Almost all of Camden's public schools could be made to undergo new state-required intervention efforts under proposals in New Jersey's application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
According to the state's recently submitted exemption application, 23 of the district's 26 schools ranked among the state's lowest performers, making them "priority schools," a new designation.
Of the 74 priority schools tentatively identified, Camden had the highest concentration, according to a state Education Department spokesman.
If the federal waiver were granted, New Jersey could institute supports and corrective moves - including a leadership change and professional development - to assist struggling schools. If there wasn't enough improvement, schools could be ordered closed under the plan.
But can New Jersey's proposal, which aligns with Obama administration-endorsed reforms, accomplish improvements to student achievement that years of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind mandates have not?
New Jersey last week weighed in as one of 11 states that hope to answer that in the affirmative. They were the first states to seek federal release from NCLB mandates in order to pursue alternative avenues to student and school achievement.
The federal framework to win that flexibility includes committing to student-performance standards that lead to college and career readiness, addressing low-performing schools and achievement gaps, and developing intensive systems for evaluating and strengthening faculty.
States would gain more latitude in deciding how to spend antipoverty Title I funding and how to turn around schools, and the ability to use measures of student and school progress in addition to standardized tests, which are the focus of NCLB.
New Jersey's proposal seeks to do away with NCLB's "one-size-fits-all approach to labeling schools as failing," acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said.
"We have developed a new accountability system that allows for differentiated supports and interventions [at] the schools with the most pervasive and persistent achievement problems," Cerf said.
Recent NCLB test results found that about 56 percent of the state's schools did not make adequate yearly progress.
New Jersey's application called for the creation of seven regional achievement centers, which would lead interventions tailored to schools' particular needs.
In addition to priority schools, the application identified 179 "focus schools" that had low graduation rates or significant achievement gaps between groups of students from differing backgrounds, among other criteria.
Also identified were 138 "reward schools" - those with high proficiency or progress rates - that would be recognized for their achievement.
The application listed 14 focus schools in the region, including West Deptford and Kingsway Regional Middle Schools.
There were six rewards schools in the region. Among them were Cherry Hill East, Haddonfield Memorial, and Haddon Township High.
Schools in those three categories - and the rest of the state's approximately 2,500 schools - would get revised annual report cards that assessed variables such as students' academic improvement, rather than maintaining NCLB's emphasis on test scores. A key goal of the proposed system is closing achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds and races. Under NCLB, all students were supposed to score proficient or better by 2014.
The waiver application called for expanding the state teacher-evaluation pilot to selected schools in all districts during the next academic year, and to all schools the year after that, state Education Department spokesman Justin Barra said. It also would establish a principal-evaluation system.
New Jersey will hear early next year whether it was granted the NCLB waiver, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Other states have expressed interest in seeking a waiver. The next application deadline is in mid-February.
Pennsylvania has not decided whether it will apply, state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said.
California opted not to seek a waiver, asserting that changes called for in the federal framework would cost up to $3.1 billion.
Barra said New Jersey's plan would use existing state resources.
"This is not about spending more," he said. "It's about spending the money we already have more wisely."
New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said the more varied school assessments proposed in the waiver application would be an improvement over NCLB and its reliance on test data.
"That really does not reflect the challenges schools face or the job that the schools are actually doing," Belluscio said.
Others expressed misgivings about the proposal. David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, which has represented Camden and other low-income, urban districts, said Cerf and Gov. Christie should withdraw the application and start over.
"There is no concrete plan for improvement here with real resources," Sciarra said. "This is another bureaucratic organizational shuffle."
Sciarra said the Legislature should order a study of how much the proposed changes would cost. He also said he doubted whether districts such as Camden's would improve through the proposed system.
The state should, and could, have ordered independent experts to help bring improvement to the district more than a year ago through its existing quality single accountability continuum process, Sciarra said.
The state's proposed plan still places too much emphasis on test results rather than identifying the root problems affecting districts such as Camden, Camden Board of Education member Barbara Coscarello said.
"If you do not deal extensively with the social issues, it is useless," said Coscarello, who said she doubted the effectiveness the plan would have in her district.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, supports the state's bid for the NCLB waiver and had input on the application, spokesman Steve Wollmer said.
But it questions whether the state has the legal authority to implement some points in its proposal, such as requiring longer school days, Wollmer said.
The state's application also put in a plug for legislation proposed by the Christie administration and opposed by the union, such as establishing merit pay, changing the tenure system, and providing corporate-funded scholarships in exchange for tax credits.
"Using the application to get leverage for his legislation is really inappropriate," Wollmer said.
The Christie administration intends to work toward accomplishing aspects of the waiver proposal, including the new school-assessment and accountability system, even if the NCLB exemption is not granted, Barra said.
However, with a waiver, he said, the state would have more flexibility to target resources and interventions to turn around troubled schools.