WEST ORANGE, NJ — Edison Middle School was notified that they “have met all the eligibility requirements to exit Focus School status” as of June 30 in a letter from Kimberly Harrington, acting commissioner of education in the state of New Jersey, according to a press release from the West Orange School District.
The state of New Jersey describes Focus Schools thusly: “Focus Schools comprise about 10 percent of schools with the overall lowest subgroup performance, a graduation rate below 75 percent and the widest gaps in achievement between different subgroups of students. Focus Schools receive targeted and tailored solutions to meet the school’s unique needs.”
In 2011, Edison Middle School was identified as a Focus School by the state for showing a gap in achievement between two different subgroups of students. A subgroup represents 30 students or more. Edison Middle School is a central sixth, a middle school comprised solely of sixth-grade students districtwide.
In 2011, there were 32 Asian students at Edison who were compared to the special needs and economically disadvantaged subgroup of more than 200 students, according to Principal Xavier Fitzgerald. Technically, Edison was 0.2 of a point away from not becoming a Focus School.
The director of the Regional Achievement Centers placed Edison on Focus School status and the school began the process of addressing the issue.
During the 2011-12 school year Fitzgerald and the team at Edison worked to improve time on task with teachers and the school switched to block scheduling. Class sizes were reduced and additional teachers were hired. A balanced literacy approach was examined for English language arts, and the transition from “everyday math” to “connected math” was strengthened.
Other district initiatives like benchmark testing and the implementation of the Marzano Model for teacher evaluation aided in the process.
“It made me take a harder look at how we were doing things at EMS and how we could improve it,” Fitzgerald said.
The effort was quickly noticed by the state and, after the first year, the state began sending other schools on Focus status to EMS to see what they were doing. EMS staff also taught sessions during the required Focus School trainings with the Department of Education.
On Dec. 10, 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, replacing No Child Left Behind. As a result, changes were made in reporting requirements and criteria and Edison was well on its way to exiting Focus School status.
Fitzgerald was confident that Edison would be removed from Focus School status, but it was not confirmed until June 30. The staff at Edison was pleased, but for Fitzgerald, the past six years have been bittersweet.
“I’m happy that my staff doesn’t have to live under the stigma of being a Focus School any longer,” he said. As he described the staff’s commitment and dedication to their students and the school he said, “all of my academic and related arts teachers are ‘highly qualified teachers’ in the subject areas they teach.”
To be considered a highly qualified teacher by the federal government, teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree, have valid state certification, no requirements have been waived, they have no emergency or conditional certificates, and they demonstrate content expertise in the core academic subjects they teach.
“I would put my staff up against any staff at any school anywhere,” Fitzgerald said.
“On behalf of the Regional Achievement Centers, Office of Comprehensive Support and the Department of Education, I wish you continued success in serving the children of New Jersey,” Harrington said in her letter.