JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- In this impoverished city across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan's World Trade Center towers, the school system hit bottom four years ago.
Students read 30-year-old textbooks in decrepit, filthy schools that went without repairs or fresh paint for decades. Dropout rates had soared, attendance and standardized test scores plummeted, and some graduates left high school unable to read or write. Corruption and ineptitude among employees ran rampant, and a notorious political patronage system awarded jobs based on who had supported whom in the latest election.
Horrified at how badly the district had degenerated, New Jersey declared it "educationally bankrupt" and in 1989 became the first state in the nation to seize control of a large urban school district.
"It made you want to throw up to see how bad these schools were," says state Sen. John H. Ewing, a co-sponsor of the legislation authorizing takeover. "Some of the people who were running them should be put in jail for what they let happen to the schools."
New Jersey's pioneering rescue mission has placed it at the forefront of a nationwide movement among states, including Maryland, toward intervention in local schools. Increasingly desperate for antidotes to reverse the slide of failing schools, 20 states have approved measures to wrest districts or individual schools from local control.
Maryland's superintendent and school board will begin targeting individual schools for takeover next month, based on continuously worsening student test scores, attendance and dropout rates. The state will "reconstitute" some of the worst schools by rewriting curricula, replacing staff or turning over control to private contractors or universities.
In Jersey City, the state wasted little time launching its wrenching effort to remake the district. Within months of seizing control, the state ousted the local superintendent, Cabinet and school board. A state-appointed team eliminated 117 positions in a reorganization of the bloated bureaucracy, fired more than 100 employees in schools, formally reprimanded or denied scheduled raises to 50 others and uncovered $3 million in misspending for medical benefits to 250 former employees no longer eligible -- three of them dead.
The team rewrote curricula throughout the district, stressing career and college preparation, bought new textbooks and replaced 20 of 36 principals. Schools, some of them a century old, got long-overdue scrubbings, paint, repairs and renovations. Preschool and meal programs expanded dramatically, and the state-run district created adult-education classes, parenting workshops and an elaborate network of social services tailored to help poor families, many of them immigrants in a 30,000-student school system where children speak three dozen languages.
State educators say streamlining the bureaucracy and eliminating waste and inefficiency enabled the appointed administration to embark on a broad array of improvements despite a perennial shortage of cash. Even with the state pumping in as much as $50 million in additional money each year, a Rutgers University study found Jersey City spending totaled $6,144 per pupil in 1992-93 -- $2,065 less than the average for the state's 108 wealthiest districts.
And despite the decisive actions, progress has come slowly and painfully.
Today, four years after the takeover -- the object of an 18-month court battle in which the local district spent $1 million fighting to retain control -- most educators, lawmakers and parents say the state has laid the foundation for resuscitating schools. Student attendance has risen markedly, to more than 90 percent daily, enrollment has climbed about 10 percent and parental participation has increased. But the district still falls far short of state standards in key measures of student test performance and dropout rates.
"Reform's been a long, slow, tedious process," says Senator Ewing, a Republican who is chairman of the state Legislature's Joint Committee on the Public Schools. "Some people think it can be done quickly, but they have no idea what it takes to turn around a school system in this kind of shape."
Senator Ewing, a political ally of Republican Gov.-elect Christine Todd Whitman, who takes office next month, says he's working with her to extend the state's control of the district by at least two years. Mr. Ewing, like state educators, fears that, if the state returned the district to local control next year as originally hoped, the schools would regress quickly.
Putting 'Kids First'
The blue and white signs appear everywhere -- from the adult-education and preschool classrooms in some of the toughest, most violent housing projects in the region to the mud-colored, four-story converted factory that serves as Board of Eduction headquarters to the lobbies of schools surrounded by chain-link fences.
"Kids First," the signs say. That simple prescription, state officials say, sums up the entire effort to reverse decades of neglect and decline.
The idea took hold in Saul Cooperman's back yard in 1986, when he held the post of state education commissioner. Dr. Cooperman, who now runs a nonprofit organization that strives to improve schools, recalls reading a Forbes magazine article on bankruptcy when he thought of the children and their parents as customers and the school system as a business providing a service.
"It was like, my God, the kids don't matter here, the district just wasn't meeting the standard year after year," says Dr. Cooperman, who also advises Ms. Whitman. "So I got to thinking, businesses that don't come up to particular benchmarks are put into receivership, so why not do the same with a school district when some people are unable or unwilling to improve the schools?"
Dr. Cooperman began putting his thoughts on paper -- and didn't stop for nearly 24 hours. He took his proposal to then-Gov. Thomas H. Kean, and within 15 minutes, the Republican governor became an "educational bankruptcy" convert. Since the initial takeover in Jersey City, the state took over the Paterson district, in 1991, and is moving to take over the Newark district, the state's largest.
From the beginning, after striving to root out corruption and incompetence, the state sought to rebuild the schools here by treating education as a family affair, based on the realization that parents are the first and most important teachers.
Many of the parents in this city of nearly 250,000 parents dropped out of school, support children with welfare checks, have no jobs and live in some of the toughest neighborhoods in this, the poorest city in the New York metropolitan area.
Connie Robinson, a 32-year-old single mother who supports her six children with a welfare check, found hope in the most unlikely of places: a first-floor room that once was a holding area for juvenile delinquents in Montgomery Gardens, a sprawling housing project of a half dozen 10-story brick buildings.
There, four days a week, Ms. Robinson, other single mothers and teacher Kathleen Jacobson gather in a brightly lighted classroom, gutted and renovated after the takeover, for classes to prepare for a high-school equivalency exam. Sitting around a table with classmates, Ms. Robinson puzzles out percentages, studies vocabulary words with the help of one of six computers and writes stories about, among other things, the mean streets outside.
She dropped out of high school at 16 and had no desire to visit the schools her children, ages 5 to 13, attend.
Today, she dreams simple dreams: a decent place to live, a job, and, most of all, better odds for her children than she ever knew growing up here in a poverty-stricken family with 15 brothers and sisters.
"My children, my children -- that's what brought me here, back to school," says Ms. Robinson, an ever-present smile lighting up her face. "I was missing a lot, too much. My kids would bring things home, and I just didn't understand it at all. Now, they see mom going back to school, they're so happy. They want to help me with my homework."
She never thought learning could be so much fun, Ms. Robinson says, and the schools now seem much less forbidding places. She pays regular visits to the ones her children attend, reads with her children at night and hopes to get a teacher assistant position through the city's job-placement program.
In an adjoining classroom at the same housing project, %o preschoolers listen to tapes of books, play vocabulary games and sit transfixed at story time in rooms that explode with color. Children's drawings, posters of nursery rhyme characters, books and Christmas decorations line the walls. Mobiles hang from the ceiling. A plastic kitchen, building blocks, word games and blue cots for nap time surround children who clearly could think of nowhere they'd rather be.
Similar preschool programs, virtually nonexistent before the takeover, now are in place in most of the city's schools and in another housing project. They serve more than 400 children.
The early childhood and adult education programs form critical components of the state's effort and provide some of the more tangible signs of its progress. Soon after seizing control, the state team found such programs woefully lacking and came to view them as a key to the effort to break the cycle of failure long inherited by succeeding generations.
Today, in this city in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, three of 10 residents were born in foreign countries, two-thirds are bilingual and more than 80 percent of the students at many schools qualify for free school lunches. Education, by necessity, extends far beyond the traditional classroom teaching and into the homes and lives of the children and their parents.
Indeed, the state-run district sends social workers to visit parents regularly, helps with job hunting and placements for parents and provides dental and medical checkups and referrals for children. Parents attend classes that teach basics such as discipline and nutrition, along with weekly two-hour parent support groups.
Students now eat free school breakfasts for the first time in the city's history. Health clinics operate at two high schools, and AIDS awareness classes begin in kindergarten and extend through 12th grade in a city hard hit by acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
But bringing stability to the system proved among the most daunting challenges. When the state team arrived, it began the arduous task of converting antiquated personnel records on index cards, some a decade out of date, to a computerized system.
The state also established clear hiring and promotion guidelines, including comprehensive annual reviews, stopping a revolving door that had meant new principals at some schools every few years, and gave principals much more authority over hiring, budgets and purchases.
In every grade at every school, the state overhauled reading, English, math, social studies and science curricula, replacing a hodgepodge of teaching methods and materials that had varied wildly from school to school.
Advanced-placement courses, in which students earn college credit, have been established districtwide, and a new competitive admission magnet program includes specialties in health, the law, engineering, transportation, finance, media and liberal arts.
The magnet programs, which rely heavily on partnerships with businesses, have proved immensely popular: More than 1,000 parents showed up at a recent seminar on the programs.
Perhaps the most dramatic physical changes can be seen in improvements to school buildings themselves. The state-run district sank millions into repairing schools, removing graffiti, painting thousands of classrooms and cleaning the buildings.
At Dickinson High, workers found a swimming pool that had been filled with furniture and other debris for years. Now, the school's 2,500 students swim there again.
But crowding still plagues many schools -- students at several of them study in former cloakrooms and auditoriums and some classes exceed 40 pupils -- and the state is planning to build more.
No quick fix
Such far-flung reforms ultimately will bring long-term payoffs: reduced dropout and crime rates, less reliance on costly social ,, programs and a better-educated work force in a city whose economic future depends on it, state officials predict. But they hasten to add, it's unrealistic to expect significant gains in student performance in four or five years.
"People think the state can just go in and give the schools a shot of penicillin, and the patient will be better," says Jeffrey Graber, executive assistant to the state-appointed superintendent. "But the bottom line is, the foundation has to be built first. You can't just raise test scores or raise attendance until a lot of other things are in place."
Results of the High School Proficiency Test to measure ninth-graders' reading, math and writing ability have improved slightly but remain short of state goals. Elementary students fared somewhat better on other tests. The dropout rate, though, remains dismal: about one in six students a year.
Not everybody welcomes the state's intervention.
Even four years later, considerable bitterness remains among opponents who portray the state-appointed team as an intrusive and largely ineffective bureaucracy arbitrarily imposing its will on a local district.
Mayor Bret Schundler says the state takeover has done little to improve the schools. "The takeover proves the benevolent dictators can't run the schools any better than the corrupt dictators," says Mr. Schundler, who took office in 1992. "The takeover is clearly failing. I have no hope they will provide the improvements in education they should for these kids." Like other opponents, he says he agreed that an indisputably corrupt local school bureaucracy needed to be replaced but contends the local government is better-equipped to run local schools. "It's like people thought there would be some kind of magical impact when the state came in, but what we really need is accountability, and we don't have any," Mr. Schundler says.
Alexander Santora, a member of the advisory school board, also faults the state team. Calling it a "tyrannical group," he says: "They don't have to answer to anyone, and they never built consensus, and I don't think they'll make any difference in the long run."
Dr. Cooperman, the former state education commissioner, says he expected such criticisms from the time he suggested seizure. "There were those who say I was crazy suggesting 'educational bankruptcy,' " he says. "But for so long, people just saw the state as this paper tiger with no teeth. We need to ask what comes out at the other end, what are the students learning? You might have eight football players handle the ball, but it doesn't matter much if there's no yardage."
States that have approved state intervention in individual schools:
Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming.
States that have approved state intervention in the operations of entire school districts:
Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee,
Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming.