The public took center stage at Monday’s board of education meeting as parents questioned 's ranking in New Jersey Monthly magazine. Board members agreed with the need for change, defending recent efforts that have gone into improvements over many areas. Audience turnout was one of the largest the board has seen, they said.
Board President Cliff Lundin announced the creation of a new task force whose focus will be on the “high school of the future.” The task force will include members of the public, school board, administrators, principals and students. The deadline to sign up is Sept. 15.
“I want this to be as inclusive as we possibly can,” said Lundin. “And I challenge the people who berate us daily on the Internet to come out and be part of the process, or to stop berating us."
Lundin said the task force will be publicized, and posted on the district website.
The board will also hold a curriculum meeting on Sept. 5 at 6 p.m. Public attendance is requested and input will be welcome.
Former board member Peter Ecklund pointed out during public participation thatHopatcong High School's new ranking of No. 289, down from 200 last year, places it two points under Camden.
"It would appear to me there are some people who are not doing their job adequately in what the contract and their general obligations are to do for the student body," Ecklund told the board. "There’s a fault someplace—either on that table or in the building."
I am absolutely appalled by the ranking," school board president Cliff Lundin said. "That ranking was in fact based on the high school proficiency test and attendance rates. How Camden can have a better attendance rate than us, I don’t know. It’s not good."
"I, like you, am angry," Lundin told Ecklund. "But as a board member, I am sitting here extremely frustrated. There are steps that we have taken all along the way to identify this. We have done a complete vertical realignment of the curriculum K-12 in math, science and reading. Ultimately, that should in fact address the test score issues, and it is fully aligned with the state curriculum."
Over the past three years, the board has rewritten all curriculum across K-12 to align with state and national core standards. More than half a million dollars has been invested in the replacement of old, outdated textbooks with new materials to support the new curriculum. The board hired a new high school principal to start in September, and did a lateral reorganization of administrators in four schools to bring a new perspective in educational leadership. The facilities received updates over the summer to make them brighter, greener, cleaner and safer.
“Hopatcong High School can hold its own in the state of New Jersey based on a multitude of factors,” Superintendent Charles Maranzano said. “But when you parse out one or two factors like your high school total graduation rate, your attendance factor and your overall average HESPA test scores, and we’ve got a lot of students with special needs, it’s going to be difficult for us to hold our own when you use narrow criteria.”
"The state keeps changing directions on us," Lundin said. "That’s not to say other schools aren’t facing the same thing. I’m not making excuses. There’s a problem and we’re going to take a long hard look at it."
At the mention of the task force, members of the pubic immediately jumped into action with questions. Is it just about the high school? Will lower grades be addressed? Lundin said the original plan involved the high school, but the board is open to the community’s suggestions.
"I have a second grader and I’m concerned about her future,” resident JackieTurkington said. “I’m looking to get involved at an early age.”
Several others voiced agreement.
Nancy Boehm, a parent, asked about the vision.
“Do you see it as a parent organization working with the board of ed, the teachers, the principal, the students? Where do you see this task force, and how big do you see this task force?"
Lundin said he needs to see how many people sign up, but noted that it will be kept at a fair number.
"The task force cannot function on its own,” he said. “It’s got to have members of the board, members of the administration, and members the high school leadership and students."
Boehm said she wants to be on the task force to help improve academics. She says Lenape Valley offers more than Hopatcong, as far as curriculum is concerned.
"Lenape Valley’s curriculum is 68 pages long. Hopatcong’s is 36. How come we don’t offer the classes here?" she asked.
"In part because we lost 29 teachers two years ago," the board responded. "And over $8 million in the last 10 years."
Parent Colleen Mayer said her eighth grader is considering applying to Lenape, against her own wishes.
“I try to explain that Hopatcong has wonderful things," Mayer said. "She says, ‘Mom, they don’t have this.’ She’s an excellent student. She’s the one that’s looking at it.
"You need to talk to these kids. You need to catch them before they get in here."
Lundin said the most frustrating part of the job is state limits on what boards can do, despite what they do to help.
"Yes there have been positive changes that have come out of Trenton. They don’t go anywhere near solving the problems, I can tell you how frustrating it is to have our hands tied behind our back," Lundin said.
Gina Cinotti, director of guidance K-12, said it is harder than ever for kids to get into college because of lower acceptance rates and more kids applying.
“Even our best kids get rejected from some of the top schools, where three years ago they were getting in," she said. “When I saw the New Jersey Monthly article, I wanted to know what criteria are they using to assess us. It’s school environment, test scores, student teacher ratio, how many AP scores did you have. I wasn’t wholeheartedly convinced, but it’s something we’re going to work on, and look at."
Resident Attila Kiss has a second grader. This was his first time at a board meeting.
“When I saw those test scores, my heart just dropped. I will not have my child go into a school district where there’s no potential for her to learn.”
Kiss told the board they aren’t getting their message out.
“I came to learn what your plan is. How can we get involved and start doing something about this town?" Kiss said. "People are berating you because you’re not out there in the public telling these people what’s going on in the school system. They hear bits and pieces. Without the truth, people are gonna make assumptions.”
Lundin told Kiss that the board would speak to any group in Hopatcong, and that good things are happening.
“What you read in the New Jersey Monthly and Inside New Jersey Magazine is an outsider's view based upon crunching numbers,” Lundin said. “If I thought my kid wasn’t learning, he would have been pulled out of here years ago.”
Board member Richard Lavery teaches in a private high school. He has four children in the Hopatcong school system. He says they are all getting a fantastic education.
“I make sure as a parent that I’m involved in the process. I also make sure that they stay excited about school," he said. "The kids have to have that internal drive and want to succeed. And, of course, the school system has to give you quality teachers, quality programs and constantly be evaluating themselves. And that’s what we’ve been doing."
Lavery said the board is looking for constructive input.
"We want people to work with us to improve our schools," he said. "We don’t need people bashing on the Internet when they don’t know the facts, anonymously, and all they do is whine and complain. We need people to come to the meetings who care about the school and want to improve it."
"Please encourage your friends to come here, be participating in the school district," he said. "We want constructive parental input. If you’re on the Internet and see the bashing, talk about the good stuff you see here."
The meeting ended on an uplifting note suggesting positive change and unified hope, ideas shared by people with similar goals. Each of the board members thanked the public for attending and urged continued participation.