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Area Schools Plan for overhaul

Ohanian Comment: What a
notion: Improve a school by getting rid of the teachers and
staff. There's never any consideration of improving the
economic status of the families attending the school, no
mention of a living wage, universal health care, and so on. No,
just bring in a corporate CEO and different teachers,
preferably some not belonging to a union.

By Sarah Greenblatt

Educators in Camden, Pennsauken, Pemberton Township and
Willingboro are crafting plans to overhaul schools where
students' academic performance has persistently lagged.

Eleven tri-county schools have failed to meet state
Department of Education proficiency targets in math or
language arts for five straight years.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the schools must
be restructured if students continue to fall short of the state's
goals on standardized tests this academic year. The next set
of standardized tests will be given in the spring.

Restructuring entails replacing teachers and staff, turning the
school over to a private management company, allowing the
state to handle specific school functions, reopening as a
charter school or overhauling the governance in other ways
that achieve the same goals.

Leaders of the schools -- eight of which are in Camden, while
one each is located in Pennsauken, Pemberton Township and
Willingboro -- must complete their restructuring plans by
mid-January so they are ready to restructure in September,
should students fail to meet state goals on the next round of
standardized tests.

Most of the 11 schools, like others across the state that face
reorganization, are middle schools.

School officials are bracing for complications, said Camden
assistant superintendent Luis Pagan, noting that replacing
teachers would raise tenure and contract issues.

And if the district replaces many teachers, it would find itself
with an abundance of hard-to-fill vacancies, Pagan said.

"Can you imagine if we let go 10 math teachers in a district,
considering how hard it is to find bilingual and (English as a
Second Language) teachers?" Pagan asked.

It would be preferable, he said, to retrain teachers, even if
that means requiring them to earn degrees in their specific
subject areas. Middle-school teachers are not required by the
state to hold degrees in their subject areas, he said.

"There's too many ifs going on here," Pagan said. "We need to
keep our teachers and we need to train them."

If reorganization is necessary, he said, the district hopes to
implement changes far less dramatic than creating charter
schools or hiring private managers.

Camden officials are awaiting specific guidelines for moving
forward, he added.

Reorganization plans should reflect the needs of specific
schools, and districts should not adopt one-size-fits-all
proposals, Department of Education officials said.

The plans should flow from collaborations with the state that
have been under way since the schools' struggles surfaced
years ago, said Suzanne Ochse, the department's director of
Title I programs.

Schools that do not implement dramatic overhauls should still
bring aboard "highly skilled professionals" from outside the
district, said Karen Campbell, manager of the department's
Title I office.

Those professionals could provide technical assistance or be
empowered to make decisions, depending on the extent of
change required in a school, Campbell said.

In the meantime, Camden officials are considering plans to
break up the troubled schools into smaller "learning
communities" that would operate as free-standing programs
within shared buildings, Pagan said.

Pemberton Township's Helen Fort Middle School already has
been divided into three learning academies, each of which
accommodates seventh- and eighth-graders, said Robert
Arenge, assistant director of curriculum and instruction for
the township's secondary schools.

The academies, which began operating last spring, allow
teams of students and teachers to focus academics around
projects that entail intensive reading and writing, Arenge said.

The school is working to smooth the transition from sixth
grade and may revamp its weekly schedule to lengthen class
periods, Arenge said.

Changes afoot at Pennsauken's Phifer Middle School include
doubling of the math period, Superintendent James Chapman

Willingboro officials did not provide information about their

Reach Sarah Greenblatt at (856) 486-2457 or at
Published: November 14. 2005 3:00AM

— Sarah Greenblatt
Courier Post


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