Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hearing Tells Little

Tuesday’s public hearing on violence and vandalism proved to be more of a lesson in the vagaries of education reporting than an enlightening session.

The hearing was described vaguely on the district web site and I wasn't sure what it was all about. Not having followed Board of Education meetings closely since my retirement in August 2003, I thought I finally had the bottom line Tuesday morning when the agenda showed up online announcing a public hearing on the Annual Violence and Vandalism Report. I scoured the state Department of Education web site and located an August 29 release on what I thought was the relevant information. I then toiled over a chart making comparisons of the incidence of violence and vandalism as a percentage of enrollment.

Well, I should have gone outside and taken a walk on a very nice autumn day, because as we often found out in the newsroom, the state releases statistics two ways – an official report of past years’ data and an up-to-date communication with the district.

It turns out I was looking at 2005-06 official state data when what was passed out at the meeting at Hubbard Middle School was data from the 2006-07 school year. This syndrome was a chronic problem in the newsroom when reporting test scores, because the state would release old scores just as the district was receiving new (and possibly better) scores and everyone would be upset..

The good news here is the number of violence and vandalism incidents went down from 205 to 195.

The dubious news is that the raw data doesn’t mean much, no matter what year it is, but the school board is mandated to hold a public hearing.

Only two people commented at the public hearing (hint: both are bloggers) and Interim Schools Superintendent Peter E. Carter noted that the state gave no recommendations regarding the statistics.

In fairness, the full state report notes a number of resources to prevent or deal with violence and vandalism.

Board member Wilma Campbell asked whether the district did “threat assessment,” a term Carter said he didn’t understand until Campbell explained further. Carter then said over his 38 years of school administration, he called it “good intelligence” and keeping eyes and ears open for problems.

Carter said he recently spent time at Plainfield High School at dismissal time and noticed students “clustering.” He went over to one group assuming “they were clustering for something other than discussing the gross national product” and diffused a possible incident.

Carter said in his years as an administrator he could read a simple change in lunchroom habits as a portent of trouble. But in a response to Campbell, he said these “on the spot decisions” could not be quantified into a formal process to sense problems.

But when board member Vickey Sheppard asked whether the “see something, say something” policy was still in effect, Carter said, “Absolutely.”

The 2006-07 report passed out at the meeting showed 127 incidents of violence in 2006-07, 52 incidents of vandalism, 12 weapons incidents and four substance abuse incidents in the 10 elementary school, two middle schools, one high school and then-evening high school. But Carter pointed out that even adult transgressions, such as selling drugs on school grounds, would become part of the statistics.

My chart, showing that Plainfield’s ratio of incidents per enrollment was 2.87 percent, while the ratio for North Plainfield was 2.88 percent and for South Plainfield was 2.02 percent, brought a comment from Carter that he didn’t believe in such comparisons, but only in Plainfield against itself.

In a special moment Tuesday, the board and public applauded Maxson School Principal Christopher Lommerin and educator Liena Halkova of the Czech Republic for their roles in an exchange plan.

The pair is among only 20 administrators worldwide selected by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and the United States Department of State for the Fulbright Administrator Exchange Award. Halkova will observe Lommerin’s administration for six weeks beginning Nov. 1. Lommerin will do the same in the Czech Republic starting in February 2008.

Officials also reminded the public that Carter will lead a forum Thursday on the state monitoring report known as the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or NJQSAC. A monitoring team visited the district in late winter to examine five performance areas. Scores of 80 or higher are considered proof of high performance, while scores below 50 trigger state assistance to improve in the new monitoring system. Plainfield’s scores were 61 percent of the indicators for operations management, 38 percent for personnel, 8 percent for instruction and program, 11 percent for governance and 32 percent for fiscal management.

Carter described Thursday’s 90-minute session starting at 7 p.m. in the Emerson Swing School as a “chat” with the community at which the district may “sign many of you up” to be part of the effort to improve the schools. The Emerson Swing School is located in the former National Starch building at 1700 West Front Street.

Carter said district officials will meet Oct. 31 with members of the agency that replaced the Schools Construction Corp. to discuss a five-year plan for Plainfield schools. He said the two-hour meeting would be with “the folks with the money – or maybe not,” summing up the uncertainty of getting more construction done. When the SCC ran out of money, Plainfield was in the midst of plans for a new middle school in the West End, among other projects that fell through. Districts across the state will be vying for funding to get their stalled projects completed by the new agency.

--Bernice Paglia


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