Reform and reflection Educators ponder the effects of ‘whole school reform’ models

Magda Sovino is overjoyed by the improvement she has witnessed at P.S. 17 since she became the principal three years ago.

Watching her students get better scores in the Elementary School Proficiency Assessment test given to fourth-graders, she has concluded that the “whole school reform” model the school first implemented in 1999 has been a success.

Like 32 other school districts, Jersey City was a plaintiff in the landmark 1990 Abbott v. Burke case that attempted to resolve the issue of economic disparity among school districts by providing state aid to the “Abbott” districts for new schools and more teachers. But along with that money came a host of guidelines about how it would be spent. One of the chief guidelines required elementary schools to adopt a learning model that was best suited for the school. The “whole school models,” created by private companies, would provide the schools with materials, professional development, and on-site consulting. In exchange, these companies got lucrative contracts from the schools.

P.S. 17 has spent over $100,000 each year on its whole school reform model. And while Sovino acknowledges the progress made in the past three years, she said that she expected more from the “Co-NECT” model than was provided.

Her opinion of models will soon become part of a statewide poll as the Department of Education takes a year to examine the effects of this court-mandated approach to ameliorating the economic disparity in urban schools across the state. During this overview, however, the state is bound to discover that the progress made in the past three years has as much to do with the extra monetary aid given to the schools as it does with the models chosen, educators said.

For P.S. 17, the project-based learning model it chose enabled teachers to learn how to use the technology in the schools. Now, the computers in every classroom are used daily for assignments, projects, and research, said Catherine Verdibello, the school facilitator.

The success of the school does not solely rest on the model, however. The state allowed more spending on staff positions that provided extra teacher’s assistants, crisis counselors, and faculty for after-school learning programs. But the recent freeze on next year’s budget has dropped it from an anticipated $9.6 million to $7.9 million.

Many of the positions P.S. 17 had planned to fill for next year were eliminated. Because contractual obligations raise the cost of salaries, benefits, and insurance each year, Sovino must find ways to cut back as well, most likely dipping into extracurricular activities and field trips so that the existing staff remains intact and the annual supplies financially feasible.

“Teachers are aware that we have to make cuts and we’ll lose most of our staff development money,” Sovino said. “We had to do a lot of training because the teachers had to understand the process.”

To compensate for this loss, previously trained teachers will provide assistance to newcomers, Sovino added.

Whether or not the state will see this improvement as a product of the model or the extra money spent in the past three years has yet to be determined. But Sovino said that she would continue to use the principles of the model in the school even though she cannot spend money to buy teaching materials from the company.

“Continuity is important,” Sovino said. “I think we reached a point where we could go forward.”

Structural change

Similarly, Pat Bryant, the principal of P.S. 39, said she would continue to use the Comer model she chose three years ago. This model, Bryant said, focuses on the organization of the faculty more than it does on teaching methods.

When Bryant first entered P.S. 39 in 1998, the school was in chaos, she said. Aside from the high number of in-school suspensions based on violent acts, a handful of teachers were consistently absent.

“Comer was some very basic child development,” Bryant said. “It wasn’t hard to adopt.”

The model divided the teachers into different committees where various problems were discussed and resolved. Instead of blaming each other for the school’s problems, faculty began working side by side to settle the issues in regular meetings. The six committees meet once every week to discuss items like public relations, assessment tests, curriculum and instruction, or the school climate.

“The model helps build staff relationships,” Bryant said.

Bryant said that P.S. 39 was known for having the absolute lowest scores on the assessment tests three years ago. “Now, we’re not the worst,” Bryant said.

Although the school has a long way to go, she said that the initial stepping stones have been laid out for further improvement. However, those stepping stones were not created simply by using the Comer framework, she said. Its escalating budget over the past three years has provided sorely needed staff, computers, learning materials, and field trips. For one, the school gained another guidance counselor who is a licensed clinical therapist. Bryant said that something as simple as this makes a huge impact on a student population that often has troubled lives at home.

As Sovino noted, the cuts force Bryant to do away with things that do not have to do with the whole school reform model but have contributed to the progress gained.

The trouble with models

Other educators have resented the state-imposed whole school reform models, viewing them as an unnecessary method of streamlining change.

Tom Cappadonna, a teacher at P.S. 1, said the politics that went along with choosing a whole school reform model were not worth the product.

“It’s forced reform,” Cappadona said. “Right from the get-go, no one wants to really join in.” He said that the picking the model alone tended to cause a professional divide between teachers.

Furthermore, Cappadonna does not see how models developed by non-educators from a distance can effectively change a school it has never stepped in. “It does very little for primary grades,” Cappadona said. “I don’t think this has helped educationally in any way. When people from the outside tell you that you must do it this way, it just doesn’t work. These are models that have no clue.”

Diverting school funds to private companies has upset other educators, particularly those in the New Jersey Education Association, the teacher’s union. “We have schools that pay $150,000 a year to buy their products and to have someone come in when we can do so much more with our own workshops,” said Tom Favia, the president of the Jersey City chapter of the NJEA. “What we’re finding is that the people we get in who represent these companies have very little teaching background and do not have any extensive experience teaching.”


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