The city’s new school superintendent Eileen Shafer wants to ensure all classrooms have teachers on the first day of school. She wants to hire two new librarians every year until all school buildings have someone to encourage reading and help students check out books. She wants a nurse in every school building.
Shafer wants art and music, at least for half of the year, for elementary school students. These are just some of the things Shafer wants to do in the upcoming school year. Her plan has been greeted with enthusiasm by school board members and education advocates.
School board president Christopher Irving favored the plan. “I think it’s an ambitious plan and I support her highly for doing this,” said Irving on Wednesday morning. She will have an easier time to implement her plan because she has been working at the district since 1992. “She’s in an interesting position because she knows the district,” he said.
“She’s attacking problems that we’ve been dealing with for a long time. I love it,” added school board member Emanuel Capers. He was particularly pleased to hear every school building will have a nurse.
“I will be having a nurse in every building by September,” Shafer said on Tuesday afternoon. She also plans to gradually raise the district’s passing grade from 60 to 70 over a three-year period.
Shafer plans to attack student absences at six schools with the worst chronic absenteeism rates. She is also launching an “intense reading program” to get students reading on grade level. She is also putting in place a program to ensure cursive is taught at schools to ensure students are able to sign their names.
“I think those are all good goals,” said Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund. The advocacy group presented a report to the district earlier in the year that highlighted the alarming levels of chronic absenteeism in many of the city’s schools.
Grant was pleased to hear the new superintendent is intent on tackling chronic absenteeism. She was also pleased to hear students will get art and music.
“It’s required by New Jersey core content standards,” said Grant speaking of art and music. “We need art and music. We have been treating it as an elective. It’s a necessity to get kids a well-rounded education.”
Some of her plans are long-term. For example, raising the passing mark and staffing school libraries. This leads to questions whether she intends to seek a permanent appointment as superintendent.
“I haven’t made a decision yet,” said Shafer when asked. “It’s going to take me a little while to make that decision.” She was approved as acting superintendent by the New Jersey Department of Education. Her contract ends in June 30th, 2018; however, the state can remove her with a month’s notice. Her salary is $225,000.
Shafer served as a deputy superintendent under Donnie Evans. Evans retired at the end of last month.
Evans faced criticism over his handling of the budget process earlier in the year. His process lacked transparency, said board members at the time. Shafer promised unprecedented transparency.
She produced an eight-page budget timeline with specific dates. She also plans to build a better relationship with the Paterson Education Association, the teachers union.
Evans had a strained relationship with union president John McEntee, Jr. So much so Evans filed tenure charges with the state seeking McEntee’s suspension over an alleged incident that occurred at School 4 late last year. Prior to the tenure charges, McEntee had his members take a no confidence vote against Evans.
The union has witnessed a “vast change” at the central office, said McEntee.
“We too are open to working in a more collegial manner and have already started to begin that process one step at a time,” said McEntee. “We certainty wish Eileen success because when she succeeds Paterson succeeds.” He said teachers will return to work in September without a contract. His members will pay more for health insurance and have frozen salaries until the labor contract is settled.
“We know that Ms. Shafer will do her best to resolve our contract dispute,” said McEntee in a statement. “A fair labor contract for our employees that recognizes their hard work and dedication would be just what the Dr. Ordered to repair the relationship Evans failed to nurture with the PEA.”
Shafer also plans to make some smaller changes. She wants high school students to have the same guidance counselor for four years. This small change has the potential of having a big impact for the better for high school students and their families in navigating the college application process. The district’s SAT prep program will be strengthened, she said, to get more high schoolers into colleges.
She also wants certified science and math teachers in 4-12 grades. Right now, the district has them in 6-12 grades.
Though not a small change, she intends to “make whole” special education students who went without needed services like therapy in the 2016-17 school year. “One of my immediate goals is to ensure IEPs (Individualized Education Program) are in compliance,” she said at the district office on Tuesday afternoon.
“I think you have to have a plan. Right now, what we see is a vision,” said Grant.
This report was updated on July 19th, 2017 at 2:40 p.m. with comments from the PEA president.