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Jersey City Schools Face Takeover; Parochial Schools Highly Regarded

September 12, 1988

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) _ In New Jersey’s second-largest city, where the public schools face a state takeover, many non-Catholic parents are sending their children to parochial schools, which they give honors grades.

″I’d much rather have this than public schools,″ Irene Warren, the mother of a first-grader, said, gesturing toward St. Paul’s, an elemantary school cited by the U.S. Department of Education as exemplary.

The Baptist woman said she is impressed by the structured education offered by parochial schools.

Because of its educational failure, the 32,000-student public school system in this city across the Hudson River from New York City has been targeted for the first attempt by any state to seize control of a major urban school district.

The district’s graduation rate is 20 percent.

Twenty-five percent of its students pass New Jersey’s mandatory proficiency exam, compared with 50 percent of students in other urban districts. Statewide, 80 percent of students pass all three sections of the test.

State officials say the poor records mostly result from political patronage.

State Education Commissioner Saul Cooperman began legal action in May to take control of the city’s schools. Jersey City officials have taken the matter before state Administrative Law Judge Kenneth Springer. Hearings before Springer are expected to last into January.

The earliest the state could take control is May 1989, and appeals could delay that.

In contrast, the city’s 27 Roman Catholic schools have a high graduation rate, and send at least 75 percent of their graduates to four-year colleges, said the Rev. Thomas McDade, the Newark Archdiocese’s associate vicar for education.

Jersey City’s Catholic schools are educating more non-Catholics than ever and even turning away applicants, McDade said. Of the district’s 11,000 students last year, 21 percent were non-Catholics. In some schools, the percentage was as high as 85 percent.

″There’s much more discipline, much more structure in the Catholic schools,″ said Brenda Hall, a Lutheran who sent her son Garrick to his first day of school at St. Paul’s last week.

″I wanted him to get a good foundation,″ she said. ″I think it’s pretty much common knowledge about the Jersey City public school system.″

An independent auditor’s report on the public schools found ″the school climate is not conducive to learning, as facilities are poorly maintained and discipline is lacking. Principals are not in control of their buildings, and students and teachers are often not found where they are assigned and not focused on instructional purposes.″

Parents groups have complained of drug use and rampant absenteeism.

″The Catholic school seems to look for results and the public school seems to look for excuses,″ said City Councilman Tom Hart, a critic of the school board.

Jersey City public schools are providing the first test of a law enacted in January giving New Jersey broad powers to take over chronically troubled schools.

If the state wins the legal battle, it can abolish the local board of education, fire top administrators and appoint a state superintendent to operate the district for five years.

David Pikus, a lawyer for the city Board of Education, said many problems date to a prior administration. Mayor Anthony Cucci has objected to the takeover, saying the new law unfairly targets poorer districts that face insurmountable social problems and get inadequate state aid.

Local school officials say a third of the district’s students come from single-parent families and that hundreds more live in shelters for the homeless. Many students come from homes in which English is not the primary language.

But, like the public schools, the Catholic schools reflect Jersey City’s ethnic diversity, McDade said. Among those enrolled at the parochial schools are Hispanic, black, Haitian, Portuguese, Arab, Egyptian, Filipino, Italian, Indian, Chinese and American Indian students.

The average cost to teach each public school student amounts to $6,300 a year, Hart said. Tuition for parochial school students averages about $1,600, officials said.

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