Top 5 Improved NJ Schools

Here is a look at the high schools that made the biggest jumps in this year’s New Jersey Monthly ranking compared to 2006. (The gains typically reflect a significant spike in one or more of the categories in the survey.)

Seneca High School is the most improved school in NJ.

1. SENECA HIGH SCHOOL
2008 rank: 134
2006 rank: 258
Change in rank: 124

A mere five years old, Seneca High School has made great strides. Since 2006, Seneca has more than doubled the percentage of graduates heading to a four-year college, to 54.9 percent. It has also doubled the number of advanced-placement tests offered.

Seneca’s new principal, Jeff Spector, attributes the school’s success to its decision to integrate interdisciplinary planning into its curriculum right from the start.

“We take different subject matters and we try to connect the dots from one class to another,” says Spector, who has also been an assistant principal and athletic director at the school. “It reinforces for our students what they are learning from one class to the next, and it gives some meaning to what they are learning.”

For example, an American history class examines modern warfare, while a biology class studies diseases and infections related to battle, and an English class explores poems that critique war, explains Spector.

The school, with nearly 1,400 students, draws from the Burlington County towns of Shamong, Tabernacle, Southampton, and Woodland. Spector says Seneca is flourishing because it creates high expectations for its students, who also work hard to fulfill them.

Data point: Enrollment is up more than 10 percent from three years ago, but Seneca has managed to keep the average class size (23.7) and student-faculty ratio (10.4) pretty constant.

2. HOBOKEN HIGH SCHOOL
2008 rank: 139
2006 rank: 260
Change in rank: 121

As an urban institution that is also part of a special-needs district, Hoboken High School has faced many challenges over the years.

But things are looking up. Hoboken High’s graduation rate is up to more than 95 percent from 88.6 percent in 2006; 60 percent of its diverse student population—the school is about 67 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African American, and 11 percent white–go on to a four-year college.

Lorraine Cella has only been principal at Hoboken High for a year, but she has already implemented innovations that seem to be making a difference. A literacy expert, Cella emphasizes reading and writing for her 550 students. Every three days, the entire school devotes each class to reading or writing about a current issue, such as the Iraq war in history class or childrens’ health in gym class.

“The problem with school in general is that students find it boring,” says Cella. “We have to look at what is relevant to them. If we can connect what they are studying to issues of today, then they have a reason to learn the background to their subject.”

Data point: Thanks to a decline in enrollment, average class size at Hoboken is down to 13.6 students from 16.3 in 2006.

3. Keansburg High School
2008 rank: 147
2006 rank: 263
Change in rank: 116

Principal Thomas Normile says his school started moving in the right direction when it began using the High Schools That Work model seven years ago in an attempt to address endemic problems such as a high drop-out rate, a low graduation rate, poor attendance, student apathy, and a lack of structure in its methods of instruction. The initiative is based on the premise that students can tackle complex academic concepts if schools provide an environment that encourages success.

“It makes you think outside the box,” says Normile. “It makes you look at how your school is made up, the courses being offered and the rigor of those courses. It really helps you improve overall student achievement.”

Under High Schools That Work, which is being used in 30 other states, Keansburg has changed its scheduling dramatically, going from eight periods a day to four. Normile says the new system is more like college, with four classes each semester and 82 minutes of instruction per class, allowing teachers to go deeper into the subject matter.

The Monmouth County school has seen a marked increase in the number of students going on to a four-year college, attributable in part to the school’s stepped-up counseling efforts. Guidance counselors now meet with all students and their parents at the beginning of their senior year.

The good news is appreciated in the Keansburg School District, which has been in the news of late amid criticism of the lucrative retirement deal given to its superintendent by the school board.

Data point:
The percentage of Keansburg graduates going to a four-year college is up sharply from 22.3 percent in 2006, but it is still only 38.1 percent in 2008.

4. South River High School
2008 rank: 186
2006 rank: 271
Change in rank: 85

When South River High School principal Kevin Kidney set out to improve his school, he turned to the people who know South River best­—its teachers and students. Nowadays, everyone at South River contributes to decisions about the school, and everyone has a say in what happens there.

“We are a whole learning community, so we regularly ask our teachers and students, ‘What should we be doing and how should we do it?’” says Kidney, who is starting his fourth year at the helm of the Middlesex County school.

South River teachers meet regularly with their subject-area colleagues to discuss what they are teaching, when they are teaching it, and how it should be taught. They also meet with middle school teachers to ensure that younger students are prepared for high school.

The school’s 613 students are not left out of the process. When South River wanted to take a closer look at its advanced-placement courses, Kidney asked the students for their thoughts about the classes. They brainstormed about other courses to be added. As a result, the school has substantially increased the number of advanced-placement tests given over the past few years.

“A lot of people underestimate the ability of high school students to be discriminating and perceptive and honest,” says Kidney. “But they’re the end users of our product.”

Data point: Average class size is down from 20.9 in 2006 to 16.9 this year, and the number of students taking AP tests has soared from less than 1 percent of eligible juniors and seniors to 13 percent, with 39 percent scoring 3 or better.

5. University High School
2008 rank: 66
2006 rank: 146
Change in rank: 80

University High School of the Humanities has beaten all the odds. Located in the South Ward of Newark—one of the toughest parts of the city—University moved into the top 100 of the New Jersey Monthly list this year, the second highest ranking school among seven newcomers to the top tier. (South Hunterdon Regional in West Amwell is first, jumping from 120 to 58.)

“We don’t talk about whether or not you’ll go on to college at this school. We talk about which doctoral program you’ll get into, or where you’re going to law school,” says Roger Leon, the former principal at University, who is now Newark’s assistant superintendent for high schools.

University is a seventh-to-twelfth-grade magnet school offering specialized courses in the humanities in this special-needs district. Its 550 students are admitted based on various criteria, including an exam. The school is 85 percent African-American and 15 percent Hispanic.

When Leon became principal in 2001, he worked to bring the school back to its original focus on the humanities. University recommitted its efforts to an interdisciplinary approach using world literary classics, with literature at the crux of everything that students do.

But it is the school’s culture that seems to really make a difference, including the high expectations of its faculty and administration. “We’ve taken students who didn’t care about their community or about graduating from high school, and we helped them learn that there’s a genius hiding in there,” says Leon.

Data Point: The percentage of University High graduates heading to a four-year college has increased from 74.8 percent in 2006 to 87 percent this year.

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