New Jersey’s urban initiative

New Jersey’s urban initiative – revitalization of urban schools

Saul Cooperman

New Jersey’s Urban Initiative

One of the most complex challenges facing American education today is the effort to revitalize our urban schools. Among the problems generally associated with this challenge are low test scores, high rates of absenteeism, violence, classroom disruption and high dropout rates. Yet individual urban schools and school districts across the country have achieved remarkable successes in cities like Houston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and New York.

In March 1984, Governor Thomas H. Kean introduced New Jersey’s urban initiative. With it, New Jersey became the first state to plan a comprehensive, collaborative, statewide approach to addressing the problems of inner city schools. Moreover, because of its research design, New Jersey educators will be able to track and analyze all its components, and to share the results with interested educators nationwide.

New Jersey is a natural laboratory for a statewide urban school program because of its high concentration of urban population:

Of New Jersey’s nearly 600 operating school districts, less than 10 percent, only 56, are defined as urban districts. Yet they contain nearly 40 percent of the state’s school children.

Many of those 400,000 urban students attend schools with the highest concentrations of the emotionally handicapped, the socially and economically disadvantaged, and the linguistically deficient.

New Jersey’s new, rigorous basic skills test–one of the state’s high school graduation requirements –could increase the dropout rate in urban districts.

From its earliest discussions, the Urban Education Advisory Committee –the department’s only standing committee–concluded that urban students face an interwoven set of social, economic, and educational problems. Low-level standards, classroom disruption and high absenteeism were not the only causes of poor performance in many urban schools. Drugs on the street, lack of effective role models, and poor diet were also parts of the problem.

These latter factors are beyond the direct control of educators. As a result, the state Department of Education concluded that only a widespread commitment–from its staff, local board members and superintendents; principals, teachers, and students; parents, community, and business leaders–would allow schools to address the problems within their control, those within the building.

A successful urban initiative will require just such a commitment. The collaborative nature of that commitment is essential. Urban school problems are local ones, and no solution imposed from above could possibly solve them. As a result, New Jersey’s urban initiative emphasizes the plain hard work that must come from the people in our urban districts–with support from our Department of Education –if they are to solve their school problems.

Department staff translated this thinking into a program which would apply the effective schools research in a statewide, comprehensive effort to confront the state’s urban school problems. Through that program, the department is offering a plan geared toward achieving specific objectives and is also offering some limited resources. But if it is to work, the people in the districts will have to tailor that plan to their needs–and then make it work.

Two components: broad-based and concentrated

New Jersey’s urban initiative has two components–a broad-based assistance program for all the state’s urban districts and a concentrated program, called Operation School Renewal, focused on three initial target districts.

The broad-based program will assist urban districts by providing programs and planning help in nine critical issues, which include:

Improving reading, math, and writing skills;

Increasing the vocational education pupil employment rate;

Improving special education options for secondary students;

Helping compensatory and bilingual students to graduate, and dropouts to get diplomas and jobs;

Reducing the incidence of disruptive behavior and substance abuse;

Increasing the appropriate use of computers.

Any of the state’s 56 urban districts can participate in these areas. Some may choose to participate in several; others may want to participate in a limited way or not at all.

In Operation School Renewal, the concentrated program, three initial target districts will each enter into a three-year, individualized project aimed at improving school performance. This program will begin with three districts, in order to assure staff and resources adequate to do the job well.

The initial target districts are being selected, with the help of a state level advisory committee, from urban districts that volunteer. To qualify, the department is asking these districts to make a commitment to the project by signing a written contract. Target districts must agree to:

Participate for at least three years;

Guarantee high district priority for the initiative and the support of the district superintendent and participating principals;

Enforce a written code of conduct or disciplinary code;

Assure access to schools, students and teachers, as well as to school and student records; and

Permit documentation and distribution of results.

Operation School Renewal objectives

Operation School Renewal sets objectives for the initial target districts in five areas that the Department of Education’s Urban Education Advisory Council identified as “symptomatic of urban district problems.’ They are:

Improving attendance to the state average;

Raising math, reading, and writing scores to state standards;

Increasing the effectiveness of participating principals;

Reducing disruptive behavior; and

Reducing youth unemployment through vocational education.

The department designed these objectives so that they would be measurable and obtainable: Measurable, because it is essential to track district progress and determine what is working and what is not; obtainable, because it is essential to start succeeding. The effective schools literature demonstrates the truth of the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like success.’ For years, many of our urban schools have experienced a cycle of failure and poor performance that resulted in feelings of frustration and apathy. Through this initiative, they can begin a cycle of success.

To that end, the department is committing a School Renewal Team, which will provide human and financial resources to support school improvement activities. Members of the team will include the department’s assistant commissioner for the Division of Educational Programs; a project manager; five division heads and other department staff; university experts, business and industry advisors; consultants as needed; and one professional from each of the target districts.

The School Renewal Team will help each of the three target districts design an individualized three-year educational plan geared to meeting its needs and build upon efforts already under way. Those plans will be designed to achieve the five objectives listed above. The School Renewal Team will also help the districts follow through the those plans. Its time and experience are the core of the commitment the department will make to Operation School Renewal.

The department is now developing a range of programs to offer to target districts. These include: a variety of proven programs for decreasing absenteeism; instructional models that have increased test scores elsewhere; leadership study sessions for participating principals; strategies for dealing with disruptive student behavior; and job placement counseling procedures for vocational education students.

The Department of Education will also make a limited financial commitment for programs related to computer instruction, improved attendance, and effective alternative programs for disruptive youth. Like many of the successful experiences discussed in the effective schools research, New Jersey’s urban initiative is basically oriented toward programs, not finances. However, in some programs money is essential. For example, no one can teach computer literacy without computers.

Research design

One of the most significant components of the state’s urban initiative is its research design, by which the department will track and analyze how well the three target districts’ renewal plans work. Developed with the assistance of a special consultant on the School Renewal Team, this design will allow department staff to learn from both the successes and failures of Operation School Renewal. That body of research will then become available to districts throughout New Jersey.

The department will also apply its results in a second round of Operation School Renewal, with new target districts, as soon as staff and resources permit.

But New Jersey’s urban initiative also has the potential to help schools across the country. It is the first state-level urban school program with a research component aimed at documenting a substantial body of results. New Jersey will therefore make that body of research available to all educators interested in exploring the application of such programs and their relative effectiveness under a variety of circumstances.

More than 20 years ago, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare John Gardner observed that students will not achieve the very best of which they are capable unless educators set high standards for them. Since that time, educators have also learned how important it is to provide the programs and school environment that encourage students to strive for their best.

New Jersey’s urban initiative was designed to help students in just this way. By building on what we know about effective programs and by studying their results, we can strengthen our understanding of how urban schools–or, for that matter, any school–can succeed anywhere.

COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group