Commentary

COMMENTARY: Is This School Really a Remedy For NJ’s Intensely-Segregated School System?

Yesterday the New Jersey Monitor had a fine piece on the Garden State’s long struggle to integrate schools, currently the subject of a lawsuit. One quibble: the school used throughout the article as an exemplar of integration and a potential remedy for our deeply-segregated school system–Bergen County Academies’ Technical High School in Teterboro–is, in fact, inaccessible to students stuck in typical NJ district schools. 

Why? Because Bergen County Academies (BCA), an arm of Bergen County Vocational and Technical Schools District, segregates in a different way: by limiting enrollment to high-achieving, high-income students whose parents can afford to pay for test preparation courses and who already took algebra and geometry in middle school, an option only available to students on a “double accelerated” track.

Let’s drill down. At Hasbrouck Heights Middle School, the school that serves typical students in the Teterboro area, students don’t get to take geometry until high school and only “Honors” students get to take algebra. No shade on Hasbrouck: across NJ, only 8% of middle schools offer algebra to all their 8th-graders.

So students who want to gain admission to the elite BCA must be preternaturally gifted or have parents who can pay for private mentoring services like Ivy Learning and Test Prep, designed specifically for BCA admissions, where an 8-week package costs $1,500, or Master Prep, which recommends that parents start private tutoring to get into BCA in fifth grade. The admissions process to this magnet school includes an “entrance essay,” high scores on the BCTS Performance Test, other standardized tests and academic reports, recommendations from teachers, and (for those who make the final cut) an interview. For the thousands of rising 9th-graders who apply each year, about 10% are admitted. (The school doesn’t “backfill,” or accept students in higher grades if spots open up.)

No question, students do great. Ninety-one percent reach proficiency in reading and 91% do in math;  statewide, about 58% of students reach proficiency in reading and 45% reach proficiency in math. Average SAT scores at BCA are 1370 compared to a statewide average of 1100.

Just how integrated is BCA? If race is your only metric, sure: according to the DOE database, 42% are white, 7% are Black, 19% are Hispanic, and 32% are Asian (although Asians comprise 17% of Bergen County’s population). 

But there’s this: among BCA’s enrollment, only 8% are economically-disadvantaged, 4% have disabilities (most likely very mild), and not a single student is an English Language Learner.

How is this a solution to segregation?

It’s not, of course. Offering BCA as a panacea for segregation plays directly into what the non-profit TNTP calls the “opportunity myth,” the unfounded belief that successfully getting through middle school actually prepares students for high-level high school work. (From the TNTP report: 71% of students successfully complete their school assignments. 17% of those assignments meet grade-level expectations. Grade inflation and/or low expectations, anyone?)

There are potential remedies to our intensely segregated state school system: offering parents options to schools outside their ZIP code, expanding public charters that can enroll students outside their immediate vicinity, getting serious about affordable housing instead of using parlor tricks, expanding county-wide magnets so students can get in without expensive test prep.

But until New Jersey legislators and voters muster the political will to overcome what Paul Tractenberg calls an “apartheid school system,” well-to-do students will do well and poor students will do poorly. There are models out there of excellence with a truly integrated enrollment–think of Newark’s best-in-the-nation charter school sector—but Bergen County Academies’ Technical High School doesn’t make the cut.

Laura Waters

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