What is the New Jersey school system like?

 

Montclair-Board-of-Education-building

Montclair Board of Education building (BOE)

LIFE IN NEW JERSEY: When you’re relocating overseas, finding about how schooling works elsewhere in the world can be a big job.

Sure, maybe coming to another English-speaking country is easier. But it doesn’t take away that feeling of being out of your depth. Nor does it remove the need to make decisions sometimes without all the facts because of moving time pressures and the fact that you aren’t there or because you just don’t know, what you don’t know.

Often, you are dependent on bits and pieces you find online or a third party such as an education consultant, telling you their view.

If you are coming to New Jersey with your kids, it helps to know a bit about how the school system works here before you decide what school to send them to. The more you know, the better versed you are to choose the best option.

When we first arrived here, I could summarize what I knew about NJ schools in about two sentences. There is however, a lot more to know than that.

Now that I’ve learned a bit more, I wanted to share some of this to help make the pieces of the education puzzle fit together for anyone coming in green like me. It turns out there is too much information on New Jersey schooling to try and squeeze it all into one post. So starting today, is the first of a short series, providing a brief overview of schooling here. I hope you find it useful!

Types of Schools in New Jersey

Thankfully, there are several options for schooling children in NJ. These can be categorized broadly into Public or Non-Public Schooling:

  • Public Schooling includes both Public and Charter schools. Public schools vary in their nature e.g. there are different types such as regular/traditional; technology/vocational, magnet and alternative public schools.
  • Non-Public Schooling includes Private and Independent schools. Non-public schools covers a wide gamut of schools with different rationales on why they were established. Some focus on serving specific student communities. These can include religious, academic, alternative education and special needs schools.

Homeschooling is also possible for those wishing to provide an option outside available school options.

School Organization and Accountability

Regardless of what type of formal school your child attends, all schools are accountable to the New Jersey state Department of Education.

Public schools are accountable locally to the ‘area school district’ whose jurisdiction they fall under. In NJ each school district has a local Board of Education (BOE) which in turn is accountable to New Jersey State education authorities. The BOE sets an education budget, contributed by local (approx. 48%), state (approx. 47%) and federal (approx. 5%) governments. Local funding is usually dependent on community property taxes paid by local citizens.

Most public schools are organized to cater for students from Kindergarten onwards. There are three basic types of schools:

  • Elementary schools: usually cater for students in Kindergarten to 5th Grade (K-5)
  • Middle Schools (also known as Junior High): usually cater for students in 6th-8th Grades (6-8)
  • High Schools: usually cater for students in 9th-12th Grade.
    • High school is further bracketed into:
      • Freshman (9th Grade/1st year of high school)
      • Sophomore (10th Grade/2nd year of high school)
      • Junior Year (11th Grade/3rd year of high school)
      • Senior Year (12th Grade/4th year and final year of high school)

Charter Schools are publicly-funded, independently operated schools that are allowed more flexibility than traditional public schools. They are accountable to parents of their students, their sponsor (usually the state board of education), and to the public.

Charter schools vary in which students they cater for. Some offer classes for elementary, while others focus on middle or high school grades. Often this can depend on the reason why the charter school was established originally.

Private and Independent Schools are not accountable to their local school district but only to the state’s Department of Education.  Funding is obtained via student tuition fees, donations and fund-raising done by the school and its community. Several schools offer classes that cover the entire K-12th grade range but this varies. Just as many private schools offer only a small range of grades.

Pre-K, a formal option for those kids who could benefit from early schooling, is offered through many private schools here – something not available back in Australia. Private schools also commonly split their grades similar to above e.g. elementary, middle or high school.

School Curriculum

Core subjects in all schools include Math (mathematics), Language Arts (English), Science and Social Studies.

Non-core subjects: Non-core subjects may not be as important as the four basics but can still be compulsory in schools. Classes in Technology/Computers, Art and Music are nearly always offered in public schools although the number of options and the quality can vary dramatically. More options are available in older grades.

Magnet schools, a non-traditional type of public school, can provide a greater diversity of classes in these non-core subjects due to a specific focus by the school district. Due to their specialization, their classes in non-core subjects can be of a much higher standard versus traditional public school districts. For example, the Montclair School district, in Essex County has a variety of themes encompassing Performing Arts (Dance, Chorus and Music), Visual Art and Technology, in elementary, middle and high school.

Private schools are known for offering excellent programs in these areas as well but this will depend much on the type of private school.

World languages are offered in both public and private schools. Being taught another language beyond English is part of the state’s core public school curriculum. Spanish, Italian,  Chinese and French are the most common subjects offered, although most schools only offer one option; at least in elementary school. Hebrew is taught through some Jewish independent schools. Usually high schools offer a wider choice.

Physical Education and Health: Some type of physical education class (sometimes gym or sports) is usually compulsory in all public schools and most private schools. Often there is a wide selection of activities offered to cater for student interests, especially in higher grade classes. These choices may include gym, gymnastics, dance, fitness, or sports such as archery, fencing, basketball, soccer, track and field, volleyball, hockey, baseball, Lacrosse or football. The level of choices depends on the size and type of school.

Public schools do not have a swimming or athletics carnival or cross-country running as part of the compulsory school sports program as they do in many Australian schools.

Student Assessment via Grading

Assessment approaches are somewhat variable amongst schools. However, even within schools, students in younger grades (K-5) may be evaluated with a different approach to older grades. Up until about 4th to 5th grade, schools may use a simple qualitative rating to reflect student performance.  From late elementary/early middle school onwards, assessment is usually by grading, which reflects a particular level of marks achieved.

An assessment approach used widely across the state for older school children, is the scale of A-D for pass grades and F for fail. A grading system such as the following may be used:

  •  A: 90-100%;
  •  B:  80-89%;
  •  C:  70-79%;
  •  D:  65-69%;
  •  F: Below 65%

Like many other things here, there is no singular standard. Some schools set their pass mark at a higher level than 65, and have more rigorous achievement levels for the pass grades of A-D.

Summary

There are lots of new things to take into account when planning your family’s education in an overseas posting. In future weeks, posts will cover other aspects of education in more detail which will hopefully clarify more of the unknowns about New Jersey schools.

 

If you have previously relocated, was the school system in your new country very different to the one back home?

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