Paterson School Offers Signs of Hope in Urban School Reform

Leslie Brody | The Record

Rosalie Bespalko, a blunt-spoken principal from Carlstadt charged with the daunting mission of turning around one of the lowest-performing schools in New Jersey, was alone in her motel room last July when she opened her laptop to check the latest results from her students’ state tests.

As she scrolled through the names of her 27 third-graders at School 4 in Paterson, she hunted for children who scored enough points to pass in language arts. The stakes were high; learning to read by third grade is a critical predictor of academic success long term. Only seven made the cut.

“I cried,” she said. “I was so disappointed. I wanted them to do better.”As she scrolled through the names of her 27 third-graders at School 4 in Paterson, she hunted for children who scored enough points to pass in language arts. The stakes were high; learning to read by third grade is a critical predictor of academic success long term. Only seven made the cut.

Bespalko’s school is under enormous pressure to improve, and fast. Like other failing schools in New Jersey, it might eventually be shut down if it doesn’t make major strides for its roughly 600 children, who are mostly black and Hispanic, in kindergarten through eighth grade.

School 4 is fortunate, however. It has received an unprecedented infusion of millions of dollars in federal grants. It’s one of two schools in North Jersey, and 19 across the state, in the Obama administration’s $4.6 billion attempt to fix the country’s lowest-achieving schools. School Improvement Grants were awarded to the most troubled schools that promised a raft of specific remedies to boost teacher quality, extend children’s learning time and give extra help to those furthest behind.

Now halfway through its second year of the grant, there are glimmers that School 4 is making modest headway. While test scores remained painfully low, they rose slightly during the first year of the grant, so that by spring, 32 percent of children in Grades 3 to 8 passed state tests in language arts, up from 24 percent the year before, state data show. In math, 36 percent passed last spring, up from 32 percent.

In interviews at the school — also called Dr. Frank Napier Jr. Academy of Technology — teachers gave credit to small classes, reading specialists, on-the-job coaches and a more caring atmosphere, thanks partly to Bespalko’s energy and commitment. A 65-year-old whirlwind who wears cowboy boots, blond spiky hair and at least a dozen earrings, Bespalko cuts an unusual figure as she whisks through the hallways, even picking up a desk to carry it into a classroom herself when she sees a need. A tattoo on her back peeks above her sweater’s neckline to show the face of a beloved student named Tiamesha who died of cancer at age 14.

“She never complained,” Bespalko said. “She’s why I get up every day. She’s the angel saying ‘Mrs. B, never give up.’ ”

The School Improvement Grant program attempts to accomplish what previous reform efforts have failed to do: make a real difference for children facing the dire challenges of poverty, such as unstable housing, neighborhood violence and parents with limited education.

Whether the program is likely to help long term — or work well enough to be worth the billions invested nationwide — is a controversial question. State data released in December show most of the 19 schools in New Jersey that got such grants since 2009-10 made at least slight progress, including Paterson’s other recipient, School 10. Only four of these schools, however, had more than half of their students pass state proficiency tests in math last spring.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has repeatedly said he is optimistic about the initiative, and it’s far too early to judge outcomes. A recent federal analysis of the first cohort of schools in the program nationwide found mixed results. While most schools made gains, about one third saw test scores drop in reading and one third declined in math.

Critics called those results terribly disappointing. Andy Smarick, who recently stepped down as deputy commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Education, argued that after decades of ineffective, expensive stabs at overhauling the worst-performing schools, it’s more realistic to close them and start over with new management, especially charter operators.

“We need a new approach to the ongoing failure of our city school systems … one that stops jamming scarce resources into dysfunctional systems that remain impervious to reform and improvement,” Smarick wrote in a recent blog post for a conservative think tank. “The traditional urban school system is broken. … It must be replaced.”

While many School 4 teachers welcome the grant money, some express skepticism privately that reforms can overcome entrenched district bureaucracy and the crushing weight of poverty. Others are more hopeful.

“The smaller classes are wonderful,” said Karen Pomerantz, who has 14 students in fifth grade. “Bilingual students get extra help, the principal is supportive and there are reading specialists. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what else will. This is all the right things combined.”

A few blocks from School 4, in a grim sign of a cash-strapped city where half the households report yearly income under $34,302, a public library sits dark with plywood boards covering the windows, closed until further notice.

In the midst of such privation, School 4 is in its second year of getting an extra $2 million in federal School Improvement Grant money on top of a roughly $4 million budget. (Officials expect a third, final round of the grant next year.) That pays for 300 extra hours of instruction yearly for all students through longer school days and three additional weeks in school, specialists who focus on children struggling with reading and math, job coaches who mentor teachers weekly and carts full of iPads.

A requirement for getting the grant was replacing half the staff and, in many cases, the principal. School 4 had such a restructuring in 2010-11, which brought Bespalko aboard. It faced more disruption the following school year when Tropical Storm Irene flooded the brick building and forced the students into two sites downtown.

Many teachers applaud the principal’s dedication in steering the school through upheaval. Bespalko is known for working 12-hour days and trying to involve parents by inviting them to family movie nights and classroom visits. Elaine Silverstein, a fourth-grade teacher, says Bespalko “has the mentality to rah-rah everybody on.”

One goal is using data more precisely to pinpoint students’ weaknesses and catch those who need “urgent interventions.” The grant pays for a full-time data coach, Glenn Vanderveen, who said half of the 30 children who met daily with the school’s reading specialist, Joan Perry, improved enough to be deemed “proficient.”

Perry’s impact was visible when a 10-year-old recently asked if he could read to her during her lunch break. Although the boy was in fifth grade, he was struggling with “The Karate Class Mystery,” a book meant for second-graders. Between bites of a sandwich, Perry helped him sound out words.

Perry said that when she met the student in the fall, she was amazed that he still could not recognize vowels or consonants, and had never been evaluated for his reading disability. He had been transferred from another Paterson school and was promoted from grade to grade even though he scored in the lowest 2 percent of fifth-graders nationwide. When he got confused in big classes, he often became frustrated and acted up.

Fortunately, he had been making progress getting help one on one. Perry sorted through his recent spelling bees, showing that he made fewer mistakes each week. “He’s so determined!” she said, eliciting his shy smile. “I’m so pleased with him.”

The principal says she has little tolerance for teachers who aren’t on board with her mission. Last year, Bespalko transferred out four teachers and replaced four job coaches.

“We have to make a difference in kids’ lives,” she said. That cannot be done by “someone who does the minimum.”

Bespalko acknowledges it will be difficult to sustain students’ gains after the grant money runs out — which might mean the end of extended hours, unless the district finds other ways to pay for them. She aims to get her students up to 75 percent passing by the time she turns 70. “If everybody does their jobs, and stresses reading, parent involvement and practice, the kids have ability,” she said. “I know they can do it.” 

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