Full interview: Ellen Simon

How did you first get involved with the public schools in Jersey City?

drawing
Kindergarten homework from Ellen’s son

ES: When our son was a baby, my husband and I ran into a friend who went on and on about the schools and how poor student outcomes were.

I said to my husband, “Remember when we used to get pissed off by stuff like this?”

I had never been involved in politics, but a couple months later, I was volunteering for then-councilman Steven Fulop’s slate of school board candidates. This was 2010. I became the mom with a diaper bag full of campaign lit, accosting strangers on the playground about the Board of Education election. I think our son’s first full phrase was “school board election.”

After the next BOE election, Fulop, then a councilman, invited me and a couple other moms to a meeting with the state’s then-education commissioner, Chris Cerf. This is the “secret meeting” that a lot of union people talk about whenever my name is mentioned. (But not whenever Fulop’s name is mentioned.) Nothing came of the meeting. Had I ever imagined I’d be running for office, I would have skipped it.

During the summer of 2012, the board held a series of contentious meetings as it searched for a new superintendent. Looking at our tragically high drop-out numbers, I felt we needed new leadership and I went to almost every meeting. After one, people walked board member Sangeeta Ranade to her car because they feared for her safety.

One of the objections to an outside superintendent was, “She’s not from here.” It took me years to understand that what that that really meant.

Dr. Marcia Lyles was appointed in August, 2012, the day before the first day of school.

Early in her tenure, I started a newsletter about issues in the district.

Our first issue was about lead in schools’ water, a longtime problem. Dr. Lyles almost immediately addressed the issue after she took office.

Our next issue was school breakfast. Roughly 17,000 children in the public schools qualified for federally-funded free breakfast, but only 18 percent were getting it, because breakfast was served before school started. Advocates for Children of New Jersey asked if I’d promote “breakfast after the bell,” during the school day, which I did. Studies have linked breakfast after the bell to better attendance, fewer behavioral problems and improved student achievement. The district moved to breakfast after the bell under Dr. Lyles. Now 65 percent of eligible children eat breakfast at school.


What was running for BOE like?

I had the great fortune of running with Micheline Amy, who is a superb human resources ballotexecutive, and Jessica Daye, an alumna of McNair and Columbia University and a professional special needs advocate. Both are women of great intelligence, calm, character and integrity. We spent so much time together that after we all got elected, Jessica’s husband, Paul, made us all lovely rings.

Running for office in Jersey City in 2013 was, in many ways, like running in 1913 probably was. There are still parades to march in, doors to knock, ward leaders to meet. It’s still very hard to win without the support of the city’s political bosses.

In some ways, however, it’s is vastly different. In recent campaigns I’ve worked on, anonymous posters needled the candidates on Facebook. When we looked at their Facebook profiles, they were clearly fake. Often, they’d get their hit in, then the profile would disappear. It’s a little bit spooky, because we all assume the person behind the fake posts is someone we know or have met.

There was a lot of in-person vitriol, too. One of my opponents stood near me outside a school, telling junior high students I wanted to close the school and open a charter. It wasn’t true. The kids were truly upset, and so was I.

We clearly weren’t the only ones creeped out. When we were sworn in, the police officer working the meeting sat near us was wearing a bulletproof vest.

By the time we ran, Fulop was mayor. He endorsed us, and I don’t think we would have won without him. I’ll always be grateful to him for his support.

Still, he didn’t donate to the campaign. He was beginning to hedge his bets.

Parent volunteers on past Fulop-led Board of Ed campaigns Fulop fed the names and emails of all the people they would get to the polls into a database, checking off the issues those people were most concerned about. During 2010, 2011 and 2012, I probably put in 90 names, with the commitment to get those people out to vote in what was then an April election.

When the three of us ran in 2013, he told us the database was no longer available. It was broken, he said.

I have my doubts about that. I think all those names became a building block of the lists for his mayoral campaign and the weekly newsletters he still sends out.

He’ll say we wouldn’t have gotten elected without him. And that’s true. But I’m not sure that he would have gotten elected without us. He built his base on parents who wanted better schools.

Our slate was the last time he endorsed independents for Board of Ed. He officially sat out the next election, in 2014, but, he unofficially supported one of the union’s candidates. Starting in 2015, he officially endorsed the union’s slates.


In general, what do you think of the public schools here? Where do they excel?

I met someone who said, moments after meeting me, “Of course you’re not sending your child to the Jersey City public schools.”

I said, “Of course I am.”

We did not become friends for life.

Many people who dismiss our schools don’t know anyone with a child in public school.

I’m here to say I’ve personally been thrilled with JCPS for my son, proud of the students I’ve met and impressed with the teachers.

In the last few years, JCPS students or alumni have won a Rhodes scholarship (McNair) and a full-ride Gates fellowship to college (Snyder). Snyder visual arts students won $1.7 million in merit scholarships – in 2015 alone. Junior high students have won the Lexus Eco-Challenge (PS 28) and been national finalists in Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow Competition (PS 5).

Those are some of our shooting stars. Looking more broadly, our outcomes are improving dramatically.image006

In the last four years, dropout numbers fell a whopping 72 percent. The dropout rate for African-American males decreased by 46 percent. (Consider that the likelihood of an African-American male without a high school going to prison is 70 percent and you’ll understand how life-changing this is.) The overall graduation rate is up 11 percent.

Students at every high school now have the opportunity to do college-level work. Students in Advanced Placement courses increased 31 percent since 2012; the number passing Advanced Placement tests increased 25 percent.

New opportunities for students range from creating experiments to compete for a spot on the International Space Station to making prosthetic limbs on 3D printers (in fourth grade!). The district opened a racially integrated new high school, with demographics that almost perfectly reflect the demographics of the district, in the heart of Greenville.

Children at some of our most historically challenged schools are going to Liberty Science Center every Friday to do hands-on experiments; at-risk students from other challenged schools are shadowing Science Center professionals.

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Snyder High School’s drama club production

Our schools’ strengths start with a base of incredible teachers and dedicated administrators. The algebra teacher at PS 39 has his students creating scale models of buildings such as the pyramids and Mayan temples. Snyder’s drama club put on a slamming-door farce last year that was so hilarious and perfectly timed, I saw it twice. The Snyder Arts chorus sang a beautiful Latin requiem in concert at St. Paul’s church.

I’ve been impressed with people at every level. One of the janitors at PS 5 is a PS 5 alum; his mom went there, too. This man’s love for the building is palpable. Visiting PS 39, I was impressed to see how their security guard treated the kids in the morning, how many names he knew, how genuinely they liked him.

The leader of the Renaissance Academy and her staff work with students who are at least a year behind in credits and they’re getting the students caught up so they can graduate on time. The spirit of love in that school is evident from the moment you step in and the security guard says, “Welcome to my house.”

It burns me when people dis our schools, or laugh them off. Come visit. You’ll come away impressed.

The public schools belong to all of us. Their triumphs belong to all of us. The responsibility to give every child an opportunity for an excellent education is on all of us.


Where do they fall short?

One piece of data we got on the board was about teacher absenteeism. While the vast majority of our teachers are hard-working and diligent, a few of our schools struggle with a handful of teachers who are chronically absent.

A dozen teachers at PS 34 came to a 2015 meeting and spoke about challenges they faced because of colleagues who were, among other problems, chronically absent.

Of course, if you’re struggling with a serious illness and are out on a sanctioned medical leave, that’s understandable. But if you’re you’re simply chronically absent, that’s not fair to the students and other teachers. Substitutes in New Jersey aren’t required to have a college degree. Teaching is a profession. No one else can do the work of a teacher.


Specifically, do you have any particular experiences or anecdotes as they relate to the schools? Anything you’ve noticed as the mother of a kid in a public school? Or in visits that you made to schools while on the Board?

As one friend said, “We’re not religious people; we don’t go to church or synagogue. Our school is our community.”

It’s a community where we really take care of each other. People have the mistaken notion that downtown schools only serve wealthy children, yet seven out of ten children at my child’s downtown school live in poverty. (By poverty, I mean the federal standard: $31,005 per year for a family of four as of 2015.)

I get requests like, “The kids’ father left. Do you know where I can get a job as a cook?” “I’m looking for a one-bedroom downtown for me and my two kids for $1,500.” (And if anyone can help with that, we’re still looking.)

We find uniforms for children if they’re padlocked out of their apartment, donate money so every child gets a book at the book fair, and gather emergency groceries.

The staff and administration do so much more than we do as parents. The principal at PS 5, very quietly, bought a new washing machine and dryer for a family with a severely disabled child in a wheelchair whose belongings were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. I know that’s only the tip of the iceberg.


What was serving on the Board like? 

I thought I was cynical when I got into this. As it turns out, I wasn’t cynical enough.

The biggest surprise came from the mayor. I hadn’t even been sworn in, when he called to advocate for the district to rent PreK space in the Gloria Robinson Homes, a private low-income housing development on the West Side.

Reports at the time called this a tussle over PreK space. A more accurate way to describe it would be a tussle over an unsolicited no-bid contract.

Sangeeta Ranade, who was board president at the time, and I began researching it. The classrooms were part of a project by a private developer on land owned by the city’s housing authority. The developer had gotten a tax abatement from the city. It had gotten a grant from HUD to build the classroom space. The developer was asking for three times the rent we were paying everywhere else.

The district already had enough PreK space in the neighborhood, so three- and four-year-olds would have to be bused there from other parts of the city. The developer wanted us to sign a 30-year lease. Our PreK program is state-funded under court mandate, but there’s no guarantee it will be in 30 years.

The mayor kept emailing us about the deal and his office sent us scads of material. Freeholder Bill O’Dea emailed to urge me to do the deal.

The thing no one gave us, to the best of my knowledge, was an independent appraisal.

Brigid D’Souza, a public school mom who worked as a tax consultant, showed Ms. Ranade and I a mayoral executive order Fulop released on Christmas Eve 2013. Under the order, developers who built PreK space as part of their property could add years to their tax abatements.

At first blush, it sounded progressive.

However, the order didn’t put a ceiling on the rent developers could charge. That meant that if the city’s politicos could effectively push the Board of Ed to sign a deal, developers could get a guaranteed tenant paying any rent they named. So the lease Steve was pushing for could have been the first of many.

Framed that way, it looked less like a progressive policy and more like a dressed-up way to transfer money from children to real estate developers.

As we negotiated, Steve told us that the district wouldn’t be able to return to PreK classrooms it was using in the otherwise empty former Golden Door Charter School (then informally called the Cordero Annex, now Explore 2000) unless we did the Gloria Robinson deal. Steve pitched it as a downtown vs. rest of town conflict.

That was a canny move on his part, but it wasn’t true.

Golden Door had been built with public money, was otherwise empty, and the district needed space in the neighborhood. The Gloria Robinson space was being built by a private developer and the district didn’t need space in the neighborhood.

Ms. Ranade and I kept saying to each other, in disbelief, “You know who would really have hated this deal? Councilman Steven Fulop.”

As it became clear to Fulop that the board wouldn’t agree to this, he gave his first State of the City address. He asked Ms. Ranade and Dr. Lyles to sit near the front. Then he excoriated Dr. Lyles for how she managed her budget.

This was a public announcement that the superintendent had no political cover.

If she’d been a political operator, this would have been an incredibly shitty thing to do. Because she’s not, it was unforgivable.

While all this was going on, a group of parents asked me to meet with them about the Golden Door classrooms. One of them then wrote Steve, who sent me an angry email, cc’ing a group of the city’s powerful people. He also released the email to the press.

In Fulop’s circle, these are called “hate-o-grams.” The hate-o-gram serves multiple purposes: It lets let you know that the power players know you’re in trouble. It alerts his circle as to who should be shunned. And it warns his circle that it could happen to them.

I was very circumspect in the press because I didn’t think it would help our schools if the board and the mayor were openly fighting.

But the press made it was clear that’s what was going on.

On a school visit, a staff member walked up to me and said, “I see you are fighting with the mayor.”

I was embarrassed and tried to downplay it.

She said, “Good for you. I thought you all were bought and paid for.”

The majority of the board opposed the lease. It eventually made it to our agenda, but the developer withdrew it at the last minute, which saved Fulop both a defeat and a public discussion of its merits.

Later, Fulop inserted himself into the district’s labor negotiations – when the union was asking for $49.7 million in raises over three years, at a time our budget was declining. (Here’s a link to the impasse notice filed with the state.) It’s not clear he even knew what they were asking for. If he did, I wonder where he thought we would find $49.7 million.

Fulop campaigned for years on a national superintendent search. With the help of a team of tireless volunteers, he got a Board of Ed elected who brought a first-rate educator to lead Jersey City’s schools for the first time in recent memory. The district is making real and measurable progress.

But Fulop threw her under the bus because she won’t do his political deals. She already has a challenging job, and he’s done little but make it harder.

Unforgivable.

That hasn’t stopped him from taking credit for every success the schools have. (Watch the last frame in this video, for just one example.)

The coda to this is that the the head of the Jersey City Housing Authority left for another job soon after the proposed lease died. The West Side PreK space was eventually leased to Head Start. I’ve never been able to learn if those guys are paying the rent we were asked to pay.

And Fulop has never again supported a slate with no ties to city or county government. The nine-member Board of Education now has one city employee, one spouse of a city employee, two employees of the county schools and one county school retiree.

He saw what happens when you elect people who don’t think they owe the city’s political bosses anything, and he hasn’t made that mistake since.


While on the Board, did you notice any long-time practices in the district that hold schools back?

I heard a retired administrator speak who talked about how he brought his friends and relatives to the former superintendent, and how they all got hired.

When I mentioned this to an old-timer, the old-timer told me that the speaker had 50 relatives on payroll.

Fifty.

That’s when I realized what all the “she’s not from here” stuff was about during the superintendent search. It meant, “She doesn’t know me, won’t protect me, won’t hire my cousin.”

For too long in our schools, relationships trumped merit. That’s changed, but the legacy is still there.

Patronage works for well-connected adults, but it doesn’t work as well for kids.

Roughly 30 percent of our students are African-American, so one might expect to see more African-American teachers. But there was no place on the patronage train for African-American teachers, and their absence hurts students. For instance, recent research found that African-American students are more likely to be identified as gifted if they have an African-American teacher.

Patronage led to a Central Office heavy on clerks, but lighter on professionals. The district is the city’s largest employer, but, unless I’m mistaken, only two people in the human resources department have college degrees. The whole district presently has one staff attorney. (Her deputy is on maternity leave.)


Was the BOE a well-functioning body?

A partial highlight reel of the last 13 months: A clip of a board member screaming at the Superintendent during a meeting. A clip of the board trying to name a school after a sitting board member when the community wanted it named after Pres. Barack Obama. An article about one board member suing the board president. An article about a board member resigning after a dunderheaded Facebook post.

Here’s the state laying out its terms for the district regaining local control, which include a reminder that board members shouldn’t threaten anybody, and the full text of the state’s ethics laws, for the board’s review.

Judge for yourself.

Ideally, how would a very well-functioning board act?

The Center for Public Education put it much better than I could, based on studies comparing boards in high-achieving districts to boards in low-achieving districts.

Effective school boards have high expectations for students and strong beliefs in their potential. They spend less time on operational issues and more time on policies to promote student achievement. Effective boards focus on data, not personal anecdotes. They have strong relationships with the superintendent and the community. They engage in team development and training. They also focus on effective staff development.


Why should people vote in the BOE elections? The answer seems pretty simple and direct if you have kids in the system, but what if you don’t? Why is it important for people without school-aged children to pay attention?

The Board of Education is one of the places in our democracy where your voice really can make a difference.

Your vote on BOE campaigns matters: Someone really did win by one vote once. I won by, if I recall, 189.

If you come to a board meeting and say something intelligent (something you should totally do) board members and administrators will remember it the next day. (After a parent made sane comments at a meeting, two people said to me, “Who was that?”)

We’ll never be the city we went to be, we’ll never be the country we want to be, unless we have great schools for all children. The roughly 28,000 children who depend on our schools for their future deserve independent Board of Education members who will vote only in their interest.

Also, the school district is the city’s largest employer. Its budget is larger than the city government’s budget. That $667 million budget requires adult stewardship.


What role can the community play in creating better schools? 

There’s so much the community can do.

People who don’t have school-age children and don’t hold elected office:

Educate yourself about our schools. Some useful presentations are here and here. Follow a nearby school on Twitter and Facebook. Visit your local elementary school during Sneak-a-Peek Week (March 6-10), or call to get on the roster for Read Across America at your local elementary school March 2. Many schools need volunteers for Career Day, or to regularly read to children (PS 22, for instance, is always looking). Sign up to be a Principal for a Day this spring. (Email me at ellenrsimon(at)gmail and I’ll send your request along.)

Come to Board of Ed meetings.

If you’re a college-educated parent choosing a school:

I’d love to see parents reframe how they choose schools. This decision means something to your children, but it affects other children too.

Don’t write off our public schools without even considering them. Talk to public school parents. Visit the public schools. Come to Sneak-a-Peek Week. Find out if your local elementary school has a PTA meeting coming up, then go.

Nothing makes me grind my teeth like the parent who says, “There’s too much test prep in our schools. Jamison needs a more progressive education.” Then, two sentences later, “The scores at this public school aren’t very good.”

If you rely on Great Schools, know that wealthy kids do better on tests than poor kids. Schools with wealthier students look better on those reductive rankings than schools with more poor students.

Read “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.” Read “Invisible Child” and see what Dasani’s public school teacher and principal meant to her (and her mom).

If you decide your local public school isn’t good enough for your child, ask yourself why it’s good enough for someone else’s. Then do something about it. (See above.)

Parents with children in charter schools:

Compared to almost all of our district schools, Jersey City’s most prestigious charters have a greater proportion of white, English-speaking students, a smaller proportion of African-American and Latino students, fewer poor students, and fewer English language learners.

We need to be able to have a real conversation about this.

As a charter parent, you can do something about it. Talk to your charter’s leadership about a lottery weighted to improve poor students’ chances of admission. (METS Charter is working on this.)

Policy makers:

The state’s education policy has created two competing systems. Charters are funded on a per-child basis, with money that comes straight from the district’s budget. Each Jersey City child that goes to a charter school represents $10,775 gone from district schools.

The charters’ gain is the district’s financial loss.

And it’s quite a loss. While our budgets have been flat for years, and our overall enrollment has increased slightly, our payments to charters have increased 60 percent since 2011.

The increased payments act, effectively, as a budget cut to the district schools. It’s unsustainable. As a school board member from Hoboken said to me, “It’s a death match.”

I doubt the legislature will fix it, but damn it, you guys really should try.

On a separate note, if you’re a council person and something comes before the council involving the public schools, why not consult with at least one public school parent (preferably more!), maybe even find a rational board member (they exist!) before you vote on it?


What did you learn over the last four years of your service? What would you do better, differently? And what are you most proud of?

There’s one thing I know I’d do differently, and I’m sure I’ll think of more as I get some distance: The district has a shared-services agreement with the city in which the district pays for police officers to work in schools. I’d love more information on what those officers are doing. Are they doing mediation? Or are they arresting students?

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Dickinson students, upon learning that their prom would be subsidized by a NY Giants’ kicker

The big-picture lesson for me was that with the right leadership, real outcomes for students in urban schools can improve dramatically. Change doesn’t have to be glacial; real improvements can happen quickly.

What I’m most proud of are the tremendous strides the district has made and continues to make. This is not my work, or the work of anyone on the board. Rather, it’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of staffers at every level, from security guards to senior administrators.

Being a school board member, if you do it right, is not a powerful position. The power rests with the board as a whole, not with any one individual. And the seat of power, the day-to-day running-the-district power, rests with the superintendent. She, alongside every school staffer, clerk, classroom aid, teacher, principal and administrator, is doing the real work of educating children.

A good board member, in a situation like this, is a like a defensive lineman. We’re there to block and tackle, so the superintendent has room to maneuver, so she can move the ball.

What I’m most proud of are our students, teachers, administrators and staffers: How hard they work and how much they’re achieving. It has been my privilege to work on their behalf.

One staffer wrote me a thank-you note after my last meeting, which I keep on my refrigerator door. People have no idea how far a kind word can go when spoken to someone who’s been mired in a long conflict.