Recipe for Revival In Jersey City Schools

Signs of success in a state-run district

A solid public education has given countless immigrants entree into the American Dream. But in the late 1980s, the population of the immigrant-rich Jersey City - which looks out on the backside of the Statue of Liberty - wasn't getting access to this basic element of American life.

Ten years later that's starting to change.

The genesis of the turnaround came in 1989, when the state wrested control of the city's schools from local officials. The move started one of the most ambitious education-reform efforts in the nation - one many other states have since copied.

Today more than three-quarters of Jersey City's fourth-graders meet state-wide standards. School buildings, which once languished in disrepair, have been rehabbed or replaced. And patronage is no longer the driving force behind who's hired and fired in the district.

The new signs of success show how state control can help rejuvenate even the most-destitute schools, but they also highlight how slow the process can be. In Jersey City, the improvements in test scores have come mostly in lower grades. And even boosters admit high school scores will be tough to raise.

Whatever the outcome, Jersey City is being closely watched by reformers nationwide, because it was the first district taken over by a state. The approach has been tried across the country - in Chicago, Baltimore, Hartford, Conn., Washington, and other cities. Reformers say the threat of a takeover has even forced other districts to shape up on their own.

"We are definitely seeing some promising signs that it improves student achievement," says Christine Johnson, an urban- education specialist with the Education Commission on the States. "New Jersey broke new ground."

BUT replacing top management doesn't erase other daunting troubles facing urban schools. New administrators work with the same teachers, for example, some of whom were hired through patronage. Poor children arrive at the schoolhouse door with the same set of problems as before. Principals say many parents don't read to their children, and some kindergartners arrive unable to count to 10 or identify primary colors.

"It's still a catastrophe," says Jersey City Mayor Brett Schundler, who says the real answer to troubled schools is private competition through use of vouchers. "There have been some small improvements since the takeover, but most of that can be attributed to better funding. Nothing has changed."

The man in charge of the state-run district, Superintendent Richard DiPatri, has focused his attention on performance of principals. He has replaced one and withheld raises for others. And he elevated his best principal, sending her into other schools to evaluate and retrain other principals.

"Schools are effective when principals are effective," he says. "Principals right now feel they are under siege. But if they didn't feel they were under siege, then I'm not doing my job."

When embarking on the program in 1989, then-New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean had hoped to hand state superintendents more power. He proposed suspending teacher tenure, but the state's powerful teachers union forced him to retreat.

In other takeover districts, however, the new managers have more-potent weapons. In Chicago, Superintendent Paul Vallas has ended the practice of promoting students who don't meet standards and fired more than 200 employees. That's the kind of muscle Governor Kean wanted.

Nationwide, 13 districts have been taken over on grounds of academic bankruptcy, and 22 states now have laws that allow them to do so. "States are increasingly turning to this sort of active intervention in urban districts, and they will continue to do so more and more," says Ms. Johnson.

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