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NEW JERSEY: Accoladees for Clifton charter school

The Classical Academy Charter School on Valley Road, received accolades for its academic performance by the JerseyCAN group. The praise is based on test scores received by the overall student body, its Hispanic students and low income students.

charter-schools-achievementCLIFTON — No stranger to accolades, the Classical Academy has another reason to celebrate its excellence in achievement at the middle school level.

JerseyCAN, which stands for Campaign for Achievement Now, has recognized Classical Academy as one of the highest performing middle schools in New Jersey in several categories. JerseyCAN is the state’s branch of 50CAN, a non-profit advocacy group that is determined to narrow the achievement gap and assure that adequate public education is accessible for all students.

“In New Jersey we see some of the highest spending figures [per student] yet have one of the largest achievement gaps,” said Janellen Duffy, executive director of JerseyCAN. Duffy is the founder of JerseyCAN and was previously an education policy advisor to former Gov. Jon Corzine.

In New Jersey white students as a whole perform better on standardize testing than their black and Hispanic peers. Additionally, low-income students score lower than more economically advantaged students, according to the New Jersey Department of Education.

According to the most recent testing results provided by the N.J. Department of Education, which date back to the spring of 2012, 59 percent of white 7th graders scored proficient on the Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (ASK) Language Arts Literacy examination statewide. Just 34 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students scored proficient. 36 percent of economically disadvantaged students performed proficiently as opposed to 58 percent of their more affluent peers.

For some Hispanic students, however, English is a second language and therefore standardize testing in that category carries obvious obstacles. Low income students may lack access to tutors and other supplemental education, according to education experts.

The gap in achievement of the mathematics portion of the ASK is not as wide, but still exists.

Of the white students, 45 percent scored proficient, of the Hispanic students, 38 percent scored proficient and about 30 percent of black students scored proficient.

A total of 34 percent of low-income 7th grade students scored proficient while 43 percent of the more affluent students scored proficient. The gap between the percent of students who scored advanced proficient is larger, with 8 percent of low-income 7th graders scoring advanced proficient as opposed to 31 percent of their more affluent peers.

Classical Academy placed number one on three of JerseyCAN’s top 10 lists of best middle schools by category.

The Clifton charter school received perfect scores in three subgroup categories: low-income student performance, Latino student performance and overall student performance.

JerseyCAN averages the math and language arts scores for each subgroup to produce their scores. To qualify for the Top Ten a school’s student body has to reflect similar proportions to statewide numbers. For example, the percent of a student body comprised by Latino students has to reflect the proportion of the state population comprised by Latinos.

“Our method simplifies schools in terms of their performance,” Duffy said.

Their Top Ten lists provide parents with a chance to compare certain schools, she said.

In 2008 Classical Academy was a national Blue Ribbon Award winner, a top prize among the nation’s schools. A year ago the school achieved high status as an N.J. Reward school.

Vincent DeRosa, the school’s founder, has also been the principal of Classical Academy since its first year in 1998. He credits the schools’ vigorous curriculum for his students’ exemplary performance.

“I joke and say that if I was a student here I would ask my mother ‘why do you hate me so much?’,” DeRosa said.

A student averages three hours of homework a night, he said. There are no electives but instead a more intense focus on math and language arts. Latin is the only foreign language provided, and every student must study it.

“We in America think the kids can’t do it, we think it’s too much for them,” he said. “But it’s not. If adults create an atmosphere that compels high performance, the kids will respond.”

As a charter school Classical Academy and its administrators have more freedom to tweak lesson plans and curriculum than traditional public schools. DeRosa calls it a laboratory for experimentation and innovation.

“We tend to put aside non-academic pursuits during the school day,” he said. “That’s not to say arts are not important. We just have to make a priority. Our youngsters do twice as much Math and English than traditional middle schools. We still encourage extra curriculars, just as long as they don’t interfere with school work.”

DeRosa is unapologetic. His results prove that he does not need to be. He said that 85 percent of his students are advanced proficient in Math.

And while other schools trend toward a diversity of foreign languages offered, with Latin DeRosa aims to “reassert the primacy of a classical education,” he said.

“It’s a tool to master English,” he said. “70 percent of English comes from Latin. English grammar comes from Latin grammar.”

“If there are elements of our school program you do not like then don’t choose our school,” he said.

DeRosa can say that with bravado because spots are indeed precious. Each year he has about 40 vacancies in the 6th grade. Sibling legacies receive priority status and the remaining spots are filled with a lottery process. Last year DeRosa said 22 students ended up on a waiting list, with only a handful getting a spot.

Of course, the small size of Classical Academy allows for a lower teacher to student ratio and a tighter grasp of each student, DeRosa said. Currently there 118 students enrolled. DeRosa said larger student bodies make things “harder to control and harder to impose a culture,” he said.

There does seem to be a high track record in terms of performance,” Duffy said. “We’ve seen success in the flexibility these charter schools have in terms of specific curriculum.”

Charter schools are technically public schools and therefore funded by taxpayer money. However, they are independent from the local board of education. They work with the State Commissioner of Education and are required to reach mandated achievement goals in order to remain operating. They were first incorporated in New Jersey in 1996 and as of September 2012 there were 86 operating charter schools in the state.

DeRosa said 65 percent of his student body is Hispanic. But one of his 6th grade classes contains students who go home and speak Arabic, Filipino, Portuguese, Turkish, Hindi and Guyanese, in addition to Spanish.

The Top Ten nominations received from JerseyCAN are not a result of a special approach but more of the strong curriculum and the diversity of the student body, DeRosa said.

“It is not that we are doing anything different with the Latino kids,” he said. “We are not a minority school. I like to say we are an immigrant school.”

Only Clifton residents can attend, DeRosa said, adding most of his 8th graders go on to Clifton High School.

He has a vision of expanding to the 4th and 5th grades.

“If we can get the kids younger, by the time they get to the 6th grade they are off and running,” he said.

The academy underwent a $250,000 renovation prior to the start of the school year. The school is located on Valley Road in one of the oldest buildings in Clifton. Originally the estate of William Gourley, DeRosa said the structure was once a boarding house and a nursing home.

Despite his aspirations for a bigger school, DeRosa said the historic property combined with the recent investment means it is unlikely to switch to a bigger location.

“I’d hate to sacrifice this property,” he said.

Source: NorthJersey.com – by Terence McGinley

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This entry was posted on October 11, 2013 by in Charter Schools, New Jersey and tagged , .

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