Making the grade
Public school trends in Hudson County: New technology, new facilities
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Mar 10, 2013 | 4726 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Several school districts in Hudson County have made upgrades in classroom technology a priority this year. Pictured: The computer lab at Secaucus Middle School.
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Advancements in education are an important gauge of a county’s viability and vibrancy, since schools can turn short-term residents into ones who stay for decades.

As a largely urban county, Hudson County’s school districts continue to address challenges faced by most urban districts, including overcrowding, aging facilities, and a lack of financial resources needed to improve student learning. The good news is that all of Hudson County’s districts have seen some improvements in these areas and appear to be moving in the right direction. There are also many choices within and outside of the public school system, including charter schools and county high schools.

With the help of state funding, several local districts have either renovated or broken ground on new school buildings in recent months. The acquisition of existing buildings is also planned to help alleviate student overcrowding. And nearly every district in Hudson County has made significant investments in technology upgrades.

Here is a brief overview of state of Hudson County’s school districts.

Jersey City

In Jersey City, Dr. Marcia Lyles is less than a year into her tenure as the new superintendent of schools, but she has won the support of several community groups and parents who were initially skeptical.

In the fall, Lyles gave an assessment of the district. Lyles said the district already has a number of programs and resources that improve student achievement, but they’re not available to all students. The school board is now working to distribute these programs and resources more evenly. The new superintendent also said she wants the district to work towards having a 100 percent high school graduation rate.

With the help of two $1.3 million grants from the Federal Communication Commission, the school system is expanding high speed internet access throughout the district. According to Thomas Purwin, director of technology and information systems for the Jersey City school district, school buildings should be completely wired for high speed internet access by the end of this year. He expects “about 50 percent’’ of the free public WiFi access to be available by next June.

Jersey City is one of two municipalities in Hudson County that has new school facilities being constructed due to funding from the state.

In January, the New Jersey Schools Development Authority broke ground for the new Elementary School 3 Project.

Located at the corner of Laidlaw and Summit avenues, Elementary School 3 will be able to accommodate about 775 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. It is scheduled to open in time for the 2016-2017 academic year.

The city also has several private and parochial schools. Jersey City’s Catholic schools, which are run by the Catholic Diocese of Newark, have experienced both progress and setbacks recently.

St. Dominic Academy has announced plans to expand by two grade levels by next year. The school will start by adding a seventh grade in September 2013, then add an eighth grade class in September 2014.

Meanwhile, the Resurrection School announced last month that it will close at the end of the current academic year. Like their counterparts in New York City, Catholic schools in Hudson County have experienced declining enrollment in recent years and a number of schools have been closed by the Catholic Diocese as a result.

Hoboken

An increasing number of families with children say they plan to stay in Hoboken as educational opportunities and programs grow and improve. For Example, the local charter schools cater to different specialties and educational interests. HoLa, for instance, is a dual language school. Similarly, Hoboken High School has an award-winning drama program that has kept some families committed to the school system.

The Hoboken School Public School District is currently considering a proposal to bring back its middle school. Students currently attend elementary schools that end after the seventh grade. Eighth graders attend Hoboken High. Hoboken last had a middle school 10 years ago.

The district has been surveying parents and teachers to find out how they feel about the change.

Two Hoboken-based schools – one parochial, one private – are recovering from devastating incidents that took place last year. Students from the Hoboken Charter School, which has two locations in Hoboken, were displaced after a fire swept through its 713 Washington St. building in September. The incident has spurred parents and the community to create Rebuild Hoboken Charter School, which sponsors periodic fundraisers. Students are now attending classes at the former at St. Anne’s School at 255 Congress St. in the Jersey City Heights.

Approximately 400 students from Hoboken Catholic Academy are currently attending classes at the St. Nicholas School, also in the Jersey City Heights, and Hoboken’s Our Lady of Grace at Fifth Street and Willow Avenue. Hoboken Catholic Academy experienced major damage during Hurricane Sandy when two fuel storage tanks leaked and spread fuel throughout a crawl space beneath the school building.

West New York

Rife with a history of overcrowding, the West New York School District has recently seen light at the end of this tunnel.

For the 2012-2013 school year, West New York saw the opening of a new campus for P.S. No. 3, which houses approximately 750 students. (The school district is using the old campus, which housed about 400 students, as a registration center.)

In addition to being larger than the old campus, the new P.S. 3 comes equipped with a new auditorium and gymnasium. Each P.S. 3 classroom also has a SmartBoard, interactive internet-based white boards that are quickly becoming the standard in most technologically advanced schools. The larger campus is also able to accommodate a new pre-kindergarten program.

To further alleviate overcrowding in the district, West New York recently purchased the old St. Joseph’s, a parochial school that was closed by the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. The school was purchased for $12 million with state funds approved by the New Jersey Schools Development Authority. The old St. Joseph’s campus is currently being renovated with city dollars and will be used to alleviate overcrowding at West New York’s Memorial High School, possible as early as this September. (If the new campus does not open this fall, the school district expects that it will be ready for students by January 2014.)

Under current plans, the city’s freshmen and sophomores will attend school at the St. Joseph’s campus, while juniors and seniors will continue to be housed at Memorial. The new facility can house up to 850 students in 35 classrooms, including several new science labs.

During the 2012-2013 academic year the West New York School District expanded its in-district autism program, which has allowed the district to educate autistic students within the city, rather than sending them to specialized programs elsewhere.

Weehawken

Like Jersey City, Weehawken is also looking for innovative ways to generate money for its school system that do not rely on tax dollars. Specifically, the town wants to raise money that can be earmarked for computers and other technology.

To that end, the town is in the process of creating a foundation that will solicit private donations to the Weehawken Board of Education. The foundation, which has yet to be named, will tap corporations that have education-oriented giving programs, Weehawken’s local business community, and alumni for donations.

“It’s hard for our schools to keep up when technology advances so quickly, so we’re hoping this will help,” Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said recently “The shelf life on computers used to be five years; then it was three years, and now it’s two years. With a tight budget it’s hard to keep up.”

North Bergen

In one example of the impact that technology can have on learning, music students at North Bergen’s Franklin School are now using Kindle Fire tablet computers and a software program called SmartMusic to hone their musical skills.

Educators believe that music lessons and an understanding of music enhance a student’s academic performance as well.

At the Franklin School, music teachers are using SmartMusic to create online assignments which the students can then use when practicing their instruments. The program immediately lets students know when they are playing the correct –or wrong – notes. (The program can also be used for vocal training.)

Secaucus

The Secaucus School District has been in the fortunate position of being able to invest in sophisticated classroom technology for the past several years. The district has continued to make investments in 2012 and 2013.

This school year, for instance, the school district invested in a number of technology upgrades, including two new computer labs in the Business and Technology department at Secaucus High School. The labs are equipped with approximately 60 new personal computers with large LCD monitors and new printers. Several classrooms also have larger, energy-efficient monitors.

The school district also invested in 60 new tablet computers for Clarendon Elementary and 30 new tablets at Huber Street School, which represents an expansion of a pilot program that was started over the last two school years. Students at Secaucus’ two elementary schools are using the tablets to access interactive applications and programs to enhance in-classroom assignments.

At Secaucus Middle School, each teacher was given a new iPad this year, which are being used for both professional development and classroom instruction.

Computers throughout the Secaucus school district were this year upgraded with additional memory in anticipation of new standardized tests in two years.

At the beginning of the 2012-2013 academic year, current Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina gave notice that this would be her last year with the school district. Her last day is June 30. The local Board of Education is currently in the process of seeking her replacement.

Meanwhile, long-discussed plans to consolidate the Hudson County Schools of Technology into one centralized campus in Secaucus have been scrapped due to a lack of support and funding from the state. For now, the school’s campuses will remain in North Bergen and Jersey City.

Union City

In September, the Union City Public School district opened the Colin Powell Elementary School, which accommodates more than 800 students in pre-kindergarten through the fifth grade. Powell Elementary currently houses students from the old Henry Hudson School and the former Christopher Columbus School, which was demolished to build Powell.

The $34 million facility was constructed with state resources and, like most new school buildings these days, comes equipped with SmartBoards in every classroom.

Gov. Christopher Christie was on hand at a ceremonial ribbon cutting at Powell Elementary last month with Union City Mayor Brian Stack.

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

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