As a follow on from an earlier article ‘What is the New Jersey School system like?’, during May, I will be publishing a series of six posts about New Jersey schools. My aim is to make the challenging decision of choosing the right school, a little easier for Australian and other expat families. This is the second article in the series.
LIFE IN NEW JERSEY: What are New Jersey public schools really like?
Before I moved here, most of my cultural images of the USA came from mass-market media, news stories and books. If, like me, you saw the ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ movies or watch the Simpsons regularly, you will already have a colored image of what US schools are like.
But are New Jersey schools really like that?
Yes and no. Some things are portrayed accurately while some are definitely not. Of course, shows like ‘Diary…’ and the Simpsons are meant to entertain, so they exaggerate and caricaturize everyday events for comic effect. Not exactly the makings of a deep, culture-acclimatization program perhaps!
To address this, below are some typical areas most expats might want to know about and hopefully fill in the gaps that Bart and Lisa Simpson haven’t.
Six fundamental FAQs on New Jersey Public Schools: for new Aussie expats
# 1. What constitutes a Public School in New Jersey?
Public schools in New Jersey are those provided and regulated by the state government and operate using public funding. They are free to attend (do not charge for tuition), are secular, and are open for enrollment to any student, including those with disabilities and English language learners.
Although public schools are run overall by the state government, they are structured to be accountable locally to the area school district whose jurisdiction they fall under. The size of a school district can vary. Often there is one school district per township or small group of townships. The management of a school district is overseen by a school board.
# 2. Is there only one type of public school that my kids can attend?
There are a few different types of public schools available to attend. These can include:
- Conventional (also called parochial)schools: a regular public school with a standard curriculum;
- Vocational schools: public schools that focus on particular skill developments;
- Magnet schools: public schools that follow a theme such as performing arts, technology etc.
- Alternative schools
While Charter schools exist here too, and they are part of the ‘public schooling options’, they are not classified as ‘public schools’ because they do not operate under the local school district system.
# 3. What is a school board (and why should I care)?
Each school district is run by a school board which in New Jersey has the official name of the ‘Board of Education’ (BOE). The BOE is made up of a number of local people who are usually elected to their Board positions. This group, who represent the community of local taxpayers, appoint a district superintendent that administers the school district.
The school board has a number of responsibilities and powers. Foremost, it is responsible for setting the mission and direction of education in their local area. However, the BOE also:
- Sets its own budgets,
- Establishes education goals and holds local schools accountable for their progress,
- Negotiates conditions with employees such as salary and healthcare benefits,
- Defines school policy including individual school start and finishing times
- Controls local school transportation e.g. school buses
- Ensures state education laws and regulations are enforced
From this you can see, that school boards can have a huge impact on your local school. Fortunately, as a member of the school district community, you can attend BOE meetings. Not only do you get to hear first-hand what their goals and plans are but you also have the option of sharing your opinions directly with them at these meetings.
This is certainly a very different way of managing education than in Australia.
# 4. How do you know which public school your child can attend?
In the vast majority of cases, the location of your address determines which public school your child can attend. If you live in a township, your child will be allocated a spot in the township’s school district. Even within a designated township area, which may encompass more than one town, having an address within a particular neighborhood means attendance at the neighborhood school. Within city areas, the same approach applies.
In areas with magnet school systems, there is some flexibility to attend a school outside the normal neighborhood catchment area but still within the school district’s domain e.g. Montclair, NJ. This underline’s the importance of choosing the area where you are going to live.
# 5. Are NJ Public Schools very different from Australian schools?
Aside from how public schools are administered and structured, there are also a number of other differences between Australian and New Jersey public schools. Some of these are significant but many are superficial differences, which probably require very little adjustment for most Australian expats. Some of the differences include:
- Having much more of school policy set by the local administration (BOE) than a state government (mentioned above in FAQ #3)
- Having a ‘middle school’ that groups together 6th-8th grade students all in one school by themselves (in most cases-the grades that middle school includes varies and so does where they are schooled e.g. on a separate campus, as a separate school, or just part of another school)
- Having a different curriculum: for instance, there is no official ‘Geography’ subject taught. Also Mathematics (‘Maths’) is taught differently during middle school and high school. From middle school onwards it’s taught by specific topic area sequentially e.g. algebra then geometry then trigonometry.
- No school uniforms,
- Using yellow ‘school buses’
- Having a cafeteria (this can mean a range of different things) for lunches instead of a canteen
- Having no swimming or athletics carnival
- Varying school start and finish times e.g. some schools start classes at 7.00am versus 9.20am for others
- Rigorous school security procedures
- More parental involvement in the PTA (equivalent to P & C)
It’s hard to generalize for all expats but we found some of these differences more challenging to adapt to than others, especially the security issues and the lack of school uniforms.
# 6. How good are NJ schools?
New Jersey schools are rated among the best in the country. The average amount spent per student is the highest in the nation although, within the state, this varies quite a bit between school districts. This is a question that requires a lot more detail to answer properly so it will be a topic for a future post. However, in short, New Jersey has four high schools in the top 100 high schools in the USA, although it contributes well below 4% of the total population. In a number of other studies it has veen variously rated as No.1, 2 and 8 out of all US states for educational achievements and standards.
While the information above may answer some of the basic questions new expats will have, by no means does it cover everything.
Do you have a burning question about New Jersey public schools? If so, please share your query here, so either I or one of my readers may be able to help answer it for you!