This past summer, I had the opportunity to visit a summer program at Prospect Village in the City of Trenton. The participants were offered a summer respite of after-school programs and recreational activities. It was a wonderful opportunity for inner city kids to keep their minds active while venturing out to such places as Liberty Science Center, Philadelphia Zoo and other educational field trips.
While speaking to the program administrators, I was discouraged to learn that the vast majority – nearly 80 percent - of students in urban schools consistently scored “below proficient” on state standardized literacy exams. Hearing this was harsh: if most of Trenton’s students score below proficient, how will they be able to keep up with the modern economy? The answer is that they won’t be able to.
The next generation hangs in the balance; if our students can’t read, they can’t work. If they can’t work, then they will turn to extralegal means of producing income, which reinforces the cycle of violence and recidivism that grips urban areas. Moreover, people cannot blame the educational system without addressing the underlying socio-economic issues.
To address this, we need to start from the bottom-up: Reading and English comprehension is one of the most critical skills we acquire during school. The U.S. Department of Education acknowledges that “reading failure [exacts] a tremendous long-term consequence for children’s developing self-confidence and motivation to learn.” When the majority of a district’s youth perform below reading proficiency, the rest of their lives won’t be easy.
Keeping in mind that, “it takes a village,” we should embrace these summer “catch up” classes. But I feel when we see danger signs in a child’s progress it should be a trigger point for a community wide response.
After studying these working programs I drafted a bill that would require the State Commissioner of Education to declare a State of Emergency for school districts that are severely underperforming on standardized literacy proficiency tests. In doing so, we embrace the concept that reading is absolutely fundamental in a child’s development.
The proposed legislation requires two things: that the commissioner mandates these districts operate full-day kindergarten through third grade programs and releases additional aid for that purpose; and that the district call for a public meeting of community stakeholders to come up with a district-wide response as to how to improve reading comprehension outcomes.
Frankly, this legislation is needed across New Jersey. If we examine the 2014 NJ ASK scores, we find that many cities demonstrate poor outcomes in terms of English and Language Arts. For example, Camden has 81 percent of students performing at partially proficient levels, and Trenton 79 percent. Newark, Passaic, Paterson, and Plainfield all hover around 70 percent. This is a statewide crisis and we need to address it cooperatively.
The effects of this legislation would help make New Jersey economically viable by making it attractive for external investments. Boasting a well-educated workforce attracts employers to our state to do business. More employers mean more jobs; more jobs mean better outcomes for individuals, their families, and communities as a whole.
My idea isn’t a magic pill that will eradicate New Jersey’s problems overnight. It’s just one step on a list of things we need to do to reinforce a sense of community and well-being for our children. But it’s powerful step in the right direction. I hope the education community will join me in supporting this initiative, as in turn it will support our children’s futures.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D- Mercer/Hunterdon)
Reed Gusciora is the Assemblyman representing the 15th Legislative District in the General Assembly and is a resident of the City of Trenton