March 2016: Education in New Jersey

Perspectives from the Field, Part I
Throughout the 2016 seminar year, the LNJ staff  will ask two class members to reflect on their experiences following the monthly two-day seminars. The perspectives will change each month to include a wide spectrum of view points and expertise.

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(View of Perry St. and the Philadelphia skyline from the LEAP Academy Charter School)

LeadNJ 2016 Education Seminar   
March 10-11, 2016
Camden, NJ 
By: Kevin P. Aspell  

When asked to write this blog about our Education session I knew a few things. Education and education reform are a critical issue in NJ. I also knew it to be a complicated challenge. From Common Core to “Abbot” schools, nothing seemed easy to resolve. Finally, I wasn’t sure I had an objective yet for my writing, but I did have an idea or two.

I had heard about statistics from an education survey that delivered results called PISA scores. First, a quick description. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy every three years. First conducted in 2000, the major domain of study rotates between mathematics, science, and reading in each cycle. By design, PISA emphasizes functional skills that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling. PISA is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of industrialized countries, and is conducted in the United States by NCES. Data collection for the most recent assessment was completed in Fall 2015.

The last PISA results are available from 2012 and the story they tell for our country is not a great one. We were ranked 36th overall, with a ranking of 36th in math, 25th in reading, and 27th in science.

So my big question on my way to Camden is what can we do about these PISA scores? At least, what can we learn about root causes and possible strategies to improve? As I read more (and as we usually see with important social issues) there is lots of discussion and opinion about these exams, their validity, and whether we need to focus specifically on the numbers. I came to a conclusion that there is significant controversy about PISA results and I don’t know enough about the tests and alternatives to suggest a strategic plan.

So I decided to change my objective for the blog. I decided to review the two days we spent together, rely on my memory and copious notes and see if there was a consistent message, insight, or trend that can make us better leaders in the field of education. After all, that is what the LeadNJ is about and it suddenly made sense to stay aligned to the mission we signed up for.

One of our first stops was to spend some time with Byron Dixon the principal at Cato Community Family School. He talked about his priority, and that of his staff, to ensure students came to school. Attendance was a big part of his strategy and his 96% attendance rate was a significant accomplishment that he focused to sustain and improve.

He told us his strong team makes his school a good one and mentioned a teaching theory called, The Danielson System. I did some homework, it is a framework for teaching that identifies those aspects of a teacher’s responsibilities that have been documented through empirical studies and theoretical research as promoting improved student learning. Although they are not the only possible description of practice, these responsibilities seek to define what teachers should know and be able to do in the exercise of their profession. In this framework, the complex activity of teaching is divided into 22 components clustered into the following 4 domains of teaching responsibility:

  • Domain 1: Planning and Preparation
  • Domain 2: The Classroom Environment
  • Domain 3: Instruction
  • Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

A big part of his success strategy was this investment in his teachers and his belief that they make his school a successful one. He mentioned the Teachers Union and the fact it often caused lots of work for him with teachers that did not meet his expectations and standards for Cato School.

Next was an extended visit at the Leap Academy with both school executives and the school’s founder, Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago. There were some consistent messages from this entire executive staff: Good educators have to react to changing demographic and learning conditions. Pedagogy, structure, and curriculum have to serve the students they teach and align with the mission of the institution. In LEAP’s case a significant priority is that 100% of graduates pursue higher-ed degrees.  Uniforms help in that regard and take away the competion to worry about dressing “cool”. School day and school year are longer to keep the young adults busy and away from the “distractions” that are typical for a Camden teenager. This Charter school seemed to work because of their total alignment with the mission of the organization. Teachers are a critical component of their success and the fact that LEAP graduates return to become LEAP teachers is a source of pride for the leadership team at this institution. Specifically mentioned was an official “reorganization” executed at LEAP that fired the entire staff and then rehired teachers that supported the mission and outcomes that are part of LEAP’s legacy.

(Claudine Keenan, Stockton University)  

Claudine Keenan, the Dean of Education at Stockton University did a great job of teaching us the history and evolution of our U.S. educational system. She spoke in some detail about the role of teachers and the impact of great educational innovators. Some time was spent on John Dewey and his educational imperative to have teachers change the current model of his time from a focus on uniformity of method and subject matter to teaching students to learn how to think creatively and solve problems. Dewey saw teachers as a powerful resource that could take schools from a curriculum based on memory and repetition to one that relied on teachers to build a system focused on more creative learning.

Our last presentation was very interesting. It was with executives from the Camden Superintendent’s office. It provided us an opportunity to see the priorities and strategies of executives now leading a state run school system.  Some great insight was shared by this panel and again another consistent theme demonstrated itself. Andrew Bell, the Chief Academic Officer for Camden, spoke about it the most. He spoke of new types of teaching models and approaches and indicated the positive impacts new curriculum is having in Camden schools. He talked about the coaching work he now does with Camden principals and the fact that these school leaders and the teachers they support are the real “change agents” that can deliver learning success to the students in Camden.

In summary one insight was consistently shared by most of the educational leaders we heard from…. a critical factor in educational success is the quality, preparation, and training of teachers. Whether at Cato Community Family School, LEAP Academy, or opinions of those leading a successful educational turnaround at the Camden School system; teacher development and training are a critical investment to make.

In a recent article done by the National Education Policy Center entitled, Holding Teacher Preparation Accountable, a study done at Stanford (called the edTPA) indicates that only recent (accountability) reform areas to have even a small amount of validity is the one tied to instructional delivery. It is hard to determine what method to use to determine teacher preparedness but this study looks positively on the teacher’s ability to plan, deliver, assess, and reflect on instruction.

So this research indicates the jury is out on how we test to determine who are our good teachers. Common Core or other standardized methods may not be the “silver bullet”. As community leaders however, we need to realize that there needs to be a portfolio of methods to assess teacher strengths and development needs. Not just standardized tests; but observation, evaluation of curriculum, learning methods used in the class, uses of technology and personal development must all be considered for our teachers. An engaged teacher will deliver engaged students… which will facilitate learning, success, and

(LNJ ’16 at the Woodland Community Development Corporation)

Lead NJ – Education Seminar March, 2016
Passion.  Persistence.  Politics.
By: Debbie Parker

The Lead NJ Education Seminar spent two days in Camden, NJ visiting several educational, development and community programs. Having never been to Camden before and hearing all of the stereo typical clichés and comments that are associated with a struggling urban community, I did not know what to expect. I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions coming into the Seminar in Camden, but I still had a feeling of the unknown.  However, I came out of the experience feeling very protective of it as a whole and truly grateful for the glimpse that we were able to experience through the kindness and openness of everyone and everything we encountered.

With our young guide Jonathan Rosado from the Woodland Community Development Corporation, we embarked on our bus tour into Camden from Cherry Hill.  The first stop was the Rev. Floyd White’s Woodland Presbyterian Church. Jonathan spoke of the Community Center and its importance to the community and its youth, and the important role it played in his life then and now.  Woodland CDC offers a select group of programs geared towards low-income families to build self-sufficient, self-reliant households.  From college prep Courses to a community garden, homework center, youth employment program, and a food pantry, the Center is small but offers much-needed services to their local surrounds.

Next stop was the magnificent Cathedral Kitchen, which catered the delicious ‘lunch and learn’ we would enjoy later at the Waterfront Technology Center.  A beautiful mosaic greeted us and led us into a bright, open, colorful space with high ceilings that offered meals and work program opportunities with dignity to the community.  Started in 1974 by four young people as a simple ministry, offering soup and sandwiches to a few people in need, Cathedral Kitchen has grown into the largest emergency food provider in the city, serving over 100,000 meals in their dining room each year.  They enroll 40 students per year in our Culinary Arts Training (CAT) program and 24 students per year in the Baking Arts Training (BAT) program. Both programs operate twice each year for 17 weeks.  Right next door is the newly opened CK Kitchen which serves as a traditional lunch restaurant, open to the public Tuesday through Friday.

Our third stop was the Waterfront Technology Center, an impressive 100,000sqft LEED Gold Certified building, home to growing technology companies.  The ongoing re-development in partnership with the Mayor’s office and Cooper’s Ferry Partnership has been integral in attracting large and small companies alike.  The Economic Opportunity Act offers attractive tax credits for businesses resulting in companies like Subaru of America, Lockheed Martin, Philadelphia 76ers, Campbell Soup, Cooper University Healthcare, and Great Socks, LLC, locating in Camden, to name a few.  The number of jobs in Camden is currently 29,962, with 26,655 held by Camden residents.

After the Waterfront Technology Center we visited the Octavius V. Catto Community Family School. This would be what is called a ‘normal’ public school.  Principal Byron Dixon, a commanding presence welcomed us in the Main Assembly.  Mr. Dixon has been Principal at the school for seven years.  He delicately expressed some frustrations while fielding poignant questions from our group.  His passion and determination to grow these children entrusted to him into strong, independent citizens while remaining aware of governmental and staff limitations was clear.  Attached to his school was the Boys and Girls Club, which roughly 35% of his students attend after school, giving them a place to continue to learn and play and parents peace of mind.

LEAP Academy was next, a charter school in the heart of downtown Camden.  Welcomed by five Student Ambassadors, it was clearly going to be a contrasting experience.  The history, acquisition and subsequent development of several buildings as explained passionately by Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, LNJ ’91, who founded the K-12 LEAP Academy in 1997, is incredibly impressive.  With a 100% senior class graduation rate it’s hard to find fault.  With longer school days, access to more innovative programs they face their own set of challenges and criticisms.  With lower per pupil funding from the government (roughly $13,500 compared to the Public Schools $27,500), they rely heavily on parent participation, partnership with Rutgers University, and private fundraising initiatives to sustain the level of education and services they currently offer.

On Day 2, Dr. Claudine Keenan, LNJ ’09, Dean of Education for Stockton University presented an engaging overview of the history of teacher preparation and school choice, focusing on Federal versus State testing, the flaws and subsequent results that are embedded in both following guidelines set forth in 2001 with the ‘No Child Left Behind’ act, introduced by President George W. Bush to be fully implemented by 2018.

(Bev Winkler, PSE&G)

On a completely different topic, Bev Winkler, an Occupational Development Executive with PSE&G, upliftingly discussed the Myers-Briggs communication styles and presented results from individual reports we had submitted a few weeks earlier.  The individual results highlights are meant to be a guide for ‘who you are, not who you want to be’, helping to better informed to collaborate in settings and secure more positive, harmonious results.

We moved on to the KROC Center, a Salvation Army Community Center, one of only 26 across the country, the brainchild of McDonalds heiress Joan Kroc with the support of her husband Ray.  To say this facility is impressive does not do it justice.  With over 124,000 square feet set on 24 acres of reclaimed land, you are welcomed by towering ceilings, open air spaces and state of the art technology.  Offering the community access to fitness and recreation (including an indoor water park!), human resources, spiritual services, social programs, visual and performing arts and various other offerings designed to engage the community in a beautiful setting.

At the KROC Center, for what would be our last presentation of the day, we were introduced to a Camden City School District Advisory Board Member, Chief Academic Officer and newly appointed Chief Innovation Office.  I sensed trepidation at first, but the conversation quickly came to the acknowledgment of challenges, past mistakes and the need to have ongoing collaborative relationships and dialogs across all educational platforms to ensure that as best they can the children remain priority.

Communities like Camden have to fight, struggle and shout for every dollar and government support they can get, but you get the sense that the community understands the value of investing mentally and emotionally will ultimately deliver spiritual gold to their futures and community.

The Seminars continue to be engaging, thought provoking and inclusive, and I look forward to next month and the Seminar on Diversity.



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