Perth Amboy School District Tries to Move Past Controversy

September 2, 2012

PERTH AMBOY — It’s time to head back to school, a chance for new beginnings.

Teachers have new students. Students have new clothes and classes.

And for Perth Amboy’s Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Janine Walker Caffrey, it’s a chance to develop a new working relationship. During her year, Caffrey’s attempts to lead the reforms she was hired to do were rebuffed by a school board that accused her of failing to work with them to implement change.

Meanwhile, members of the union representing teachers and other staff are wondering if they will be brought to the table to work toward making improvements in the special-needs district of 10,000 students, rather than getting caught in the middle of a district divorce, as the union president has characterized the past year.

What happens next might depend on the outcome of an administrative law judge’s decision on the school board’s attempt in May — its second — to place Caffrey on paid administrative leave. The first attempt, which forced her to miss several school days, was overturned by the state education commissioner.

Caffrey is looking forward to the the start of a new school year, which will have her teaching one period of ninth-grade physics at Perth Amboy High School as part of a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program, while also running the district.

“I’m really excited to have a great year. Amidst all of this nonsense, this district has moved forward,” said Caffrey, a former special-education teacher, who, along with other teachers, took classes this summer to teach physics as part of a plan to revise the high school’s science sequence by offering physics in the freshman year, followed by chemistry and biology the following years.

“I don’t think I have the capacity to lead this district toward this new rigorous math and science initiative without a full intimate understanding of what that means in this community with our large bilingual population and high poverty population,” Caffrey said. “I need to experience it for myself.”

Board of Education Vice President Kenneth Puccio sees the coming school year as centering on learning in the classrooms.

“Despite everything else that is going on, people in the school buildings will do their jobs,” he said. “The teachers will show up for work. They will come back to work and do their job and students will learn..”

Puccio said what goes on outside of the school buildings will take care of itself.

One of the big changes for the district this year is the creation of small learning communities for the high school, along with a new STEM Academy.

“We are opening up what used to be the St. Mary’s campus, which is now going to be our STEM Academy and University Honors Academy,” Caffrey said. “That’s really exciting for many reasons. Perth Amboy High School, when they were planning for the new school and they had these grand plans for the new building, they envisioned these small learning communities, and we are actually creating those now, without the new building.”

The learning communities are being created in multiple buildings. The main campus will be known as the liberal arts academy. The east wing of the district administration building will be known as the personalized learning academy and will have programming that includes flexible scheduling, internships and online learning. The East Campus is known as the visual and performing arts academy.

The creation of the smaller learning communities is expected to help reduce crowding at the Eagle Avenue main high school campus, which crammed in 2,400 students last year. This year, that number is expected to drop to about 1,600 to 1,800.

“We’ll now be at a 20 percent overcrowding situation at the main campus,” Caffrey said. “We can manage 20 percent. We can’t really manage 50 percent.”

Also new this year, a progressive math initiative will be implemented for middle and high school students in grades 5 to 12 and a pilot program at the Dr. Herbert N. Richardson 21st Century Elementary School for grades kindergarten to 4.

Dual projectors for the math and science classes will offer instruction in English and Spanish, helping students to bridge the two languages.

“We are woefully behind with our bilingual students, and hopefully this will help,” Caffrey said.

An unsettled year

The district had an unsettled 2011-12 school year.

Caffrey was hired at the beginning of the last school year to lead reform and improve standardize test scores in the urban, largely Latino district. The 2011-12 school year budget was $226 million, of which more than $160 million came from state aid.

During the 2010-11 school year, 70 percent of the district’s fifth- and seventh-grade students were not proficient in language arts and literacy and 60 percent of students entering high school read at an elementary school level, according to Caffrey. Puccio, however, questions the judging of students by test scores. He said desire to achieve is a more important factor.

Caffrey’s initiatives for change often were met with resistance. At the same time, she received pressure to hire people recommended by board members, which she resisted.

There were allegations that the board president’s children improperly participated in the district’s free and reduced lunch program, and Caffrey’s handling of the alleged sale of an alcoholic beverage at the Richardson School has been questioned, especially after one employee was arrested and another filed a whistleblower lawsuit.

Board member Mark Carvajal has suggested the board create a cover page for the school free- or reduced-lunch application allowing parents to indicate they are filing the form for school records only. He also has suggested the creation of an employee referral form.

Caffrey has filed ethics complaints against five of the nine school board members, including Puccio. As a result, board members are reluctant to discuss the rift with the superintendent for fear of being brought up on additional ethics charges.

The board twice has voted to put Caffrey on paid administrative leave, and 17 special school board meetings have been held, many involving Caffrey’s employment.

Caffrey hasn’t remained silent during the turmoil, posting blogs and You Tube videos to address her concerns.

The unrest most recently led to the board voting on the evaluation of her first year as superintendent, the outcome of which was not made public because Caffrey did not attend that session, but she did not expect it to be favorable.

“Sometimes you see discord on a school board with the administration,” said Mike Yaple, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “It’s the democratic process. Some people may not like when it involves conflict, but it’s better than the alternative. If voters don’t like it, they can change it. It’s the voters who have the final say.”

Yaple added that what appears to one person as conflict might be a needed transition to others, and ultimately it’s the community that makes that decision.

The impact

For Caffrey, the main impact of the dispute with the board has been some delay in planning for the upcoming school year and some positions possibly not being filled at the start of school.

The board has tabled a contract of more than $250,000 with AMI Kids, an organization that works with more challenging students, and a company Caffrey worked for in 2002.

“They are a nonprofit organization. I have no ties to them whatsoever. I just know they do really good work,” she said. “And the goal was to bring them in and help us deal with the more challenging behaviors in the classroom, which is something that all of our teachers say they want and need.

“What we wanted to do with AMI Kids is have them work with us to overhaul that system, and at the same time work with teachers to prevent them (students) from having to go into that system in the first place.”

But Donna Chiera, president of Perth Amboy Federation/AFT, the union representing teachers and other staff, has another idea.

“We need to find a place where we can put a true alternative school, where a child who cannot function within a school building that may be causing disruptions to others could go to a school and still remain academically viable but yet is receiving counseling and behavior modification by people who are trained to do that,” Chiera said.

“The moment they get back on program, they can go back to the regular population. But they are not in the regular population causing havoc where 28 other kids can’t learn. For our middle and high school kids, I think we really need to look at an alternative program.”

Chiera said the district has a code of conduct that needs to be followed.

“Building administrators should not have the option of following that policy or not,” she said. “We put that in place in the ’90s because it’s consistent in the district so the discipline is the same. And everyone is treated fairly.”

Caffrey said the rift with the school board has not deterred people from wanting to work here.

“We haven’t done any major recruiting, but we have had more than enough applications for all of our open positions,” she said. “We have seen no impact in terms of that. We had very few resignations. And any new open positions that we have are going to be filled by some high-quality people.”

The one major open position has been the principal at the Richardson School, where the former principal was not rehired after serving one year following the alcohol sale allegation. About 50 applications have been received for that position. Caffrey seems to recall reviewing about the same number last year when that position was first vacant.

“I am going to take the time necessary to find the right person for that position. This is not something we need to rush,” said Caffrey, adding that the vice principal will open the school on Thursday.

Chiera, however, remains concerned about the lack of collaboration and communication in the district, where board members can’t talk to staff without the superintendent present or without her permission, the reason a discussion between the union and district officials on school discipline has not taken place.

“It can be an ethics violation if a staff member stops a board member in the supermarket,” Chiera said. “How can they set policy if they can’t see what is going on in an unobstructive way or sit and talk to people without having to worry. Staff won’t talk because they are intimidated to have retribution. Administration is afraid. I don’t know how you move forward if you are not creating a situation where people feel comfortable to say what they feel needs to be done.”

Chiera said she wants to move three issues this year: standards of conduct and achievement, national core standards and teacher evaluation.

“When we work in a very collaborative way, the district makes strides,” she said. “I don’t know if we can do that. I’m hoping. There are power struggles going on. But I represent 1,486 people who chose to come to Perth Amboy, many of them to teach knowing they were going into an urban setting, who believe our kids can do a lot more and believe we can move this district to a place it never has been before and they want to be part of that.”