Sunday, April 21, 2024

Mold and Lagging Test Scores Trouble Knowlton Elementary

Vice Principal Dana Carroll presents Knowlton’s NJSLA results. This slide shows an 11-point drop in the district’s average grade 3 ELA score compared to last year. Photo by C. O’Chang, 10/2023

The biggest item on the agenda for Knowlton’s October 16th board of education meeting was the school’s NJSLA scores for 2023. But equal attention focused on another issue, brought up for the second time by attending members of the public: the appearance of mold in the school’s temporary modular structures.

The mold first came up at the board’s September 25th meeting. Jeffrey and Kristen Baier, who have four children attending Knowlton, had questioned the board about the mold found in the modular structures at Back to School Night. Mr. Baier noted the seeming extent of the growth and asked why the issue had been apparently ignored.

Superintendent Jeannine DeFalco had replied that although leaks had been identified in the modulars previously, they were “attended to.” She said that neither she nor the teacher had seen the mold previously.

“Some of what was said by public last meeting was false and has been shared with our speaker as such. The part I am speaking about is the claim that a child was removed from KTES due to health concerns relating to that building. Said child never was in that building and home was determined to be the source,” said DeFalco, after publication.

School Business Administrator Michael Brennan added that a summer fire inspection, most likely conducted in the month of August, had not uncovered any major concerns. DeFalco noted that these inspections “look at everything.”

The board resolved the mold issue at the September meeting by explaining that all classes and therapies that had previously taken place in the modulars would now move into the main building. Meanwhile, the district would seek funding to build a new permanent structure to replace the modulars.

However, the funding for such a project does not exist, and a referendum to raise funds for the project was voted down when posed to voters about 10 years ago, according to the board’s recollection.

Instead, DeFalco resolved to appeal to the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA) for grant funding to build a new permanent structure. The SDA generally manages construction and renovation for 31 specific low-income districts, where the tax base is too low to support major facility repairs.

However, other districts and vocational schools, known as regular operating districts, can reach out to the SDA for grant funding for “emergent and capital maintenance needs.”

The October 16th meeting began with Kristen Baier’s remarks on the ongoing mold concern. Baier noted that previous board minutes speak to leaks found in the modular buildings, including the March 2016 minutes (marked “March 16, 2015”) that mention leaks in two classrooms.

Baier described conversations she’d had with families of past and present Knowlton students, whom the letter did not name. According to Baier’s letter, these students experienced respiratory symptoms while taking classes in the modular buildings, with recovery coming soon after limiting their exposure.

Baier ended her letter with a request that the board share any reports from the health department as they become available. She also hoped to see the school’s plan for placing students and staff when enrollment increases and calls for the additional space now lost by the modular buildings’ decommission.

Several board members had updates on the school’s response to the mold. Board President Tammy Smith reported that the school was receiving proposals for the modular buildings’ demolition.

“We’re trying to work as diligently as we can to remedy the situation and have a permanent structure for our students,” she said.

Speaking for the school’s facilities committee, Brennan reported that objects had been removed from the modular buildings and the committee has entered the “pre-demolition phase” of speaking to electricians and the fire department to dismantle the buildings’ components. He also thanked staff members who have joined the preparation efforts.

DeFalco gave an update on her appeal to the SDA for grant funding. In a frustrating development, the SDA referred her to the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Facilities “to investigate debt service possibilities.” Her efforts to secure funding for the project remain ongoing.

Vice Principal Dana Carroll supplied the report for the meeting’s other major update: the release of the May 2023 NJSLA scores. The NJSLA, or New Jersey Student Learning Assessment, is a computer-based test given statewide to students in grades three to 12. Scores are used to assess individual student performance as well as district effectiveness.

Carroll’s slides showed the performance of Knowlton students versus the New Jersey average, with a comparison to last year’s scores. The math and ELA sections are graded on a scale from 650 to 850, with the goal of having the majority of students score 750 or higher, a level designated as “meeting expectations.”

Unfortunately, if the NJSLA results are anything to go by, the effects of pandemic learning loss are still lingering. In the ELA and math sections for grades three to six statewide, only one section of New Jersey students met the 750 cutoff: grade five ELA. The state average fell below the “meeting expectations” guideline in every other test.

Knowlton students followed this trend, too. Though Knowlton students equaled the state average in grade four math and even exceeded it in grade three math, they scored below the state average on all other ELA and math sections.

Within Knowlton itself, comparing this year’s test scores to last year also reveals some interesting trends. In positive news, spring 2023’s third and fourth graders scored higher in math than their spring 2022 counterparts. On the negative side, however, ELA saw double-digit score drops in grades three, four and six compared to last year:

Grade three ELA: 737 (11-point dip from 2022), slightly below the state average of 739
Grade three math: 746 (5-point increase from 2022), very slightly above the state average of 745
Grade four ELA: 738 (12-point dip from 2022), slightly below the state average of 740
Grade four math: 743 (5-point increase from 2022), identical to state average
Grade five ELA: 744 (3-point increase from 2022), below the state average of 750
Grade five math: 736 (6-point dip from 2022), slightly below the state average of 740
Grade six ELA: 737 (14-point dip from 2022), below the state average of 747
Grade six math: 730 (2-point dip from 2022), below the state average of 735

Carroll acknowledged that this data did not differentiate general education and special education students. This might affect some class averages more than others. For instance, a considerable 41% of the sixth grade has some kind of accommodations for special education.

Due to the risk of exposing individual student performance in Knowlton’s small class sizes, the data combines students of varying abilities into a single average, making the impact of learning differences unclear.

In her presentation, Carroll pointed out some improvements that the data did not show. In one example, the class of 2025, or today’s fourth graders, scored an average of 733 in ELA in 2021-2022. This year’s average of 738 shows a class-wide improvement of five points, reflecting some collective progress.

At the same time, Carroll noted that more improvement is needed.

“Here, across the state, and in other districts as well, I think we definitely are lagging,” she said.

She sees the school administration in a support role for teachers, who have a difficult balancing act ahead: teaching this year’s new material while finding time and resources to remediate learning losses from previous years.

Carroll noted a number of plans that the district intends to pursue, including professional development, teacher teams, in-house assessments to supplement the single snapshot of the NJSLA and working on student motivation.

The 2022-2023 tests are only the second to be administered since the pandemic lockdown. The first post-pandemic NJSLA results in 2021-2022 alarmed educators with a drastic drop in student scores, resulting in learning gaps that still persist.

As a sad side note, only 23.2% of New Jersey students met expectations on the NJSLA science in 2021-2022. Results from the 2022-2023 school year continue to show low rates of passing scores in science, and Carroll’s slides for the science section included the footnote “Scores continue to puzzle area administration.”

With much work to be done in the core subjects before learning losses can compound, though, teachers in Knowlton and across the state plan to continue focusing on the core subjects of ELA and math.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.