REDISTRICTING DRAWS FIRE IN IRVINGTON - School chief says crowded conditions led to poor scores

Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ) - Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Tree-lined Nesbit Terrace sits high on a hill in Irvington's West Ward, its neat houses forming one of the town's better neighborhoods. The street abuts Chancellor Avenue School, which in the eyes of many is not just one of the town's better schools, but simply the best one. 

But the school has become a victim of its own success. Consistently scoring as Irvington's only school to meet the federal No Child Left Behind requirements, families moved to the neighborhood so their children could attend Chancellor. 

Almost as consistent as its test scores was the school's overcrowded condition. For the past years it has been the district's most overcrowded school with the largest class sizes. 

To address overcrowding at Chancellor and throughout the district, this September school officials implemented Irvington's first redistricting plan in a decade. 

The plan has touched a raw nerve throughout town, especially among parents at Chancellor. The redistricting plan, for example, divided Nesbit Terrace. Some children who live across the street from Chancellor were assigned to a new school, Chancellor Avenue South, more than a half a mile away. 

And parents were further unnerved because the new Chancellor South, the former Mount Vernon Avenue School, had been scheduled to be demolished. 

Students at the old Mount Vernon moved into a brand new $37 million building next door, the first entirely new school built in Irvington under the New Jersey School Development Authority. 

Parents compare the splitting up of Chancellor to the breakup of a happy home. 

"Her decision to split the school up is really ineffective," said Yanick Venescar, PTA president. "If the school was running well, why break it up? Why take students who live across the street and send them to another school 10 blocks away? Why break up a home? If it's not broken, why fix it?" 

But School Superintendent Ethel Davion said there was plenty broken at Chancellor. Despite the reputation as being Irvington's best public school, test scores had been sliding for the past three years, she said. 

In fact, the Grove Street School on the opposite end of town and in Irvington's poorest neighborhood, overtook Chancellor as the district's overall best performing school, Davion said. 

"Chancellor is not the great school it used to be," she said. "Special education kids are not achieving. This is a problem. Something is happening to those kids. They are getting lost. " 

She said three years ago, the majority of students who took the Limited English Proficiency test passed. Last year, none did, she said. 

Davion said part of the decline may be due to the overcrowding. She said the school was so overcrowded that teachers had to use closets and the cafeteria. 

The controversy over the redistricting plan was not confined to the break up of Chancellor. 

At the Union Avenue Middle School, dozens of students were pulled out of their classrooms and told they had to attend University Middle School on the other side of town. 

Davion said that was a mistake by the administration. Those students should have been assigned to University in the first place, she said. Still, Union is overcrowded by about 250 students. 

The construction of new schools was supposed to relieve overcrowding in the district. There were plans for a third middle school to be built in the East Ward, but they were scrapped after the state ran out of money. 

But Irvington has managed to get three new schools so far from the state-wide construction project. Besides Mount Vernon, there's the new University Elementary School, reconstructed from an existing building, which last housed all the district's 6th graders. And the new Augusta Street Pre-School was an old elementary school of the same name that was completely rebuilt with a new addition. 

At a meeting this summer, parents and community activists drilled Davion on her redistricting plan and chastised her from not including input from the community. 

Loucious Jones, a member of the Statewide Education Organizing committee, said the administration had violated the No Child Left Behind Act by not involving parents. 

"They should admit they made a mistake," said Angela Humphrey, who has a child in kindergarten at the new University Elementary School. She said the plan as the administration has explained it publicly so far doesn't make sense to her. 

School Board President Renee Burgess said she wasn't convinced at first, especially the plan to divide Chancellor into two schools. 

"I started to understand it a little better as time went along," Burgess said. "I'm not saying it was the best way to handle the problem. But we were out of compliance." 

Although things have quieted down, some parents described opening week as chaotic. There was so much confusion that it put some parents in tears. A teacher said she didn't have books for more than a week. 

"People are trying to attack the school for whatever reason," Davion said. "It didn't look chaotic to me." 

Davion said the only problem she encountered was trash along the fence. She instructed the head custodian to have it cleaned up. 

"It was a good situation. I felt good when I left there," she said. "I've been to hell and back behind this redistricting. But when I saw these children that morning, I said to myself, 'It was worth the fight. I was the right decision.'"