersey’s public schools.”
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