For the first time since 2008, a new number 1 tops the New Jersey Monthly list of the state’s Top 100 Public High Schools. New Providence High School in Union County ascends to the summit of the rankings, up from number 5 on the previous list (published in September 2010). In fact, a number of high schools make significant moves up—or down—the list, which is based on data reported by the schools to the Department of Education for the 2010-2011 school year. (Click here for a complete explanation of our methodology)
Some of the biggest moves are fueled in part by New Jersey’s use of a new graduation-rate calculation. In the past, our rankings distinguished between students going on to four-year colleges, two-year colleges and other postsecondary schools. The data for students going to four-year colleges was given extra weight, making it a potent driver of the results. This year’s rankings use the new four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, introduced by New Jersey in 2011, as mandated by the federal government.
New Jersey Monthly made two other changes in compiling this year’s rankings: Because personal computers have become widespread among the high-school population, we eliminated student/computer ratio as a factor. More significantly, we increased the weighting for data on test results and the aforementioned graduation-rate calculation. The change in weighting is intended to emphasize the importance of student results at a time of budget cutting, when even the best schools must learn to do more with fewer resources.
In addition to publishing the Top 100 Public High Schools, we have compiled the top 10 schools by District Factor Group, which classifies schools based on their socioeconomic peer group. We also created a list of the top 20 most improved high schools (based on our overall rankings. And for the first time, we have ranked the state’s top 35 vocational schools. For a complete ranking of 328 public high schools, visit njmonthly.com/topschools.
So how did New Providence do it? The state’s new top-ranked school has climbed steadily up the New Jersey Monthly chart in recent years; it placed at number 26 in 2006 and rose to 17 in 2008 before breaking into the top 10 two years ago.
The school’s average class size is down sharply since the 2010 rankings, and its math scores in the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) have improved significantly. This at a time of state budget cuts and local belt-tightening.
Paul Casarico, who starts his sixth year as principal at New Providence this fall, acknowledges that it was tough adjusting to Governor Chris Christie’s cuts in school aid, which began in 2010, but he also sees a bright side. “It was an unfortunate thing,” he says, “but it made us look at everything we do as a school and really prioritize.”
More than 500 districts were affected by Christie’s $989 million in cuts; 100 districts, mainly affluent communities like New Providence, lost all their state aid for the 2010-2011 school year.
However, as the Christie administration has worked toward improving New Jersey’s fiscal situation, the amount of state aid for schools has increased. Christie restored $839 million in aid to districts in his 2011-2012 budget. (New Providence received $645,220 in state aid in 2011-2012, less than half the $1.48 million that had been cut the previous year, according to the Department of Education website.) In Christie’s proposed budget for 2012-2013, schools get an additional boost of about $136 million.
In adapting to the new economic reality, New Providence eliminated a few teaching positions, but Casarico says other teachers were redeployed within the district to minimize the effects of the cuts. “We worked with the middle school and the elementary schools to best utilize our staff so we didn’t have balloon enrollments of up to 29 or 30 in a classroom,” Casarico says.
Further cuts were made “around the periphery,” Casarico says. For example, “if a team had four coaches, we went down to three.” Adds district superintendent David Miceli, “We went at it with a scalpel and took little pieces from here and there. The goal was to maintain the culture of the district”—which aims to provide as many opportunities for students as possible.
Both men also credit the community and the board of education for rallying behind the schools. “People are very supportive,” Casarico says. “They expect a lot out of the schools. When kids come in, they are pretty much ready, and it’s just up to our teachers to take them to the next level.”
A number of high schools make notable jumps into the top 10, led by Glen Rock, which moves from number 28 in 2010 to number 4 this year. Also leaping toward the top are Kinnelon (21-5), Madison (15-6) and Rumson-Fair Haven Regional (31-10).
The top-10 perennials holding strong include McNair Academic, a Jersey City magnet school that topped the chart in 2006 and continues to deliver impressive results, holding at number 2. Tenafly remains at number 3, while Mountain Lakes moves up two positions to number 7 and Ridge (serving Bernards Township) climbs three rungs to number 9.
Losing its perch at the top is Millburn High School, which had been number 1 in our 2008 and 2010 rankings. Millburn’s overall score was mainly affected by an increase in average class size from 19.1 to 21.3 in the new data. The school’s HSPA results in both math and language actually improved since two years ago; it also had one of the highest adjusted cohort rates—meaning Millburn students continue to excel.
William Miron, principal of Millburn High School, acknowledges that, like most school leaders, he had to ask some tough questions following the cuts in state aid. Increasing class size was one of his answers. “We used to say that 25 would be our maximum,” Miron says. “Now we’ve eased up on that.” That means teachers considered capable of handling larger classes might get more than 25 students. But Miron points out that less-advanced students are placed in smaller classes, where they can receive greater personalized attention.
Due to incorrect data on class size recorded by the Department of Education, the ranking for Jefferson Township High School is incorrect. The school should be ranked in a tie at number 167. The original ranking has it at 211.