N.J. enlists nonprofit to turn around low-performing schools

Posted: August 08, 2012

The Christie administration is using foundation funds to further its plan to create regional centers dedicated to turning around New Jersey's lowest-performing schools.

In a letter to school administrators, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said the state had enlisted the nonprofit Council of Chief State School Officers to recruit educators to help staff seven new Regional Assistance Centers.

The national group will provide education support and technical assistance, and will help the state identify successful turnaround efforts elsewhere, according to Cerf's letter.

The council will be paid $1.5 million from a nearly $2 million grant to the state from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which supports education-system change. Cerf is a graduate of the group's education-management academy.

The Broad Foundation and Startup: Education, the fund created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, will provide an additional $490,000 to train staff at the regional centers and research turnaround models, the letter stated.

As part of its waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, the state has created three new school classifications: two for low performers and one for high-performing Reward Schools.

On the low side, the state has identified 75 Priority Schools, whose performance is in the bottom 5 percent among public schools statewide. It also named 183 Focus Schools, which have achievement gaps among groups or low graduation rates. The regional centers will work with those schools.

In February, the state submitted a $7.6 million grant application to the Broad Foundation. It received a portion of that amount.

In its proposal, the state described a possible entity that would be know as an Achievement School District. If placed in that district, a failing school could be put in private management without a right to appeal. The schools would be released from collective bargaining agreements. The proposal acknowledged that such an option would require legislation.

Under the new, and unrelated, Urban Hope Act, schools can be built and run by private companies in three failing public school districts in the state, but the districts - Camden, Newark and Trenton - will decide which projects get the go-ahead.

As described in the grant applications, public school districts would not have that oversight of Achievement School Districts.

The Education Law Center - which represents poor urban districts - obtained and publicly released the state's grant applications and related documents. In a news release, the center complained that there was no evidence that Cerf had submitted his proposals to the Legislature or to the state Board of Education before forwarding them to Broad.

In his July 23 letter to district administrators, Cerf said the state intended to look at educational remediation efforts in place in Tennessee and Louisiana "to see if there are lessons . . . that will help us support continuous improvement in our struggling schools."

A state spokeswoman said that Achievement School Districts were just an option and denied that the state had acted clandestinely.

"There has never been anything secret about our focus on ensuring all students, regardless of personal circumstances, have access to a high-quality education," state education spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said.

Critics have cited the length and poor results of past state takeovers of school districts.

Contact Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, rgiordano@phillynews.com or on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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