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Newark Schools Detail Plan To Get Students Back On Track After Learning Gap Data Made Public

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- For the first time, we're getting a picture of the pandemic's disruptive toll on learning in New Jersey's largest school district.

Community members say they've been asking Newark schools for details for months, only to learn the district had them since January and just never made them public, CBS2's Lisa Rozner reported Tuesday.

At the opening of a new youth soccer field, Mayor Ras Baraka said it was crucial to give kids the opportunity to play outside following a pandemic.

But community leaders and parents say it's also crucial that kids get the opportunity to catch up on learning after the nonprofit ChalkBeat uncovered a January application to the state from the school district, asking for a grant to run a summer math program, because almost 80% of third graders would not pass the state exam and almost 90% of fourth graders would not pass, either.

"I was really devastated and kind of disgusted," said Rev. Dr. David Jefferson of Metropolitan Baptist Church Newark. "What's done in the dark will sooner or later come to the light."

A representative for Newark Public Schools told CBS2 that due to summer vacation the superintendent was not available to speak. So, Rozner approached the mayor.

"Some community members seem upset that the numbers on the test scores weren't revealed earlier. Can you just speak to that?" Rozner followed up.

"I can't because I'm not in charge of the public school system," Baraka said.

"Some people I know, it was quite hard for them because of the laptops, logging on," parent Dolores Heyward said.

And one teacher in an elementary school told Rozner off camera the administration directed staff to not fail any student.

"The only way to make it better is to own that it has happened in the first place and to be fully transparent and then willing to be held accountable," said Deborah Smith Gregory of Newark NAACP.

"This has to be now us extending the learning day. This has to be about us now extending the weekends," Jefferson added.

The mayor did say Newark schools do have a summer enrichment program focused on math and English learning, but the nonprofit New Jersey Campaign for Achievement Now –- or JerseyCAN -– put out a report showing most students statewide in grades 3 through 8 are experiencing "the COVID slide."

"Districts are receiving significant fiscal resources from the federal government. Find out how much money your school board is getting and find out how they're planning to use it," JerseyCAN executive director Patricia Morgan said.

The state denied Newark's request for grant money, but the feds gave the city tens of millions of dollars to close the achievement gap.

A spokesperson for Newark schools later denied hiding the stats from the community and detailed its plan to get students back on track, sharing the following:

"We recognize that there are slippages in academic performance that students experienced during remote learning.  In contrast to the day-to-day teaching and learning that happens in classrooms across Newark, what remote learning offered was a rather anemic substitute. The question then is how did and do we respond so that learning is strengthened? We did not veer from the course set in 2019 for improving learning outcomes.  NPS has taken deliberate and systematic steps to ensure high quality curriculum is in place at all grade levels, across all subject areas, and that there is a working infrastructure of professional support for the implementation of curricula via ELA and math coaches, department chairpersons, vice principals, principals, supervisors, directors, and executive team members. This two-year process yielded more than 140 new curriculum documents that strengthened the instructional core. The core represents the work students and teachers do every day with one another in the presence of content.  It is attention to the instructional core that will best improve performance."

In addition to curriculum development and the requisite professional development, tutoring was offered at each school site and video-based student support in five languages was offered online for reading and mathematics. Additionally, we designed and implemented phonics bootcamps and procedural fluency (mathematics) interventions at all schools. In summer 2020, we offered a robust online version of credit recovery that yielded a passing rate of 91%. In previous years, the passing rate was never greater than 50%.

Data were reported to the Newark Board of Education in late fall and again in spring during the Program and Instruction committee meetings. This is by design. The data suggested that we must continue strengthening the instructional core, continue tiers 2 and 3 interventions, align all school improvement plans with direct guidance and support from the Office of Teaching and Learning and the NJDOE,  provide every student with an individualized learning plan that teachers created in May 2021 and shared with colleagues who would be teaching their students in September 2021, and double the enrollment of summer school.  The initiatives outlined here represent some, not all , of the work NPS did the last 15 months."

The state Department of Education said it did collect academic assessments from districts in the spring. The department did not respond to why it didn't share the report.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Tuesday, July 6.

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