The New Jersey Department of Education recently released report cards for the performance of every school in the state during the 2010-11 school year. The School Report Card provides a district-by-district overview of public school performance across the state, with information on student demographics and performance, staff information and district financial data.
School Superintendent Michael Polizzi and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Danielle Shanley sat down with Patch to review the results of and discuss the changes they have already implemented that will "systemically redesign programs." Polizzi also discussed his "holistic plan" they are continually developing to positively shape and design change in the district, rather than being victim to change by operating primarily in crisis response mode.
The report card reflects the performance of New Milford Schools for the school year 2010 to 2011--close to the time that Polizzi was hired to come to New Milford. Polizzi said that the students at generally had a greater percentage of proficient scores than their peers in the state and the District Factor Group (DFG) — which measures schools from socio-economically similar areas — on both the language arts and math sections of the HSPA test. The SAT scores for 2010/2011 showed a statistical dip.
Polizzi said that included in all of the testing scores are the the scores of the special education population, which in New Milford is 16.5 percent versus the state average of 11 to 13 percent.
"Every classified special education student has an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for their classroom instruction so that accommodations can be made," Shanley said. "But there are little to no accommodations made for testing and their scores are added to those of the general education population."
Additionally, Polizzi said that since his arrival he has been untangling years of neglect in both the educational programming and the infrastructure. Polizzi inherited a fractured school district emerging from a decade of administrative instability —five superintendents in ten years. He was charged by the board to use his skill and vision honed during his tenure at the Bergen Academies to make New Milford a top school district in Bergen County.
In addressing the classroom size, Polizzi is increasing staff size. In doing so, his hiring practices are stringent in an effort to attract top talent.
"Our interview process is stringent, but applicants know that we offer them what few other school districts can--a chance to be creative and independent thinkers," Polizzi said. "Teachers want to come to New Milford."
A new kindergarten is also being added at , bringing the total number of Kindergartens in both Berkley and to four.
is changing the way science and social studies is taught. Rather than having a 40 minute class in each subject, there will be 80 minute blocks of science and 80 minute blocks of social studies on alternating days.
"This will allow for more inquiry based learning in both subjects," Polizzi said. "It's difficult to really delve into a subject when the teachers and students are limited to 40 minutes," he added.
The statistical dip was in the SAT scores and, Polizzi says, the answer is not to offer SAT prep courses, but to continue to implement new reading and math programs beginning in Kindergarten.
"To raise the reading and writing scores on the SAT's we have to create great readers and writers beginning in Kindergarten so by the time they take the SAT's they have the skills to perform well."
Shanley said that by building strong readers in Kindergarten and first grade, and continually building on those early developmental skills, by the time they get to high school they will be accomplished readers and writers.
To accomplish this, the district implemented the Teachers College, Columbia University Reading and Writing Workshop beginning at the elementary level. Teacher/mentors from Columbia collaborate with teachers from New Milford to develop personalized strategies for students in reading and writing that are foundational to literacy instruction.
As parents of children in the district know, changes have also occurred in the district's math program. Everyday Math has been implemented at the elementary level and Connected Math has been implemented at the middle school level.
"The goal is to have students taking algebra in the eighth grade," Polizzi said. "Taking algebra in the eighth grade will prepare students to be in pre-calculus or calculus by their junior year in high school, which will positively impact their SAT math scores."
Shanley said that when you look around at the more affluent school districts whose students generally have higher SAT scores in math, aside from private tutors and other advantages, their students are taking algebra in eighth grade and pre-calculus or calculus by the time they sit for their SAT's.
Polizzi said that testing focuses on statistical achievement, but these foundational changes being implemented will better connect students to advanced learning, and prepare them for college and beyond.
"But all of this takes time," Polizzi said.
Polizzi said that accomplishing this involves a composite of factors, -- students, teachers, administration and parents-- to commit to coming together to raise the bar of education in New Milford.
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