As one of five finalists last year for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, often called America's Nobel Prize for urban education, the Jersey City Public Schools reached the pinnacle of the nation's best performing school districts.
It's quite an achievement for Superintendent of Schools Charles T. Epps Jr., 63, who took over a district near the bottom of the performance charts when he became its leader in 2000. But he knew it well. He grew up in Jersey City and joined the district in 1967, rising through its ranks as a teacher, supervisor, principal, director of funded programs, and associate superintendent for community and support services, before being named to the top job.
Epps has reason to be proud of the Broad Foundation's conclusion that "other urban districts nationwide can learn a great deal from what is working in Jersey City." A lot seems to be working, and the results include narrowed achievement gaps, record attendance and retention rates, and higher than expected test results.
Elected last year to the New Jersey General Assembly, Epps spends some time in Trenton, the state capital, but he spends most of it in Jersey City, where District Administration's contributing editor Alan Dessoff spoke with him to learn the keys to the district's success under his leadership.
DA: What was the Jersey City school district like when you took over seven years ago? How did you turn it around?
EPPS: I found that teachers and administrators were at a real low. There had just been a strike. There was talk about a need for integrity and professionalism. I thought we had to bring the district together and everyone had to hear the same message.
So I held a convocation to bring all 5,000 to 6,000 professionals and nonprofessionals together so I could tell them what the agenda was going to be-how we were going to start all over again to make this system work. That helped a lot. Teachers liked it. I brought in actor Bill Cosby to speak, to let them know they were worth that type of attention. That was the beginning. The other piece of it was to bring key administrators together and have them buy in on what we wanted to accomplish.
We started full-day kindergarten programs and pre-K programs. We extended the school day to 4 o'clock every day. We extended the school year to include a full summer school every summer.
More importantly, we got every student in this district into uniform. I got tired of seeing the boys with their pants low and their waists showing and their underwear. I got tired of the girls looking like little hoochie girls. So I instituted uniforms from pre-K through 12th grade.
My daughter graduated from the public schools and the first thing she asked me when she went to college was whether she could have the college colors on everything she wore. I said to myself, "What an amazing idea." If she was that proud to go to her college and wanted to wear its colors, why wouldn't the children in our district be that proud to wear their school colors?
Every student, every day, is wearing a uniform, and they are proud to wear those uniforms representing their schools. I think it has made a major change in how students look at one another, how they socialize with one another. They don't have to compete with one another in what they wear every day because everyone is wearing the same thing. If the parochial schools can do it, we can do it, and it has had a big impact.
DA: The Broad Foundation cites Jersey City's "consistent high performance while reducing achievement gaps across ethnic groups." What are some of the performance levels that make you particularly proud of the district?
EPPS: In 2005, our public schools outperformed other New Jersey districts serving student populations with similar income levels in six out of six areas-reading and math in our elementary, middle and high schools. We have reduced the achievement gaps for Hispanic and African-American students when compared to their white counterparts at all three school levels. For example, the Hispanic and African- American achievement gaps closed 14 and 15 percentage points respectively in math at the elementary school level, and 7 and 8 points respectively in reading at the middle school level. The Broad findings for low-income and minority students are reflected as well in test results for our total student population. If we look at the district's three-year academic performance levels, we note a general upward trend in language arts, and strong results in mathematics in grades 3, 4 and 11.
We also have been quite successful in student attendance and dropout prevention. Our student attendance rate, at 93 percent, remains well above state standards, and our retention rate-the percentage of students who begin as ninthgraders and remain enrolled through the 12th grade-has reached 70 percent, the highest in more than 25 years. This is a number that had averaged around 45-50 percent for a very long time.
DA: The Jersey City Public Schools is participating as a "pilot" district in the New Jersey State Department of Education's new Secondary School Initiative. Can you tell us about it?
EPPS: The Jersey City model provides a continuum of quality instruction and support that will eventually extend from the middle grades through high school for all students in the district. We have established a singular focus on smaller learning communities and have established freshman academies in all four comprehensive high schools. We have designed and implemented more than 20 specialized magnet programs within our larger high schools in areas like media arts, industrial arts, culinary arts and technology, and these programs serve 1,965 enrolled students. And we have established an all-honors academic program at each comprehensive high school campus, with all the students enrolled in the program taking honors and AP courses.
DA: I know that you believe preschool is a vital part of later success. Can you elaborate on that?
EPPS: A good ending-graduation from high school-can hardly be expected if we don't get our students off to a great start. We believe our preschool program begins that momentum-that it jumpstarts a successful school career. Children with disabilities are included in it according to their Individualized Education Program. That could mean placement in an integrated classroom, an inclusion classroom, or a self-contained classroom. The classroom teachers also provide English Language Learners with experiences in their daily routine to support language and literacy development. Our preschool program is one of continuous outreach and family support. We believe that all eligible children in Jersey City should attend, and that working directly with families and the community is the best way to accomplish this goal.
DA: In the Abbott v. Burke case, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered in 1998 a set of education programs and reforms that applied to predominantly low- income and minority students in 31 New Jersey districts. What was the ruling's impact on Jersey City's schools?
EPPS: Before Abbott v. Burke, our budget was about $100 million. We couldn't support full-day kindergarten or after-school programs-those kinds of things that were necessary for children in an urban district. As a result of Abbott v. Burke, our budget was tripled. We receive state funds, or "parity aid," to equal the funding in some of the wealthier districts in the state. It allowed us to meet the educational needs of all urban students.
We have been offering free childcare for all Jersey City three- and four-year olds, approximately 4,500 of them, which helps prepare them for success in kindergarten. Abbott funds provide for a myriad of programs that enhance character development and social awareness, as well as equipment and training in technology. Class sizes were reduced, with support services like after-school tutelage and summer enrichment programs. It had great impact, and still does, on the delivery of instruction and on closing the achievement gap. It helped us with retention. We became a total inclusion district.
DA: You talk a lot about inclusion in the schools and in the classrooms. Can you explain that?
EPPS: In 1998, after the Abbott v. Burke decision, the state developed a strategic plan for whole school reform. One key piece of it was to bring special education into regular education programming and create true inclusion classrooms. Today almost all our children are in regular neighborhood schools, with most special services being provided in an inclusive general education classroom. Many of our classes have a team teaching model, with one general ed and one special ed teacher who work cooperatively with all students. If you walked into our schools, you wouldn't know the difference between a regular student and a special ed student.
DA: What are some of the key elements that make the Jersey City schools the high performers that they are today?
EPPS: We have modified our curriculum to be sure it is directly related to state core content standards. Traditionally, Jersey City developed and revised its curriculum every five years. Since the introduction of the 2004 New Jersey state standards, we have accelerated this schedule. Now, immediately after new standards come from the state, we build our curriculum around them, and we integrate our curriculum so it is not taught in isolation. It's taught by integrating science, social studies and language arts. Many of the activities are developed by groups of teachers in a school as part of their regular common planning time.
But programs for our students can only be as successful as our ability to recruit, retain and support a highly qualified teaching staff . Nearly all of our staff is highly qualified, and 99 percent of them have completed 100 or more hours of professional development.
The key to it is a commitment to providing training to new and incumbent teachers. That training allows them to teach in ways that probably are very different from what they did before. We think it has helped us improve our test scores.
We start in August-we call it "August anticipation"-when we bring in all of our new teachers and our administrators for professional development. We continue in September with all our first-year and second-year teachers. We call it the "September Survival Kit."
We give them all those things to help them get through. We look at it again in October. Then in November, I meet with all the new teachers to talk about their concerns.
We have established a buddy system for teachers. All new teachers have veteran teachers assigned to them. I always tell teachers that when I started teaching, I was placed in a seventh-grade class and didn't know what to do. In those days, back in the '60s, you didn't have professional development or a seasoned person to support you. You were just thrust into the classroom. Now no teacher in this district is thrust into the classroom without professional development and a buddy, and it goes on all year long.
We hire substitute teachers, but before they can be hired they have to go through a month long training process that starts in August. They do not get paid for that, but if they want to be a substitute and get paid, they have to know the core curriculum standards, have some management skills, know how to do a lesson plan book, and understand the types of things they will have to teach for whatever grade level they are certified in. I don't want any child to miss out on instruction during the course of the day, so if regular teachers are unable to be in their classrooms, we have trained substitutes who can go in and continue the instruction.
DA: Have teachers and their unions been supportive?
EPPS: Absolutely. There is always resistance when there is change, but we have a collaborative approach with the unions. We call them in and tell them what we are thinking of doing so we can be sure it doesn't infringe upon our contractual agreement with them. Some union representatives sit on our committees so they can understand what's going on and take that back to their leadership. We have been able to implement our programs and initiatives with that collaborative approach. For the most part, it has worked well.
DA: What else does it take to be a high performing school in a diverse urban area these days?
EPPS: Students in immigrant families that come into Jersey City are tested in their native language so we'll know how to place them in the schools. We have two "port of entry" schools for students who do not speak English. They go to classes in those schools until they acquire the skill levels they need, and then they can go into a regular classroom setting. There are 109 different languages spoken in our district, and we accommodate all of them on a daily basis. While English is the primary language in most of our classes, we do have a large bilingual ed program. This allows for instruction in both English and the student's dominant language. For instance, we have several classes with Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, etc. We also have a multilingual intake center where students are evaluated if they are not English dominant, and they are offered assistance in their native language coupled with English.
DA: The Broad Foundation cites a number of other initiatives Jersey City has taken that focus on literacy and real-life, problem-based learning. Can you tell me about some of them?
EPPS: One of our literacy initiatives for K8 students is the 100-book challenge. Every student has to read for 15 minutes every night at home, for 100 nights, and have a parent or guardian sign a log that they did that.
We realize that to maximize student interest in reading, we have to give students access to large numbers of great books that they can read and want to read. So every week, a typical classroom receives a new infusion of 300 different titles that represent the best literature on the market for young people, and students can select the books they can and want to read.
DA: Are there problem areas within the Jersey City schools that still need some type of improvement?
EPPS: We really need to revamp our high schools. I think students should have options for selecting courses. When I got my doctorate at Rutgers University, I was amazed at how large the campus was. I could take one class here and then go someplace else for another class. I envision our high schools operating like a trolley system one day, where a child can get on and take a finance class at one of our specialized high schools and then go to another school and take a class in another subject area.
Finding certified teachers in science and math is always a problem. We try to encourage those teachers to come here by paying for their master's degrees. We have negotiated through the collective bargaining process a tuition reimbursement that encourages our staff to seek higher education, and we have pay differentials that also reward advanced degrees. I think that is going to be a real incentive, but it's a problem area.
And we still have to improve literacy in our high schools by getting students to read more. If they read more, they will learn more.
DA: In addition to your job as superintendent, you are an elected representative in the state legislature. How does that impact how you run the district? Does it give you more influence on behalf of the Jersey City schools? And how do you divide your time between those two responsibilities?
EPPS: I think it gives me a lot of influence. I made the statement when I ran for office that I thought it was a potent mix. I could provide better insight on issues like funding for education.
I can give a different perspective on how to draft bills on issues like that in Trenton. Being in the legislature is a parttime job. Most people there sit on three or four committees; I only sit on two. I have a strong cabinet in Jersey City-a deputy superintendent, associate superintendents, administrators-and any time I'm out of the office, I'm out for only a couple of hours.
DA: What did it mean to be a finalist for the Broad Prize?
EPPS: It was like getting a nomination for an Oscar or Emmy. Whether or not you win, it's being in a certain class of school districts. More importantly, it validated what we do here.
When all is said and done, we play by a few simple rules in Jersey City: to hold high expectations for all our students and to expect nothing less than the best from each and every one of them; to develop a singular focus on what our students learn, because nothing else will matter if learning is not taking place; to assess our performance every day, because we will be assessed by others; to continue to learn as much as we can as often as we can; to stay smart and prepared; to communicate with and support each other; to reach out and work together; and to take responsibility for teaching students to read, write and compute to a world-class standard, knowing that if we fail, our students may be relegated, now and in the future, to second class status and second-class lives.
Alan Dessoff is a freelance writer based in Maryland.