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Frequently Asked Questions About State-Operated School Districts

Q. What is meant by the term state-operated school district (SOSD)?

A. In 1987, the New Jersey Legislature enacted a law allowing the State Board of Education to take over responsibility for the operation of chronically failing public school districts. This law, commonly known as the "state-operation law," specifies that districts that fail to provide a "thorough and efficient system of education" to their students may be taken over by the Department of Education for a minimum of five years.

The criteria for becoming a state-operated school district in New Jersey are characterized by a district's "unwillingness or inability" to meet the state certification standards, which consist of a series of performance and quality control benchmarks frequently referred to as "monitoring indicators." These indicators assess a variety of district-level performance issues, such as student performance on state standardized tests, student attendance and dropout rates, the condition of school facilities, and school-level planning requirements, among others. Districts that continually fail to meet these indicators are candidates for state-operation. However, if the State Board of Education and the Commissioner believe that the district has demonstrated a willingness or ability to make progress toward standards on its own with technical assistance from the department, that district need not be taken over by the state. State-operation is reserved for those districts that cannot meet standards and do not demonstrate a willingness to improve their performance.

There are currently three state-operated school districts. Jersey City became state-operated in October 1989, Paterson in August 1991, and Newark in July of 1995.

Q. What is the current status of the state-operated districts?

A. All three state-operated school districts continue to implement their comprehensive strategic plans and are refocusing those plans to ensure effective implementation of the Abbott Supreme Court ruling mandating whole school reform and early childhood education for all three-, four-, and five-year-olds. The districts are implementing their strategic plans with department oversight, and the planning documents are regularly reviewed and revised. In addition to the oversight of the strategic plans, the department has continued to review finance, facilities, programs, assessment, certification, data collection, and the annual evaluation. It also approves personnel actions, evaluates the state district superintendent, works with the boards of education, and reviews audit activities through the Director of Compliance.

Q. When will Jersey City be returned to local control?

A. The Commissioner reported to the State Board of Education in January of 2000 that the Jersey City School District continued to make impressive gains in student performance as measured by state tests. The district has improved in five of the six tested subject areas on state tests since 1993-94, the first year the current state tests were given. In addition, the district has met 94 percent of the indicators necessary for certification, up from 37 percent at the time the district was taken over. The Commissioner presented a recommendation to the State Board of Education at its June 1999 meeting for establishing a process for the gradual end of state-operation in Jersey City.

Q. What is the status of the Newark School District?

A. Since state operation began in 1995, the state district superintendent and her staff have restructured the central office and established numerous business and community partnerships that assisted in implementing several initiatives, including full-day kindergarten for all eligible students. The district evaluated principals and vice-principals, which led to the hiring of new school leaders who are focused on continued student improvement. These investments have established in the district a strong foundation upon which to implement whole school reform.

Q. What is the status of the Paterson School District?

A. An informal review by county office staff conducted in the summer of 1997 determined that the district has met 78 percent of the indicators necessary for certification, compared with 45 percent at the time the district became state-operated. In addition, Paterson saw very meaningful student performance gains in 1997-98, the best single-year performance since state-operation began. The district had 13 schools in the first cohort of Whole School Reform, and has advanced a very aggressive facilities program.