Half of Asbury Park's Seniors Won't Graduate this Year, After Taxpayers Spent $1M to Educate Them

Nicquel Terry | Asbury Park Press

ASBURY PARK — Gov. Chris Christie has lost faith in the city’s troubled school district. And he’s not alone — many city parents have too.

"I think we're tired of paying for failure,” Christie said Tuesday at a town hall meeting in Belmar, singling out Asbury Park schools as well as other urban districts that receive extra state funding but offer poor results. “We’re tired of paying for failure in every one of those districts, with the exception of one or two.”

Phyllis Ling shares his frustration. She said she fears her 17-year-old daughter, Amira, is not college ready because the district isn’t offering her the tools she needs such as working computers and book report assignments. Ling said Amira, a high school junior, has lost confidence that she will graduate on time.

“She didn’t have a regular math teacher at the beginning of the school year,” Ling said. “There was a substitute giving the children their grades. If she did not have the type of support she has (at home), there would be no question that she would be a total failure.”

UPDATE : Asbury Park's failure: Who is really to blame?

That failure would come at a high cost, not just for Amira and her family, but for the state’s taxpayers as well.

It costs $30,485 to educate one child in Asbury Park — more than it costs to send a student to Rutgers — making it the most expensive K-12 school district in the state, according to 2011-12 data from the state Department of Education.

But last year, only 51 percent of the 68 high school seniors graduated. That left 33 students without the skills needed for a diploma. And their failure cost state taxpayers $1 million for the school year.

INTERACTIVE: Check out our listing of NJ schools’ adjusted cohort graduation rates atapp.com/NJgradrates . To find out what’s going on in your schools, visit Home & Asbury Park High School alumna Shandell Hammary did not walk with her class in the graduation ceremony last year because she was short 14 credit hours. She made up those hours in September and got her diploma.

Hammary said she doesn’t believe the school district prepared her for college.

“In most of the classes, you are barely learning anything,” said the 19-year-old, who is searching for a job and plans to apply for Brookdale Community College."They will teach (the material) but they aren’t making sure you are learning it.”

The soaring price of failure, abysmal test scores, constant turnover in administration and infighting among school board members in Asbury Park has left many students without a solid education and parents like Ling worried about their child’s future.

The state has spent the last decade trying to fix the district, funneling nearly $550 million in aid, investing in support programs and sending five different state monitors to oversee operations.

Still, nothing appears to be working.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: What needs to be done to fix the city schools? And who needs to be held responsible for turning them around? Share your thoughts here and see what other readers are saying.

The K-12 school district, of 1,926 students and five schools, consistently ranks lower than its counterparts and below state averages in standardized test scores. A recent state report card said Asbury Park’s academic performance “significantly lags” in comparison with schools across the state.

In 2011-12 the school district spent nearly $76 million with 75 percent, or $57 million, of that coming from state taxpayers.

So, why aren’t the students excelling? And where is the money going?

School officials say the high costs are justified by an increasing population of foreign students who speak English as a second language and require special programs; declining enrollment that results in higher costs per pupil; violence which requires more security; and state regulations that force the district to provide preschool.

And as far as student performance, officials say Asbury Park faces a unique set of challenges.

“It’s an uphill battle,” said John Napolitani, a science teacher and president of the Asbury Park Education Association. “The kids here have so much more that they have to contend with as opposed to (other districts).”

Napolitani said some students have no academic support from their parents, struggle with language barriers because English isn’t their first language, and often go home to families that don’t feed them or care for them.

Senior Daquane Bland-Bennett said he believes the students should be held more accountable for their failure.

Bland-Bennett, who has a 3.2 GPA, is set to graduate this year and has a full ride football scholarship to West Virginia Wesleyan College. He said a lot of students lack the self-motivation that has helped him succeed.

“The majority of my teachers sincerely care about my well-being and what I become," said Bland-Bennett, 18. “I believe that most students are not motivated because of everything we see around us. If one guy went to jail and one went to college ... the one who comes home from jail gets more respect or love."

Bland-Bennett said the students might perform better if successful alumni came back and gave motivational speeches–– something he plans to do.

Urban issues

Asbury Park is one of the poorest cities in the state, with 31.5 percent of the population living below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census. The number of families who speak a language other than English at home jumped from 23.9 percent to 30.7 percent since the 2000 U.S. Census.

Blacks and Hispanics make up most of the students in the school district. Last year, 91 percent of the students received free or reduced lunch.

Many of the students are also living in crime-ridden neighborhoods. For every 1,000 residents in Asbury, 21 were the victims of violence in 2010, according to the latest State Police statistics.

“(Asbury Park) is an urban school district so they have urban issues,” said Glenn Forney, a director for the Department of Education.

This is not to say that other urban school districts don’t face similar issues, but the impact in Asbury Park is on a larger scale, Forney said.

Parent Asia Mosley said the schools might perform better if the parents cared more about their child’s education and well-being. Mosley has a 5-year-old daughter at Bradley Elementary School and said she regularly checks to make sure Bianca’s school work is completed.

“When your child is at home with you, it’s your job to get them ready for bed, get them fed, and get their homework done,” Mosley said. “A teacher can only do so much in eight hours.”

Failure's cost

Asbury Park’s per pupil spending of $30,485 in the 2011-12 school year far surpassed all other districts in Monmouth and Ocean counties. The small, upscale coastal town of Deal was the second top spender in Monmouth County at $26,982; Monmouth Beach schools spent the least, $13,816. Both school districts had student populations under 500.

In Ocean County, Long Beach Island schools had the highest per pupil spending at $25,404 followed by Lakewood schools at $23,528. Point Pleasant schools, a K-12 district with about 2,981 students, spent the least in the county at $13,736.

Forney said decreasing enrollment is the biggest hurdle for Asbury Park.

The district has been able to cut its total expenditures every year, but enrollment is decreasing at a faster rate making it difficult to keep per pupil costs down. For example, the budget has dropped 6.5 percent since 2008, but enrollment has dropped 9.5 percent. In the 2012-13 school year there were 1,926 students enrolled in the district, down from 3,028 students in 2002-03, according to the state.

Each time enrollment drops, the per pupil costs increase because a fixed cost is being spread among fewer students, Forney said. In 2002-03, the district was spending just $17,639 per student.

Interim school superintendent Robert Mahon said the district loses many of its students to charter schools before they reach ninth grade because of violence and high drop out rates.

“People perceived it as a dangerous place,” Mahon said. “We are aware of it, we are concerned about it and we are certainly working to reverse that.”

Stephanie Mindingall, 36, of Asbury Park, said she can’t wait to pull her 12-year-old son out of Asbury Park Middle School and send him across town to Hope Academy Charter School where her two daughters attend school.

Mindingall said she believes Hope Academy provides a safer, more structured enviroment than Asbury Park schools.

“The teachers don’t seem to care in our regular school system,” Mindingall said. “At the charter school, the teachers and administrators are more hands-on and there is a lot of parent involvement.”

Mindingall said she plans to enter her son in the Hope Academy lottery this year. The school has 23 seats available for each grade level and holds a lottery each year for spots that open up. At least 20 children apply for each grade level on average, according to the school.

Mindingall said she likes the reward system at Hope Academy where students get taken on field trips. She said she has not seen a program like this in Asbury Park schools. “Expand their horizons so they know there is something outside of Asbury Park,” she said.

Hope Academy is also spending less than Asbury Park schools. In the 2011-12 schools year, the school spent $19,002 per pupil.

The graduation rate at Academy Charter High School in Lake Como in 2012 was 83 percent.

The Asbury Park school district is looking to retain students by enhancing its high school offerings and getting middle school students involved in those programs so they will stay in the district, Mahon said. The Naval Reserve Officers Training program is one that was recently adopted at the high school to attract students, he said.

Despite enrollment drops and low graduation rates, teacher salaries are on the rise.

In 2002, the median salary for a teacher in Asbury Park was $42,280 compared to $65,055 in 2012, state data shows. That equated to an increase of nearly $5,000 in per pupil spending. In 2012, the average statewide median teacher salary was $62,875.

The number of teachers has decreased though — but not as fast as student enrollment: 35 percent fewer teachers compared to a 57 percent drop in student enrollment over the 10-year span.

Demographic shift

Language barriers are also driving costs and slowing district progress, officials say.

School board vice president Nicolle Harris said Asbury Park Schools educate numerous immigrant students who will be the first in their families to learn English. Those students often perform at a lower level, she said.

Harris said this is one factor people should consider when judging the district on its test scores and graduation rates.

“We have to learn to adapt because these kids aren’t going anywhere,” Harris said of the students’ success rate. “We have to be creative, and we have to assess the needs of our families.”

Asbury Park is one of 31 poor urban school districts, formerly known as Abbott districts, in the state that must provide mandatory preschool for children ages 3 to 4.

Forney said the district spends about $7.8 million annually on its preschool program and services 495 children on average. State taxpayers foot the bill for preschool, according to Forney.

The cost of security in Asbury Park Schools also shot up in 2012 because of violent incidents, such as shootings in school neighborhoods, that threatened the safety of students, officials say. The district inked an agreement with the city to pay $75,000 annually to place Asbury Park police officers in the Bangs Avenue corridor near the Barack H. Obama School and Asbury Park Middle School. Asbury Park spent $3,546 per pupil on total operational costs, which include security, in 2011-2012; the state average for a K-12 district was $1,612.

Students 'lagging'

Among the per student costs in Asbury Park was the $13,144 spent on classroom instruction, the highest of any K-12 school district in the state. Classroom instruction includes teacher salaries, supplies, equipment for class use and professional-educational services.

But the price the district pays for these items has offered dismal results.

Only 2 percent of the students who took the SAT achieved scores of 1550, according to the state’s school-by-school performance reports. The report indicated Asbury Park High School had a composite SAT score of 962, well below the state average of 1512.

Former state monitor Lester Richens said in a September 2013 report that 54 percent of fifth-graders entering middle school were reading at a first-grade level.

Phyllis Ling, the parent with a daughter at Asbury Park High School, believes the budget for classroom instruction is not being properly spent.

“It’s not going into my child’s education,” Ling said. “My daughter is a junior and has not done a book report this year. My daughter is having anxiety about standardized tests.”

Mahon, the interim superintendent, insists that the schools are making efforts to improve what he called “disappointing“ numbers on the report card, including a state-run program that provides professional development on site for staff.

State monitor Carole Morris, who was appointed in September, said the district has increased its teacher evaluations from one per school year to three or four. Asbury Park is also considering adding new courses to attract the high-performing students who leave the district for charter schools, she said.

“We feel that if we can get a lot of the students back from private schools that would add to the graduation rate,” said Morris, the former executive Monmouth County superintendent.

The state monitor also believes the unstable leadership in Asbury Park has impacted student and teacher success. There have been six directors of curriculum in the past five years and four superintendents in six years, she said.

More recently, Morris has been working with the school board to hire a new permanent superintendent. She overturned the board’s choice in November which infuriated some board members and residents.

“This education program here is doable to enable students to be successful,” Morris said. “I’m a local person, I believe in Asbury Park and I believe in the Asbury Park school system.”




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