15 Years Ago In Newark…

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on Dec. 16th, 1996, State Senator Gordon MacInnes (D-Morris County) participated in a committee meeting of the Joint Committee on Public Schools. The NJ Education Commissioner, Dr. Leo Klagholz, and Dr. Beverly Hall, Newark Superintendent, presented Newark School District’s strategic plan for improvement. From the transcript:

Senator MacInnes: The words that you used to describe your objectives are the words that were used by many of your predecessors, who were operating a failed district. Talking about in warm terms the success of every student and the capacity of kids to achieve and everything else, this has been a part of our educational rhetoric for many years. We’ve had dozens of silver bullets that have come along that– We’ve had talking typewriters back in the 60s that were supposed to solve all these problems for kids. We’ve had huge investments in educational technology. Educational TV, remember that one? We’ve bet on all sorts of nostrums, and yet when the record is put together over the last 30 years of this national attention, the performance of large numbers of poor kids in city schools has not reflected these efforts. The silver bullets haven’t worked.

So I’d like to just know, in a paragraph, what you think you should do to set the conditions so that kids will, in fact, learn better, not that we’ll say the right things about what our intentions are, because I assume, all of our intentions are honorable and constructive, but we’ve been hearing 30 years of intentions. And when you get down to the how you would describe what you want to see happen and how you’re going to ensure that it happens in classrooms in Newark, New Jersey, what is it that you would say to parents, teachers, principals, and members of the Legislature is your vision for how this is going to happen?

DR. HALL: In a nutshell, I think we know there are no silver bullets, but the research is very clear on what makes for an effective school, what makes for an effective school district. As we examine that clearly, building leadership is critical to any school reform efforts.

SENATOR MacINNES: Principals.

DR. HALL: Principals. If you do not have in the building someone with the capacity to do all the other things — some of which you referred to as silver bullets — to see that those things are all functioning properly, and have the right focus, it doesn’t matter what you put in there, whether it’s technology, educational television, or new books. So clear is the capacity of the principal to work with staff and to make sure that all efforts are geared toward improvement of student performance is critical.

I also think that you have to provide training for all levels of staff, whether it be the principals and vice-principals, as well as for the teachers, because, unless you deliver instruction differently, the results will continue to be the same. And again, we know enough about what we should be doing in terms of teaching techniques, whether it is for the early childhood youngster or the middle school youngster or the secondary youngster. But we have to provide the training, and we have to be serious about it. Training can’t be a one-shot workshop or a two-day workshop.

SENATOR MacINNES: Well, just tell me what it is that a teacher has to do? What is it that you have to teach a teacher to do?

DR. HALL: Well, the teacher has to know, for example, how to teach to higher-level thinking skills, how to teach algebra. We know that algebra is the gatekeeper of course for youngsters. In other words, youngsters who take algebra in eighth grade have a better chance of going to college and being successful.

SENATOR MacINNES: What percentage of Newark kids take algebra in the eighth grade?

DR. HALL: Last year we had three teachers trained to teach algebra I. This year we have thirty teachers, because we had a summer institute with Montclair to prepare them, and we’re continuing that process. So eventually all eighth-graders in Newark will have algebra I. That’s a very concrete example.

SENATOR MacINNES: And what’s your base-line year? What percentage of eighth-graders took algebra I last year?

DR. HALL: About 4 percent took it last year.

SENATOR MacINNES: Four percent. What percentage of ninth-graders took algebra I last year?

DR. HALL: About 50 percent.

SENATOR MacINNES: Fifty. Okay. Good. I think that’s a terrific answer. As I said, I don’t know if it can be done, but I think in terms of identifying principals as the key– Because you do have some good schools in Newark, and when you go to find out why, they turn out they have good principals who care a lot, set high standards, don’t take any excuses, because that’s what we’ve been doing for 30 years is– (applause)

SENATOR EWING: Please. Please.

SENATOR MacINNES: –tattooing excuses for professional educators on the head of poor kids in cities. We’ve been saying culturally disadvantaged, educationally deficient, at risk — another term that we should get out of our vocabulary — because it all says kids can’t learn if they’re poor, black, or Latino and live in cities. It’s a crime. It’s beyond tragedy.

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