Part One: “Abbott District” Goals and How Trenton Fares

Due to the fact that the entirety of the report and its resolutions are fairly long and in depth, I’m choosing to retrieve and analyze aspects of the study I found were the most important and the most telling of performance, focusing on higher learning. While I believe early education is just as important, the focus of this project cannot have too much breadth, and right now I am currently invested in what older students are experiencing in school. The factors I’m choosing to look into, then, in this case, are class size, curriculum, access to technology, alternative education and dropout prevention, teacher qualifications, the budget, student outcomes, and school facility construction.

Class Size

Research suggests that smaller classrooms are beneficial to both students and teachers as it can help teachers spend less time on behavior management and more time on instruction that is more attune to students’ needs. In recognition of this, Abbott schools have class size standards:

                        Kindergarten through Grade 3   3:21

                        Grades 4 through 5   5:23

                        Grades 6 through 12   12:24

At the time of the Education Law Center’s study, average Trenton class sizes were slightly larger than the Abbott standard in Grades 5, 10, and 12. However, this could be explained by enrollment increase of 24 percent between 1994-95 and 2002-03.

Curriculum

In 1996, New Jersey was among the first states to adopt curriculum standards, entitled the Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS). The CCCS describe what students should know and be able to do in nine content areas at each grade level from Kindergarten to Grade 12. The content areas are: career education and consumer, family, and life skills; comprehen­sive health and physical education; language arts literacy; mathematics; science; social studies; technology; visual and performing arts; and world languages. The CCCS defines them necessary for a “thorough and efficient education,” to which all New Jersey residents are entitled under the State Constitution (Hirsch).

In 2003–04, the district released a Five-Year Curriculum Management Plan outlin­ing guidelines for future K-12 curriculum planning, development and review activities. According to the plan, three teams of people would participate in the curriculum develop­ment process. Vertical management teams (made up of teachers from all grade levels) would provide input on the content to be included in the curriculum for each subject area. Curriculum writing teams would use a district-approved template to write the cur­riculum for each content area or course. As of fall 2004, Trenton also began a district­-wide implementation of math curricula that had been selected after a meeting involving teaching staff from throughout the district. TERC, developed by researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, engages students in activities and encourages them to develop problem-solving strategies and work cooperatively. Students write, draw, and talk about math; and use manipulatives, calculators, and computers. The curricu­lum is built around mathematical problems that help students understand concepts and skills in numbers, geometry, measurement, algebra, probability, and statistics.

The state-regulated curriculum seems to be an effective idea, and its guidelines will hopefully ensure that all students in New Jersey receive relatively the same level of education. While this idea is certainly not completely realized yet, Part Two will examine how Trenton is doing more recently in terms of testing and other indicators.

Another important aspect within the curriculum is how schools are preparing students for college. Nationwide, high school students of color are under-represented in college admissions, according to this study. One reason might be a lack of opportunity to learn challenging material in high school. Trenton Central High School, however, offers an honors program that includes advanced placement (AP) classes. These courses are offered as blocks within the high school’s small learning communities and are also weighted 1.1 when calculating GPA. Advanced placement courses offered at Trenton Central High School include: Biology, Calculus AB, Chemistry, Lit­erature and Composition, Physics, and United States History. Honors classes include: Algebra I and II, Biology and Life Science, Chemistry, Current Issues, Earth and Space Science, French I and II, Geometry, Litera­ture I–IV, Physics, Spanish I–IV, Trigonom­etry, and US History I and II. While the number of classes is lower than the “I” district (a district identified in New Jersey as one of extreme wealth), which offers 26, inclusing AP Computer Science, the inclusion of these courses is a step in the right direction. What is of interest, however, is the level of depth and breadth the courses integrate, which revolves around the quality of teachers within the district as well as the resources provided.

Access to Technology

Abbott districts are required to have at least one media specialist and one technology co­ordinator who makes sure that students master the technology needed to reach the state’s Core Curriculum Content Standards, that class­rooms and libraries have adequate equip­ment, and that the technology is effectively used to support both teaching and learning. There should be no more than five students to each com­puter in each school throughout the district. The study found that in Trenton, there were 12.4 students to each computer in 1997–98 and 4.1 students to each computer in 2002–03, a significant drop, settling the district within Abbott standards. It is important that students have access to computers and a moderate, if not in depth, understanding of their potential. What is of note, however, is how these statistics actually pan out – there is no explanation digging into inconsistencies that may be present. For example, if one school in the district as more computers than another, the results will clearly be swayed. It would be interesting to find out the student to computer ratio for each school in the district in order to truly recognize the access students have to the technology that should be afforded them.

Alternative Education and Dropout Prevention

Abbott districts are also required to identify and provide services to students at risk of failing and dropping out as soon as possible. At a minimum, the districts should provide alternative programs for young people in middle and high school, and be adequately staffed with dropout prevention specialists.

The Daylight/Twilight High School serves Trenton students ages 16 and older that have dropped out of school or are over age for their grade, as well as adults who did not finish high school. The school has four sites: the original Bellevue Avenue location and three other satellites throughout the city, and the program, modeled after University City High School in Philadelphia, offers courses in all of the core content areas as well as elective credits in com­munity service, work-study, and life experi­ence. There are three school shifts throughout the day to accommodate students who work and/or take care of children, and each school ses­sion is 10 weeks long so that students can begin at almost any time throughout the year.

A significant feature of this program is its support system. Students experiencing problems of any kind can meet with an administrator as soon as possi­ble. By the end of the school day, each student meets with his or her lead teachers and ap­propriate subject area teachers in a discussion intended to eliminate issues and concerns. If needed, parents or caregivers are invited for a third session with administrators, teachers, and the student. The district believes this support process is at the heart of the Daylight/Twilight program’s success in retaining students in school and improving their academic social, as well as emotional, progress.

Teacher Qualifications

The Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) outlines several measures that schools and districts must take to ensure quality pub­lic education to all students. One provision requires certain teachers to be “highly qualified” in each subject they teach. The requirements of being highly qualified under federal law vary depending on when the teacher is hired and what type of school he or she teaches in. In general, a teacher must hold a four-year college degree, be fully certified, and show a level of knowl­edge in his or her subject matter by passing a state test.

All districts must submit a “highly quali­fied teacher” report, and many districts, including Trenton, had difficulty compiling the infor­mation to fulfill this reporting re­quirement. In Trenton, the district attempted to collect the needed information from the schools, which were to survey teachers and transmit updated information to the district office. Because of uneven compliance with this request, district staff com­piled the needed information from human resource files which may have lacked up-to-date information, and the Trenton report review team believes that this occurred as a result of intra-district communication problems. Reviewers concluded, however, it should be viewed despite potential problems because of its impor­tance as “a proxy for teaching quality” (Hirsch).

Regarding Trenton, the city had the lowest percentage of highly qualified teachers among the district groups the Education Law Center examined. Three out of four (76%) Trenton elementary school teachers were highly qualified in at least one subject and slightly more than half (53%) were highly qualified in all of the core subjects they taught. While this data is certainly poor, the fact that the level of communication hindered the results of the data analysis is a large reflection of possible error.

Budget

Besides the characteristics of programs and teacher assessment, the money to pay for effective schooling is just as important as an adequate budget is, in itself, another essential element regarding schooling.

Public education is provided by local governments, and education costs are higher in school districts that maintain high concentrations of low-income households. In New Jersey, public educa­tion is supported in large part by local taxes; therefore, when property tax revenues decline, cities have less money to pay for education. Abbott districts receive two kinds of state aid in addition to the funding that is available to other school districts in New Jersey. The first type, Abbott Parity Aid, ensures Abbott districts have as much money per student to support a general education as the most suc­cessful suburban districts in the state. Abbott districts also must apply to the state to receive a second type of state aid, which is called Addi­tional Abbott Aid. Along with other state and federal funding, Additional Abbott Aid sup­ports programs and services such as intensive early literacy, full-day Kindergarten, on-site school clinics, as well as nutrition and after-school programs.

General education fund­ing and supplemental programs funding are examined separately below.

General education funding. As a result of property wealth differences and the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund public schools, there is a large funding gap between New Jersey’s urban and suburban school districts. By 1989, New Jersey’s low-income communities had $1,500 less per stu­dent in general education funding. While the State Constitution granted the right to a “thorough and efficient” education, in real­ity students in low-income, urban districts did not receive the same educational resources as those attending suburban schools.

In 1996, the state legislature enacted the Comprehensive Educational Improve­ment and Financing Act of 1996 (CEIFA) to restructure the state’s school finance system. CEIFA provided several forms of state aid that are still distributed to school districts to this day. Core Curriculum Standards Aid (CCSA) was intended to make up the difference be­tween what school districts could afford and what the state—at the time—considered to be an adequate level of school funding to support a thorough and efficient education. Some districts also receive Supplemental CCSA to ease their local tax burdens. A third type of funding that comes from CEIFA, Stabilization Aid, goes to districts that might otherwise lose too much CCSA from year to year because of enrollment changes.

In a groundbreaking Abbott decision, the NJ Supreme Court found the school funding solution under CEIFA to be unconsti­tutional. The justices said the cost of edu­cation in the poorest urban districts should be determined by what successful districts spend and identified the wealthiest suburban districts as the standard. Since 1997–98, Abbott Parity Aid makes up the difference be­tween what these urban districts could afford (plus CCSA) and what the wealthiest districts spent on average.

For Trenton in 2003-04, fourteen percent of the district’s general education revenue came from local taxes, and the city drew the largest portion (62%) from Core Curricu­lum Standards Aid while eighteen percent of the money that the Trenton Public Schools had to spend came from the state in the form of Abbott Parity Aid.

Supplemental program funding. There are three sources of money to support supplemental programs in Abbott districts: one comes from the fed­eral government and two from the state. The federal funding is called Title I and provides funding for schools serving children from low-income families. The money is intended to improve educational quality and give extra help to struggling students. The sec­ond supplemental programs funding source, Demonstrably Effective Program Aid (DEPA), has been provided by the state since CEIFA. DEPA is targeted to school districts serving poor children and calculated on a per student basis. Both Abbott and non-Abbott districts may receive Title I and DEPA funds.

Only Abbott districts receive Additional Abbott Aid, the third source of supplemen­tal program funding. Each Abbott district must apply to the state for Additional Abbott Aid and justify its request with evidence of student need. The New Jersey Department of Education reviews district requests and issues its decisions. The state may fully fund, deny portions, or fund programs at lower levels than requested by the districts. School dis­tricts may appeal the state’s decision in court, and it is of note that this process has been a source of conflict between the Abbott districts and the New Jersey Department of Education since it began in 1999.

In 2003–04, Trenton had a total of $2,424 per student to support its supplemental programs and had more supplemen­tal program aid per student than other Abbott districts ($1,949), receiving a larger portion of its supplemental program aid from Additional Abbott Aid. Since the new funding plan, which is discussed in Part Two, the provision for supplemental program funding has been abolished.

Student Outcomes

Attendance. Students who feel safe at school and are engaged in their academic work tend to go to school more often. Of course, students also miss school for other reasons, such as poor health or family problems. In general, I feel, and the ELC explained, that student attendance is an impor­tant indicator that school is a positive expe­rience for children and youth. It is presented in the study as a leading indicator, for students can only benefit from opportunities to learn if they are attending school regularly.

Trenton high school attendance varied from year to year, at its lowest attendance was 81 percent, with students attending on an average day, and at its highest the following year, was 87 per­cent. The high school attendance rate remained at about 92 percent across the state on average. While attendance is important, it genuinely is difficult to make sure kids attend class; part of it has to be motivation; when students feel motivated, are engaged, and are conscientious of what life entails after school, it plays a factor. Students are always going to be driven by need and want: need for a good education for the future, and want of socializing and those ubiquitous “mental health” days everyone’s taken at least once in their school career.

Well-Being. Children and youth who are physically, social­ly, and emotionally healthy are also better able to learn at school. The purpose of many of Abbott’s supplemen­tal programs is to improve the well-being of children and youth in New Jersey’s cities. School staff either provides di­rect services to children and their families or aid them toward needed services already provided within the community. Service provision and linkage are essential parts of the jobs of health and social services coordinators, par­ent-community coordinators, family liaisons, social workers, and guidance counselors. As a central public institution within the urban community, schools play a vital role in ensuring students’ well-being. Schools are not alone in this responsibility either, for the roles of parents, officials, and public and private agencies in the city are just as important.

Measures of child and youth well-being are not part of the information typically collected or reported by school districts. This informa­tion is usually generated by various state and local agencies charged with the health and welfare of children. The studies deemed as citywide in­dicators of child and youth well-being for Trenton and the State of New Jersey are teen birth, child abuse, and neglect rates.

On these critical measures, according to the study, Trenton com­pares poorly with the state. Births to teens between the ages of 10 and 14 dropped from 3.7 to 2.5 per thousand girls in this age range. In 1998, about 119 out of a thousand teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth; this rate dropped to about 92 per thousand in 2002. Although Trenton’s teen birth rates dropped in both age groups, the 2002 rates were much higher than they were throughout the state on average. Similarly, Trenton’s child abuse rate dropped from about 10 per thousand in 1998 to about nine per thousand in 2002. Even so, Trenton’s child abuse rate was double the state rate in 2002.

School Facility Construction

Many of New Jersey’s urban schools are unsafe, over­crowded, and unsuitable for helping students achieve the Core Curriculum Content Standards, and under Abbott, the state is required to address this situation. In 2000, the legislature enacted the Abbott School Facilities Construction Program.                

Key features of the school facilities construc­tion program are:

  • Priority to health and safety repairs;
  • Long range plans developed by districts with community partners;
  • More classrooms to eliminate overcrowding;
  • Space to provide preschool to all eligible three-and four-year-olds;
  • 100 percent state-financed for approved costs; and
  • Schools to accommodate state-of-the-art teaching and learning.

The first step of the Abbott school facilities construction program was to develop a dis­trict-wide Long-Range Facilities Plan (LRFP). The New Jersey Department of Education issued guidelines in September 1998 to help school districts develop them. Trenton, reportedly, “did a great job in preparing a thoughtful, comprehensive planning docu­ment” (Hirsch). The district contracted with architects, Clark Caton Hintz, and engineers, Don Todd Associates, to help them develop their LRFP. Trenton Public Schools took the initiative to begin planning well before the state issued its guidelines in 1998.

Each Abbott district was also required by the New Jersey Department of Education to assemble a facilities advisory board (FAB) to guide the development of the LRFP. The FAB was to include parents, teachers, principals, community representatives, an architect, an engineer, and a staff person from the New Jersey Department of Educa­tion. The FAB’s role is to review and refine recommendations made by an educational facilities expert and architect as well as recommend the plan for adoption by the school board. The Education Law Center recommended that FABs continue to meet until plans are fully implemented in an effort to seek input and guide the dis­trict-wide planning, design, and construction of school facilities.

Trenton’s FAB is one of a few in the Abbott districts that continues to meet and function. Members include the Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, City Council members, school principals, the district facilities manager, parents, clergy members, citizens, contractors (includ­ing small businesses and minority-owned businesses), and representatives from the city, the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation, the New Jersey Department of Education, and the state-appointed project management firm, Hill International. The FAB meets monthly to present information to the public about proposed new schools and listen to stakeholders’ concerns, and reports to the Superintendent of Schools on school facilities construction progress. It has been voiced, however, that the FAB meetings have not been widely publicized and have not been as well attended by the public as they could have been.

Part Two: Recent Performance and Funding Changes

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