Mayor discusses education initiative at private meeting; former state commissioner to be tapped to analyze district

Time to get the schools in shape!

Mayor discusses education initiative at private meeting; former state commissioner to be tapped to analyze district

Hoboken Reporter  

Mayor David Roberts unveiled his new education initiative last week, which includes negotiating a consulting contract with the state's former commissioner of education to have him address the tough challenges facing the district.

Over the past decade, Hoboken has become one of the most desirable cities in New Jersey to live and work in, but many believe that its urban school district, with its below-average test scores (see story, p. 3), fails to keep young families here. The situation has improved in the last ten years due to the choices allowed by the two charter schools and by improvements in the six regular schools. However, some feel there is a lot of work still to do.

The district faces unique challenges, and Mayor Roberts led a private discussion among local officials last week "not to criticize and look where we might have stumbled in the past, but to look at the great opportunities that the future holds."

Roberts, who has three children, said Thursday that improving education in the mile-square city is one his top priorities during his second term.

"My prediction is that in five years we are no longer going to see families leave Hoboken because they don't have confidence [in the city's public schools]," Roberts said. "In fact, I envision families moving here just so they can enroll their sons and daughters in what are going to be the best public schools in the state."

A new partnership

When it comes to New Jersey educational theory, there are few bigger names than William L. Librera, who was the state's commissioner of education during Gov. James McGreevey's administration.

The board, with Roberts' full support, is currently in negotiations to bring in Librera as a consultant, who will help develop a new model for structuring the schools to promote better student performance.

Last year, Rutgers University launched a new institute, headed by Liberia, to help schools analyze standardized test scores and improve teaching. The Rutgers Institute for Improving Student Achievement was created to help local school districts partner with university scholars conducting research on kindergarten through 12th grade education.

"He is going to assist the board in developing revolutionary methods to ensure that our children are going to have the best education possible," Roberts said.

According to Board of Education President Carmelo Garcia, the board will likely vote on a consulting contract for Rutgers and Librera at its next regular meeting on Feb. 28 at 7 p.m.

Garcia added that they are still negotiating the terms of the contract. He also said Librera will be at the board's caucus meeting this Monday at 6 p.m. where parents and members of the public can meet him.

Roberts' private forum includes political opponents

Roberts' education initiative was launched Tuesday night at an invitation-only event for about 40 community leaders who have a stake in the city's educational system.

The meeting, which was closed to the press, was held at the house of Stevens Institute of Technology's President Harold Raveche. Roberts said that the press was not invited to the meeting so that it would not be politicized. According to Roberts, attendees included almost every Hoboken elected official from the City Council and the Board of Education, district administrations, city educators, and local business and civic leaders.

Even though there was more than a quorum of both the City Council and Board of Education, the city's attorney, Joseph Sherman, said that the meeting did not violate the state's Sunshine Law. Sherman said that the event was "a social gathering" where no action was taken, and the focus of the meeting was to allow people to talk in general terms about "education in Hoboken in the 21st century."

Also invited were Roberts' political opponents, like former Councilman Tony Soares, Beth Mason - who was the campaign manager for former Mayoral Candidate Carol Marsh - and Theresa Minutillo, who will be challenging Roberts' ticket in this year's school board election. While some of Roberts' critics did attend the meeting, at least one - Minutillo - said that she is worried that the mayor's initiative could be a publicity stunt that was launched to coincide with the upcoming Board of Education elections.

Roberts said that Librera, who attended the meeting, gave a brief introduction, but mostly sat and listened to what everyone had to say about the state of public school education in Hoboken.

The mayor called it the "most substantial" night for Hoboken education since he hosted a public charter school forum during Mayor Anthony Russo's first term in 1995. He added that the purpose of the meeting was not to place blame, but start the process of looking forward.

Hoboken's unique challenges

Roberts added that he understands Hoboken's public school district faces its share of challenges.

First, the makeup of the district's student body does not match the city's demographics. Over 70 percent of its children are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which sharply contrasts with the fact that Hoboken has a large affluent population.

Thus, in a wealthy city full of young professionals who work in New York, it is mainly the poorer families in the city who are using the public schools. Many of the city's new professionals don't have children yet, and some send their children to private schools. Due to the rise in housing costs, Hoboken has lost some of its lower-income families, and only the wealthy can afford to move into town.

In 1985 the school district had 4,400 students. But this year, only slightly more than 2,000 are enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. The challenge is for school officials to overcome the perception that the public schools are underperforming.

"We want to grow the Hoboken School District and in five years have it reflect our city's demographics," Roberts said. "[Librera] has the insight and knowledge to help us figure out where we want to be in three years, and where we want to be 10 years. He has the expertise to help us get there."

Garcia added that Hoboken's schools are in a transition. Currently, Hoboken is a "special needs" Abbott District, a designation reserved for the state's poorest school districts. But Garcia said he realizes the city won't be an Abbott District forever and that the city can no longer be content competing with only the other Abbott Districts. "We can't accept being just mediocre, we have to be great," Garcia said. "We're ready to go to the next level and not just compete with the Abbotts, but to compete with the most respected and revered districts in the state."

Succession plan

The schools will face other challenges in the next few years. Some high-profile administrators are scheduled to retire. Superintendent of Schools Patrick Gagliardi, who is also currently serving as principal of Hoboken High School, will retire effective two years from last September. The Board of Education voted to buy out his contract late last year.

Also, there will be an opening for a principal of the Brandt Middle School in the next year, when Gerry Kiely leaves.

Additionally, there will be an opening for the district's business administrator, which is an especially critical position considering that Hoboken has the county's highest per pupil cost and a nearly $50 million budget. According to Roberts, Librera, if hired as a consultant, can help develop a succession plan to find the most qualified candidates.

A public process

Roberts said that he wants to make the process of improving the schools open to the public, although Tuesday's event was not.

Roberts said that in the coming weeks he will schedule a number of public workshops where members of the public can tell their ideas to the Board of Education and Librera. Roberts added that public participation will be a critical part of his initiative, just as it was when the city rewrote its master plan two years ago.

Still including Stevens

Roberts said that another part of his education initiative is to bolster the partnership between Stevens Institute of Technology and the Hoboken public schools. With the support of Roberts, Raveche, and Gagliardi, a number of successful programs have been undertaken to bring technology-infused curricula into the schools.

One example of where the Hoboken and Stevens partnership has reaped results is the Hoboken Summer Institute. For the past three summers, Stevens has picked up the cost of a two-week long workshop where professors from the schools instruct Hoboken teachers on how to best use technology and the Internet in the classroom. 

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