By: Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com | Email the author | Follow on Twitter
NEWARK – The nearly 2,000 Newark students who have graduated high school over the past few weeks, district leaders say, are a symbol. The long-struggling district — which is in the midst of transitioning out of a twenty-plus year period of state control — is finally seeing signs of progress across the board, Deputy Superintendent Robert Gregory said in a phone interview last week.
“We are definitely trending up, and at the same time, trying to transform, and create a college-going culture at each school,” Gregory said, noting that different high schools in the city have had different practices and strategies in place, leading to vastly different graduation rates and student performance.
“We are trying to create systemic solutions to systemic failures,” he said. “Past inequities have shaped current realities.”
Class of 2017
Newark’s 16 high schools graduated more than 1,900 students, which Superintendent Christopher Cerf called a “monumental milestone” for the kids.
Though district officials say statistics about the Class of 2017 will not be finalized until August graduates are counted, preliminary numbers show statistics are moving in a positive direction. Gregory said the trends are thanks to several key graduation and post-grad policies the district has implemented over the past few school years.
1. Graduation rate
The district has long struggled with its graduation rate. Even after a four-point bump to 73.5 percent last year, it still remained well below the statewide 90.1 percent graduation rate.
The numbers of students graduating also varied dramatically school to school within Newark Public Schools.
Though the numbers are not yet finalized for this year, “we definitely expect to see an increase in graduation rates based on the data we’re seeing right now,” Gregory said. The immediate goal, he said, is to raise the district-wide graduation rate to 80 percent, which officials project should be attainable within the next several years.
The anticipated increase, Gregory said, can be traced to several new practices, including allowing students to make up failed classes online, and at night school. The district has also mandated every school implement graduation trackers, which chart the progress of every senior in every school, and require school leaders to intervene if students fall behind on graduation requirements. The district’s new credit accumulation trackers chart the credits earned each quarter by every student in every high school, starting freshman year.
2. College culture
About 75 percent of students who graduated this year are expected to attend two- or four-year schools, officials said. The Class of 2017 members have been accepted to 135 technical, community, and four-year colleges across the country.
Seven students will be attending Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania) on full scholarships.
Before this year, Gregory said schools were not required to track students’ post-graduation plans, so only about six of the district’s high schools did. Now that it is centrally required, he said, this year’s graduating class can “act as a baseline” to which future classes will be compared.
School officials said about 14 percent of this year’s graduating seniors were accepted to five or more colleges. The move to focus on college while kids are still in high school can also be seen, officials said, in several programs that this year saw 71 students graduate high school with Associate’s Degrees from Essex County College and Bard College.
Another 52 students, officials said, plan to join the armed forces.
Newark seniors have received more than $15.7 million in scholarships, school officials said.
Several students who plan on going to school this fall on full scholarships articulated an attitude Gregory said the district is working to spread to the whole student body in every high school.
Michael Lawrence, a West Side High graduate going to NJIT, said his family members, friends, and teachers “pushed me to be someone who is passionate for success.” Lucia Couto, Arts High School’s valedictorian, who will be attending Harvard, said she was thankful to take advantage of opportunities in the city.
“Don’t let people’s opinions about where you come from make you think in a certain way,” she said. “I love Newark and I’m proud to say I live here. A lot of good things and people come from Newark.”
5. Keeping track
Many of the district’s new strategies, Gregory said, focus on keeping centralized tabs on students’ progress through high school, and on generating excitement about college and post-graduation plans among students and their families.
To those ends, he said, the Newark City Learning Collaborative — an organization supporting post-secondary education for city residents — has hired a College and Career Readiness specialist and a College Coordinator, who will work with Newark seniors.
NPS has also purchased software that Gregory said will allow it to more easily track student progress, and work with individual students to set post-graduation plans. Better data management in central administration will allow for more pointed intervention and student progress management, he said.
“We want every student to be accounted for,” he said.