EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Egg Harbor Township School District no longer has schools in need of improvement for the first time in five years, according to an announcement made by the New Jersey Department of Education in June.

Both Fernwood Avenue Middle School and Egg Harbor Township High School were identified in 2012 as “focus schools,” after the state found that each had a large achievement gap between its highest performing and the lowest achieving subgroups. The removal of that status demonstrates that each school has now met objectives set out to close that gap, according to Department of Education Press Secretary David Saenz Jr.

A focus school is a school which has been identified as in need of improvement in specific areas. All schools identified as such receive targeted and tailored solutions to meet that school’s needs.

The township schools were among 27 to progress out of the status. Other South Jersey schools which made similar progress include Smithville Elementary School in Galloway, Woodstown Middle School in Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional School District and Deerfield School in Deerfield Township.

According to a letter issued to Egg Harbor Township High School and Fernwood Avenue Middle School, the removal of the status was the result of a series of criteria being met to the satisfaction of the state.

Based on the exit criteria set by the state, schools are removed from “focus school” status if it fails to meet the definition for two consecutive years after implementation of its school improvement plan, after it successfully implements all interventions required, increases graduation rates or meets performance targets for its two lowest-performing subgroups or demonstrates high subgroup growth, which are measured by student growth percentiles.

“As a result of your success according to these metrics, your school will be removed from the current list of focus schools,” stated Commissioner Kimberly Harrington in a letter sent to the district. “I applaud your successful efforts to close the achievement gaps in your school and encourage you to maintain a cycle of continuous improvement in order to remain on a positive trajectory.”

Charles Fredericks, EHT’s supervisor of federal and state programs, said the achievement gaps were identified using standardized test results.

"For EHT, the gap initially was between the highest subgroup Asian Americans and the two lowest subgroups, African American and special education," Fredericks said. "However, over the years, the gap changed to the highest subgroup white students and the two lowest achieving subgroups, African American and special education."

Fredericks said the principals of the two schools should be applauded for the progress. Terry Charlton is the high school principal and James Battersby is Fernwood’s principal.

“Terry and Jim deserve a lot of credit for moving their schools out of status,” Fredericks said.

In order to close the performance gap identified by the state, both schools began the process of implementing a yearly school improvement plans, or SIPs, as required by the state’s regional achievement center staff in collaboration with teaching staff and administration, stated Charlton in a joint statement for both schools.

“The SIPs included implementing student-centered learning activities, professional development, common assessments, data analysis, informal classroom walkthroughs and small group interventions. In addition, a yearly assessment of our school’s climate and culture was performed using the perspective of students, staff and parents,” Charlton stated.

The principals said they were proud of the collaborative work that went into making the progress a reality.

“As the leaders of our schools, we are especially proud that the students, staff, and community were collaborators in addressing areas identified as needing improvement. The NJDOE does not easily exit schools from status. The fact that they decided to do so in the case of Fernwood School and the high school shows that we are utilizing 21st century learning methods effectively and to their satisfaction,” he stated.

Moving ahead Charlton and Battersby said they believe the schools can sustain the progress made and even act as models for other schools.

“We are now in a culture of collecting and analyzing data, identifying and addressing weaknesses, and collaborating on our future direction,” Charlton stated. “The best proof of our sustainability is that the RAC team has, and will continue to, send teams of educators from other districts to visit our schools to view best practices in action and gain knowledge of how to improve climate and culture.”

According to Saenz, all 183 schools of the focus school status were reviewed to determine eligibility to exit the program. Twenty-seven other schools throughout South Jersey remain in the program, including  four Atlantic City schools and two in Pleasantville. There are 10 focus schools in Cumberland County, four in Gloucester County, three in Salem County, one in Camden County, one in Burlington County and two in Cape May County, all of which are still working through school improvement plans to meet the state’s expectations.

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