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New Jersey Is Winding Down Takeover of Paterson City Schools

Nearly 27 years after the state of New Jersey wrested control of the academically and financially beleaguered Paterson school district, the state is taking the final steps to return the reins to locals.

The state board of education on Wednesday approved two resolutions that will ultimately culminate in the city gaining control over all five domains that the state uses to assess its school districts. One resolution gives the district the power to make decisions over the last two outstanding areas—governance and instruction and program. The district had previously received approvals for operations, financial management, and personnel.

The second resolution approved on Wednesday directs the state and the school district to work on a transition plan to allow the district to withdraw from state intervention.

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The transition to local control comes shortly after the school board picked a new superintendent to lead the 25,000-student school system. Their choice, Eileen Shafer, the acting superintendent, still has to be approved by the state.

"This is a result of collaborative efforts that involved parents, students, teachers, and administrators who, working with the educators at the department, helped put the systems in place for improved academic achievement and stable governance," said Lamont O. Repollet, the state's acting education commissioner.

Northjersey.com quoted Shafer as saying that the city was "ready for local control."

"Our community will embrace it, our administration will continue to move forward for the benefit of our children, and they will be successful," Shafer said.

As part of the transition process, residents will have to decide whether the members of the Paterson school board will be appointed or elected. (The current board members, who serve in an advisory capacity, are elected by residents.)

Paterson was the second school system the state seized under its takeover law in 1991. State officials fired the district superintendent, dissolved the school board, and demoted top district administrators.

In 1995, the state took over the Newark school system. Newark regained local control in February after a years-long process.

Paterson, a city of about 147,000 residents on the banks of the Passaic River, does not get as much attention in education circles—or philanthropic dollars—as Newark.

"Today is a turning point for Paterson," said Rosie Grant, the executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, a local nonprofit. "It's the opportunity for us—the local folks—to make things right for our kids and their future."

Grant said while the city's students are doing better today than they were before the state takeover, she does not give full credit to the takeover.

"I credit that to the people inside the district doing the work—the teachers, the administrators, parents, and community members," Grant said. "We've had several superintendents under state takeover. Some had initiatives that were good...and some had initiatives that, I think, caused harm to our children. I can't give the credit for the progress to the takeover itself, but I can give it to the people who did some of the work throughout the time period."

As the district begins to forge its own path, Grant said a number of challenges still remain. 

"I think improving student outcomes is the main challenge—after all, that is the main job of the district and the board of education," she said. "I think that's our major challenge: it's making sure that we are all working together and that the ultimate goal is graduating every Paterson child at a high level."

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