Superintendent: No Ulterior Motives Driving Barnegat Reconfiguration

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BARNEGAT – It seems that rumors are spreading far and wide across the social media front about why and when the reconfiguration of the Barnegat Township School District will take place. The district’s superintendent Dr. Brian Latwis told Jersey Shore Online that there is no conspiracy behind the major change; it is simply what’s best for the students.

  “We want to take bold steps…to try to address something of great concern to us,” said Latwis.

  What is this great concern? The performance of Barnegat schools.

  The New Jersey Department of Education released NJ School Performance Reports on March 12, which show that Barnegat School District is not doing so well.

  Mike Yaple, Director of Public Information for the NJDOE, explained that the “Summative Rating” detailed in the academic performance reports “tells on a 1-100 scale how the elementary/middle school or high school performed as compared to other elementary/middle or high schools throughout the state.”

  The summative rating also calculates what percentile the school is within the state, said Yaple.

  The School Performance Reports for Barnegat School District for the 2017-2018 year indicate:

  • Barnegat High School: Summative Score of 21.69, Summative Rating 21.20
  • Cecil S. Collins: Summative Score of 44.66, Summative Rating of 40.52
  • Joseph T. Donahue: Summative Score of 16.03, Summative Rating of 5.39
  • Lillian M. Dunfee: Summative Score of 28.16, Summative Rating of 16.65
  • Robert L. Horbelt: Summative Score of 29.17, Summative Rating of 17.42
  • Russell O. Brackman: Summative Score of 28.29, Summative Rating of 16.77

  These numbers can be found in the accountability section of the report, which details the scores associated with proficiency and growth in English & language arts and mathematics, as well as chronic absenteeism.  

  According to the NJDOE, “New Jersey has developed a school accountability system as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to identify schools that are in need of Comprehensive Support and Improvement.”

  The Summative Ratings determine which percentile each school ranks among other NJ schools, based on its Summative Score. Schools that rank in the bottom 5 percent or those with a graduate rate of 67 percent or less are identified as “requiring Comprehensive Support and Improvement.”

  “New Jersey’s school accountability system identifies schools that are in need of comprehensive and targeted support, as required by the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA),” Yaple said.

  That being said, Barnegat Schools rank quite low, with Joseph T. Donahue landing in that 5th percentile. While others are performing only slightly better, like Cecil S. Collins in the 40th percentile, “every other [school] fell below,” said Latwis.

  Now, while this doesn’t mean the state is now going to be directly involved in the day-to-day operations of these low-scoring schools, it does mean that they could be targeted for “Comprehensive Support.”

  “No one is coming to take over,” said Latwis. “Our kids are struggling and nobody’s trying to hide that.”

  Which is why the administration has opted for the bigger, bolder alternative to improve performance i.e. reconfiguration.

  Essentially, the reconfiguration would transform the district from four separate elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school into “one unified district” that would have Barnegat students matriculating through each school every couple of years.

  The new set up would be:

  • Grades Pre-K and Kindergarten: Cecil S. Collins School
  • Grades 1 and 2: Joseph T. Donahue School
  • Grades 3 and 4: Lillian M. Dunfee School
  • Grades 5 and 6: Robert L. Horbelt School
  • Grades 7 and 8 Russell O. Brackman School
  • Grades 9 through 12: Barnegat High School

  Latwis confirmed that the district had considered many other options prior to deciding on reconfiguring the district.

  “We looked at other models,” he said.

  The administration thought about reworking the two sister schools, the upper and lower elementary schools, to address performance issues. They also considered changing the structure to incorporate three lower elementary schools, one intermediate school for 5th and 6th grade, while keeping the middle school and high school as they are. However, these changes did not address enough of the issues, said Latwis.

  “The buildings are all over the map,” in terms of the number of students in each school, he said. The administration wanted to go with the option that addressed all concerns and was “more bang for your buck.”

  While Latwis doesn’t deny the fact that reconfiguring the district is a major change, he insists that it is the best option for students and will maximize the district’s resources while keeping costs down.

Photo courtesy Barnegat School District

  “Our budget is capped at 2 percent,” said Latwis, which means the district can’t really afford to hire more staff to address the needs of the students. (By state law, a district can’t increase taxes past a budget cap of 2 percent.) By reconfiguring, many staff members will be “freed up” to dedicate more time to other areas of study, teacher collaboration, and various district initiatives, he added. In essence, reallocating the current staff would be more cost efficient while improving learning opportunities.

  “Nobody feels good that they’re teaching and nobody’s learning,” he said. “But our staff truly loves and cares for these kids…you can’t teach that.”

  Latwis also confirmed that the reconfiguration would also come with some minor changes to heads of staff at each school. The principal for each school would be:

  • PreK-Kindergarten: Josh Toddings (currently principal of Joseph T. Donahue)
  • Grades 1-2: John Fiorentino (currently principal of Lillian M. Dunfee)
  • Grades 3-4: Mr. Magee (currently principal of Cecil S. Collins)
  • Grades 5-6: Joseph Saxton (will remain at Robert L. Horbelt)
  • Grades 7-8: Shannon Smith (will remain at Russell O. Brackman)
  • High school: Stephen Nichol

  “They decided that amongst themselves…some will be staying where they are,” said Latwis.

  While Latwis urges parents to have an open mind about the changes, many have taken to social media in recent weeks to denounce the reconfiguration as a slight on the students and local families. 

  Tracy Sutton, district parent, posted to the Barnegat Parents Uncensored Facebook page: “Let’s make sure they know that we will not let them slight OUR children to cover up THEIR failures. Let’s remind them that we voted them IN and we will vote them OUT.”

  Sutton has also started a petition to denounce the plan and has hired an attorney to fight the administration’s putting it into place, she told Jersey Shore Online in a previous interview.

  Another post to the page by Nicole Mary stated: “I recently heard through the grapevine that this “redistricting” is all a secret agenda to protect some principals who schools are failing the test scores miserably.”

Photo courtesy Barnegat School District

  Latwis does not deny that Barnegat schools are performing “miserably,” as Mary put it, however, he emphasized that an ulterior motive for the reconfiguration “is simply not there.”

  “We’ve also gotten a lot of positive feedback,” from parents, he added. Latwis estimates the feedback he has received directly to show a 50/50 response for and against the plan among parents.

  “We want this to be a partnership with parents…we want [parents to] stop speculating, stop wondering if there’s a hidden agenda,” he said.

He urges parents to come to the March 14 Reconfiguration meeting with an open mind. The meeting will be held at the Barnegat High School at 6 p.m.

Photo courtesy Barnegat School District

  “At the end of the day, if we can do this by September 1…it’s only going to help the kids,” he said. If it cannot be done in that time frame, “we will look at extending the timeline.”

  And parent concerns are not being ignored, he added. The Reconfiguration Meeting on March 14 is meant to both apprise parents of the entirety of the proposal, as well as hear their concerns.

“If parents are (still) vehemently against…we could hit pause,” Latwis said.