In Paterson, Some Educational Solutions: Editorial

Star-Ledger Editorial Board | The Star-Ledger
10/13/14

There’s a quiet revolution going on in the Paterson public schools, and its aim is to teach children that communities are made by people who show up.

It started two years ago at elementary school No. 5, which is in a blighted part of town on Totowa Ave, across the street from a crumbling Hinchliffe Stadium. It’s a fairly common school for the State’s third largest district, with 868 kids (one-fifth bilingual), and 90 percent enrolled for the free or reduced lunch program.

The faculty noticed an alarming (and costly) absentee rate during the 2012-13 year, with 152 students K-to-6 considered chronic truants, meaning they were absent 10 percent (18 days) of the time.

Sandra Diodonet, the principal at S-5, had a term for such a trend: “Insane,” she called it. Even in kindergarten, 28 percent were chronic absentees – double the national average and another 31 percent were at-risk.

So the solution was a “Success Mentor” program, which designates a dozen teachers responsible for a group of at-risk kids, who reach out in ways that truant officers cannot: with calls to the house, personal greetings upon arrival, stickers for the little ones, rewards such as extra recess or extra gym or first-to-lunch privileges for full classes, etc.

The upshot: The number of chronic absentees shrank from 152 to 36 last year, a 76 percent decrease. “But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Diodonet points out. “It’s part of a culture.”

Paterson remains under partial state authority, but even those areas that aren’t under local control – such as operations, instruction, and hiring – are subject to veto by the superintendent, Dr. Donnie Evans. Evans, in his fifth year, believes in creating that culture Diodonet spoke of: They call it the Full Service Community School initiative, which runs in conjunction with the Positive Behavior Support in Schools (PBSIS) program.

Essentially, each school partners with groups with skin in the game – groups such as the St. Paul’s Community Development Corporation at the New Roberto Clemente School, or the New Destiny Family Success Center at School 6 – and they bring resources to the school.

This allows Paterson to chart its own path without abandoning the community. And in a gang-ravaged city that could use some positive trends, it’s the best place to start. 

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