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Sunday, April 21, 2024

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Review & Opinion

Public Schools Are in Need of Community Attention

We have been told since our first day of school that a good education is the ticket to a better future. It opens doors to career opportunities. It makes us better citizens. It leaves us not just with an inventory of facts, but with a mind trained to think. The benefits of education serve both societal and personal needs.

Many studies also have shown analytically what we all know as a matter of common sense – the quality of schools in an area is a major factor when families with children decide where to live.

We live in a state that does well in rankings of educational quality. The National Education Association consistently ranks New Jersey in the top 10 states in the country. With over 600 operating school districts local management of schools has a long tradition in the state with a heavy dependence on property taxes as the principal funding mechanism. The NEA places New Jersey third in the nation for revenue receipts per enrolled student in the fall of 2023. Almost all of that revenue is from property taxes augmented by state aid.

In Cape May County we have 19 designated public school districts and 31 separate schools for less than 12,000 students.

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Improving the performance in our schools is a public policy issue that demands our attention.

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Our problem is that most of our schools in Cape May County do not compare well with schools across the state based on a variety of performance measures.

Many of us have fond feelings for our local schools and some might even find negative comments about their performance as a call to arms. But the objective reality is that we have a problem with school performance and that problem grows more serious as our children move through the system from lower to higher grades.

We have many hard-working teachers and all variety of staff and administrators who diligently strive to improve the education our children receive. They would all remind us that many factors go into school performance and some of the most important factors emanate from outside the schools themselves. All true.

Yet the complexity of the task does not change where we are in comparison to where we should be. Improving the performance in our schools is a public policy issue that demands our attention. Underperforming schools hinder economic development; they contribute, along with housing costs, to a loss of young families and children.

Underperforming schools are so named because the students in them perform at levels that do not meet standards for age group or educational level. We can debate the standards, but such an effort is a distraction from the core issue. When students cannot read and comprehend at a level appropriate to their age and class, there is a problem. When basic mathematics is a mystery or a skill students have convinced themselves they will never need, there is a problem.

Whether we use the state’s summative scores, or the New Jersey Education district performance report, or we fall back on raw assessment test scores related to levels of education, the picture is the same.

We cannot constructively address the problem of underperformance in education until we acknowledge it. Step one must be admitting we have an issue that needs to be addressed. Step two is finding the status quo unacceptable.

What is the status quo?

Of our 13 municipal school districts, counting the one regional school, five elementary and middle school districts are listed by the state as meeting state averages in both English language arts and mathematics. These districts are Avalon, Stone Harbor, Upper Township, West Cape May and Wildwood Crest. Cape May City School District is below in English language arts and at the state level with mathematics.

With the exception of Upper Township School District, the school districts rated at the state average level are among the county’s smallest, leaving the bulk of the students in schools where the averages are below the state level.

At the high school level two of the county’s five high schools are also listed as meeting the state average, Ocean City High School and the county Technical High School. The other three high schools all have significantly lower scores.

Turning around low performance has been a major area of research in education. Districts that have accomplished significant improvement have contributed to best practices. As parents and citizens we are not experts in those best practices, but we do know they exist. We do know that low performance turnarounds are possible. We also should know that it is not solely a task for the schools, but it has to start there.

We are spending close to $200 million in local property taxes for education. In many communities the school tax is the largest portion of the property tax bill. We need to spend it wisely.

We need to better prepare students for life after high school, better equip them for college or the workforce. We need to improve student engagement in their own education.

We will hear from educators in the county that our analysis is flawed and that our schools are doing their job well. Yet, the measuring of the result by just about any standard measure used says differently.

It is time for officials to structure a dialog with the community to develop public plans for increasing student success, plans that identify and use the best strategies already being employed elsewhere.

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From the Bible – Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6 

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