This New Jersey District Isn’t Even Getting The Bare Essentials To Its Students

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This is the first section of a two-part post. Today I’m looking at Paterson Public Schools and its sluggish response to students’ needs for home instruction during the coronavirus. The second section (up tomorrow or Wednesday) will look at how Paterson is, in some ways, a proxy for other NJ districts’ failures and how some of  its struggles can be traced back to the state Department of Education (not just the Murphy Administration) and even the federal level. Some of this information is based on discussions with current and former staff members of the NJ Department of Education who will remain anonymous. 

“We’re failing the children of Paterson.”

That’s New Jersey State Board of Education vice president Andrew Mulvihill reacting to information during a presentation that only 15% of Paterson high school juniors reach proficiency benchmarks on the state reading test yet 87% graduate because of the state’s porous portfolio process that hands out diplomas like candy on Halloween. 

The dysfunction of Paterson Public Schools District, which enrolls 25,000 mostly low-income students of color, run deep. It has a history of violating students’ IEP’s (in 2017 2,000 special education students were cheated out of almost 20,000 hours of speech therapy), data breaches, illegal recruiting of basketball players and forging transcripts. Just last week the State Ethics Commission recommended that a Board member be removed because he took a free trip paid for by a company looking for a contract with the district. 

And now, in the midst of a pandemic, Paterson is manifesting an utter failure to implement home instruction

None of this should be a surprise, especially if you’ve read the national report that shows that New Jersey is in the “slow lane” for converting to remote instruction. Paterson is one of the worst offenders, even though its been under state control since 1991 and is on the verge of regaining local control. (That’s why district administrators report to the State Board of Education.)

Last week I noted that the district was relying on paper packets for home instruction. This tidbit of information doesn’t capture how poorly students are served. If you go to this link, you can look at districtwide packet for all subjects. Each package is intended to last for two weeks and begins with a “Digital Learning Tracker” where students manually enter what books they read and websites they access and how long they spent on each assignment. (Question: Is Paterson using the word “digital” to refer to digits on one’s hand?)

Let’s look at third-grade reading proficiency, a critical benchmark for future academic success. (According to the state database, at this K-4 Paterson elementary school, which I picked arbitrarily, 3 out of 4 students finish third grade not reading at grade level.) The paper packet for all  third-graders tells students to visit the “Reading Cafe” where students are told, among other things, to “list one cause and effect from your reading and say why it is important” or “pick two characters to compare and contrast.” 

There is no new material. It is all review work. The district is contemplating jettisoning grades and giving students “completes” or “incompletes.” Superintendent  Eileen Shafer concedes that teachers have been told to “offer little new instruction.”

Okay. Let’s say your Paterson third-grader completes his or her assignments for all 10 days and you follow directions to deliver the packet back to a specific school for assessment. How’s that going?

According to North Jersey, right now a conference room is packed full of “hundreds of cardboard storage boxes containing thousands of handwritten assignments done by students at home.” (You can see the room in the picture at the top of this post.) Volunteers sort through the piles — one for each school, broken down by grade — and check off names of students who handed in their packets. Then a “private filing company” will scan each page and send the documents back to the district’s computer system so teachers can grade each assignment.  “Under the emergency arrangement, the price will not be determined until the company and district can gauge the volume of the work.”

There is no firm date for completion. Meanwhile, students are, without feedback or support, supposed to start filling in the next 10-day packet. 

We are parents, and we want our children to get their education,” Maria Robles said as she stood with her son, Damaso Graterauix, a freshman, behind more than 20 other people in the line.Robles said her family doesn’t have a computer at home. “That’s why we’re here,” she said.

Indeed, the lack of home computers is perhaps the greatest barrier to meaningful remote learning, although today Paterson high school students were given chromebooks. WABC reported Friday that the district “is pleading for help in buying thousands of laptops for students who have so far been unable to access online learning and are at risk of falling behind.”  At the top of the district homepage is a plea for money so the district can buy chromebooks for K-8th grade students. 

Paterson, as an Abbott district, is funded at $30K per student per year. The district’s dysfunction has nothing to do with lack of resources.

I’m beating up on Paterson partly because things do indeed seem worse there than other districts. (Surely there’s a more steamlined way to deliver student packets to teachers!) Yet there are similar problems in other New Jersey’s districts — Camden, Newark, Trenton —  that disproportionately serve low-income students of color. Indeed, throughout the country, low-income students are being cheated out of remote instruction. From an editorial in the Mercury News

Just as Silicon Valley has led the nation in our public health response to COVID-19, we must lead the educational response to this pandemic by ensuring that all our children can engage in distance learning. If racial and economic disparities in educational quality constitute the civil rights battle of our age, then digital access lies at the center of that battleground.

It doesn’t have to be this way. According to the NJ Public Charter School Association, Paterson has 6 charter schools that serve 4,150 students. I looked at two of them. The COVID-19 page of the website for Phillips Academy, a K-8 school, explains that teachers will “provide daily learning experiences accessible to all students; provide timely and frequent feedback; be available each day from 9:00 am – 3:00 pm to interact with students through Remind App, email, Google, etc.” Under “Expectations for Learning Activities,” it says, “Provide new instruction. We will assess and potentially reteach new material when students return to school.” 

The Community Charter School of Paterson explains to parents,

CCSP will continue to provide students with distant learning opportunities throughout the closure, which may include Google Classroom based assignments, instructional packets, telephone calls, video conferencing, and other online services. Students are expected to participate in these supports and complete activities and assignments provided. Please reach out to your child’s teacher or principal if you anticipate or become aware of any issues with your child accessing the distant learning opportunities. Throughout these unusual circumstances, It is best for students to maintain a sense of routine. Thank you in advance for doing all you can to support your child with daily routines. I understand, firsthand, how difficult this may be at times. However, it is important for the growth of your child that during this closure students continuously engage in the educational opportunities provided by their teachers.

No wonder there are 4,650 students on Paterson charter school wait lists. 

Parents shouldn’t have to get lucky for their children to have access to meaningful learning during lengthy school closures. But it appears that in Paterson they do, even though charters have far less — sometimes far less — to spend per student.

But Paterson’s woes aren’t about funding. That would be an easy answer. This is a more complicated problem. More on that tomorrow or Wednesday.

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