Like a father reluctant to hand over the keys to his 17-year-old, ACTING Education Commissioner Chris Cerf says the people of Paterson just aren’t ready to run their own schools yet:
The state’s top education official brushed aside an ambitious proposal from the school board Monday that sought to end state control of the district by the fall.
Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said the city should manage its own schools, but such a rapid transition would not be in the best interest of the district’s students.
Under state control, the board can act only as an advisory body to the superintendent.
Board member Jonathan Hodges expressed concern about low scores reflecting poorly on the board when the state is ultimately in control of the schools.
Cerf acknowledged the state’s failure, saying “the state did not effectively discharge its duty to the children of Paterson.” [emphasis mine]
Got that? Cerf says the state has done a poor job of running Paterson’s schools, but he still doesn’t want to give up control. Apparently, there are ambitious new plans for the city’s schools under the Christie administration.
Six months later, there’s little evidence of headway in this pilot project in Paterson, which has struggled for decades to improve its ailing school system. The governor has poured enormous political energy into talking about the moral imperative to help children stuck in failing districts, and taxpayers statewide spend billions of dollars a year in school aid for poor cities.
But much like Christie’s agenda for tenure reform, weakening teachers’ seniority rights and vouchers, this Harlem Children’s Zone initiative has not gained much visible traction.
The governor’s office has yet to appoint an advisory group for the project. This month, Creighton Drury, who was spearheading the effort at the New Jersey Community Development Corp., left for a job in New York City. And officials from the state and the Paterson non-profit say there is no blueprint yet for moving forward.
Bob Guarasci, chief executive officer of the Paterson non-profit, said his team had two phone calls and two meetings with liaisons from the governor’s office since the press conference last summer. He said he is working on a strategic plan.
“I don’t want to rush this,” Guarasci said last week. “To anyone who says this is little more than a photo op because six months later nothing has been done, I squarely take the blame because I want to make sure it’s done right. … Those who want to see the Harlem Children’s Zone model in full bloom here in this neighborhood have to understand it takes time.”
Meanwhile, at the Harlem Children’s Zone, spokesman Marty Lipp said the agency’s $24,000 consulting contract with New Jersey expired Dec. 31. Lipp said the two-year contract, which predated Christie’s time as governor, focused on giving advice and training to representatives of Newark and Camden at first, then expanded to cover Paterson. “Now our involvement is in limbo,” Lipp said.
An update on the Harlem Children’s Zone project was scratched off the state Board of Education agenda this month. The governor’s choice to lead the initiative, acting Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks, did not answer requests for comment. Christie’s spokesman, Kevin Roberts, called back instead to say work was happening behind the scenes. [emphasis mine]
Hey, I thought Geoffrey “Superman” Canada was faster than a speeding bullet! What’s the holdup? Especially since Christie has talked about the urgency of fixing Paterson’s schools before:
What’s our answer for those families — that you’re confined to failure, that we’re not gonna do anything to help you or be patient and wait until we fix the public schools what they’ve been waiting in some of these districts like Newark and Patterson for over 20 years for these schools to be fixed and then not being fixed. To me, I can’t allow children and their families to have to wait more time for them to get a good education. And so, again, none of these things where you’re talking about vouchers, Interdistrict school choice, or charter schools are by themselves a single silver bullet solution to the problem, combined, they help to create a competitive atmosphere that will hopefully allow the public schools in these failing districts to have an additional motivation for being able to improve because if they don’t, they run the real risk of losing students which they don’t want to do.
Apparently, a sense of urgency is confined to vouchers and only certain charters. Here’s a thought: maybe actually involving the community would help get things rolling. Too bad they’ve been shut out since back when Christie first announced the project:
One new development was the inclusion of Paterson Mayor Jeffrey Jones at the press conference. In January, after Christie first announced the program, Jones told the Wall Street Journal he had “no idea” about it and was “taken aback.”
Today, he said he still wants more details but is hopeful.
“I don’t know enough details on where this is headed,” he said. “If in fact there’s going to be a higher level approach to thinking about looking at resources that might have been dedicated to these sort of challenges, putting them together in a pool, if you will, and focusing on priorities within a community that has a plan, I support that.”
Other Paterson public officials weren’t so happy. Board of Education member Jonathan Hodges stood outside the press conference with about 20 protestors, holding a sign that read “Christie: Don’t use black and brown children for photo ops.” Hodges said the school board didn’t hear Christie would be in town until late Tuesday night, and weren’t invited to the event.
“For this program to be successful, it requires community engagement,” said Hodges. “Having a photo op and a press conference, that’s not community engagement. It won’t help make a successful program.”
Amen. Once again, however, we see the top-down, autocratic approach of Christie’s administration: the state retains control, promises are made that never seem to get fulfilled, and the community is left standing out in the cold.
It’s happening in Newark and in Jersey City and in Cherry Hill and all over the state. And it has to stop.
ADDING: By my rough calculations, nearly 80% of the children of Paterson are eligible for free lunch (the best metric we have to judge student poverty), according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Does everyone agree that doing something about endemic childhood poverty will probably help raise test scores more than anything else?
Then why aren’t we doing something about it?