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School Success Comes One Step at a Time

Susan Notes: Call this tentative good news.The story is a bit muddled, including a sentence that stops right in the middle. But then there's the part about parents looking at the quality of the teaching and not at the racial percentages when judging their child's school. Then keep reading and you will get to the part about Success for All.

During a Christmas dance in December (above), students Tami Thompson (left), 14, and Ariel Washington, 12, celebrate at Asbury Park Middle School. Larrick Daniels (left photo), a technical coordinator, directs fourth-graders in a computer class.

It bothers Sansia Turenne how customers at the Ocean Township department store where she works react when she tells them the name of her high school.

As soon as they hear she's a student at Asbury Park High School, Turenne said, the friendly chit-chatting on the checkout line typically comes to an awkward halt.

"Conversation over," said the 18-year-old senior. "It makes me feel like I'm not worthy enough. Like the school doesn't teach me anything."

Turenne, who is bound for college in the fall, thinks her school is unfairly stigmatized.

"It's not that bad," she said.

But as this seaside community of 17,000 strives to move forward with its long-awaited rebirth through a $1.25 billion redevelopment plan, the Asbury Park School District's reputation for poor test scores, administrative instability and

"They're not buying for the same reasons people are buying in other towns."

What's attracting these newcomers, he said, is a burgeoning gay community, an eclectic downtown, excitement about the city's turnaround, an architecturally rich housing stock and the rare opportunity to buy property near the ocean for a fraction of what it costs elsewhere along the Shore.

The new waterfront condos, priced between $300,000 and $1 million, are expected to appeal to the same demographic group, developers say, as well as empty-nester baby boomers old enough to remember Asbury Park in its prime. If young families are part of that mix, they'll have the financial wherewithal to send their children to private schools, if they choose.

"If they're going to pay up for an ocean view," McGlynn said, "they're probably going to pay up for their kids' education."

James W. Hughes, dean of Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said the successful revitalizations of Hoboken, Jersey City and many parts of New York City have demonstrated that cities can prosper despite "less-than-stellar" public schools or the stable, middle-class families that good schools attract.

"The powerful market sectors are really nonchild-rearing households," Hughes said.

One family's experience

So where does that leave the city's schools?

For their part, administrators expect enrollment to increase by several hundred students in the next five years, based on recent projections.

Administrators factored those projections into its state-approved facilities plan, which includes $13 million to build an additional elementary school.

"If we continue to improve the district, newcomers will send their children to our schools," superintendent Lewis said.

McGlynn, however, doesn't foresee the paths of redevelopment and school reform intersecting soon.

The combined effect of newcomers bypassing the public schools, and some low-income residents getting pushed out because of the city's gentrification, could lead to an enrollment drop and smaller class sizes, McGlynn said.

At the same time, new school facilities and other Abbott-funded educational enhancements combined with smaller class sizes could lead some families to take a fresh look at the city's schools.

"Sooner or later, someone's going to wake up and say, "Hey, you know, the school system isn't that bad,' " said McGlynn, who is vice president of the Asbury Park Homeowner's Association. McGlynn is married with no children.

Sarah and Brendan Pack have already come to that conclusion.

Former New York City residents, their search for a larger home at the Shore led them to Asbury Park four years ago.

Sarah, 34, now a full-time homemaker, is a former associate director of computing at New York University's Leonard R. Stern School of Business. Brendan, 32, is a banker for CityGroup in Manhattan.

"We looked in Red Bank, Atlantic Highlands. We definitely wanted to be by the ocean and just didn't feel like we were going to get a lot for our money," said Sarah, who grew up in Rumson. "Then, somehow, Asbury Park came up. We were just driving around, and we just had a feeling it couldn't stay the way it was forever."

The couple bought a house on Fifth Avenue, 11 blocks from the beach, for $175,000. They enrolled the oldest of their three children, Brendan Jr., in the district's free preschool program. Impressed by the teachers, they decided to enroll Brendan in the kindergarten at Bradley Elementary School, two blocks from their house.

"I was amazed by the dedication of the teachers," Sarah said.

Today, Brendan, 7, is thriving in the second grade at Bradley Elementary, where he is the only white student in his class. The district has a student population that is 79 percent black, 19 percent Hispanic and less than 2 percent white.

So far, his parents are pleased with the caliber of their son's education.

Can the district coax more middle-class families like the Packs into the schools?

Hughes, of Rutgers, said much depends on whether the decade-old Abbott funding "experiment," as he termed it, can truly lift urban districts like Asbury Park to a level that's comparable to that of their wealthier suburban neighbors.

"If all the promises of the Abbott spending work, and you have a respectable school system, then it's going to make (Asbury Park) an even more significant player in the state's economy," Hughes said.

In the meantime, Hughes said, perhaps the best the schools can hope for, where redevelopment is concerned, is that it will generate new job opportunities for city families trapped in a cycle of poverty.

"What you may see is an indirect effect on the school system," Hughes said. "That economic opportunity can quickly change attitudes, rather than living in an environment of despair, where there's no economy whatsoever."

A new literacy formula

Although the city's redevelopment may not hinge on the schools, the students and their families need them to succeed.

School officials insist the right pieces are finally in place to bring about lasting improvement.

In the primary grades, the district is replacing its reading skills curriculum, called Success For All, with a new "balanced literacy" program that state officials say is more in sync with current New Jersey standards for language arts proficiency.

In 1998, the administration of former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and the state Supreme Court endorsed Success For All, a nationally acclaimed curriculum developed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, as the "presumptive" reading skills remedy for failing Abbott school districts.

The program, which Asbury Park has used for more than a decade, relies heavily on highly regimented instruction, which some teachers find too restrictive.

"We almost had a script to follow every day," said Ann DeFelippo, a fifth-grade teacher at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, which is using Neptune's vacated Ridge Avenue School while the main building is under renovation. "Every day was the same as the day before, every week the same as the week before, day in and day out."

More significantly, Success For All lacks a writing component, even though writing aptitude is an integral part of the state's assessment tests.

"The problem with SFA is it's not aligned to New Jersey core standards," said Gordon A.MacInnes, the assistant state commissioner of education who is the state's point man for Abbott school reform.

"Kids were not being taught what they were expected to learn," MacInnes said. "Here they were, following what the court had ordered, and the kids were failing. Now that's a rotten deal."

Under the new curriculum, students break into small groups to brainstorm writing ideas and share rough drafts. Teachers devote 135 minutes a day to intensive reading and writing exercises, drawing on books in well-stocked classroom libraries that students are encouraged to take home to read on their own.

"I haven't seen a district make up its mind to do something and do it as quickly and as well as I saw in Asbury," said Fred Carrigg, a literacy expert who led the state team last year that helped the district implement these changes at Bangs Avenue and Bradley Elementary schools, which have had among the worst language arts test scores in the state.

Sustaining momentum

At the same time, the district has implemented more intensive staff development programs in all of its schools, following a model developed at Bangs Avenue Elementary School by Principal Howard Mednick.

Prior to the start of the 2003-04 academic year, Mednick revamped schedules so that each of his teachers could attend a mandatory, weekly professional development or common planning period during the school day.

The 45-minute sessions will mean an extra 30 hours of professional development for each teacher during the course of the school year.

"We've had more meaningful staff development in two to three years than (in) my entire career," said Bangs Avenue reading facilitator Gerry Karol, who has worked in the district for 33 years.

The district is also phasing in a new mathematics program in the primary grades that's more visual and hands-on. Students work with counting rods and erasable writing tablets, called "communicators."

Meanwhile, at Asbury Park High School, students who did not meet the basic standards of the Grade Eight Proficiency Assessment are required to double up on English or math courses or both to better prepare for the 11th-grade High School Proficiency Assessment. One period is primarily for instruction and evaluation, while the other focuses on hands-on lab work.

A critical year

With all these changes happening at once, this is shaping up to be a major year of transition for the district.

"Right now, it feels good," said Kathy Ahl, a reading facilitator at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School who has worked in the district for the past 31 years. "I think the children have a sense of accomplishment and success. I think things are moving in the right direction."

The question is: Can the district sustain its momentum?

MacInnes, for one, thinks Asbury Park has turned a corner.

"It's important for people to know that what we're talking about here is not a one-year aberration," the assistant commissioner said. "It's not a result of playing around, you know, teaching something to the test so closely that it's producing these results.

"What we're talking about is an approach to educating these kids that is working elsewhere, can work in Asbury, will work in Asbury," he said. "I think the most important thing about this is that it gives confidence to the people in Asbury that, hey, we can do this."

At Bangs Avenue Elementary School, fifth-grade teacher Cordelia Golden, 39, recalls how much bleaker everything seemed a year ago.

Golden said the school was in such upheaval last year that she almost decided not to return, but then she saw the test results, which were much improved.

A little success goes a long way.

"Even in the chaos our test scores improved," Golden said, still sounding a bit surprised. "When we saw that, we said, "Oh! What if we really buckled down?' "

This year, it seems Asbury Park means to find out.

"Somewhere in America, a minority district, an Abbott district, is going to work despite all the negatives out there," said Lewis, the superintendent. "We believe that. It's going to work."

The challenge now is to convince the rest of the city that it's going to work here.

— Shannon Mullen and Nancy Shields
Asbury Park Press


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