Education advocate returns to New Jersey to fight for all students
JerseyCAN, a statewide student advocacy nonprofit, announced Tuesday that Paula White is its new executive director. The Cranford-based group trains parents in student advocacy, trains teachers in public policy and produces research reports on topics such as teaching, teaching staff and school facilities.
White, 56, taught for nearly a decade before founding a charter school in Newark, leading New Jersey’s school improvement efforts and nearly becoming the deputy education commissioner of the state. ‘State.
She said her first priority is to push for a statewide plan to improve student literacy using scientifically proven methods.
“We don’t have the freedom to be able to walk around, everyone doing their own thing,” she said, calling on the Department of Education and lawmakers to get as many students literate as quickly as possible. . She cited Mississippi and other states as success stories.
“They all got together and said we were going to teach reading the right way, based on scientific evidence,” White said. She said these efforts must focus on struggling students, whether they are black, learning English or come from homes without a strong focus on reading.
Betsy Ginsburg, another statewide education advocate, was happy to hear about White’s new role.
“I think Paula is a great addition to JerseyCAN, with strong credentials, a broad background and a positive attitude,” said Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “In this new role, she will continue to be a singular voice in NJ education circles.”
White is particularly troubled by the trends in National Assessment of Academic Progress scores, released last week. Students in the top 75% lost two or three points, but those in the bottom 25% lost 12 or 13 points.
“What we see is no longer a gap. It’s a chasm,” she said.
At the state level, she is awaiting standardized test results given last spring and is frustrated that they have not yet been released. She said it would be helpful to see which schools have unusual results or success with various student demographics.
“We want to see what these differences are attributed to and what we can learn from these schools,” she said, “until we have publicly available data, it’s difficult.”
The New Jersey Department of Education told school leaders it would release district and school-level data in early fall.
In keeping with JerseyCAN’s mission “to ensure that all students in New Jersey have access to a high-quality education, regardless of address,” White also wants all parents to have options as to where they send their students to school.
“Families who live in or near poverty, they deserve the choice,” she said, adding that she wanted to help successful schools enroll more students. She said these schools should be allowed to grow, whether they are traditional public or charter schools.
The new job is a homecoming for White, a mother of three who marveled at their different talents and challenges. She dedicated herself to helping build an education system that would meet the needs of all students.
White grew up in Ontario and Jamaica, taught for nearly a decade, founded a charter school in Newark, then led the state Department of Education’s school improvement efforts in collaboration with the the worst performing schools and those with the largest achievement gaps. Under her leadership, two-thirds of the more than 200 schools she oversaw saw academic growth, and suspensions decreased in schools with large achievement gaps.
During her tenure as head of turnaround, 58% of the schools she oversaw showed improvement in reading, math, or both, and the office helped reduce chronic absenteeism by 63%, though she had said the problem had worsened throughout the pandemic.
“We are now seeing an explosion in chronic absenteeism,” she said. “Students need time to learn, and if they’re not in school, they can’t learn.
Ann Borowiec, co-chair of the JerseyCAN board, said the group was delighted to have White leading the organization because of her credentials and reputation as a policy expert in the state.
“That she’s diverse and so passionate and knowledgeable about this space, I think it’s a home run that we picked her up from New York,” she said. White took a job in New York after failing a managerial position in New Jersey.
In 2018, the New Jersey Board of Education confirmed that White was the assistant commissioner of education. The job was called off hours later, in a move that sparked speculation the teachers‘ union might oppose White’s work with the Democrats for Education Reform, a group that supports public school choice. , including charter schools.
Governor Phil Murphy later said the union had not asked her to fire White and that she was “not suited for the position in terms of philosophy”. The governor’s office declined to comment Monday on White’s new job.
White took the backhand in stride. “I knew I would be fine, and I was fine because I have an education,” she said. “But what about the people I fight for, the students who have no education? They are not well. This story was a case study in the importance of education, and I want more students to have it, so when injustices are done to them or when things go wrong, they know they can and will end by finding a place for themselves to contribute and shine.”
For the past four years, White has served as head of Educators for Excellence in New York, a teacher advocacy group with 15,000 members. The group successfully lobbied for policy changes, including retaining social workers and guidance counselors in needy schools and testing all students in the city for dyslexia at an early age.
In her new job, she is also very concerned about the social and emotional needs of students in the wake of the pandemic.
“We want to help restore students’ mental health as soon as possible,” she said. “It’s a big part of every conversation around education.”
White, a graduate of Spelman College and Teachers College at Columbia University, is eager to tackle the challenges facing students. Former JerseyCAN executives Janellen Duffy and Patricia Morgan will remain with the organization as consultants as White takes the reins.
“Although I’m an independent voice, I’m also a voice that understands how to get things done,” she said.
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Tina Kelley can be reached at [email protected].